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John Palcewski's Journal

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Musical Irony

Jack Joyce, my uncle, was no stranger to sorrow. But he never spoke of it. My mother, Elizabeth, told me her kid brother always kept everything to himself. He thought if he ever revealed what went through his head they’d put him away somewhere. He liked being called “Black Irish,” because of all the wild stories they told about it. Like for instance that his dark hair and deep brown eyes came from sailors of the Spanish Armada shipwrecked in Ireland a long time ago. Or from ancient Spanish Moors who traded with the folks on Ireland’s west coast.

Anyway, Jack often fell into dark moods that he believed were unique, not experienced by anyone else. That is, until the evening Elizabeth took him to a chamber recital at Symphony Hall. She showed me the program that she’d saved. One of the pieces was a Beethoven quartet, the Opus 59, No. 3. At the single pizzacato opening note of the Andantino, Jack was startled. He sat up, transfixed. The music was an alien language—but one he immediately understood.

He said afterward that it was the most awful expression of grief he’d ever heard. And in the middle of it—repeated twice—was a supposedly lyrical theme that was an example of musical irony he’d never before encountered. It was like a man being carted to the gallows for his hanging, and he sees in the crowd a lovely blue-eyed girl in a wide-brimmed hat. When you are about to die, Jack said, that kind of vision is nothing less than a spear thrust into your heart.

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It is strange that you are writing about that quartet after the comments about the Beethoven's Neo-Classicism, yesterday.

I really can’t account for what led me down this particular path, or how one thing led to another. Except to say that on TV that evening I saw a great documentary on the famous locket containing a sample of Beethoven’s hair, taken on his deathbed.

Scientists recently analyzed this hair sample and they found toxic levels of lead, which of course explains many of Beethoven’s illnesses and alleged personality disorders. They speculate he got the lead from too many visits to a mineral bath in an attempt to cure himself. Anyway, symptoms of lead poisoning include: headaches, irritability, hyperactivity, muscle weakness, abdominal pain, vomiting, poor appetite, and---most especially significant---hearing loss.

I found a web site that goes into more detail, here.

And also here.

But the best one of all is this one. You must look at this site very closely because there are links hidden everywhere, and it takes a while before you see the wealth of material that lurks behind every image. Let your cursor roam, and be prepared for surprises!

As for my uncle Jack, I must point out that much of what I write about him here in LiveJournal is invention, speculation, fiction. Everything springs from my vague memory of that obviously troubled man, and also from a careful examination of the few photos that have survived. Needless to say I identify with him because I share both his physique (extraordinarily slender arms) and his moody temperament.

I've understood that much of what you write about your oncle was speculation, but I benefit by your fiction to go for long walks with you along the paths we find before. Or better: to run one's finger over the strings of the instruments we find...

Now I'm looking for the sites you have given to me. thanx.

Wow... It was wonderful. A virtual trip through the life of Beethoven. I've bookmarked the site. I knew the story about the hair, I watched a TV documentary about. But surfing in this site, my curiosity is increased. Thank you.

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