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Volume 10 • Number 2

Fall 2003


 

 

Pathétique Noir: Beethoven and The Man Who Wasn't There


by Kristi A. Brown

During the last months I
found that I could be moder–
ately happy if I simultaneously
(1) drank, (2) read Raymond
Chandler, and (3) listened to
Beethoven.
—Lancelot Andrewes Lamar
in Walker Percy's Lancelot

In the spring of 2001, at the height of the Survivor craze, a San Francisco radio station broadcast a mock version of the reality-television hit, calling it Classical Survivor and inviting listeners to go online and "exile one composer from our virtual desert island every day." The promotional gimmick began with ten "contestants," a selection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century composers, each of whom had a sport-card-style profile and a biographically derived nickname. I predicted, correctly as it turned out, that the final showdown would be between Johann Sebastian "The Outlaw" Bach and Ludwig "Grumpy" Beethoven, although I was baffled by the contest characterizations of these two composers. Bach's profile—"stealthy, armed, ex-convict, deeply religious"—was clearly based on the incident when he is said to have threatened an incompetent musician with a sword. The contest ran with this idea, creating a desperado Bach who menaced his fellow islanders with the blade he had selected as his "luxury item." Although Beethoven was also described as "prone to violence," the rest of his fact list portrayed a pitiable, disabled nerd: "deaf, sloppy and unkempt, unlucky in love, short and thin, socially inept." Unable to converse with his companions, this imaginary Beethoven spent much of his time alone, avoiding the harassment of the others, and longing for an elusive someone: "[Beethoven is] standing disconsolately at the water's edge. With his viola bow he is slowly writing in the sand: Immortal Beloved— ever mine—ever thine—ever ours—and watching as each successive wave washes away his words."

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