Interview with ‘Beethoven in Love; Opus 139’ Howard J. Smith
Howard Jay Smith is an award-winning writer from Santa Barbara, California. BEETHOVEN IN LOVE; OPUS 139 is his third book. A former Washington, D.C. Commission for the Arts Fellow, & Bread Loaf Writers Conference Scholar, he taught for many years in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and has lectured nationally. His short stories, articles and photographs have appeared in the Washington Post, Horizon Magazine, the Journal of the Writers Guild of America, the Ojai Quarterly, and numerous literary and trade publications. While an executive at ABC Television, Embassy TV, and Academy Home Entertainment, he worked on numerous film, television, radio, and commercial projects. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Santa Barbara Symphony – “The Best Small City Symphony in America” – and is a member of the American Beethoven Society.
Inside the Book
Title: BEETHOVEN IN LOVE; OPUS 139
Author: Howard Jay Smith
Genre: Literary Fiction/Biographical Fiction
At the moment of his death, Ludwig van Beethoven pleads with Providence to grant him a final wish—one day, just a single day of pure joy. But first he must confront the many failings in his life, so the great composer and exceedingly complex man begins an odyssey into the netherworld of his past life led by a spirit guide who certainly seems to be Napoleon, who died six years before. This ghost of the former emperor, whom the historical Beethoven both revered and despised, struggles to compel the composer to confront the ugliness as well as the beauty and accomplishments of his past.
As Beethoven ultimately faces the realities of his just-ended life, we encounter the women who loved and inspired him. In their own voices, we discover their Beethoven—a lover with whom they savor the profound beauty and passion of his creations. And it’s in the arms of his beloveds that he comes to terms with the meaning of his life and experiences the moment of true joy he has always sought.
Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Howard Can you tell us where you are from?
I grew up on Long Island, New York, in the town of Syosset but have lived in California for many years. Santa Barbara is now my home.
Q: How did you come up with your title?
My working title was “The Death of Beethoven,” as the novel begins and ends with the moment of his death but as the story is truly about his love and passions in life, I changed it to “Beethoven in Love; Opus 139.” During the course of his life, Beethoven had published 138 collections of work, each one being known as an Opus. As the story inside the novel is his last, I added the Opus 139 to the title to differentiate it from another book with a similar title but distinctly different tale.
Q: They say you can judge a book by its cover. Can you tell us a little about your cover and who designed it?
Good question. My son Zak Smith is an internationally known artist whose works hang in eight major museums around the world. He has also published a half dozen books of his own, so it was natural to ask him to create a portrait of Beethoven that would resonate with a modern audience. Knowing Zak’s work intimately, I gave him free reign to come up with a vision of his own, which he absolutely did. He not only captured Beethoven, he was also able to weave an image of Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved into the portrait. But once we had the full portrait, there was still the issue of designing the actual cover, and that was handled by our book designer, a long time pro and associate of my publisher, Hans Teensma. Hans also designed the type-font and did all of the page layouts. I was thrilled with the final product.
Q: Can you tell us something about your book that would make me run out and buy it?
Beethoven wrote one of the literary world’s most famous love letters to an unnamed woman referred to then and ever since as “The Immortal Beloved.” Over the course of his life, Beethoven loved and courted many women who were the inspirations for some of his most famous compositions, such as the Moonlight Sonata, yet he died alone only wanting to find his one moment of joy in the arms of his true beloved. “Beethoven in Love; Opus 139,” is the journey he takes at the moment of his death where he not only comes to peace with the failings of his life, he ultimately does find love in the arms of that women. Who is she? Read the book.
Q: Are there any messages in this book that you want the reader to know about?
Although the novel is about Beethoven and is extremely historically accurate, it is also an every-person drama about finding peace, self-awareness and enlightenment while fighting through the turmoil that fills all of our lives. To reach this state before attaining paradise, heaven, nirvana or what have you, Beethoven is forced to confront all the failings of his life by a character who fills the role of Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Past, Napoleon. Napoleon and Beethoven were exact contemporaries who knew much about each other but never met in life. But as Beethoven travels the road to Elysium, it is Napoleon, or at least an image of what Beethoven thinks is Napoleon who forces the composer to face the failures of his life. Though Beethoven cannot change what has happened in the past, he can at least find peace and resolution with what he has done to himself and the people he has loved. It is this journey of self-awareness that becomes the message, “Seek Perfection, Accept Failure,” and joy and love may become yours.
Q: What was your most favorite chapter to write and why?
Every chapter, every page, every line was a favorite at the time I wrote them. That might seem like a simplistic answer, but it actually has a deep history. Over the course of a long career I have written many stories, screenplays and articles. The notion of writing a novel about this journey of understanding had been floating around in my head for decades. When I finally decided to use Beethoven as my hero, I thought I would read a biography or two and then compose a story by filling in the gaps of what we didn’t know. I was taken aback when I read my first full bio and discovered that scholars knew an enormous amount about this man. We have his diaries, six huge volumes of letters, dozens of contemporary accounts and as many fat biographies. To write any story about Beethoven that was even remotely historically accurate was going to take research, a staggering amount of research that lasted for a full two years before I ever penned a word. And that research continues for the next three years as well.
My teachers when I was much younger were all brilliant writers such as John Irving, John Gardner, Tim O’Brien and Toni Morrison who all won National Book Awards or something similar during their careers. When I first realized what the task before me was going to be, I decided that unless I could write at a level of quality that those mentors would have respected, I would not take on the challenge. And so writing and feeling the joy of writing was paramount. Nothing else mattered. I did not care if it took me a day or a month to write a given section. My only goal was to get it right and at the same time enjoy each and every moment. Add to that experience that I got to listen to and be inspired by many of the over 600 compositions Beethoven actually composed during his life and truly each moment was joyful. Nothing ever felt like work.
Q: Why did you feel you had to write this book?
As I noted above I had been wrestling with this idea of a journey of self-discovery for decades, ever since I had a near death experience after a motorcycle accident at age twenty. So when I learned the true story of Beethoven’s moment of death, where a crack of lightning strikes the window of his bedroom, jolting the dying composer from a coma — his eyes open, he sits up and shakes his fist in the face of the Gods — I knew I had my man, my protagonist and my story.
Q: Now, some fun questions – What deep dark secret would you like to share with us?
There is a wound in my own heart that plays out in Chapter 25 of “Beethoven in Love; Opus 139.” It is the night of December 3, 1812 in a small town – the village of my maternal grandparents – in what is now Belarus. Napoleon is retreating from Moscow having lost 90% of his army, some five-hundred thousand men, and he stops in that village, finally safe from the pursuing Russian army. All hell has broken loose in the region and sectarian warfare has broken out amongst the different ethnic groups that are there, my own real-life ancestors included. All that is true. Into that historical nightmare, I wove four true stories, including the main one, where a young married woman, a former student of Beethoven, pregnant with twins must play for her life. It was the hardest and most emotionally difficult chapter I have ever written. To read it is to instantly understand why.
Q: If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
My next novel is about Mozart, his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte and the scandals surrounding their operas — Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutti, and the Marriage of Figaro. I would love to go back to Italy, Venice, Milan and then on to Vienna, to drink great red wine, dine on fabulous pasta and sip expresso in the cafes at night while doing my research.
Q: Are you a morning person or a night person?
Q: Are there any members in your family who also like to write?
My son, Zak, and my step-daughter, Alanna Krause, are both brilliant writers. Zak has numbers of works published that usually include his artwork. And I trust Alanna’s instincts so much so that she was one of the principal readers I had whose feedback and edits I incorporated into my final draft.
Q: As a child, were you a dreamer? Of course.
I was always writing and telling stories.
Q: Last but not least, the magic genie has granted you one wish. What would that be?
To stay fully and passionately in love with my Immortal Beloved.
Q: Thank you so much for this interview! Do you have any final words?
Be passionate in all things. Find joy and love in your love and never let them go. Thank you.