A Question of Character

Psychiatric TimesVol 37, Issue 5
Volume 37
Issue 5

Beethoven’s baton, the genius "gone mad," deaf to criticism, his joy as he conducted, all the notes he trusted the orchestra to play . . .

POETRY OF THE TIMES-at the first performance of Beethoven’s
9th symphony, Vienna, May 7, 1824

An under-rehearsed opening night orchestra,
the largest ever assembled, their eyes anchored
on Maestro Louis Duport who keeps time
standing off stage, the audience locked on
Beethoven who owns the spotlight
even as he falls a few measures behind.
Newspapers report the composer conducted
like a madman, crouching, extending
to full height, throwing himself back and forth,
hands flailing as if playing every instrument,
singing for minutes after the music stopped,
silenced only when contralto Karoline Unger
turned him to face a hat and handkerchief
waving crowd for five standing ovations.

Almost two hundred years later
I’m on my feet for the symphony’s zillionth
set of Bravos!, the Ode to Joy a lingering glow,
and I imagine myself in each debut character-
the expert orchestra member who performs
his job while history forgets his name;
Louis Duport, owning responsibility,
sustaining the symphony’s pulse
the way a doctor conducts a Code Blue;
and the compassionate Karoline Unger
nurturing a hearing-impaired old man.
But I don’t dare imagine myself holding
Beethoven’s baton, the genius gone mad,
deaf to criticism, his joy as he conducted,
all the notes he trusted the orchestra to play
with the pitch and passion he imagined,
what he felt in the silent clamor of applause.


Dr Berlin is Instructor in Psychiatry, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, MA.

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