16 December 2008

Not Knowing (Musicological Edition)

Beethoven’s baptism is documented at 17 December 1770. Of the actual date when he was born, however, we have no hard documentation. The article on Beethoven in the Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music, with a caution particularly becoming to scholars, gives the birthdate as “15 or 16 Dec.”

When a historical figure is not only of pre-eminent fame, but has contributed greatly to the world’s culture, and whose work inspires widespread affection and even passion, there will necessarily exist some degree of general dissatisfaction when simple (even homey) questions (such as When was Beethoven born?) do not yield definite answers.

We take it for granted that apocryphal documents exist which sought to fill in the biographical gaps for Jesus (pseudepigraphal accounts of his childhood, which tell of his miraculously lengthening a plank which his carpenter father had hastily sawn, for instance). There’s an understandable, almost folksy need to fill out the picture. What are we given the gift of curiosity for, anyway?

In this case, a bit peculiarly (really), we even have a pop culture reference to inspire proprietariness of the question, because there is a character in a comic strip famous for his obsession with Beethoven, and who, as the end of each year approaches, counts down the days, not until Christmas, but until Beethoven’s birthday.

How can Schroeder do that, if we don’t even know the date of birth!? Good grief!

Well, there it is. One understands the desire to raise a glass to Beethoven's birth; yet there remains value in distinguishing between fact, and speculation. Like Mozart’s final resting place, Beethoven’s precise date of birth is something we’ll probably never know. (And to this composer, it seems a strange object of faith-based initiatives.)

I’m not crying in my beer, though, as there is so very much else in the musical world, which we can know, which is worth the knowing, too.

Separately, whenever it’s a drizzly November in my soul, and I feel indifferent to the music of Arnold Schoenberg, I can count on listening to Anja Silja’s recording of Erwartung to rekindle intense admiration for That Most Difficult of Composers. And what fine music with which to greet the Eve of Beethoven’s Baptismal Anniversary!

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