Listen Up: The Timpanist

"The Timpanist of Berlin Philharmonic, 1942", to give the story its full title, is a very beautiful and intriguing piece. It's not science fictional, but it's full of wonder. It's historical and musical and about the human spirit.

Told from the point of view of the timpanist of the orchestra, it manages to be about a particular moment in history when the Nazis had control of Germany and wanted control of its soul aswell, when the musicians had to find some way to survive and reply to this, and about a particular symphony: Beethoven's 9th, the one that includes the Ode To Joy. The choice of the music is brilliant. What appears to be largely a lesson in music appreciation takes us right into the human heart, which is exactly what art should do. The story of the orchestra and the story of the deaf composer twine into a moving climax.

The story is not all heavy, though. It has some amusing lines. When told that these days one must greet people with "Heil Hitler," one musician answers that "How are you?" is also nice. One musician says of his Jewish wife, "She's always been that way. What can I do?" As if their lives weren't under threat.

Furtwangler, the conductor, was a real person. Reading about him at Wikipedia I gather that his choice to remain in Germany was a controversial one. While it was true that he helped many Jews and did speak out against anti-semitism, some people felt that if he really disapproved of the Nazis he should have left Germany. He appears to have believed that he could do more good by staying.

"The Timpanist of Berlin Philharmonic, 1942" is narrated by Diane Severson, a soprano. One of the great things about listening to this podcast is that it is read by someone who knows how to pronounce all the tricky bits. If I were reading it myself I'd be distracted by trying to decided over and over how to pronounce the various names, and the story would dry up for me, but hearing it read by someone who knows what she is doing makes it easier to concentrate on the beauty of it.

Hearing this story made me want to dash out and listen to the 9th Symphony all over again. Listening to it when I was young made me impatient: I couldn't see the point of the bits that weren't The Ode to Joy, so now I wanted to listen to it properly. However, by a coinincidence, it happened to be on the radio while I was driving home from work, so I didn't even have to try to find it. If you are trying to think which one it is, there is plenty of it on Youtube to refresh your memory.

"The Timpanist of Berlin Philharmonic, 1942" by the well known SF writer, Kim Stanley Robinson, who is particularly known for his Mars trilogy, and read by Diane Severson, at Starship Sofa no. 249.