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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


 
The Essay
Show #451
Beethoven's Trousers
David Gunn

It's not the route taken by most musicians, but before Franz Liszt was a virtuoso pianist, he was a skilled trombone player. He studied with his older brother, Schindlers, who was at one time also Beethoven's manservant. Unable to press his own trousers after he went deaf in 1819, Beethoven hired a valet. But the great composer's temperament was so mercurial that Schindlers soon left his employ, pausing only long enough to nick Beethoven's trombone. Unable to hock the instrument--it was well know among the Viennese pawnoscenti--Schindlers decided instead to learn to play it.

Beethoven's trombone was a special instrument, designed by the preeminent brasserie of the day, Sackbuttinski und Sohnen. It was fitted with an extra water valve to accommodate his worsening saliviasis, or chronic drooling. Also, the slide was designed to not only go in and out, but also from side to side. Hence, the number of possible notes and the manner in which they could be played increased exponentially. In January of 1824, Schindlers played the highest note ever heard on a trombone. It was so high that it completely left the treble music staff. And that was the moment that cemented his younger brother Franz' desire to play the trombone, too.

Franz was ten years to the day younger than Schindlers, and he looked up to his older brother in all things except height. Even at age eleven, Franz' legendary cowlick was six and a half feet from the floor. Musically more important, his reach was an amazing forty-six inches, which would serve him well in both trombonery and, later, pianoism. His extended reach made seventh position child's play, and allowed him to experiment with eighth and even ninth positions. While Schindlers was substantially less lengthy than Franz, his arms were imbued with an elasticity that enabled him to keep up with his brother in extended arm techniques.

The brothers frequently played duets with each other. And while they were alike in many respects, their theories concerning second position were so radically different as to be nearly contradictory. For sure, their pitches in that realm were decidedly dissimilar. When they duetted, the occasional unison C sharp stuck out like an overactive hemorrhoid. The resultant beat tones caused painful pustules to form on both Franz' and Schindlers' lips. It ruined Franz' tone and drove him to the piano, where he went on to eke out a career as a capable session musician. The pustules on his brother's lips, however, burst, permanently cleaving the labial glands on the vertical axis, and leaving him unable to properly pronounce the sounds s and z, a disorder thereafter known as Schindlers' Lisp.

Exactly a hundred and twenty-nine years later, Manitoban writer A. E. van Vogt penned "The Weapon Shops of Isher," a not-quite landmark science fiction story. In it, the protagonist is armed with a weapon that "was fitted with an extra water valve to accommodate his worsening saliviasis. The slide mechanism, too, slid not only in and out, but also from side to side. Hence, the number of possible energy beams and the manner in which they could be discharged increased exponentially." Is this guy describing Beethoven's pinched trombone, or what? When van Vogt's reading light went out for good in 2000, his house was ransacked by avid Ludwigites looking for that instrument. They found instead a working animatronic replica of a pair of lips whose labial glands were cleft on the vertical axis. "Thhhhhhhhhh ..." it said, impedimentally.

Another forty-two years passed. Sequestered in a clandestine musical laboratory deep in the bowels of an old Staten Island brownstone, an experimental trombonist scrutinized the life-size replica of Beethoven's trombone that was suspended from the ceiling. On his workbench were scores of parts cannibalized from other trombones--axial flow valves, lock rings, trigger and stop arms, hand slides and slide receivers, fuel injectors, and a polishing rag that could have been a tatter of Beethoven's trousers. When the trombonist lifted the rag to wipe his fevered brow, he uncovered a pair of wind-up chattering teeth, different from the "timeless classic" gag gift in that the contiguous lips were cleft on the vertical axis. He accidentally bumped his cap, which flew instantly off of his head and up to the ceiling. For the trombonist was afflicted with heliumitis, a rare condition in which lighter-than-air nodules formed along the brainstem. In time, the helium leaked into the porous cranial interstices and out through the skull. Anything on top of the skull that wasn't secured flew off into space like a wayward dirigible. No one knew how or why this happened, though the trombonist was convinced that Beethoven's trombone somehow held the key. A dog-eared copy of "The Weapon Shops of Isher" lay on the workbench open to an illustration of the slybersonic tromosome, the terrible weapon around which the story revolved. As he tinkered with the carburetor from an ancient sackbut, occasionally glancing at the illustration, the trombonist switched on his eight-track player. From its tinny speaker issued the sound of two argumentative trombones--the only extant recording of the Brothers Liszt engaged in their infamous "Battle of the Bones." The decidedly alarming music might've caused the trombonist's hairs to stand on end, if they hadn't already been so engaged by the heliumitis. The trombonist hummed along with the recording, "zum zumm zummo." He removed a tiny pin from the carburetor and fitted it into his prototype, and suddenly, all of the pieces clicked into place. He fitted the mouthpiece to his uncleft lips and blew. Immediately, his hair settled back down upon his head. He blew again, trying to imitate the sounds of the recording. Time seemed to stand still. A hazy cloud formed over his workbench. The trombonist watched in amazement as an imperious looking Beethoven reached out of the cloud and grabbed the polishing rag. He started to fade, but then spotted the open book on the workbench. He reached down, ripped the illustration out the book and crumpled it in his hand. He shook his finger in disapprobation at the trombonist before vanishing in a poof of helium.

We hope you, our listening audients, won't suddenly vanish, because this 451st episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar features the very Staten Island brownstone dweller depicted in the story, a chap whose experimental trombonery, while argumentative to some, is pure, wholesome ear candy to Kalvos.