SCENE: a cocktail party in Vienna. A rather ill at ease fraulein is approached by an extremely dapper Ludwig van Beethoven.
Beethoven: I hate these things, don't you?
Elise: Actually, I've never rubbed elbows with the demi-monde before. I wandered in quite by accident.
Beethoven: Let me fluff up your drink for you. What will you have?
Elise: I'm sorry, I have to leave now. You're much too sophisticated for me and I'm getting a rash. Who are you?
Beethoven: I'm Ludwig van Beethoven. I design turtlenecks and dickeys.
Elise: I thought you might. Is that one of your own?
Beethoven (nodding): mmm . . .
All right, the jig's up. Beethoven never was a dickey designer. And it's also doubtful that he teetered through life as if he were a Noel Coward creation. All this is a comedy writer's conceit, this play of mine, "Lives of the Great Composers," (currently playing at the New Playwrights' Theatre).
You see, when I began my research into the lives of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, I found precious little that was especially mirth-provoking. I should say that this did not come as a great surprise to me. Genius being something of a full-time occupation, it's hard to comprehend how someone like Bach could ever have had the time to write his astonishing oeuvre, much less find the time for amusing dinner parties with the baroque musical elite:
Bach (to his wife, Anna, as they dine on slug soup): You know, Anna, I thought after dinner I might play Herr Handel some of my B-minor Mass--that is, if he has about eight hours to spare.
Handel: Why, of course, Bach. I'm simply mad for interminably long sacred music.
Bach: Then you'll love this one.
Handel: I'm sure I will, Bach. I hear that you write the cutest canons this side of the Rhine.
Anna: Oh, You'll just love Johann's B-Minor Mass, Herr Handel. It's just lousy with canons.
Bach: Anna, you're embarrassing me.
Anna: Well, it's true!
As an erstwhile pianist who once had aspirations for the concert stage, I loved all those musical bios, "Song Without End" and "Song To Remember"; what's worse, I believed in that pap Hollywood foisted on us. It was my conviction that if I practiced my scales eight hours a day I would be rewarded with a full concert schedule and a George Sand-type who would murmur into my ear: "There's no room for me in your life, Tim, as long as you're married to that Steinway," and then demurely leave the room with a trail of cigar smoke following her.
Yes, this is what Hollywood would have us believe: live in a garret, suffer for your art, be slightly misunderstood, and you will be rewarded with a slinky poetess portrayed by Merle Oberon.
Take this exchange from another segment of "Lives of the Great Composers," variations on the life of Brahms and Clara Schumann as seen through the eyes of a Hollywood producer:
(Scene: Brahms is composing his "Lullaby." Clara Schumann enters.)
Clara: Why, that's lovely, Johannes. What do you call it?
Brahms: I think I'll call it "Lullaby." Tell me, where is Robert, your husband and my friend?
Clara: Robert? (She remembers.) Oh, Johannes! I forgot to tell you! Robert went insane and jumped into the Rhine!
Brahms: What! Is he alright?
Clara: Yes, I had him committed after lunch.
Brahms (embracing her): What terrible news! I guess he just went off the deep end, Clara.
Clara: No, actually it was the shallow end.
Brahms: Thank God for that!
Clara: Comfort me, Johannes. Comfort me in my hour of need.
Brahms (caressing her): How's this?
Clara: Pretty good . . .
After all, if you are willing to accept the notion of Cornell Wilde and Merle Oberon as Frederick Chopin and George Sand, why not Jayne Mansfield and Clint Eastwood for the Brahms story?
Or how about Mozart as played by a Catskills stand-up comic? I'm sure he would have had some funny things to tell us about the court of Louis XVI:
"So the king comes up to me and he says 'That was very pretty, M. Mozart. But do you think you could play the sonata once again with an egg on each hand?' Well, I didn't miss a beat. I smile at him and I say 'Well, naturally, it wouldn't be any good without eggs, would it?' I mean, why the hell didn't he just put a coupla grenades on my hands? Kee-rist!"
Of course, none of these things actually happened. But if you read between the lines in your music appreciation texts, you might wish, as I did, that you could find them there.
Tim Grundmann has had 10 shows produced at New Playwrights' Theatre since 1976. He is currently living in New York City. First Hand is a weekly column written by people in the arts.