The story of a little-known Canadian’s connection to arguably the world’s most well-known composer is at the centre of Music Niagara’s 2020 At Home series presentation this coming Sunday.
Titled The Missing Pages, the show is the brainchild of CBC Radio host Tom Allen. It brings together music, song, drama, history and informed speculation in a format he has dubbed a ‘chamber musical’. Originally scheduled to come to Music Niagara as a live performance, this Sunday’s program was pre-recorded at a church in Toronto over three days in June, following physical distancing protocols.
As Allen explained via telephone from Ottawa, Theodore Frederic Molt, born near Stuttgart, Germany, was the son of a Lutheran organist. In 1813, Molt had been drafted into Napoleon’s army for an eight-year hitch. He survived the Battle of Waterloo only because his battalion arrived late, just in time to witness the gruesome aftermath. Upon his release from the army, Molt journeyed to Lower Canada seeking a career in music. He settled in Quebec City, where he worked for Frederick Glackmeyer, known to be the first professional musician in Canada. He married Glackmeyer’s daughter, and established himself in Quebec as a piano and theory teacher.
Three years later, at the age of 30, he returned to Europe.
“He suddenly decided to sell everything, which he did,” says Allen, who has researched Molt’s life extensively. “You can find evidence of the advertisements he put in the local classified pages, selling off all of his musical instruments and anything of value he had. His wife and two sons moved back with her dad, and he went back to improve his art, as he put it.”
Molt eventually found his way to Vienna, and in December, 1825, he wrote to Beethoven to express his admiration. For reasons still unknown today, Beethoven wrote back, inviting the 30-year-old for a visit.
Though much of Molt’s activities during his 18-month European sojourn are wrapped in speculation, there is no doubt that he met with Beethoven on Dec. 13 and 16 of that year. As Allen explains, “at the time, Beethoven was completely deaf, and the only way you could communicate with him was by a series of notebooks. You would go and write what you wanted to say in the notebook, Beethoven would read it, and he would respond verbally.”
Known today as the composer’s Conversation Books, almost 150 of them were preserved by Beethoven’s associate and secretary, Anton Schindler, who sold them to the Royal Berlin Library. Schindler is a controversial figure in the life of the composer, as it has been said he may have burned a number of the Conversation Books, forged some entries, and even ripped pages out of those that were donated.
And that’s where the title, The Missing Pages, comes in. There is an entry in these books that shows Molt introducing himself to Beethoven, but the next four pages were ripped from the volume.
“This show uses what history there is and the clues that it leaves behind in an attempt to try to figure out what happened,” Allen explains. “It’s very much a work of historical fiction, but the historical facts are very strong. We know quite a bit about what was happening in Beethoven’s life, and a certain amount about Molt as the Canadian who met Beethoven.”
Allen likens the show to an old-time radio play, though he says visually it is much richer. He plays the deeply fraudulent and unreliable Schindler, who narrates the play. Cabaret singer, songwriter and pianist Bryce Kulak plays Molt, while Beethoven is portrayed by Stratford and Shaw veteran actor Derek Boyes. Soprano, songwriter and actor Patricia O’Callaghan takes on the role of Susannah Sotto.
“The one thing we do know about Molt’s visit,” says Allen, “is that when Molt arrived at Beethoven’s studio, there had been a very attractive female singer (Sotto) who had been there paying her respects to the great maestro. Beethoven was so smitten with this singer that he pressed Molt into helping him to write love poems that he thought would help win her heart. They worked very hard to come up with these poems, but according to Molt, they were pretty bad.”
Of course any ‘chamber musical’ about Beethoven needs the maestro’s music. In The Missing Pages, the music is played by Allen’s wife, Lori Gemmell, the principal harpist with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.
Molt, by the way, returned to his work in Canada in late 1826, teaching students, publishing educational pieces, and trying to create a national culture of song and music in Lower Canada. Allen has no doubt that Molt played up his meeting with the maestro to his favour, though at the time, musicians were not able to make a great living in the country. His wife and children later perished in a theatre fire, and Molt remarried and moved to Vermont, where he passed away in 1856.
Allen promises a very interesting and entertaining program that lasts just over an hour, followed by an interactive discussion to answer questions from the online audience.
“It may not necessarily be of great importance to the overall history of our country,” Allen says, “but it’s a pretty significant little moment in Canadian musical history.”
The Missing Pages will be available on the Music Niagara website at 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 23.