Piano keys in morning light

Beethoven’s Diving Board

By Fiona Ellsworth

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Nothing is more attractive to me than the anachronism of Beethoven, his complete ignorance of pandemic or apocalypse.

Dear America,

I have decided to learn Beethoven’s 8th piano sonata. I have no patience, and it’s been years since I took lessons, so I play all three movements through at once, without correcting mistakes or annotating fingering. It only occasionally sounds like music, but the voices filling my childhood home are too unnerving. Thankfully, I can’t focus on how odd it is to have the house crowded, to be here instead of graduating college, when I’m trying to play runs of chromatic scales on an instrument I haven’t touched since high school.

This instrument is greedy, I have learned. It monopolizes the conversation, particularly during the first movement, with its eight fingered chords and the pedal pressed to the floorboards. For instance, I can’t hear my mother’s conference calls, or the therapy my psychologist father gives digitally in the spare bedroom. My sister and brother, aimless without their campuses, have given up trying to talk to me when I sit at the bench. I can’t even hear the dogs barking, or the endless whistling of the tea kettle. Definitely not the news that someone has left running on the basement TV for what feels like weeks.

The piano is in the center of the house, and sitting down to play feels like jumping off a diving board: jittery and exposed, but the oblivion of the deep-end waiting just one leap away. All I want to do is dive into the irrelevancy of a long dead German and the expansive songs he heard in his head. Nothing, these days, is more attractive to me than the anachronism of Beethoven, his complete ignorance of pandemic or apocalypse.

In 1804, when Beethoven was 34, the world population reached one billion. Today, it hurtles towards eight billion, building human bridges across the planet for viruses to slip, effortlessly, across. Tomorrow, my household population will reach six. I am well versed in the statistics. On average, 10.4 percent of occupants sharing living quarters with an infected individual become infected themselves. 10.4 percent seems trifling, nothing to lose sleep over. Last night at dinner, my sister joked the arrival of my med student brother is a strategic blessing if civilization collapses. Every post-apocalypse commune needs a doctor. Who would I be, in our enclave at the end of the world?

I would prefer not to think about the tiny viral bodies hitchhiking so enthusiastically across the globe right now. I would like to forget my microbiology lecture from sophomore year, which I unfortunately studied much too hard for because, unbidden, SIR models and autoimmune pathways spring to mind at all hours of the day. Beethoven probably never took microbiology. In fact, barely anyone on the planet had heard of microbiology in 1801, the year Beethoven’s hearing took a sharp nosedive towards a different sort of oblivion than the one I fall into from my piano bench. The 19th century planet was as blind to the microscopic world of deadly pathogens as Beethoven would be deaf by 1814. Yet still, Beethoven made music, and humanity struggled on through the many perplexing cholera epidemics of the coming century. Was it easier to survive cholera, not knowing how your own virus-riddled cells can clog your lungs, made only worse by the fluid your body produces to flush them out, till, finally, your breathing stops?

I would like to be both blind and deaf today, find a quieter, simpler existence. I am so bad at the piano it is probably similar to Beethoven’s experience by the end of his life—playing that is far more about the vibrations, the pure mass of sound waves, than the finer ornaments of fingering. His auditory deafness mirrors a deafness of the brain that I chase these days, both of us rushing toward other worlds. I would like to emulate an early, 19th century Beethoven, teetering on the edge of silence. Think what it must have been like for him, composing his symphonies by vibration alone in 1814, the year sound stopped, feeling his way through emptier, more peaceful rooms.





Fiona EllsworthFiona Ellsworth is a writer and biogeochemistry PhD student at  the University at Buffalo, SUNY. She graduated with a biology major and English minor from Kenyon College in Ohio, was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and now quarantines in Buffalo, New York.

Header photo by Korawat photo shoot, courtesy Shutterstock.





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