I never quite forgot Beethoven’s eyes. They have long followed me in my travels.
The first time I saw them was in my grandparent’s house in Berchem, a district of Antwerp, where my family frequently went for Sunday dinner. That was 1945 to 1948, when I was between 5 and 8 years old, and Belgium was still recovering from the German occupation during World War II. Gathered around the dinner table for interminable discussions about business and politics, the men of the family—my grandfather, father and uncle—all agreed on one thing: “De boel is om zeep,” which loosely translated from Flemish, means “the world is going to hell in a hand basket.”
Each Sunday I was paralyzed on the spot by a dark etching of Beethoven’s head that hung in my grandparent’s living room. It was no more than 15 inches high by 12 inches wide but it might as well have been four times as large. Despite my efforts to ignore him, I could not escape Beethoven’s eyes staring at me, following me across the room intently, as if to say, “you can’t hide your innermost thoughts from me.” Beethoven’s gaze made me tremble. Why was he looking so sternly at me? Was I doing something I wasn’t supposed to? Why was I feeling so guilty? No angle was safe; his penetrating eyes fixated on me no matter where I stood in the room.
When I was nearly 8 years old, my family emigrated from Belgium to Caracas, Venezuela, and then five years later, in 1953, I came to the United States, and lived in Worcester, Massachusetts; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Ithaca, New York, eventually moving permanently to Boston in 1997.
Shortly before Christmas in 2011, just past my 71st birthday, I took a trip to Antwerp to visit my 93-year old Tante Louisa, my father’s younger sister, and her family. Tante Louisa lived alone in the same town of Berchem where my grandparents had lived, in an apartment filled with old pictures and paintings. As I entered her apartment, there was Beethoven, still staring at me. I was immediately transfixed by his eyes, paralyzed by the intensity of his gaze, jerked back in time to the very same etching in my grandfather’s living room. For a brief moment I was that panicked child.
Tante Louisa laughed when I explained to her that as a young boy I was terrified of Beethoven each time we went to her parent’s home for Sunday dinner, how he followed me to every corner of the room, even onto the margins of my eyes as I sought to escape his invasion of my very being. That said, I added that despite my childhood dread of Beethoven, as an adult I had grown to love his music. There was nothing I enjoyed more, I told her, than listening to some of his piano sonatas and concertos in my living room chair or at a concert performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Later that day, Tante Louisa and I, along with her children, met for Sunday dinner at the nearby Park West Restaurant in Berchem. The discussion again turned, as it often had during my childhood, to business and politics—this time not to the consequences of the German occupation of Belgium but to the competition from China, the influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, and the interminable wars in Asia and around the globe. “De boel is om zeep,” everyone agreed, the world is still going to hell in a hand basket. Our conversation flowed in English and Flemish with an occasional dash of Spanish and French; my Flemish was rusty by this time but I relished hearing the sounds of my youth and only wished I could have spoken my first language more fluently.
Like so many immigrants who start a new life in a different country, I too had abandoned my native language without thinking much about it until it was too late to recoup the loss. Perhaps, I thought to myself, I should spend some months in Antwerp in order to regain my fluency in Flemish. Deep down, however, I knew that my life was centered in Boston and I would not follow through on that fleeting thought, a mere wish.
My Tante Louisa died in the autumn of 2015 at the age of 97. Until then she had remained in good health in the same apartment in Berchem. When I returned for her funeral and a family gathering at the same Park West restaurant, my cousin Christiane suggested I take Beethoven with me to Boston. “You should have him,” she said; “he should go back with you and now be in your home.” I was quite moved. My childhood fear of Beethoven had largely been replaced over the years by my love of his beautiful music. The etching was a tangible remnant of my childhood in Antwerp, one of the discrete layers that accompanied me wherever I went after leaving Belgium and gave shape to my life, like the layers you see in the spirally shell that slowly grows on the back of an ordinary snail as it inches from one place to the next. My cousin’s generous gesture made me feel a little more at peace with Beethoven, myself, and the world.
Back in Boston, I began to wonder why my grandfather had had an etching of Beethoven in his house in the first place. I subsequently learned that Beethoven’s family roots were in the town of Mechelin (Malines) in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium. The composer’s grandfather and father had emigrated from Belgium to Germany to pursue greater opportunities in music, first in Liège, and then in Bonn, where Ludwig was born. He would later immigrate to Vienna, which beckoned him with even more favorable conditions. So he too came from an immigrant family, I thought, not unlike the rest of us. And was it mere coincidence that I should now live on Egmont Street, named after the 16th century Count of Egmont, a martyr of Flemish freedom whom Beethoven celebrated in his famous Overture? As a fan of Beethoven’s music, and a fellow immigrant, I welcomed his permanent company in my home.
Every morning I sit in my favorite living room chair, with Beethoven perched slightly behind and above my right shoulder, to read and ponder the news from this country and abroad. The plight of millions of refugees and immigrants from Syria, North Africa, Venezuela and Central America, Myanmar and other countries; the cruel separation of children from their parents fleeing poverty and violence; the unwillingness of legislators to craft a reasonable path for immigrants seeking a better life in this country; and the pervasive corruption of officials and institutions in increasingly autocratic governments, are deeply disturbing to both Beethoven and me.
I imagine Beethoven is pleased with his move to Boston where his music is often played, as when Master Andris Nelsons recently directed a sterling performance of his Piano Concerto Number 3 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which I was fortunate to attend. I no longer fear returning Beethoven’s gaze; rather, looking at his eyes, I see a wise companion and an astute witness to world events and the vicissitudes of life. This morning as I was reading the Boston Globe and pondering the cacophony of angry voices all around us, I thought for a moment I heard Beethoven say behind me in a low voice, “De boel is om zeep.” But when I turned around to look at him, peering directly into his eyes, they seemed to be saying: “take heart, my friend, these, too, are difficult times, but better days are coming.”
Urbain (Ben) DeWinter