An Interview with Howard Jay Smith, Author of Beethoven in Love; Opus 139

Howard Jay Smith is the author of Beethoven in Love; Opus 139:

A daring, compelling, and impeccably researched historical novel that offers dramatic new insight into the life of the greatest composer the world has ever known. Its fresh perspective and deeply felt understanding of Beethoven’s motivations, passions, and challenges speak eloquently to us today, connecting us to our own successes, failures, and dreams, and ultimately to the true consequence of our lives.

At the moment of his death on a snowy afternoon in March, 1827, 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. As he struggles to confront its ugliness, 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.

Read on for an interview with Howard, as well as an excerpt from his book.

S.R.: How did you first get into writing?

H.S.: I first began to write while I was in elementary school. I had been a voracious reader as a young child and was often as much as 2-3 years ahead of my classmates when it came to reading books. I wrote tiny little short tales. Later, while in high school I was inspired by our newest Noble Prize winner, Bob Dylan, and the poetry underlying his music. Not long after I began writing short stories and often used storytelling as a means to complete academic assignments. It was pretty eccentric at the time but somehow it worked. Even my Master Thesis in an advanced degree in Education was an early draft of a novel and teaching guide.

S.R.: What inspired you to write Beethoven in Love; Opus 139?

H.S.: The Prologue and Epilogue of the novel are essentially the same moment, the moment of Beethoven’s death – except our understanding of who Beethoven is and how he viewed his own life is completely changed during the course of the novel’s 385 pages.

I had long been a fan of Beethoven’s music, music that was not only full of raw passion and emotions, but music that also broke the compositional rules of the times. However I knew little of his actual life until about a decade ago. I was so inspired by a new recording of his Violin Concerto that I decided to study music history to understand how this piece that I loved fit into the overall context of classical music. When I learned the story of his death – how while on his deathbed Beethoven emerged from a coma ever so briefly when a bolt of lightning struck outside his window and he suddenly sat up, shook his fist at the heavens, then collapsed back and was gone – I asked myself what was his fist shaking anger about?

I had experienced a near-death experience of my own when I was twenty and actually found it to be rather relaxing and peaceful. Why was Beethoven still angry, I asked myself, and then further I asked, what would it have taken to bring Beethoven to peace at the moment of his death? Thus began my journey to uncover the failings of his life, his anguishes, his triumphs and by so understanding those, I could then plot a story to have him come to grips with those shortcomings and disappointments.

S.R.: A lot of historical figures are characters in your book (Beethoven, Napoleon, plus the women in Beethoven’s life). What kind of research did
you do for your book?

H.S.: Great question. 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 realized that there was an enormous amount of information about his life, so much so that there were few blank spaces to fill in. Instead it was more like chipping away at a giant block of marble to find the essence of his life. 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 teachers early in my career were hugely successful writers such as John Gardner, Tim O’Brien, John Irving and Toni Morrison. Each one won a National Book Award or similar award.

Feeling the weight of their teachings upon me, I committed myself to doing everything necessary to research not only his life, but the life and times of his friends, lovers and of the historical times no matter how long it took and then to 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 over a dozen major biographies; all six 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 piece 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 read his diaries and letters, yet it is one are that musicologists generally miss not having any exposure to Eastern thought.

Every character except for three minor but important ones, is an actual historical figure. 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 key events in the war took place there.

S.R.: How accurate are the characters?

H.S.: Very. More? My very first public reading from the novel was at the American Beethoven Society’s 30th Anniversary Symposium in 2015. There I was, reading a piece of fiction to an audience of Beethoven experts, totally unsure as to how they would react. For example, Beethoven dedicated more of his music to his good friend and student, the Archduke Rudolph, brother to the Hapsburg Emperor. The author of the only biography of the Archduke was in the audience that day. Before my presentation I asked her if she had a chance to read my chapter on the Archduke. “Of course,” she said, it was the first thing she turned to and she – like the rest of the audience loved what I had written and what I read that day.

S.R.: How has being on the Board of Directors of the Santa Barbara Symphony and being a member of the American Beethoven Society helped or influenced you to write Beethoven in Love; Opus 139

H.S.: The American Beethoven Society was an invaluable help when I was still in the research phase. They could often direct me to rare and/or hard to track down material that I would have never found otherwise. I cannot thank them enough. It is also through them that I met my now good friend and the author of the book, “Beethoven’s Hair,” Russell Martin. Russell was one of those early readers of my manuscript who encouraged me to stay on track and complete the book. Later he was an essential helper in getting the book published and marketed.

The opposite was true of the Symphony in that the book and my deep interest in music was my entry to the Symphony and ultimately the Board, a relationship that has fundamentally changed my life in ways to numerous and profound to detail here – but all are good and everlasting.

S.R.: What are you working on next?

H.S.: After scanning dozens of historical eras and possible new stories, 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 Tutti.’ Born Jewish in 1749, Da Ponte’s not only outlived Mozart by some 40 years, but he grew up in and around Venice and unwillingly became a priest – a very poor and improper one – in an era when people still ran around in capes and masks. He was friends with Casanova; traveled widely; loved wildly; married passionately and ended up in early modern New York where he founded a deli, an Italian bookstore, started an opera company – the seeds of today’s Metropolitan – and was the first professor of Italian at what became Columbia University. His is a life adventure well worth retelling.

EXCERPT:

Prologue:

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 …

Purchase your copy of Beethoven in Love; Opus 139, here.

Howard Jay Smith is an award-winning writer from Santa Barbara, 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

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