Beethoven's Last Night
by Paul O'Neill
On a late night in the spring of 1827 the city of Vienna is experiencing the largest lightning storm in its long history. Within a large disheveled room, Ludwig van Beethoven is slumped over his piano and on the piano sits the just completed manuscript for his Tenth Symphony.
It is his final, and he is certain, his greatest work.
From the shadows the beautiful spirit, Fate, and her deformed dwarf son, Twist, emerge to inform Beethoven of what he has already deeply suspected, that this is to be his last night on earth. They are accompanied by numerous spirits and ghosts from his past. With each successive crack of lightning the spirits move closer and eventually Beethoven finds their distraction unbearable. Beethoven implores the spirits to leave him alone, but Twist tells him that as shadows they only exist by the light that Beethoven's life has cast. Now as that light is fading, it is only natural that they should cling to its last moments of illumination.
As the clock strikes midnight their conversation is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of Mephistopheles. His presence causes all the other spirits to shrink silently back to the corners of the room. Mephistopheles informs Beethoven that he has come to collect the composer's soul. Faced with eternal damnation, the terrified composer claims that it cannot be his time, that he has yet to complete his Tenth Symphony. Mephistopheles looks at the manuscript and then with seemingly uncharacteristic generosity, offers to give him as much additional time as he needs, but only if he will tell him what parts he plans to add or change. Beethoven is forced to admit that it is his masterpiece and he would not change a single note. His bluff called, Beethoven still cannot believe that this is how his life must end. Mephistopheles assures him that not only is it so, but his reaction is the nearly universal response from every man who is about to be condemned to hell. But he then tells Beethoven he is a very fortunate man, for he has decided to offer the maestro something very rarely offered to humans at the end of their time, a second chance, a possible way out of his most unfortunate dilemma.
The Devil then makes the composer an offer. If Beethoven will give him all his music, allowing Mephistopheles to wipe it from the memory of man, he will return his soul to him. Beethoven is overwhelmed by the situation. Fearing an eternity of damnation and torment he is desperate to reclaim his soul, but the thought of losing his music, his life's work, causes him to hesitate. Mephistopheles, sensing his confusion, offers to leave for one hour before returning for Beethoven's answer. With the slightest of gestures from Mephistopheles, the hands of the clock reverse their direction stopping at eleven, one hour prior to midnight. However as the devil is turning to go, Beethoven notices that the hands of the clock are now turning forward faster than normal. When he points this out to Mephistopheles, the devil replies that the maestro should consider it a final favor because where Beethoven is going, the clocks they never turn at all.
As the spirits cautiously re-emerge from the corners of the room, Beethoven agonizes over his decision. Crushed by the dilemma he finds himself in and unable to reach a decision, Beethoven tries to recall the particular actions in his life that have led to his damnation. In anger, he confronts Fate for having dealt him such a cruel hand in life. Taken aback by his accusations, she offers to review his life with him and to change anything that he wishes to change.
Delighted with this unexpected proposition, Beethoven accepts. When he asks Fate where they should start, she tells him that to know the man one has to know the child. Fate then takes him back in time where he finds himself as a young child sitting at a piano. He has just been cruelly slapped by a tutor for having failed to receive an appointment to the emperor's court. His tutor is trying to create a new child wonder, similar to Mozart, but unlike Mozart, Beethoven is an awkward and gangly youth. Now, sitting alone at the piano, he is trying to console himself by playing a melody that he finds soothing. Beethoven recognizes the melody as the future Sixth Symphony and sitting down next to the child completes the tune. The child smiles at this kindly adult and after they talk for a while, asks if they might meet again and finish the song. Beethoven reassures the child that one day that just might possibly happen.
Beethoven turns to Fate and tells her, "I did not need this cruel childhood. I did not need my mother to die when I was so young. I did not need this sadistic teacher. I did not need such pain as a child. This! Remove all of this from my life."
Fate tells him that it will all be as he wishes but before she grants his request, he should be aware that when she removes the pains of his childhood he will also lose the inspiration that led to the Sixth Symphony. When faced with this choice, Beethoven realizes that he is not willing to lose the Sixth Symphony and withdraws his request.
Fate then says, "Surely there were happy times, magical moments?"
Beethoven replies, "There were some."
"Like the first time you arrived in Vienna?"
"Like the first time I arrived in Vienna."
Within seconds they are there witnessing a rhapsodizing Beethoven as a young man seeing Vienna for the first time. Together Fate and Beethoven watch the composer as a young man meeting his greatest idol, Mozart.
Fate then reminds him of Theresa, his first and greatest love. Together they witness the young couple's first night together. Young Beethoven is already being called the greatest piano player who has ever lived and Theresa is a Princess in the Habsburg Empire. They are both deeply in love.
Beethoven tells Fate that this was the happiest moment of his life. When she asks why did it have to end he replies, "Because it had to. "
Fate again inquires, "Why?"
"No woman wants to spend her life with a deaf musician, let alone a lady of such high station and beauty."
Fate takes them to Beethoven's parlor in 1801. There they see the composer slumped over the piano. He is going deaf and he realizes that it is irreversible. As far as he is concerned, his life is over. Beethoven believes that if Theresa were to have discovered that he was becoming deaf she would most certainly have left him. Before this could happen, he ended their relationship refusing to ever see her again. Fate takes him outside of his townhouse where Theresa is watching him through the window. She can see him slumped over the piano. She does not understand why he has driven her out of his life. She knows that something is terribly wrong but has no idea what it is. Nothing that he could tell her would affect her love for him, but Beethoven cannot believe this.
Beethoven says to Fate that it is now clear to him that it was his deafness that was the cause of all his unhappiness. "Remove this infirmity and my whole life will turn out as I had imagined. If I had not gone deaf I would still have been able to perform live and Theresa and I would have had a life together."
Fate assures him that it can be done but once again feels she must warn him of the consequences. She points out that before his deafness his career was more concentrated on live performance than on composing. The Muses of music had always been speaking to him but it was only after he became deaf that he could clearly hear their voices. "Your live performances were brilliant but they lasted but a moment, while your compositions will echo forever."
She then shows Beethoven himself slipping deeper and deeper into his pit of total silence, but all the while the Muses continue to whisper in his ear. Beethoven once more relents when he realizes what he would lose.
Fate then takes him to an alley outside a neighborhood tavern. It is years later and both Beethoven and Theresa are considerably older. Neither one of them has ever married. By pure chance, Theresa sees Beethoven leaving a bar late at night but she does not make her presence known to him. From a distance she ponders what might have been.
Beethoven realizes that Theresa never would have cared about his deafness and is crushed as he realizes what might have been. To ease the pain of his regret, Fate then shows him glimpses of the future and the countless musicians who will be inspired by, and build upon the legacy of his music. She then allows him a final vision; a vision in which he improvises with musicians from the past by whom he was inspired, as well as musicians from the future, who will be inspired by him. Fate allows him to see some of the countless people who will be touched, consoled and transformed by his music; a woman who has lost her husband and finds peace in listening to the “Pastoral Symphony,” a child who is crippled forgetting his infirmity while lost in the “Ode To Joy.”
At the end of this last minute review of his life, he now realizes that the removal of what he considers the most painful moments of his life also removes the inspiration for what he considers his finest work. Change one thing and he changes it all.
Once more back in 1827 Vienna, he tells Fate that he would not change a thing from his past and risk losing the music. The music is who he is, the reason for his existence. Also, having seen the influence of his music on so many lives, he knows that he could never give the music to Mephistopheles. Still, he does not wish to lose his soul. Desperately he ponders his dilemma.
When Mephistopheles returns to find his offer refused, he quickly replaces it with another. If Beethoven will only give him the un-released Tenth Symphony (which no one else has heard, so he reasons it will never be missed) he will return the maestro's soul. Beethoven agonizes once more. The ghost of Mozart appears and whispers to him that it is the greatest musical piece ever created; it is the voice of God, and he cannot allow it to be destroyed. As the apparition of Mozart fades, he once again decides that he is unable to destroy this music.
Realizing that Beethoven will never allow his music to be erased from the minds of man, even at the cost of his own soul. The devil tries a different tact, a final desperate attempt to obtain the Tenth Symphony. Mephistopheles then points out through a window to a child sleeping in the gutter. He tells the old man that he owns this child's life and in great detail lists all the horrors and suffering that she will experience in her short existence. If the maestro will release to him this final musical creation, then Mephistopheles will give up all claims on the child, irrevocably removing himself and all his evil underlings from the child's life for all eternity.
Beethoven immediately turns away, and gives a firm and final no. But as the word leaves his lips he finds himself looking back out the window. He tries to convince himself that the child means nothing to him, especially when compared to the Tenth Symphony. But with every word disclaiming her, she digs deeper and deeper into his soul.
Despite his best efforts he cannot bring himself to leave the child to this evil, and collapsing on the piano bench, he tells the devil that he has a deal. Beethoven is now a totally broken man as the fact sinks in that he has lost both his soul and his Tenth Symphony.
Mephistopheles dances with delight as he picks up the manuscript never noticing Twist who sneaks over and whispers in Ludwig's ear, "How do you know that Mephistopheles will keep his word?" Beethoven sits up and repeats the question aloud. Mephistopheles, never looking up from examining his prize, replies that Beethoven can draw up his own wording for a contract that they will write on a page torn from the back of a bible. Beethoven glances questioningly towards Fate who is still watching from the background. She nods her head for even the shadows know that a contract written on such sacred paper is unbreakable, even by the devil himself.
Beethoven, totally exhausted, mutters his consent but is unable to write the words that will bring about the destruction of his beloved Tenth. Fate, sensing his dilemma, offers to write down the agreement for him and he hands the paper to her. As he stares out the window Fate writes,
It is agreed upon this night, March 26, 1827, between the undersigned, that the music of the Tenth Symphony, composed by Ludwig van Beethoven, first born son of Johann and Maria van Beethoven, of the city of Bonn, shall henceforth be the property of Mephistopheles, Lord of Darkness and first fallen from the grace of God. It is also understood that it is his intention to remove any signs of this music from the memory of man for all eternity. In exchange for the destruction of the aforementioned music it is also agreed that Mephistopheles and all his minions will remove themselves from the life of the child presently sleeping in the gutter directly across from the window of this room. This removal of influence is to be commenced enforced for all eternity.
Mephistopheles reads the paper, signs it and pushes it in front of Beethoven. Without even looking at the document the composer signs the paper. Immediately, Mephistopheles reaches over the piano, seizes the Tenth's manuscript and thrusts it over a lit candle. The papers are engulfed in a wall of flames. But when the flames have died down the devil is stunned to find that not only does the manuscript still exist, it is not even singed. Thrusting it back over the candle it is once again engulfed in flames only to emerge unscathed.
Sensing that he has been tricked, he screams for an explanation but Beethoven's expression tells him that he is as shocked at the turn of events as the Devil himself. As Mephistopheles is glancing once more at the manuscript he hears the sound of Twist giggling in the darkness.
When he demands to know what the dwarf is laughing at, Twist can hardly conceal his delight as he explains that the composer's parents gave birth to a son prior to the maestro's birth. They had named him Ludwig van Beethoven but the child died within his first year. They then named their second son Ludwig as well. Twist continues, ”The man before you is that Ludwig van Beethoven, the second born son of Johann & Maria van Beethoven. You have purchased a Tenth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, first born son of Johann & Maria. Of course if that child ever rises through his coffin boards and writes nine other symphonies then the next one would belong to you!” Mephistopheles glares at Fate, who smiles back at him demurely. Then, throwing the music back at Beethoven, he screams in frustration and disappears in an explosion of smoke and flame. Beethoven is surprised by Mephistopheles' rapid departure and asks if he is not coming back to collect his soul. To which Fate replies that he never had any claim to his soul.
But Mephistopheles said..."
"He is the devil," Fate replies, "He lies."
"But, there were times when I was rude and cruel to people," Beethoven stutters.
"True, the frustration of your deafness did cause you at times to lash out unfairly at others, but later you would always regret it and apologize. You often went through great lengths to make amends for any hurts you had caused. Believe me Ludwig, you have done well."
And with those words a warm feeling of peace spreads throughout Beethoven's body and across his soul. When he asks Fate what is to happen next, she gently tells him that it is time for him to rest, for tonight he will dream a new dream within the gates of paradise. And as the words weave their way into his soul, Beethoven lies down on the couch near his piano and begins a new dream.
With the departure of his soul the storm begins to break and a stillness settles over the room as one by one the ghosts and shadows fade away. All seems at peace until the sudden re-appearance of Twist returning through a window. He gazes about the room, a look of mischievous delight spreading across his face. Scampering over to the piano, he takes the manuscript for the Tenth Symphony, and carefully slips it behind the grandfather clock. Here it will remain hidden, the world blissfully unaware of its existence until that one day in the future when it will be discovered and the music will once more live again.
The narrator of our tale.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
The maestro himself on the last night of his life.
The spirit of Fate. She is a young, beautiful woman.
Fate's hunchback dwarf son.
Mischievous, occasionally sarcastic but not malicious.
The devil himself.
Evil with a seductive charm and flair.
The composer as a young man.
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
The ghost of Beethoven’s greatest influence.
The legendary, "Immortal Beloved." The great love of his life.
An orphan girl, approximately six years old.
The spirits of artistic inspiration.