“Drunk on the Moon” is hardly one of the most memorable songs from those early Tom Waits albums, but it has always conjured some funny images for us. Of course, if you’re actually paying attention he’s not drunk on the moon, he’s enjoying the exuberance of a lovely evening lit by the waning moon. This, of course, is what we’d do if Irene would let us come to the moon with her, and maybe we’d just have a celebratory snifter.
There are a handful of accounts of drunk astronauts, mostly dating from one of the darkest chapters in NASA’s recent history, the same summer US Navy Captain (and astronaut) Lisa Nowak drove nine hundred miles in space diapers to confront and kidnap the girlfriend of a former lover. Her story buried this one, about actual drunk astronauts: colleagues who were cleared for flight in spite of concerns over their intoxication. Nowak, incidentally, denies she was wearing space diapers.
Our interpretation of Tom Waits’ innocuous song has always been wrong. Turns out he is not one of the twelve men who have walked on the moon, and that none of those twelve had the opportunity to get drunk while bouncing over its dusty surface. We often attribute inspired musical accomplishments to drunkenness, perhaps all the way back to Dionysian mythology. This is only sometimes an accurate depiction.
For instance, the performers who debuted Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A Major on December 8th, 1813 are said to have thought he was drunk when he completed it. The orchestra, which included Louis Spohr, Antonio Salieri and several nineteenth-century virtuosos, was compelled to reprise the symphony’s Allegretto at the event, which was a charitable fundraiser for wounded veterans.
Regular folks like us, who rarely have enough in the piggy bank to attend the orchestra, can only imagine the fervor instilled by the coda of the symphony’s final movement, an Allegro con brio with a whirling, Dionysian delight. The seventh is one of the most unusual symphonies, not only of Beethoven’s but of the pen of any composer — second movement Allegretto is so popular as to be often performed on its own, and the manic energy of its fourth movement is entirely unique in the music of the romantic era.
Wagner was impelled to declare the seventh the “apotheosis of the dance,” praising its “blissful insolence” and “bacchanalian power” in an oft quoted essay. Klaus Roy’s notes in our copy of George Szell’s late 50s recording of the symphony with the Cleveland Orchestra add to the impression of drunken inspiration: “For drunk he surely was, drunk with a power that is granted to a few mortals: to sustain during the hard work of musical creation and notation a sense of motion so irresistible that he sets his listeners afire with him, every time, and all the time.”
Many believe Beethoven was an alcoholic. It would account for much of his behavior, including oppressive social anxiety and his inconsistent, often callous changes of heart. In spite of the enormous artistic achievements of his last decade (the late quartets and the ninth symphony representing some of the finest art any human being has created) his life’s story is characterized by a steady downward spiral. When he died at fifty-six in 1927, an autopsy revealed signs of cirrhosis, as well as strong traces of lead, which was commonly used (illegally) as a sweetener in cheap wine.
Whether the initial response to Beethoven’s seventh symphony was any more than an oft-repeated misunderstanding is lost to the ages. We’re not even certain who was performing that night. If his contemporaries thought of him as a drunk, this is likewise lost — perhaps no one had the courage to put their convictions in writing. Most were in awe of the maestro. Franz Schubert, after a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet no 14, lamented, “After this what is there left for us to write?”
History has recorded Beethoven’s father as an abusive alcoholic who beat his son and forced the boy to perform for his friends. Whether Beethoven would have continued the cycle will never be known because he never married or had children. After his brother’s death, Beethoven began a long and hostile battle with his sister-in-law for custody of Karl van Beethoven, the sole heir to the family name. Karl attempted suicide in 1826, and bid farewell to his mortally ill uncle the following year to serve the Austrian army in Jihlava.
Karl was pretty unsuccessful, but lived well off his inheritances. He died as young as his uncle, also likely from cirrhosis, so we could speculate he too was an alcoholic. There is only one picture of Karl, forever to live in the shadow of his uncle just as nearly every contemporary composer feared they would. His only son, named for Uncle Ludwig, emigrated to America and worked for a railroad company in Detroit. He and his wife, a concert pianist, had a son named Karl Julius van Beethoven, who died without having children and with him was extinguished the family name Beethoven.
Some of us do struggle with alcoholism. Others feel abandoned, or have never recovered from some rejection. You have no idea the kind of pain the person sitting next to you has survived. Some of us just wish we were appreciated — imagine being Beethoven and at the height of your accomplishment you have no one to make proud. No father, no mother, no children. People will never forget that Beethoven had to be told the audience was applauding the finale (or the scherzo, depending on the account) of his ninth symphony when he conducted its premiere. This was his first appearance before an audience in a dozen years. and he was, by most accounts several measures off at the end.
So was Beethoven drunk on the moon, perhaps when we composed his Sonata no. 14 at about the age of thirty? Maybe, but the common title “Moonlight” wasn’t applied to the popular work until several years after Beethoven’s death, more than twenty-five years after it was published as Sonata in C# Minor “Quasi una fantasia” — literally “almost a fantasy.” It’s Adagio sostenuto feels more like a funeral dirge than a fantasy. Hector Berlioz called its melody “a lamentation.”
All signs suggest alcoholism as a defining factor in Beethoven’s life, and likely in much of his art. The maestro is largely silent on the subject, although he did once write that the “world doesn’t know that music is the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses out his glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunk.”