(Inspired by Ron Butlin’s “Vivaldi and the Number 3”)
The notation grew thicker and tangled like a bramble, and somehow the notes themselves managed to look angry as they clung to the staves. The pen moved faster and got drier, finally just scratching the manuscript paper.
The composer paused as he dipped the quill in the inkwell, looked at what he had just written, and scowled. He ferociously scratched out most of what he’d just written, and spilled ink over the remainder. He threw away the quill, crumpled up the manuscript paper, and slam-dunked it into the recycling bin by his desk. He rose, strode over to the kitchen, counted out sixteen coffee beans, ground them, and ransacked the cupboards for a filter. Finding none, he went back to his desk, retrieved the crumpled manuscript from the recycling bin, and folded it into a rough cone. In went the grounds, in went the water, out came the inky coffee into the “World’s Greatest Composer” mug his no-good nephew had given him.
He angrily fished his cell phone out of his pocket and angrily punched the number (it seemed he did everything angrily, his analyst had told him. Of course, this was after he had angrily punched his analyst).
“Louie! Dammit! I’m thirsty!”
The voice of someone who did not want to be distracted answered. “Ludwig …What?”
“Louie, I want beer. Beer costs money. You’re my agent. You’re supposed to get me commissions, patronage! Pay for beer! You haven’t! Why am I giving you a percentage?! Where’s my beer? I can’t compose on coffee!”
“Ludwig, baby, calm down.” The agent took a few moments to figure out just what was going on with his cranky client. “Hey, I lined you up with that sweet gig with Archduke Rudy. Ain’t that going OK? He’s still rolling in the florins, ain’t he?”
“He’s rolling in florins. I am not. I need more gigs, Louie.”
The agent sighed loudly, as if he had to explain the concept of sharing to a three-year-old. “Look, Ludwig, the public’s kinda cool on you right now. Need I remind you how the reviewers felt about those dissonances in the Eroica? And the snit the censor had about Fidelio? And I’m doing pretty good to get any of your sonatas published. Nobody can play ‘em! Look, Ludwig, could you write something catchy, something hummable…something that will sell? Do that, and you can buy some beer—hell, I’ll buy you some beer!”
“Dammit, Louie, it’s 1806, I’m at the peak of my middle period! It says here in Grove’s that I’m a mature composer, writing heroic music, stretching the boundaries of the classical style! I can’t go writing dancehall music. It’s not heroic!”
“Ludwig, you want money for beer, you write music that people will pay for. It just so happens that I was about to call you. I’ve got a juicy commission for you.” Unheard by Beethoven, the agent was desperately flicking through his PDA. “Novelty act from Tyrol—“Josef Dreck und seine tanzenden Kuhen.” Joe got himself some Scottish Highland cattle for his act, and he needs some Scottish music for them to dance to. Something light and catchy. Nice tune, steady beat, cow could dance to it.”
“What!?! Me? Ludwig van Beethoven,” he roared into the phone and looked at his mug, “the world’s greatest composer? Music for dancing cows? Impossible!”
“Come on Ludwig, sweetheart, be reasonable. You could bang it out in fifteen minutes. Just do the piano score. Schuppanzigh can orchestrate it for you. Dreck’s willing to give you fifty florins up front plus 10 percent of the door and your name on the marquee…”
“Bah! I would pay to have my name removed from the marquee!”
“…just some nice easy Scottish-sounding tunes,” continued the agent, ignoring Beethoven. “You know, the censor himself was seen at Dreck’s latest show, he was quoted in Variety as saying “it was better than ‘Cats.’” This might just get you back into his good books, Ludwig. And,” the agent added with what Beethoven thought was wholly unnecessary emphasis, “you would get paid.”
Beethoven flipped the phone shut. He hated cell phones. Every year they got smaller and, he felt, quieter, and the satisfaction he used to get from slamming the handset down on the receiver of his landline was forever gone from his life. He looked at his ersatz coffee filter, opened it up, shook off the grounds and smoothed it out. A vision of a shaggy Highland cow danced through his mind. No, he thought, no bagpipes! Scotland, cows, stupid censors, beer. He mused about the last rave he played at. One of the gilded cosmopolitan hipsters busted some nice moves that he said came from Edinburgh by way of Paris—“Ecossaises,” the guy called it. The music was stupidly simple. A cow could dance to it.
To hell with it, he thought, this is for beer. Beer, beer, beer. He got out a piece of manuscript, set the timer on his cell phone for fifteen minutes, and wrote in a 2/4 time signature.