The epigram about Beethoven’s Ninth occurred shortly after I moved to Los Angeles in 1977. Hearing that the L. A. Philharmonic was performing the symphony at the Hollywood Bowl, I eagerly purchased a ticket. On my arrival at the performance, however, I discovered that the Bowl was roughly the size of Yellowstone Park and that my seat was well toward the back, where the sounds of police helicopters and yipping coyotes competed with the Master’s great orchestral work. “Haydn in Los Angeles” resulted from my listening, over the course of several months, to CDs of Haydn’s symphonies while driving to and from work. The more I listened, the more it seemed that the music was commenting on what was happening on the freeways around me.
Beethoven’s Ninth at the Hollywood Bowl
The chorus sings, musicians play,
But on a stage so far away,
It is as if we strain to hear
The 1824 premiere.
-from Sapphics and Uncertainties: Poems 1970-1986
Haydn in Los Angeles
Surprise!—My off-ramp is closed!
As if to underscore
What’s happening, the drum stroke
In Symphony 94
Bursts from the dashboard. Adding
Insult to irony
I’m late now, and “The Clock”
Comes next on this CD.
But that’s the way with Haydn.
Uncannily, he frames
Conditions on our freeways
In his symphonies with names.
During “The Hornsignal”
I’ve been honked at from the rear,
And “The Miracle” played one morning
When the 405 was clear.
While speeders have blown by me,
I’ve listened to “The Chase.”
(Perhaps “The Lamentation”
Solaced them when disgrace
And the CHP overtook them.)
Rightly or wrongly, I feel
“Il Distratto” applies to drivers
Texting at the wheel.
Too stormy and stressy for purists
And for romantics too prudent,
Mentor to Mozart and teacher
Of Beethoven (one tough student!),
Dear Haydn, your wife and patrons
Made you at times despair—
The former snipping your scores up
For paper to curl her hair.
Yet your symphonies still console us
And enlighten us as we drive—
One-hundred-and-four of them.
Or rather, one-hundred-and-five.
The last one’s imaginary.
It features a plaintive flute
And a furious finale.
It’s commonly called “The Commute.”
Author's Note: “Haydn in Los Angeles” was broadcast on our local classical music station, KUSC, on May 4, 2013, on their “Arts Alive” program; the poem subsequently appeared in the anthology, Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, edited by Suzanne Lummis and published by the Pacific Coast Poetry Series.
©2016 Timothy Steele