I went yesterday with Egypt and La Bella to see Moises Kayfman’s 33 Variations, a play including the stories of Beethoven’s creation of 33 variations on a waltz by music publisher Diabelli and that of a musicologist with ALS. The two stories are entertwined and interspersed, with fugue-like scenes mixing Beethoven and his friends, the musicologist and her daughter, and a few other characters.
We three friends lost another friend to ALS some years back, so we noticed that part of the story and wondered whether Kaufman had been concerned with the disease on a personal level, but I’ve found no indication of that. An interview with the author talks about the play as an exploration of obssession as a good thing, and as another in a series of pieces about outsiders.
It was a wonderful play and a wonderful performance. I came out of it wondering about Beethoven’s health issues, though.
I couldn’t recall what his problems had been, apart from deafness and poor social skills. I tried to find out, expecting in my modern way to be able to Google it and get the answer easily. No such luck. The most popular theory online, or the one that seems best supported, is that he died of cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcohol.
Seriously? One of my students was telling me this morning that she is an intellectual and can write well and organize her thoughts and generally has a high level of proficiency with writing; her not having done half the assignments, she said, is my fault. My expectations are unreasonable. She also remarked that she smokes grass daily. My courteous inquiry about whether that might be part of the problem was met with an assurance that the marijuana actually helps her be more productive. This mixture of self-delusion and failure to produce anything seems like what you would expect in cases of substance abuse. Did Beethoven drink enough to cause his death and at the same time create so much amazing music?
This response may be a sign of ignorance on my part. Maybe alcoholism doesn’t inconvenience people as much as I think, or maybe liver failure can be accomplished by less alcohol than I imagine. Maybe writing great music is less time consuming than I think.
Some have suggested lead poisoning, but recent research seems not to support that. Lupus has been suggested, as well as medical treatments that did him harm. Bipolar disorder is another suggestion, but that doesn’t seem to explain Beethoven’s persistent physical ailments. Mad About Beethoven lists rheumatic fever, jaundice, gout, and a range of other stuff. Perhaps it is the strangeness of his health problems that led Kaufman to choose ALS as the musicologist’s health problem. There’s no cure, no real treatment, the course of the disease is unpredictable and debilitating and varies from one person to another.
Their obsessions — Beethoven’s with the waltz for which he keeps writing ever more variations, the musicologist’s with Beethoven’s decision to write all those variations — are a central theme of the play. I didn’t catch that, though. I thought it odd that they kept using the word “obssessions” — I mean, why not write a bunch of variations on a waltz? Why shouldn’t a musicologist try to finish up her work before she dies? It didn’t seem odd to me. Perhaps this is because, as Kaufman says, obssession is always thought of as a bad thing, and in the play it was a good thing. I just kept thinking the word seemed like the wrong choice.
Why not “devotion”? “Infatuation”? The play was also about love: love poorly shown by family members, romantic love, love and self-sacrifice by unappreciated people, love between friends. Perhaps Beethoven and the musicologist can be understood to be motivated not by obssession but by love of music. That makes sense to me.