The Heiligestadt Testament: Beethoven
For my brothers Carl and [Johann] Beethoven
And for my Canadian father, who read aloud in the lamplit parlor from the English greats. Recited.
Declaimed. All of that was in me years later when I rented a flat near the British Museum to do research and came upon the old Manuscript Reading Room before it was all changed. Standing in the doorway of the Great Room ... I felt connected not only to England, but to the works it preserved. Not even the trips to other great museums, literary houses, historic pubs, not even the west end where I saw great plays gave me a sense of palpable connection with the past as did what I was to find:I do not have to identify the composers from the curator’s notation. I can see through the locked glass vitrine these are minds. Mozart’s manuscript is illumined from within. His choice of nib, pale ink, paper—an architecture of filigree, clarity, scrupled unbroken line flowing to its cumulus. Each note a winged bird readable at ten yards. I had never before seen a line in Mozart’s hand. Or a page of Bach, readable from a greater distance still. His choice of nib was correct, a quarter inch, of a thickness that could stabilize an edifice. But, in the stub, Bach’s imperative: each note, an authority. And, in the apportioning of space, orderly. And the ink (!) His choice of such a black, almost viscous, his notes spaced with such regularity I could have played them from a distance on my toy pianoforte, then being wrist-slapped for coming heavy onto the keys as I thought Bach intended from the black. Mozart’s adagio, allegretto, in a dalliance with Bach’s cumulative soaring? My breath stopped in my throat. Of Beethoven’s score I can hardly speak for crying. A scramble and skelter of blotches, ferocity, pace of virtually mangled illegible notes run-on. Of Beethoven’s torment I did not then know. But I understood velocity. Of in-held passion I had a sense from the tantrum. I learned more, on growing to my estate, from reading The Heilegestadt Testament, Beethoven’s last will, naming his thick-headed, spendthrift brothers, Carl and Johann, sole heirs, bequeathing those greedy burghers who had scorned him in life—all, with such radiant humanity that a hush fills a cathedral in me with Ode to Joy, lovely divine joy, O friends, let us not since now these sad tones, but rather happy ones ... I wept then without reserve for suffering and did not want to read the notification of my own nondescript life that arrived just then at the stoop as I formulated my simpleton praise for music which I have only from a scratched recording that is grooved so deep it can have gone nowhere else in my misery but down—a waste of good suffering that should be worn lightly. Music could not shield Beethoven from humanity stripped of the humane. But, what solace he took from Schiller, Freude, schöner Götterfunken Tochter / aus Elysium / Wir betreten feuertrunken / Himmlische, dein Heiligtum. Here, read for yourselves: O, drunk with fire we lead these short lives.