Beethoven Rolls Over

Beethoven Rolls Over: A One-Man Musical by Colin Godbout

Calgary Fringe Festival, August 2-11, 7-8 p.m. at Jacqueline Suzanne’s Bistro, 1219 9th Ave.  Review  Monday, Aug. 5 SOLD OUT and some other nights as well (it’s a small venue).

When the maestro’s plan to woo his immortal beloved with a Faust Symphony backfires he exchanges orchestral strings for guitar strings, attacks them with a baton, and conducts them from blues to bliss.  After all, he called the six-string “a mini-orchestra,” and you’ll agree after hearing Godbout’s take on Beethovenian classics, with lyrics by John Milton (Partial Eclipse, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso) and Joni Mitchell (Ludwig’s Tune, Sire of Sorrow, Shadows and Light).

Act One: Bettina’s Letter
1 Sire of Sorrow (Beethoven, Mitchell)  2 Partial Eclipse (Milton)  3 Angel of Delight (Beethoven, Wordsworth)  4 Mirth and Melancholy (Guiliani, Milton)  5 We Could Love (Beethoven, Godbout)

Act Two: Goethe’s Book
1 Rondo a la Turca (Mozart)  2 A Little Night Music (Mozart)  3 5th Symphony Theme / Jupiter Symphony Theme (Beethoven / Mozart)

Act Three: Beethovenian Variations
1 Beethoven’s Flatted Fifth (Godbout)  2 Ludwig’s Tune (Mitchell)  3 Shadows and Light (Mitchell)  4 Solasido (Beethoven, Godbout)  5 Joyous Ode (Beethoven, Van Dyke)

Be spellbound by a man who makes one guitar sound as rich as an orchestra.”  Edmonton Vue Weekly
Transforming Beethoven to blues is no mean feat, and Godbout’s skill as a musician can easily rivet you for an hour.”  Avenue
Imagine Muddy Waters doing Beethoven and that’s Godbout at his guitar: an intense musician with sophisticated taste 
and original sense of dynamics…no doubt the most talented musician I’ve seen in Victoria.”  Culture Vulture, Victoria 

Program Notes:

Beethoven’s Immortal Bettina

In 1812 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote three letters to an unnamed woman whom he called his Immortal Beloved.  Edward Walden, a retired lawyer living in Ontario, argues in his 2011 book, Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved: Solving the Mystery, that this woman was Bettina Brentano (1785-1859).  Walden weaves the lives of Beethoven, Brentano, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who disdained Romantic music: “Contemporary music may be a good joke but it doesn’t interest me.  If I had a prodigal son I would rather he wandered into brothels or pigsties than lose himself in this generation, which knows no salvation.”  Brentano published her correspondence with Goethe in 1835.  In this work she describes “symphonies of the divine spirit, [which] become tones of a heavenly freedom within the bosom of man.  The joyful dying of these heroes is like the eternal sacrificing of tones to a lofty common end.  Thus the musical tendency of the human race may gather itself as an orchestra and fight such symphonies of combats.”  

Brentano refers to the flat seventh as “the divine leader, – the Mediator between sensual and heavenly Nature…and if it were not, all tones would remain in limbo….As it is with Christians, so is it with sounds: every Christian feels the Redeemer within himself, each tone can elevate itself to Mediator, or seventh, and thus perfect the eternal work of redemption from the sensual to the heavenly; as only through Christ we enter the kingdom of Spirit, so only through the seventh, the benumbed kingdom of tone is delivered and becomes Music…and as redemption extends itself to all, who, embraced by the living spirit of the Godhead, long after eternal life, so the flat seventh by its solution leads all tones, which pray to it for delivery, in a thousand different ways, to their source – divine spirit.”

Rhythm and blues music is based on the blues chord, with a flat seventh; for example, Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven.  From Brentano’s perspective this music remains in limbo as it does not follow the flat seventh to a resolution in the triad, a musical manifestation of the kingdom of Spirit.  From an analysis of the 32nd piano sonata (op.111), Gary Giddins describes Beethoven as “an impassioned improviser who knew heavy blues.” (Visions of Jazz, 9)

Romantic and Heroic Beethoven

Composer Richard Wagner: “The C minor Symphony appeals to us as one of those rarer conceptions of the master’s in which a stress of bitter passion, the fundamental note of the commencement, mounts rung by rung through consolation, exaltation, till it breaks into the joy of conscious victory.”  “As in Music the Idea of the whole World reveals itself, so the inspired musician must necessarily be included in that Idea, and what he utters is therefore not his personal opinion of the world, but the World itself with all its changing moods of grief and joy.”
Philosopher Oswald Spengler: “The polarity of original sin and grace is the final meaning of music from Bach to Beethoven.”  Pianist Glenn Gould: “Beethoven was very like Napoleon, that great hero-general who commanded all the Mannheim leitmotifs and held it all together.”  Scholar Robert Bone: “Becoming middle class is precisely the process of eradicating one’s ‘Negro-ness.’  Jazz is replaced by Beethoven.”  Adolph Hitler: “one cannot transmit culture, which is a general expression of the life of a certain people, to any other people with a completely different mindset.  This would at most work with a so-called international civilization, but which has the same relationship to culture as jazz music to a Beethoven symphony.” (Hitler’s Second Book, 162)

Afrocentric and Feminist Beethoven

A Newsweek cover story referring to “the great Negro composer Beethoven” accords with the findings of several biographers.  Frederick Hertz describes Beethoven’s “Negroid traits, dark skin, flat, thick nose.”  Emil Ludwig writes: “His face reveals no trace of the German.  He was so dark that people dubbed him Spagnol [dark-skinned].”  C. Czerny states: “His beard–he had not shaved for several days–made the lower part of his already brown face still darker.”  Fanny Giannatasio del Rio writes: “His somewhat flat broad nose and rather wide mouth, his small piercing eyes and swarthy [dark] complexion gave him a strong resemblance to a mulatto.”  Beethoven lived in a house in Vienna called the “Schwarzspanierhaus” – the house of the black Spaniard.  Malcolm X states that “Beethoven” “was a black man.”  “Beethoven’s father was one of the blackamoors that hired themselves out in Europe as professional soldiers.  Haydn, Beethoven’s teacher, was of African descent.”  Iggy Pop: “’Originally the rock and roll format was for black music; white people waltzed, and before that they were listening to Beethoven, who was black anyway.’” (from Inside the Music, 94)

Feminist musicologist Susan McClary may have been influenced by lesbian feminist poet Adrienne Rich’s 1973 poem, The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood At Last As a Sexual Message, when writing in 1987: “The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.”

Joni’s Ludwig

While Leonard Cohen was living with Joni Mitchell in the late 1960’s he was asked, “How do you like living with Beethoven?”  Mitchell validated this comparison when confessing: “Most of my heroes weren’t too cool.  Beethoven was probably one of the most alarming of my heroes.”  “I identified with him a lot.”

Mitchell introduced a song that she wrote in the early 1970’s: “I was going to call it Roll Over Beethoven Revisited, but I just call it Ludwig’s Tune.”  “My heart really went out to him, because here he was with all of his genius, which wasn’t really accepted in his own time, people thought he was really radical and crazy and you couldn’t do parallel fifths – it just wasn’t music.  Plus he was kind of an immalleable person and kind of coarse by the standards of the courts in those days.  Though he had an eye for all the women in the courts they really didn’t have much of an eye for him.  So there was another frustration in his life, coupled with the idea that he couldn’t even hear some of his final music.”

Toronto Star: At the age of 28, she withdrew to the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, to “a little stone house like a monastery where I could just go away and hide.  I bought every psychology book I could lay my hands on.  Jung, Freud, theology, self-help, psychiatry.”  One book, published in 1927, stood out above all the rest, a volume called Beethoven: His Spiritual Development.  “It was all about his struggles, and self-doubts and his worries about how his work was being received and what it all meant on a deeper level and, of course, about his going deaf.  At the time, that’s just what I was thinking about too.  How am I going to get back in the saddle?  And what about the audience?  Would you still love me if you knew what I was really like?”

And so she wrote a series of self-revelatory songs on her 1972 album, For the Roses, which fell between her two most commercially successful recordings, Blue and Court and Spark.  The ultimate catharsis comes with the final song, “Judgment of the Moon and Stars.”  “I spoke to (Beethoven) and to myself at the same time.  I said you’ve got to keep going in spite of your deafness, in spite of everything.”

And in a heart-rending moment, Mitchell can’t help herself, and she slips into singing, raspy and muted, to be sure, but with a passion time hasn’t erased.  “You’ve got to shake your fists at lightning now, you’ve got to roar like forest fire.  You’ve got to spread your light like blazes all across the sky.”  As she sings, Mitchell moves her right hand, the one holding the omnipresent cigarette, like a conductor.  Her hair is still blond, though swept up instead of hanging straight in the ’60s folksinger style she favoured for decades.  She pauses, then speaks softly to herself: “Keep going, Joan, tap into it.”  A rueful laugh.  “One of my friends calls me Beethoven in drag.”


If you’ve perused my program notes you’ll know that Beethoven’s image has modulated from romantic and heroic to Afrocentric and ironic.  As the maestro’s variations on a waltz of Diabelli modulate from minor to major, so I try to reconcile diverse Beethovenian images in a coherent musical portrait.