Hear Beethoven roar in Hershey Felder’s new biographical treatment
Hershey Felder playing the “Moonlight” Sonata.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.—If Ludwig van Beethoven is considered by many the world’s greatest composer, there can be little disagreement that Hershey Felder is the greatest one-man “theatrical impressionist” interpreting the lives of the great composers. Beethoven is the latest (and greatest?) in a twenty-year progression that has given us Chopin, Liszt, Gershwin, Bernstein, Irving Berlin, and Tchaikovsky, alongside other musical and theatrical projects. He is always a welcome guest at this city’s Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

Directed once again by Joel Zwick, Felder takes an unexpected approach toward this year’s hero. The stage opens on a graveyard in Vienna with a monument to Beethoven at the rear. Other gravestones, some askew from centuries of neglect, can be seen, and there is of the course the requisite Steinway piano in the middle, whose presence in a cemetery we instantly forgive as part of the creative license. Oddly, there are also two sizable piles of bricks.

The bricks are soon explained. The year is 1863 and we meet Dr. Gerhard von Breuning chairing a gathering of the Friends of Music Society. They have just dug up the remains of the composer, who died in 1827, discovering that the metal box containing his bones had been topped off by many layers of bricks in order to deter grave robbers who might have wanted to haul off Beethoven’s skull or other relics.

Von Breuning argues that the box not be permanently sealed but remain in a monument above ground so that, according to the composer’s wishes, which the doctor claims to know, future generations of researchers and scientists would finally be able to determine what malady Beethoven suffered from and why he so often seemed curmudgeonly and anti-social.

Dr. Breuning is a real historical figure who did in fact know Beethoven. By 1863 he can legitimately claim to be the only person alive who knew the maestro. Breuning was a teenager when Beethoven came back into the boy’s family circle. His father and Beethoven had been childhood friends, and after a ten-year falling out, just a couple of years before Beethoven died, the friendship resumed, although fraught with problems.

By then Beethoven was living in the Breuning family’s Vienna neighborhood, in a room in the Schwarzspanierhaus, which might be described as one small step up from a poorhouse. The boy visited often for music lessons, becoming an ersatz “son” to the childless composer, as Beethoven also visited the Breunings, especially when he was in need of a tasty home-cooked dinner and some familiar company.

Felder based his play on von Breuning’s memoir about those last years.

In 90 minutes without intermission Felder does not and cannot begin to survey the entirety of Beethoven’s musical output. As a masterful pianist, of concert status, he does give us some delicious and soulful excerpts of works such as the “Emperor” concerto, the Fifth and Ninth symphonies, the beloved “Moonlight” and “Pathétique” Sonatas (the latter the only one of Beethoven’s works that bears the name the composer personally bestowed upon it). But these are offered as musical suggestions as to Beethoven’s mental state, his advancing the musical language beyond the confines of Classical Era rules, and the boundless humanity Beethoven sought to convey to his listeners.

The all-embracing magnanimity for which he is remembered is the cry of decency, generosity, democracy and freedom in a world of dictators, tyrants and oppression. He dedicated his Third “Eroica” Symphony to the revolutionary Napoleon, then furiously and famously scratched out his name on the score in 1804 after Napoleon declared his imperial ambitions. His final symphony, the Ninth, dating from 1824, broke every rule by incorporating a chorus in the final movement singing Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” which critics at the time considered wild and reckless and we today still find thrilling. This composition alone, a kind of “Internationale” decades before the labor hymn by Eugène Pottier was set to music by Pierre De Geyter in 1888, stands as one of the world’s most significant statements of human solidarity in musical or any form.

Felder touches on the political composer, citing his contempt for social pretense—although for a time he fancied himself a noble owing to his superior gifts of  intelligence. But as a playwright, Felder is more interested, as he safely presumes his audiences will be also, in what kind of human being Beethoven was, and why.

The maker of music enters a silent world

Beethoven was the child of poor parents. His father was an angry drunk who regularly and severely beat Ludwig, sending him to the basement for punishment. Two other brothers came along and Ludwig assumed the role of their protector, especially after the mother died leaving them helpless against the father’s continuing rage.

From the age of about 26, that is, around 1796, Beethoven first noticed the bothersome tinnitus that impaired his hearing. The auditory loss proceeded apace. Felder has some heartbreakingly pathetic scenes in which Beethoven is reduced to calling out, “I can’t hear you, speak louder!” By the age of 31, he had become stone deaf. Von Brauning describes an incident where at the age of 12 or so he is visiting his friend and piano teacher and finally realizing that the composer could simply not hear a single note.

Many have speculated as to the cause of Beethoven’s hearing loss—syphilis, typhus, or possibly even his habit of immersing his head in cold water to stay awake. These arguments have holes, however. Samples of Beethoven’s hair reveal that he had lead poisoning. But Felder adduces yet another and perhaps more plausible explanation: He suggests that the cruel beatings Ludwig suffered as a boy, complete with boxes on the ears, led to the hearing loss.

Beethoven’s renowned irascibility may well have become more pronounced as he struggled in a silent world against those who did not understand his radical esthetics that increasingly transformed music history and gave the world new ways of thinking about sound. As the playwright points out, what we know as the Beethoven oeuvre, particularly in the years from 1801 onward, is the pure product of a mind that “heard” these works only in his brain. No audiences, critics or friends ever caused him to revise his work having heard it. It came out fully formed and perfect according to his exacting intentions, and if some of it sounded strange or incomprehensible, well, that is what makes this composer the forerunner that he is. Music would not remain the same ever after.

Imagining Beethoven completely deaf for the last 26 years of his life is a major theme of Felder’s play. Having just seen Stephen Sachs’s Arrival & Departure cast for deaf and hearing actors, it was this aspect of Beethoven’s lived human experience that moved me the most. Not only did I marvel at his ceaseless productivity despite all—and also while dealing with a number of serious family issues involving his brothers and his nephew—I also wondered why he couldn’t get the aid from family or friends that he needed to live under more comfortable circumstances. Obviously his role of a composer in society was nothing so special as to merit such treatment; and neither was the man who could be such unpleasant company, far removed from the legendary titan he has since become.

Someone completely deaf with a tenth the talent of Beethoven would be heralded today as nothing short of a genius, celebrated with awards and recognition within and beyond the “disability community.” To imagine anyone in his day, much less a deaf person, composing the forward-looking “Grosse Fuge,” his late string quartet, op. 133 of 1825, is almost beyond comprehension. It is “an absolutely contemporary piece of music,” said Igor Stravinsky, “that will be contemporary forever.”

Felder covers a lot of ground in his short play, debunking some of the mythology that surrounds Beethoven. No, the ta-ta-ta-DUM motif of the Fifth Symphony is not some corny “Fate knocking on the door” fantasy but, according to Felder, rather the rhythm of a bird pecking on a bench in the park where Beethoven was seated and whose vibrations he could feel. The “Moonlight” Sonata, and so many other works, was so named out of commercial intent for the music publisher to sell more copies in this new Romantic age.

But the boy and the man he became are the heart of the playwright’s attention, his angst, his melancholy, his impatience, and his frequent attraction to the somber, ominous chords of the C-minor key. Despite a number of tantalizing dedications to a female name or to a “dearly beloved,” no solid evidence survives attesting to any lasting romantic attachment. Yet through it all, “his heart was so full of love he created love where it simply did not exist,” and that comes out most evidently in the music he wrote, intended to “mean something,” not just please the ear with received formulas.

Not content to be writer, actor and pianist, Hershey Felder also designed the stage set! He takes on the voices of the doctor, and also of his father and of Beethoven himself. I would say his performance is a tour de force, but in his case, he comes out with such a tour every year, so I’m afraid that phrase doesn’t quite have the power it deserves. Lighting design and evocative projections are by Christopher Ash.

At the end Felder opens up for a Q&A. One questioner asked if Beethoven was, or became crazy. No, Felder insisted, surely not. No crazy person could have written music of the clarity and purpose that he continued to compose until the end. He was mostly just terribly isolated in his silent world—but still producing sounds that continue to echo throughout the world and time.

Another questioner—perhaps a plant?—asked what his next subject was going to be. Felder held that question off until the end, when he rustled behind a handy gravestone and pulled out the sheet music to another moonlight composition, “Clair de Lune,” as a sort of encore to the play. Felder’s Claude Debussy will be on stage next May and June at the Wallis.

Hershey Felder’s Beethoven is not necessarily the political radical storming the heavens with his fists, or better I should say, he is not only that, but far more. Audiences will be fortified in their respect for the music, and fall in love with the man.

And, I suspect, look upon persons with disabilities in a fresh way.

Hershey Felder: Beethoven plays through Aug. 19 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Tues. through Sun. Full schedule details and ticket information can be found at the Wallis website or by calling (310) 746-4000. The theatre is located at 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills 90210.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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