This month Ruth Padel presents a major new work, Beethoven Variations: Poems on a Life, published in the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth. Below are two poems from it.
Idealising the Unattainable Can Begin Very Early
‘Little Louis clung with great affection to his grandfather. Though he lost him so soon,
he retained the most vivid impression of him.’ Franz Wegeler, Biographical Notes
It’s not the face that stays most truly naked through a life. What jumps out from this court portrait of your Flemish grandfather whose name you bear - the painting you will lash to a wagon every time you move along with your manuscripts, piano, single bed and writing-desk, all rumbling uncovered through city air furred with floating particles of horse-dung - is this V of bare chest, the open shirt within the formal robes, the one soft patch of skin where he might have cradled you. In all the debris everywhere you live, jugs of red wine always on the go, the fevers, smells and flies, broken love-hopes, slamming doors, you will find your heart shored up by meeting the trapped brilliance of his eyes.
Never mind a three-week winter journey to Vienna on your own. You’re sixteen, burning to be taught by Mozart Mozart Mozart. He looks like a fat little bird. Bug eyes, fidgety, tapping his toes. When you play one of his sonatas he’s unimpressed. But something makes him say, Alright then, improvise. And at last he’s caught. Watch out for this boy. He’ll give the world something to talk about. But a message from Bonn skewers you back. Your mother’s ill. Your dream of learning from the one man you measure yourself against, whose music drives your heart, is snatched away. She waits till you return to drown in the coughed-up dregs of her own lungs, and for the one and only time in what’s going to be a life of illness you get asthma. As if her breath the breath she cannot catch, has stolen yours.