One of my Facebook friends recently posted a link to the following:
“When he was still a young man, Beethoven decided to compose a few improvisations on a music by Pergolesi. He devoted months to this task and finally had the courage to publish it.
A critic wrote a full page review in a German newspaper in which he launched a ferocious attack on the music.
Beethoven, however, was quite unshaken by his comments. When his friends pressed him to respond to the critic, he merely said:
‘All I need to do is to carry on with my work. If the music I compose is as good as I think it is, then it will survive that journalist.
“If it has the depth I hope it has, it will survive the newspaper too.
“Should that ferocious attack on what I do ever be remembered in the future, it will only serve as an example of the imbecility of critics.’
Beethoven was absolutely right.
Over a hundred years later, that same review was mentioned in a radio programme in São Paulo.”
It came from the website of Paul Coehlo. If the name is unknown to you, he’s a popular New Age writer, penning “inspirational” fluff that appeals to many – a modern version of Patience Worth. Like Worth, Coehlo specialises in dispensing uplifting essays and tales in bite-sized lumps. Quite a lot of it falls, like this particular tale, into the category of glurge.
The term “glurge” was invented by Snopes to describe these type of stories. Very often passed on by email, they usually (though not always) involve some combination of Jesus, kittens and children; are invariably presented as true; are short; are intended to make the reader feel all fuzzy-warm inside without asking them to actually think. The Beethoven story lacks Jesus, kittens and kiddies, but fulfills the other requirements. So let’s examine this tale.
Did Beethoven ever compose any Pergolesi improvisations? Almost certainly not. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710 – 1736) was an Italian composer of baroque music, comic operettas and sacred music. Almost unknown during his tragically short lifetime, his work became wildly popular in the decades after his death and many composers did in fact adapt his music. Beethoven wasn’t one of them; he composed some Bach improvisations, and the influences of both Mozart and Haydn can be detected in his early works. But he was proud of being original and Pergolesi’s baroque style wouldn’t have appealed to him anyway.
Did Beethoven ever get any bad reviews? Yes, but not many – most were favourable.
Did he ever say anything about his critics and / or his bad reviews? None that I can discover.
Is it possible that Coehlo is mistaken and the story is about some other composer? Maybe. Bach and Stravinsky are probably the best-known composers of Pergolesi reworkings; Coehlo wouldn’t be the first person to confuse Bach and Beethoven, and Stravinsky’s high opinion of his own genius was equaled by his loathing of critics. However, neither of these two appear to have written or said anything that resembles what Beethoven is alleged to have said. And no amount of web searches have yielded up comparable quotes from anybody else; in fact, all web-searches on key phrases from the story lead back to Coehlo (he likes it so much that he repeats it verbatim in at least three different places).
Could any contemporary review of Beethoven’s performance have been “mentioned in a radio programme in São Paulo over a hundred years later”? It depends on how you interpret “over”. Beethoven gave his last public concerts in 1824 and died in 1827. I’m not sure when public radio broadcasts started in Sao Paulo, but it probably wasn’t as early as the 1920s.
So, what’s left of the tale? A fictional anecdote relating the zinging comeback of a renowned historical figure to a critic who rubbished him. (Give the composer some made-up name, expand it, perhaps move it to the present day and change the composer to a temperamental genius music star – and you have the the first part of a possibly decent short story. But it badly needs an ending). It’s intended to make the reader feel good: That’s how you should respond to those pesky people who keep telling you you’re wrong! All those critics told Beethoven he was wrong! What do critics know?. Everybody likes to feel that they’re right, that they know better than others.
Reminding people that even Beethoven wouldn’t have got anywhere if nobody had ever told him he was playing the wrong notes or writing bad music would of course dilute that feel-good warmth; it would require the reader to think a little, and reflect that maybe he or she was doing something wrong, or could do something better. It would put them in serious danger of thinking and even – gasp! – gaining some self-knowledge.
So, next time you receive some mass-forwarded “This is SO true!!!” emailed story, just run it through your glurge filters, asking yourself why this story is trying to make you feel good about yourself.