16 December 2001
Somehow it seems quite appropriate to follow a journal entry about a Peanuts
collector with a birthday that commemorates Ludwig von Beethoven's birthday. Charles
Schulz certainly made the world remember that December 16th was Beethoven's birthday.
It seems somehow profane to start this with a terrible joke, but I do it for Ned, who
will appreciate it:
Question: What's brown and sitting on the piano bench?
Answer: Beethoven's last movement
Ouch. Bad, Beverly. What a thing to do to such a classy classical composer.
I love Beethoven. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for irascible older men and
suspect ol' Ludwig and I would have gotten along well.
My appreciation of Beethoven's music came about in the mid 1960s. At that time, the San
Francisco Symphony was doing the entire nine Beethoven symphonies, in order, and they were
offering a lecture series in conjunction with the concerts. Each week I would attend a
lecture about the upcoming symphony and then the next night I would attend the symphony
itself. I remember enjoying it, but I don't really much about any of the lectures except
the lecture on the 8th Symphony.
Maestro Josef Kripps was the conductor for the symphony in those years and I'm not sure
if it was planned, or if it just happened, but he ended up giving the lecture to
our group on the 8th Symphony, which he called "Beethoven's joke."
To this day, I listen to that symphony and I can hear all the musical jokes that the
dour composer included. I never realized that it was such a light hearted work until I had
it explained to me, passage by passage, by Maestro Kripps. I had never heard Beethoven frolicsome,
and today, that particular symphony always makes me smile.
In truth, I like all nine of the symphonies, but have personal associations with a few
of them. Whenever I hear the Pastoral Symphony (the 6th), I am transported back to Fantasia
and all those Greek gods cavorting around to the music.
And I love the 9th. The power of the choral movement in the "Ode to Joy"
section. I remember being in Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, at about eye level
with the San Francisco Chorus, standing in the section above the orchestra itself. All
dressed in black, with crisp white collars, singing that glorious music.
I had my own opportunity to sing the choral symphony. Oh, I was never a strong singer,
nor a talented one. I'd sung in school choirs and then several church choirs until we
moved up here to Davis. Each choir I joined seemed to be a little less professional than
the previous one.
The choir I sang with in college was filled with music students (some of whom went on
to professional careers in vocal music) and we did quite challenging work. I loved the
discipline and even though I was never terrific at following the music, I loved singing
When I left college and we moved to Oakland, I began to sing with a choir in a lovely
old gothic church named St. Jarlath. The director was an old man who really knew his
stuff. He didn't pick music quite as challenging as I had sung in college, but he did
expect us to do some pretty good music. It was more on my level. We were mostly all
married folks who were not professional singers, but who loved to sing and were willing to
work on learning difficult music.
But then we switched churches to attend the more "popular" services at the
church attached to the school Jeri was attending. This was a church that did folk masses
and the choir was often there to bolster the congregation in their own singing. We did
some fun stuff, but it was very definitely a step down in quality from what I had sung at
My main memory of singing in the choir at Corpus Christi was that I always took David
into the choir stall with me when he was a small baby. I wore a red, white and blue
crocheted poncho and I nursed him almost throughout the entire Mass, even when I was
singing. Nobody ever knew what was going on under that poncho and they all thought David
was the best behaved baby in the world.
Then we moved to Davis and the choir here was pathetic. Not only was it not
challenging, it was downright depressing, so I stopped singing in the choir altogether
(the quality has improved significantly in recent years, but I no longer go to Mass, so
I'm still not involved).
But at the same time, I was active with The Lamplighters theatre group in San
Francisco. Once a year, the orchestra would get together to do works that they never got
to perform in public, but which they all wanted to learn. Gilbert would choose things he'd
always wanted to conduct. There was no audience--just a handful of friends (like myself)
who were invited to this closed "performance."
One year Gilbert decided he wanted to do Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Since most of the
people in the small audience were singers, he asked who wanted to come up on stage and
sing with the orchestra. He and I had talked about my wanting to sing it, and so I got up
to sing along. I was standing next to a very strong professional voiced contralto and
trying to follow her and sight read the music and then he asked whether the chorus wanted
to sing in English or in German. German! they all cried, enthusiastically. So here
I was trying to sight read (which I can't do well), in a language I've never spoken and
trying to follow this woman who has sung professionally. My face was beet red, but I was
too embarrassed to just get off the stage, so I stood there, moving my mouth, with no
It was my first and last opportunity to perform any work by Beethoven.
But despite that being one of my more embarrassing moments, I still think fondly of
Beethoven and enjoy listening to his music.
So Happy Birthday, Ludwig, wherever you are. I hope you are finally able to hear again
the glorious music you've given to all of us.