From the age of 11 (when I first heard a performance of his 7th symphony), Beethoven has been the one, constant, overwhelming inspiration of my life.
It was only natural, therefore, that when we went to live not far from Bonn (Vignettes 2 and 3) that I should ask my father to take me to visit the Titan’s birthplace.
The neglected building was still closed to the public as was to be expected; the windows were shuttered, the rooms dark, stale and dusty; the furniture still under heavy, loose covers.
But coffee and cigarettes (I later learned) were the magic “Open sesame” which sprung all doors at that time in Germany’s deeply-troubled history, and suddenly, to my joy and wonder, I was free to roam around this enchanted house which to me was more full of priceless treasures than any golden palace from the Arabian Nights or the legendary Caves of Golconda.
How or why this happened, I didn’t understand at the time. Nor did I care! Childlike, I just soaked myself in it – and then, walking into one room, a miraculous moment: I came across one of his pianos!
“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair” Shelley
(Alone, and playing the 1st movement of the “Moonlight” sonata on Beethoven’s own piano in his birthplace, Bonn, early 1947)
O’ercome with reverence and silent awe,
Slowly I steal, nay – softly I creep
Across the creaking, wooden floor,
And touch the very keys he touched,
And sound the very sounds
That stole across the still night air
In Heiligenstadt the fair
So long ago, so long ago
So far – and yet so near.
(Aber Belsen and Treblinka
Are eternities from here).
I try to draw through my fingers,
And the keys that my fingers enround,
The innermost source of his being –
Of this soul made incarnate in sound;
Matter resolves into radiant tones,
Englutting the world and me,
While moonlight floods the haunted room
As a cavern by silent seas.
And there, right there, in the listening room,
With the frost on the roof-tops clear,
I sat in entrancèd wonder
And whisper’d a vow to the air.
I, too, have travell’d in realms of gold,
Their sacred temples to reft,
But along the Rhine stands a simple house
With a room that I’ve never left.
After the dark horrors of Germany, it was back home to England – home to idyllic summer days rowing and sailing on the Solent; to weekly visits to Chichester Cathedral for organ lessons, to visits to the then privately-owned remains of a Roman villa, and cycle trips to the Island’s countless historic spots like, for instance, Carisbrooke Castle where Charles 1st was imprisoned and, of course, across the Spithead there was always Nelson’s Victory!
Five : Home again.
“The child that I was still lives within, for where else would he have gone?” St. Augustine of Hippo.
Coxing at regattas,
Then rowing “bow” or “stroke”,
In slender, graceful galleys
That skimmed like birds afloat:
Of sailing in the Solent
‘Mid liners towering proud,
With gleaming hulls and upperworks,
And screaming gulls a-loud.
Of visits to the Victory
To the spot where Nelson fell,
To feel and hear the cannons roar
And live that glorious hell;
Vespers in the abbey of Quarr:
Gregorian Chant thro’ the sun-lit door;
And on a summer’s evening fair,
The sound of bird-song in the air.
Roman thoughts in the Roman villa
Where centuries before,
A Tuscan man stood pondering
On Trajan’s Rhenish wars.
The sudden sight of Vikings
As their Long Ships drove ashore,
Re-living the blood-stained drama
Of a thousand years – and more.
Of sitting where poor Keats had sat
In the slowly darkening room,
Where, gazing on the castle walls,
He thought on Charles’ doom;
Cathedral walks and soaring spire
Of Chichester so dear
And learning, high above the choir
How close was heaven there.
Of holidays in Cornwall,
And the seas of Lyonesse,
Where the sinister Wolf Rock rises high,
And phantom ships still press.
Of Cornish cream and Cornish pies;
The Scilly’s – Nirvanas of flowers;
And the casting of pots for lobsters
In the “Garden of Maiden Bower”.
How far did seem this Eden
From the land of Sturm und Drang,
Where Otto showed me the Goose-step
And his wounds from the storming of Crete,
As he told of the “glorious battles”
That they fought at the Führer’s feet;
Where the Berlin Philharmonic,
In a crowded, bomb-scarred hall,
Performed the wond’rous Pastoral hymn
Of Man before his Fall.
Where oft I stole potatoes
From the misty fields of farms,
To help a German family
Escape starvation’s arms.
And I remembered Martha
Who had knelt among the dead,
‘Mid the raging fires of Hamburg,
While her dying mother bled.
And Martha, lovely Martha
Waving sadly by the train;
And Martha, gentle Martha
Standing crying in the rain.
Poem and sketch@thurstanbassett