Tuesday, April 4, 2017

#SpotLight BEETHOVEN IN LOVE; OPUS 139 By Howard J. Smith

 OPUS 139 
By Howard J. Smith
Interview with Howard J. Smith:

Crystal: Today I have the pleasure of hosting  Howard J. Smith. Welcome Howard! I'm so happy to have you here today. Would you share a little bit about yourself with us today?

Howard: In my new novel, “Beethoven In Love; Opus 139,” one of the characters Beethoven encounters on the road to paradise proudly proclaims, “What is a novel but a collection of lies we tell to reveal greater truths?” 

As a working professional writer, screenwriter, teacher and TV executive for almost four decades, I am always on the lookout for great stories of historical figures where my potential protagonist wrestles with the same types of profound emotional or psychological issues that each and every one of us can relate to in our own lives.

From my very first short story about piloting a Cessna – about half a page long – which was written when I was in elementary school to my latest work on Beethoven, writing has always been a source of fascination and joy.

Though born in New York City, I grew up in a small suburban town called Syosset on Long Island and wrote all though high school and college, everything from the school paper to newspapers.  I went to the University of Buffalo and Nanyang University of Singapore and did independent research for a semester wandering around Europe studying communes – what everyone now calls “Intentional Communities.” Even my college Master’s thesis was a draft of a novel about the social upheavals of the late 60’s and an accompanying teaching guide.

In my mid 20’s I was fortunate enough to be accepted as a Scholar into Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference based on the strength of short stories excerpted from a then novel in progress.  There I met the late novelist, John Gardner.  John became my mentor and over the next few years I returned to Bread Loaf as a scholar a total of three times. Each summer, I worked with other greats of that era, John Irving, Toni Morrison and Tim O’Brien. I also studied with John back in DC and Virginia. Gardner was hands down the best teacher I have ever had for any subject ever.  It was through my work with him that I found my essential voice and truly began my career as a writer. 

My first book “John Gardner: An Interview,” was published way back in 1980 by the now defunct New London Press. The best surprise was walking into a bookstore in Middlebury, Vermont, one summer and seeing it on the shelves and for sale.  Wow!

Following that, I was a three time winner of the Washington, D.C. Commission for the Arts Fellowships. After publishing a dozen or so short stories in literary magazines and a few freelance journalism assignments, I headed west to what I imagined were the greener pastures of Hollywood and screenplay writing. I was one of the top writing Fellow at the American Film Institute and worked on four movies, including the school’s first ever musical. After graduation from that program I worked as a Film and Television executive at ABC-TV, Embassy TV and Academy Home Entertainment while also beginning a career as a screenwriter. During my Hollywood years I wrote over thirty screenplays and worked on numerous film, television, radio, and commercial projects.

Much of my career work has been related to not only writing, but business and finance. I have always been described as one of those “Left Brain – Right Brain,” kind of guys who goes back and forth between these two worlds. 

The publisher of my second book, “Opening the Doors to Hollywood,” was Random House. It was a non-fiction work based on film and writing classes I taught at UCLA.  We had great distribution through bookstores nationally and it was again, a great kick to walk into a bookstore and to not only find it on the shelves but to also be asked for autographs.  That book sold in excess of fifteen-thousand copies but the profits were all gobbled up by Random House in shipping and distribution costs. 

My experience in both finance and writing about musicians led me to the Santa Barbara Symphony – “The Best Small City Symphony in America,” – where I now serve on the Executive Board of Directors and head up their Development and Planned Giving Committees.

One of the beauties of writing a book about Beethoven was to have the cover art created by my son, Zak Smith, a well-known artist in his own right with five published books and paintings hanging in eight museums around the world. His work has been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art., the National Portrait Gallery and the Saatchi Gallery in London, among others. Long before I finished the first draft, I asked Zak to come up with a Beethoven portrait.  Knowing his style intimately, I was certain he would develop an image that not only captured the theme of Beethoven in love, but would also set the standard for an iconic image of the composer for the 21st century.  It took him several months to come up with the perfect portrait, but once he delivered, the result was most pleasing.

Another joy of writing a novel about a musician is that I have been asked to read and do performances in any number of classical music venues in conjunction with Grammy Award winning soloists, small ensembles and even a full orchestra and choir.  The musicians would perform Beethoven’s compositions and I would read related selections from the book. In fact my first public reading was for a gathering of Beethoven scholars at the American Beethoven Society’s Thirtieth Anniversary Conference.  There I was, reading a work of fiction to the very people who knew more about Beethoven than anyone, and, thankfully, they loved it.

Now I not only have a following of devoted Beethoven fans all over the world, I have also made a number of connections with the descendants of some of the true-life characters in the novel, such as the great grandson five generations removed of the woman, Giulietta Guicciardi, to whom Beethoven dedicated the Moonlight Sonata and is one of the women consider as a candidate to be his mysterious Immortal Beloved.

Crystal:  Do you have a favorite scene you would like to share with us?

Howard: Chapter Fourteen, “The Tempest,” is one of my personal favorites and the one that elicits some of the strongest reactions when I have read it at public events.  It is set when Beethoven is 32 years old and due to his progressive hearing loss, is in an altered state of despair and is contemplating suicide. Here it is:

The Tempest

My head over heels tumbling through the fog of Elysium continued until I landed in yet another sea of memories, this time the tiny spa town of Heiligenstadt. It was October of 1802, some six months after the Bonn wedding of Leonore and Wegeler—which I had assiduously avoided. How could I embrace their joy while bearing witness to the pity that would have filled their eyes?

Instead of returning to my home town, I hid out alone those many weeks in an isolated cottage an hour and a half northwest of Vienna where, as my physicians advised, I could live in silence and rest my hearing. And while I worked diligently on my Second Symphony and a few other minor compositions, I avoided human contact much as possible and, even when in the presence of others such as at the baths, I scaled all conversations down to their bare necessity. So severe was my prescription for rest that, much as I would have been cheered by my sweet Giulietta’s soft comforts, I encouraged her to spend that same summer with her cousins, Josephine and Therese von Brunsviks, at their family’s castle in Martonvásár, near Budapest and far away from me.

Other than a few visits by young Ries to proof drafts or run errands, my only companions were the hawks and eagles soaring over the River Danube and the Carpathian Mountains beyond. And even when Ries was there, I refused to let him play even a single note on the piano lest it pain me. His presence only served to remind me of how my damnable hearing had failed to improve.

Months earlier, I had told Ries that not only would I allow him to perform my Third Piano Concerto in C-minor at a public concert one day, I would even turn pages for him if he could write a cadenza equal to the task. He struggled all that summer, wanting very much to impress me with how far he had progressed writing that piece—two pieces actually—a “safe,” easy one and a second whose complexity would challenge the finest of pianists.

Occasionally, after reviewing his drafts, I would sanction him joining me for walk in the countryside. Often we would eat something in one of the surrounding villages and not return home until three or four in the afternoon. On one such outing, Ries asked me if I heard a whippoorwill singing off in the distance. I could not hear anything at all and I became extremely quiet and gloomy. Another time when we were out walking he called my attention to a shepherd up on a pasture hillside, who was apparently playing most pleasantly on a flute cut from lilac wood. At first Ries repeatedly assured me that he did not hear anything either—which, no matter how he tried to pretend, I knew was not the case. What a humiliation for me when I had to admit I heard nothing.

Such incidents drove me to despair. Having sought redemption and a cure for my hearing loss when none were to be found, I vowed to end my life. . . .

Just past my cottage was a rugged trail which climbed along the cliffs overlooking the south side of the river. Below a stretch of rapids there was a ridge of rock shaped like a bowl where the waters swirled most fiercely—that locals had nicknamed the “Tempest.” If, when I came to the Tempest, my melancholy still prevailed, I would leap from the cliffs, and let the river swallow up all memory of my 30-odd years of existence on this planet earth. And if not, I would take it as a sign to return home to Vienna.

Prior to setting out, I roughed out yet another draft of a last will and testament intended for . . . “You, my brothers, as soon as I am dead, ask Dr. Schmidt to describe my malady, and attach this written documentation to his account of my illness so that so far as it possible at least the world may become reconciled to me after my death. . . .

 “At the same time, I declare you two to be the heirs to my small fortune, if it can be called such. Divide it fairly; bear with and help each other. What injury you have done me you know was long ago forgiven. To you, Casper, I give special thanks for the attachment you have shown me of late. It is my wish that you may have a better and freer life than I have had. . . .

“You who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn, or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You know not the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you. From childhood on my heart and soul have been full of the tender feeling of goodwill, and I was ever inclined to accomplish great things. But, think that for six years now I have been hopelessly afflicted, made worse by senseless physicians, from year to year deceived with hopes of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady whose cure will be impossible. . . .

“Though born with a fiery temperament and ever susceptible to the diversions of society, know I was soon compelled to withdraw myself, to live life alone. If at times I tried to forget all this, oh how harshly was I flung back by the deeply sad experience of my bad hearing. Yet it was impossible for me to say to people, ‘Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.’ Ah, how could I possibly admit to an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed. Oh, I cannot do it; therefore, forgive me for those moments when you saw me draw back. I would have gladly mingled with you. . . .

“My misfortune is doubly painful because I am bound to be misunderstood. For me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I have lived almost alone, like one who has been banished; I have mixed with society only as much as true necessity demanded. If I approached near to people, a hot terror seized upon me, and I feared being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed. Thus it has been during the last six months which I have spent in the country. By ordering me to spare my hearing as much as possible, my intelligent doctor almost fell in with my own present frame of mind, though sometimes I ran counter to it by yielding to my desire for companionship. . . .

“Oh, Divine One who sees into my innermost soul, you know that therein dwells a love of mankind and the desire to do good. My fellow men, when at some point you read this, consider then that you have done me an injustice. Despite all the limitations of nature I have nevertheless done everything within my powers to become accepted among worthy artists and men. . . .

“Farewell and love each other. Thank all my friends, particularly Prince Lichnowsky and Professor Schmidt. I would like the instruments from Prince L. to be preserved by you, but not to be a cause of strife. As soon as they can serve a better purpose, sell them. How happy I shall be if I can still be helpful to you from my grave. Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead; I deserve this from you, for during my lifetime I was thinking of you often and of ways to make you happy. . . .

“Thus, then, I take leave of you, and with sadness too. The fond hope I brought with me here, of being to a certain degree cured, now utterly forsakes me. As autumn leaves fall and wither, so are my hopes blighted. Almost as I came, I depart. Even the lofty courage that so often animated me in the lovely days of summer is gone forever. . . .

“With joy I hasten to embrace death, come whenever it will. I shall meet it bravely and free myself from a state of endless suffering.”

Having at last reached the cliff above the rapids, I placed the letter in an envelope addressed to my brothers and slid it into the pocket of my jacket. I took off my shoes, coat, and shirt and neatly folded them in a pile beside the trail where a passerby would certainly notice them and hopefully deliver my last will and testament to my brothers. As I stared down at the river and wondered how quickly the Tempest would consume me, I heard coming from the opposite direction the melodic chords of a pianoforte that at once sounded both familiar yet new and strange. Turning round I saw another forest trail—one I had never noticed before—that headed back into the hills. Lining the bark and branches of the trees on the path were thousands of nesting monarch butterflies.

“Patience,” they wrote; that is what I must now choose for a guide before reckoning an end to my life. “Patience furthers one to cross the great waters.”

It seemed to me impossible to leave this world until I had extinguished all curiosity within me. Thus, I decided to endure my wretched existence a little longer. I would follow this newly beckoning path in search of that music. Those chords led me to a small cottage, the front of which was also covered in nesting monarchs.

“Welcome.” The door was wide open and so I entered. There, seated at a massive pianoforte the likes and size of which I had never seen before was none other than Fraulein Lokitzvarah, she of the lotus flower. And although some fifteen years had passed since our first meeting at Mozart’s apartment, she appeared to have not aged a single day. Her keyboard work and the effects she drew from this fortepiano were astonishing . . . superior in every degree to anyone I had ever witnessed before, Mozart and myself included.

Listening and watching her, I was humbled, profoundly humbled. And the music itself, mein Gott, where did it come from? Every chord, every refrain was fresh, vibrant, full of emotion; woven with complex textures that somehow felt familiar as if they had been drawn out of the very fibers of my own being. And the instrument she played upon produced sounds more powerful and vibrant than any I had even imagined possible.

Before me was the fortepiano of my dreams, one with sounds as robust and bold as a church pipe organ, yet subtle and crisp enough to enliven the most tender adagios. Printed above the keyboard was the maker’s name, model and date: a Bosendorfer Imperial, 1902. It had to be at least nine feet long, triple strung, instead of double, and, astonishingly enough, it was constructed with an iron frame instead of a wooded one. And with ninety-seven keys, it covered a full eight octaves. It made the typical Viennese fortepiano appear as if a mere toy made of balsa and string.

Fraulein Lokitzvarah waved me over to her and then, placing her hand on my chest, she repeated what she had said to me all those many years ago, “The wisdom of life lies here in your heart. You do not know it now, but if you listen . . . Listen carefully and your path, your road, your way, will unfold. The wings of a goddess will embrace you. And when that happens, I will be there. I will be there to lift you up.”

Napoleon was right, I understood nothing, not then, not now. At a momentary loss for words, I stood there, dumb as a statue, until at last I summoned the courage to ask her what it was she had been playing.

But Fraulein Lokitzvarah would not answer me. Instead she stood and had me replace her at the keyboard of this wondrous Bosendorfer.

“Play,” she said.

“What?” I foolishly asked.

“The future.” Fraulein Lokitzvarah came around behind me and pressed her chest, soft and warm as it was, tight against my back the way I would when teaching my young lovelies. Using her arms as if they were the wings of a goddess, she reached around me and took my hands in hers. “Play the future,” she repeated in my ear. Her body seemed to meld into mine and we became but one creature. “Turn off your mind, relax, and flow downstream. This is not dying.”

I felt my fingers begin to dance across the keyboard and before I knew it, she had me playing those harmonies that had lured me into her cottage.

“It is the very nature of existence that causes all humans pain and suffering. No one escapes, no one, not you, not Prince Lichnowsky, not Mozart. The secret to life, B, is learning how to manage that pain. This is your music, the music you might write, compose, or perform if you avoid extinction today at the feet of the Tempest.”

And indeed it was. Somehow Fraulein Lokitzvarah had gotten inside my soul and was revealing to me every composition I could potentially write—if I choose to live beyond my thirty-second year— from my next symphony to my last string quartet and beyond. That is what she had been playing, the future, my possible future. Together we played for what seemed like a week on that exquisite keyboard. The portrait of my grandfather, Ludwig, which as if by the magic of dreams, had appeared on the wall directly before me, spoke up. I could see his lips smiling, his eyes winking, his head nodding.

“Bravo! Rise up! Free yourself!” I heard him say. “The greater your challenge, the greater your triumph. And never, ever say die, for that hour will arrive soon enough of its own accord.”

How long had I been estranged from happiness? Having heard a possible future I realized that if death comes before I develop all my artistic capacities, it will indeed arrive too soon. Perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not. What is, is. Though plagued by a body that could easily be thrown off from the best to the very worst of conditions by any sudden change, my determination to thrive grew firm. I resolved to endure all until it pleased the gods to break my life’s thread.

“Even if you chose life,” Fraulein Lokitzvarah abruptly warned, “there are no guarantees any of these compositions shall come to pass. We all abide in the realm of the great unknown. And as long as you allow yourself to be ruled by your weaknesses instead of guided by your strengths, you will fail. You will fail.”

She could not have been more emphatic. I thought about Mozart who died at 36 and wondered if all that music that he “copied down” from those visions which originated inside of him had come to an end. Did he finish his life and write everything inside that he was supposed to? He never finished his Requiem. Can it be said he nonetheless completed his purposes?

And what about my little sister, Margaretha, “mon petit papillon,” who learned to walk the day our mother died? We were alone, my brothers having taken our father to the market while I watched over my poor mother who was suffering terribly. When not hacking and coughing, her body was wracked by fever and her face contorted in pain. I did my best to comfort her as she had once done for my grandfather. My little butterfly, who had just turned 1 year old two months before, surprised me when I set her down to attend to our mother. No sooner had her feet hit the floorboards then she took her first stutter-steps across the room to our pianoforte. Once there, she grabbed a hold of the bench and giggled uncontrollably as she turned back around and looked at me.

I knew from her expression that she wanted me to lift her up so she could play. I obliged. Once in my lap Margaretha banged out with clear intent the first few notes of her little ditty, “a, a, b-flat, c, c, b-flat, a,” a sequence that would one day become my “Ode to Joy.” She did this thrice over, each time stopping and clapping with glee at what she had accomplished.

Hearing the music from across the room, my mother, finding peace within, gathered the last of her strength and blew Margaretha a kiss. That was her last breath. She coughed, fell back, and was gone. Six months later, “mon petit papillon” followed her to her grave.

Was that the “right” end to each of their lives? Mozart? Margaretha? My mother? Or was that simply an irrelevant question, one we would never answer? “Do you know?” I asked Fraulein Lokitzvarah.

Resting on the index finger of her right hand was a sole, solitary monarch butterfly testing its wings. “To die but not to perish is to be eternally present,” she said. “Aber Ich bin nicht Fraulein Lokitzvarah—But I am not Fraulein Lokitzvarah; Ich bin Ava, Avalokiteshvara; I am Ava, Avalokiteshvara.”

“Avalokiteshvara,” I said aloud as I gazed back at this siren and, in her piercing blue-grey eyes, I saw Shiva, I saw my muse, I saw Isis. Avalokiteshvara, the mother goddess, just as Leonore had once taught me: “The valley spirit never dies; it is the woman, our primal mother. Her gateway is the root of heaven and earth. It is like a veil barely seen. Use it—it will never fail.” Kwan Yin, Kannon, Venus. A rose by any other name. The goddess of beauty and compassion.

Ja, it was the wings of a goddess—and the inspiration of my own art—that held me back from the Tempest.

“Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things. Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.” These were her last words.

Thanks to Avalokiteshvara and Kwan Yin and Kannon and Venus and Isis I did not end my life in the river. Instead I found myself chanting her names all the way back to Vienna . . . .

“Avalokiteshvara, Aphrodite, Venus, Kwan Yin, Kannon, Mary, Isis;
Avalokiteshvara, Aphrodite, Venus, Kwan Yin, Kannon,
Mary; Isis, Avalokiteshvara, Aphrodite, Venus,
Kwan Yin; Kannon, Mary, Isis,
Avalokiteshvara; Aphrodite,
Venus, Kwan Yin;
Kannon, Mary,

As I passed under and through the Vienna city gates I wondered if I would find my strengths by virtue of her divine intervention, or would I still fall victim to those weaknesses that had blinded me to life and love?

Crystal: Where did you come up with the idea for your latest release?

Howard: When I came across the story of Beethoven’s death -- how at his last moment a bolt of lightning strikes the side of his building, rousing him from a coma; his eyes open, he sits up right, he shakes his fist at the heavens and then collapses back to the bed and is abruptly gone -- I found the contrast to my own near death experience stunning. 

When I was not yet twenty-one and going to school overseas in Singapore, I had a severe motorcycle accident. As my body somersaulted through the intersection, time stopped and a great and profound sense of peace and tranquility suffused my consciousness.  Fear, especially that fear of death we all share, disappeared.  My biggest surprise was landing very much alive – and in pain – on the other side of the crossroads and not the “other side” of life.

Beethoven’s death throes were so different from my calm transition.  That led me to wonder what it would have taken for this great man to come to peace with all the turmoil and failings of his life – and there were many.  In that nugget of a thought, Beethoven in Love; Opus 139, was born. Although those injuries still ache decades later – especially when it rains – researching and then writing this novel was an absolute joy. 

Crystal: What are you currently working on?

Howard: As I noted before, I am always looking for great stories. After scanning dozens of historical eras and possible new characters from Machiavelli to Brahms, I finally settled on another one related to music. This novel, Mozart, Da Ponte, Scandal, will focus on the life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, the man who wrote the lyrics for Mozart’s three most famous – and scandalous in their time – operas, ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ ‘Don Giovanni,’ and ‘Cosi Fan Tutte.’

Born a Jew in 1749, Da Ponte not only outlived Mozart by some 40 years, he also grew up in and around Venice in an era when people still ran around in capes and masks all year round. After his father converted the entire family to Catholicism when Lorenzo was only 14, he unwillingly became a priest in order to get an education.  He led a rogue’s life; a priest and literary scholar who would say Mass on Sunday while whoring, drinking and gambling the other six days of the week with his friend, Casanova, the infamous role model for Don Giovanni. 

Always too politically outspoken for his own good, he was successively expelled from the Veneto, Venice and Vienna and had to flee debt collectors in London before making his way to early modern New York where he opened an Italian bookstore in Manhattan and a deli across the river in New Jersey.  He started an opera company – the seeds of today’s Met – and was the first professor of Italian at what became Columbia University.

Da Ponte was the classic survivor, who in his day did everything he could to stay afloat financially while still writing a collection of operas that were considered scandalous in their day but are today revered as some of the finest works of that genre ever created. His eight decades constitute a life adventure well worth exploring. When and where will it be published?  I have no idea at the moment nor is it much of a concern. My intention is to apply the same discipline to Da Ponte as I did to Beethoven and trust the future will resolve itself in due course.

Crystal:  Do you have any special routine that you follow when you are writing? 

Howard: Yes. In one sense I am always writing or researching or planning. There are twenty-four hours in the day and I put them all to use.  Some of my best imaginings of scenes, characters and story ideas comes when I am either trying to fall asleep or dreaming or working in the yard. We can often do our best thinking about our stories in progress when not actually working on them.  Some of my best ideas have come while washing the dishes, taking a shower or chopping wood.  Just trust your own mind, even when it is wandering.  Those unconscious wanders will often take you exactly where you need to go – but you must be open to that experience.

The most subline moments of being writer exist when I am in the middle of researching or plotting a storyline or immersed in a draft.  Everything else, from putting food on the table, mowing the lawn or getting one’s kids through college are the demands we all must survive.  Occasionally there are other high points, such as hearing your work is, “an absolute masterpiece,” or doing pubic reading and performances and hearing the applause of a crowd.  Each of those moments though is offset by the need to land that next assignment or move past the praise to sell the next copy.

A writer’s life is filled with so many ups and down that staying even and calm is the greatest reward one can achieve. And if you are not prepared for that, give it up.

Whether we are conscious of it or not when writing, (and hopefully one is always conscious) a book, a story, an article is always about something, it always presents a world view, an attitude, a philosophy of life.  In simple terms, you want the reader to finish your book, and feel as if they have not only been thoroughly entertained but that they have also learned something about life and the way of the world.  If a character does something, it has its roots in their behavior and thoughts and there are consequences that occur because of those attitudes and actions – and this is what I would not only want my readers to reflect upon when they finish but to also consider how those situations, behaviors, and ideas might impact their own lives.

Years ago, when I taught fiction at the Writers’ Program at UCLA, I would constantly remind my students to think of their first draft as “The Ugly.”  By that I meant that it was more important to get your basic ideas, thoughts and story out onto paper than it was to immediately create a smooth and polished version.  You do not share an “Ugly” with anyone except yourself.  You know what you want to say and you probably know you are going to get there eventually – but no one else knows what is in your head and if you show that draft around, you will not get the reception you want.  If you accept that it is going to be “Ugly” the self-imposed pressure to reach perfection instantly is removed. Once relaxed, you can take your time getting it in shape – and only when you are close do you begin to share it.

When I worked on Beethoven, I created a rough outline and a notes file that was more than half as long as the novel itself before I ever started writing. Structurally I also wanted to mimic the musical form of a concerto where Beethoven was the soloist and his friends, lovers, associates and family represented the orchestra. Therefore I composed each chapter and would work through and revise it enough each day until it felt complete – not perfect, not polished but complete.  Whenever I started on a new chapter, I would go back three or four chapters into the draft and start re-reading and gently polishing the older chapters to get a running start so to speak on the new material.

When I had a complete draft I went back innumerable times to polish again and again.  I should note too that I too many opportunities to read parts of the draft aloud at either public events or to small circles of friends so that I could get a sense of the flow, rhythm and lyrical strength of that segment.

When all of that was done, I showed the draft to other writers and editors whom I trusted for their feedback – and there were a fair number of good notes that I incorporated.  Some were minor edits, others involved re-ordering whole chapters to shift the emphasis and highlight important themes.

Crystal: Did you have to do a lot of research for this book or any other?

Howard: Researching and then writing this novel was a long journey, every moment of which was an absolute pleasure.  I learned ages ago that if you want someone to take the time and effort to read your book and find your work compelling and engaging, you must also be equally passionate about what you create. I absolutely love the entire process of crafting a story, from jotting down ideas and doing research when necessary, to shaping each line, each paragraph, each character, each scene. I want to transport the reader into a vivid and continuous dream that is so powerful, so all-encompassing that the next thing they know is that someone is calling them to dinner.

My initial thought upon coming up with this notion about Beethoven being forced to review the failings of his life by his “Ghost of Christmas Past,” before he could pass on to Elysium or paradise, was to read a single biography, find the empty or white spaces in his life that we did not know much about and then create a totally fictional story. After reading one biography, I quickly grasped that scholars and musicians knew and had preserved a staggering amount of information about Beethoven, so much so that there were few blank spaces to fill in. If I was going to do a novel about such a famous man, I realized that I was going to have to research that life fully and make sure everything I wrote was as accurate as possible. 

My personal dilemma was this: All of my mentors from my early years as a writer, John Irving, Tim O’Brien, Toni Morrison and the late John Gardner, all won National Book Awards or some similar accolade.  When I committed myself to doing a Beethoven novel, I knew there were two hurdles I had to overcome in order to be successful. First I would need to thoroughly research everything about his life and times and be exceedingly accurate or risk being shredded by historians and critics in the music world. 

Given the enormous amount of material on his life, including dozens of major biographies, six volumes of letters as well as his diaries – not to mention his music - I was initially daunted by the scope and size of what I had taken on.  I decided not to proceed unless the quality of the writing line by line was at a level that those mentors would have approved.

Feeling the weight of their teachings upon me, I committed myself to doing everything necessary to research not only Beethoven’s life, but the life and times of his family, friends, and lovers and of the entire Napoleonic era, no matter how long it took. And then and only then would I write a novel based on that research that could stand up to the weight of any critic or criticism.

I spent nearly two full years researching before writing a single word of fiction. I built a chronological outline that ran over two hundred pages itself. I read all the major biographies; all the volumes of letters to and from Beethoven; I read his diaries and first-hand accounts of his life compiled by his friends. I listened to endless hours of his music. I studied the history of the times, from Voltaire and the French Revolution to the spas of Central Europe and the life of Napoleon – whose ghost plays a central role in the novel.
I read each book at least three times: the first to get a general sense of its content; the second to highlight specific notes (don’t even ask how many yellow highlighters or sticky notes I went through); and the third to transfer key information to my outline. If Beethoven or Napoleon referenced a philosophical text, such as the Bhagavad Gita or the works of Confucius, I would read those as well. I had majored in Asian Studies as an undergrad, so that aspect came easily to me. I should note that the influence of Asian philosophy on Beethoven is unmistakable if one reads his diaries and letters, yet it is one area that musicologists generally miss not having any exposure to Eastern thought. His quotes go right over their heads.

Shaping the novel out of such a full and rich life had little resemblance to my initial notion of finding the blank spaces in his life and creating a fully woven fiction. Instead it was more like chipping away at a giant block of marble to find the essence of his life.
When I was nearly done with a first polished draft, I began showing it around to my friends in the writing community and to a one, their response was, “Yes, you’re there.”  Since that time, the reviews from critics in the literary world, the music world and more specifically, the world of Beethoven scholars and devotees has been wonderful – and gratifying.

Crystal: If so do you have a fascinating fact that you have learned you would like to share with us?

Howard: Everyone knows some of the common facts of Beethoven’s life and struggles, be it his Fifth Symphony, his progressive deafness, or his Immortal Beloved letter, but few are aware that this self-educated man was also a voracious reader of philosophic texts from around the world.  He was profoundly influenced by those works, such as the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita, whose themes not only appear in his diaries but also worked their way into the very fabric of his Ninth’s Symphony’s Ode to Joy.

Furthermore every character except for three minor but important ones, is an actual historical figure. I researched them as well.  And of those minor characters, one is inspired by my friendship with the now deceased novelist, John Gardner, and the other two are an homage to my own family’s East European history that I stumbled upon doing my research. I even learned that Napoleon, on his retreat from Moscow, passed through a tiny village in Belarus, the village my maternal grandparents are from, and that critical events in the war took place there. Those events became a critical chapter in the novel.

Crystal:  Who are some of your favorite authors that you like to read?

Howard: First and foremost is Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, to my mind the greatest novel of all time.  To write such a brilliant work, one would have had to have had all of the collective insights into human life and the ability to put that wisdom into a marvelous fictional story as Cervantes did. In fact, the South American writer, Jorge Luis Borges, another favorite writer, wrote a short story about a writer who wanted to – from scratch – write the Quixote.  Not another version mind you, but the original, word for word, line for line without copying or memorizing but rather from his own consciousness.  Borges work is clearly surrealistic, but it is driven by that same desire, to be able to be as wise and skillful as Cervantes.

Among modern writers, I am drawn to two in particular, Haruki Murakami, author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who wrote Shadow of the Wind. All four of these authors share a love of brilliant language, a flair for storytelling, profound insights into human nature and when their stories open, you are immediately transported into their respective worlds of imagination.  The reader at once senses they are not in Kansas anymore.

Crystal: Is there a genre you haven't written that you would like to try?

Howard:  Yes, the libretto for an opera.  I have bene fortunate in my career that I have been able to dabble in most ever aspect of a writer’s life, from short stories and novels to screenplays and news and magazine features.  But, I have never written the text for an opera.  The more I research Da Ponte the more intrigued I am about perhaps one day penning the lyrics to an opera.

At the moment of his death, Ludwig van Beethoven pleads with Providence to grant him a final wish—one day, just a single day of
pure joy. But first he must confront the many failings in his life, so the
great composer and exceedingly complex man begins an odyssey into the netherworld of his past life led by a spirit guide who certainly seems to be Napoleon, who died six years before. This ghost of the former emperor, whom the historical Beethoven both revered and despised, struggles to compel the composer to confront the ugliness as well as the beauty and accomplishments of his past. 

As Beethoven ultimately faces the realities of his just-ended life, we encounter the women who loved and inspired him. In their own
voices, we discover their Beethoven—a lover with whom they savor the profound beauty and passion of his creations. And it’s in the arms of his beloveds that he comes to terms with the meaning of his life and experiences the moment of true joy he has always sought.

Publisher: SYQ
Pages: 385
Genre: Literary Fiction/Biographical Fiction

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Book Excerpt:

The Death of Beethoven
Vienna, 5:00 pm,
March 26, 1827  
Outside Beethoven’s rooms at the Schwarzspanierhaus, a fresh measure of snow from a late season thunderstorm muffles the chimes of St. Stephens Cathedral as they ring out the hours for the old city.
    Ein, Zwei, Drei, Vier…
Funf  Uhr. 
Five O’clock.
    Beethoven, three months
past his fifty-sixth birthday, lies in a coma, as he has now for two nights, his body bound by the betrayal of an illness whose only virtue was that it proved incurable and would, thankfully, be his last. Though his chest muscles and his lungs wrestle like giants against the approaching blackness, his breathing is so labored that the death rattle can be heard over the grumblings of the heavens throughout his apartment. 
     Muss es sein? Must it be? Ja, es muss sein. Beethoven is dying. From on high, the Gods vent their grief at his imminent passing and hurl a spear of lightening at Vienna.
     Their jagged bolt of electricity explodes outside the frost covered windows of the
Schwarzspanierhaus with a clap of thunder so violent it startles the composer to consciousness. 
     Beethoven’s eyes open, glassy, unfocused. He looks upward – only the Gods know what he sees, if anything. He raises his right hand, a hand that has graced a thousand sonatas,
and clenches his fist for perhaps the last time. His arm trembles as if railing against the heavens. Tears flood his eyes.
     His arm falls back to the bed… His eyelids close… And then he is gone ...

About the Author:

Howard Jay Smith is an award-winning writer from Santa
, California. BEETHOVEN IN LOVE; OPUS 139 is his third book. A former Washington, D.C. Commission for the Arts Fellow, & Bread Loaf Writers Conference Scholar, he taught for many years in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and has lectured nationally. His short stories, articles and photographs have appeared in the Washington Post, Horizon Magazine, the Journal of the Writers Guild of America, the Ojai Quarterly, and numerous literary and trade publications. While an executive at ABC Television, Embassy TV, and Academy Home Entertainment, he worked on numerous film, television, radio, and commercial projects. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Santa Barbara Symphony - "The Best Small City Symphony in America" -  and is a member of the American Beethoven



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