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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

Death mask with Cherry Compote, or Beethoven & the doghouse

Updated: May 9, 2023

An amazing weekend continued Sunday at the Beethoven Museum in Heiligenstadt, one of the small hillside suburbs of Vienna known for its Heuriger (young/new white wine). Beethoven wrote his famous "Testament" from this house in the summer of 1802. The unsent letter/last-will to his two brothers is remarkable for its frank disclosures of the composer's struggles with hearing loss, depression, and suicidal ideation. Its tone is sincere, sometimes lofty, and impassioned as his music.

The doghouse from Beethoven's garden appears not to be historic, but it does make one wonder about the 80 [sic] different times Beethoven moved during his time as a Wahlwiener (Viennese by choice). He is in the impressive company of other adopted Wieners like Mozart, Brahms, and Mahler.

My families and friends know how dear Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is to me. Beethoven and Mahler are two composers whose life struggles find visceral expression in their works. My own experiences with mental illness and the "artistic temperament" are mirrored and reflected when I spend time with their music. The list of artists with whom I share this sacred mental communion are legion. Even the most familiar works can affect one differently every time: consoling then energizing, soothing and inspiring. It's the only kind of organic chemistry I know.

Beethoven wrote a few major works which have not made the top-10 lists. His Cantata for the Death of Joseph II is one of them. Helping rectify that lapse is an impressive roster (above): who do we find in the cast list of this stack of scores? A friend who was just singing in Roanoke/Blacksburg, the outstanding and indefatigable Barry Banks.

The Heiligenstadt Museum is essential: it shares detailed info on LvB's life, health and death; it is one of 12 museums/archives around the world to hold a lock of his hair. DNA analysis has uncovered secrets to Beethoven's chronic illnesses, like lead poisoning.

Legendary "relics" are on view, like this manuscript (reproduction) of the title page his "Eroica" Symphony No. 3. The titular "hero" was originally Beethoven's contemporary (and arguably the only European more famous than the composer), Napoleon. LvB's notorious temper is evident in the violently scratched out name of its original dedicatee.

Beethoven's meticulousness is evident in his daily counting of 60 coffee beans. Historians and specialists have noted the kinship with obsessive-compulsive behaviors. It is another humanizing aspect to this quasi-mythical figure who is the face of the idealized musical artist-hero.

There is a life mask and a metronome. LvB was pioneering in multiple ways: he experimented with varieties of technologies and instruments, from the ear-horn to the piano itself. Another kind of experiment was the creation of his life mask. Requiring breathing tubes inserted into the nostrils, the sensitive, volatile composer was unnerved into an episode of acute anxiety...

And then there's this blog's title: "Death Mask with Cherry Compote." One of B's illnesses was intestinal, and his final diet limited consumption of spirits and sweets. He asked for his favorite cherry compote. Being ahead of his time, he asked for the Zero Sugar variety...

To follow a day with Beethoven is no easy act. In fact, it takes five. Manon at the Staatsoper proved a perfect Sacher torte to savor slowly. Massenet's sumptuous opera came alive in Andrei Serban's production. At times the mise-en-scène veered close to gimmick or cliché, yet remained entertaining. The montage included striking effects, like the storm of waves projected across the set and stage in the final scene. Charles Castronovo was excellent as Des Grieux, and the title character was essayed with aplomb by Pretty Yende. The same superhero soprano who'd performed for the Coronation of KCIII in London the day prior.

An extraordinary weekend ended with a "right-time, right-place" introduction to Jakub Hruša, who conducted a dramatically and sonically superb concert with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein just two days earlier. (See the previous post for more on that, and this travel journal).

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