Magazine | December 7, 2015, Issue

Talk of Many Things

My friend and I have known each other for decades, we both live in the city, and we are both writers, but since he is a roving correspondent we meet only once in a supermoon. Dinner, Italian. A street of short brick buildings, a corner with large old trees. The night was mild enough that the floor-to-ceiling windows were open. The best Italian restaurants — and isn’t each one the best? — make you feel like a commendatore. They have a cultural and institutional appreciation of the value of esteem, even if the staff is from India and Colombia. Pepper, for example, must be stored in mills, which must not be placed on the table for our use, but offered to us. It makes the dispensing of pepper less than efficient, but the dispensing of honor wondrously so.

Catch-up talk. He blogs, we tweet, so we know a lot of it already, but nothing is more intimate than face to face (which is one reason people spend so much effort making masks). I had been reading about John Marshall, he about Gore Vidal; I have had the easier time.

“Didn’t we eat here before?” he asked. I scanned my files, back to the Reagan administration, but got no matches.

There was a dinner once in another place, I told him, with a reporter doing a story on young conservatives (that is, us: that’s how long ago that was). Where was the reporter now? We didn’t know. And where was another friend, who had also been at the dinner? The transience of acquaintance — not from anything more drastic than inattention. You can have a soul mate, and yet the relationship can be mislaid like an umbrella. The biggest excuse is geography (he moved). But the telegraph wires, I hear, have crossed the wide Missouri.

Medical matters, also known as the organ recital. We have accumulated quite a catalogue over the years. He has had two all-hands-on-deck emergency trips to the hospital (pneumonia, heart failure). I have been laid up with a spot of cancer; ever solicitous, he compiled for my IV’d hours a recorded history of jazz. Parents have died, so have friends. Either as principals or as loved ones, we have layman’s expertise. In medicine, for instance, geography does matter: There are excellent hospitals throughout the continent, but some specialize in this or that ailment, so where you are can make as big a difference to your prognosis as it would to whether you were planning to carry a concealed weapon, or frack.

Music. He told me that Berlioz, almost alone among great modern composers, did not play the piano. His instruments were guitar and flute (he could have recorded “California Dreamin’”). I told him of a concert I had been to at Carnegie Hall. It was a program of last sonatas by the four great Austrians, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (immigrant), and Schubert. The performance was a little blurry, and the acoustics in the orchestra did not help, but afterward my wife found a set of Beethoven sonatas she had given me, so I listened again to his last, Op. 111. Then my friend said something surprising. I had pegged him, from stray comments over the years (mostly jibes at Wagner), as not a fan of Germanic music. But he called Op. 111 one of the most important pieces in his life.

There are several Beethovens to choose from. Most familiar perhaps is the romantic hero: the figure from Time-Life books and plaster busts for aspiring piano students. Look at his hair and his brow. V for Victory. Deaf! Died in a thunderstorm! Beethoven as Lord Byron, only ugly.

Then there is the Beethoven beloved of musical analysis. This Beethoven approaches sonata form, the fugue, theme and variations, as a series of mathematical problems. Once we solve Fermat’s theorem, then we move on to the next. (Which, in the case of music, is serialism.)

And both these Beethovens are real. He does growl and scowl; more to the point, he loves the big gesture, which however can be joyous or comic, as well as stormy. He also had a science head (Bach had another); as far as you want to go down that linear-particle-accelerator tube, he is there, one zip ahead of you.

But there is also Beethoven the collector, the eclectic, the impresario. When Beethoven is rolling, he can be like the circus: What next? Even if you can’t read music, look at the score of the second movement of Op. 111 (there are free pdfs online). This is a theme and variations: A tune is being played over and over, in different forms. Look what happens a few pages in: those weird, almost blurs: What is this?

Hearing it is much stranger. The original tune, the theme, is something they might play in church during the offertory. You expect — especially if you have heard theme-and-variations pieces before — that it will get livelier and/or more complicated, and it does, at first. Then there is a version that sounds as sleek as Maurice Chevalier. Then there is the version that Stravinsky called boogie-woogie (actually it is ragtime). And then there are versions that sound like movie trailers, sound tests, earthlings we come in peace. I found online a blog post by a pianist, Jeremy Denk — my friend knows him — which put it well: “Some element of the outrageous, the unassimilated, the ridiculous, creeps in, and Beethoven did not, like some too-serious artists, want to let that part of existence go.”

He did not want to let existence go. Or, since it does go, he wanted to part on the best of terms. This theme and variations is an effort to put, in eight or ten minutes, the world, and to say how lovable it is. IVs, ambulances, lost friends, read read reading, pepper mills. My friend has excellent taste.

He was off to give a talk in Texas, I to give a talk in Georgia. Next year, in Jerusalem.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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