Beethoven, Sara Davis Buechner, and the Archetype of the Hero

Before he picked up his baton to signal the beginning of Bizet’s Symphony in C, the conductor of Symphony Nova Scotia, Bernhard Gueller, looked around the podium for a microphone.

The symphony we were about to hear, Gueller said as he turned to face the audience, was written by a teenager, perhaps as a test or an assignment for school. We will probably never know, since it was lost for decades until a musicologist happened upon it, immediately admiring its youthfulness and optimism.

But Bizet, he continued, is known for really only one composition: Carmen. When he finished Carmen, said Gueller, Bizet must have known he had achieved something special.

But Carmen was a flop, Gueller said. Bizet, crushed by this defeat, died only a few months after the debut of his masterwork. It was only after his death that Carmen shot to great and sustained success.

Then Gueller turned to face the Symphony Nova Scotia players, and together they delivered a buoyant, sparkling performance of Bizet’s teenage symphony, providing a stark contrast to the tragedy of the story just told.

I thought it was kind of an unusual aside, but, then again, the themes of disillusionment, innovation, and creation in the face of overwhelming odds were already on the mind, because the main attraction for the evening was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the Sinfonia Eroica, or Heroic Symphony. [SEE NOTE BELOW]

As the story goes, Beethoven, inspired by the promise of Napoleon as the living embodiment of the democratic ideals of the French Revolution, had named the symphony for Bonaparte. But when Napoleon later crowned himself Emperor, he was no longer a hero to Beethoven, who promptly and violently blotted out his name from the score.

The longing for heroes may be universal, but, of course, they are difficult to come by, and perhaps not so easily recognizable. Though Beethoven may have rhapsodized about the romance of the Strong Man, the champion flying under the bright banners of victory, he may have looked closer to home for an example of real heroism. For by the time he had written this symphony, Beethoven was already struggling with his acutely alienating descent into deafness.

There were many facets of his deafness that were difficult for Beethoven to bear. Though he was a gregarious soul, his deafness forced him into a life of isolation and loneliness. For many years he remained secretive, terrified that his deteriorating condition would be discovered. And, understandably, the irony of his affliction enraged him.

Yet, by all accounts, his compositions did not suffer. In fact, Beethoven constantly improved and innovated over the course of his life. So, in that sense, the Eroica was more of a reflection of his own life trajectory than that of his former role model, Emperor Napoleon.

Before we bought tickets it was not really the story of the hero, per se, that had caught my interest—it was the fact that this symphony marked the beginning of the great and fecund Romantic Era, when music became less about technical perfection and more about emotion and expression through tone.

So after the intermission, I was looking forward to enjoying a rare live performance of what is really a pinnacle of artistic achievement, one that emphasizes the emotional and personal over the abstract.

But that was when a nice woman sitting next to me started to chat, and then the evening took another unexpected turn.

She asked me if I had heard the discussion with the guest pianist before the concert. No, I answered. In truth I didn’t know a thing about her, other than the name on the program: Sara Davis Buechner.

Well, she said. As it happens, Sara used to be David.

And the lights dimmed, and the audience applauded Sara Davis Buechner as she walked across the stage.

What followed was an intense, dramatic and deeply emotional performance of the Eroica. I was fascinated as I watched Buechner’s body swaying on the stool, the speed and drama of her hands as they sprang from the keys, and the way her lips kept the beat of the music even as her hands were still.

Though I’ve heard lots of Beethoven, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it quite like this. I felt my entire body become like a tuning fork—and my bones kept on resonating and thrumming even as I walked home and crawled into bed.

Afterwards I looked her up, and, according to an article in The New York Times Magazine, Buechner had decided to undergo gender reassignment surgeries in 1996, after bouts of heavy drinking, a failed marriage, and “flirtations with suicide”.

“To me, the choice was simple,” Buechner said in the 1998 article. “Live as Sara or give up on living.”

There was also an article published just last year in The Times, this time written by Sara herself, that recounts the aftermath of her surgery, and how she was shunned and rejected by the classical music community in the U.S. By the time she moved to Canada in 2003, she had not been offered any bookings with top orchestras for five years, nor would any university hire her. Finally she was offered a job with the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and began, slowly, to rebuild what was once a meteoric career.

Though the article is a straightforward and positive account from someone who has reached a safer shore, there is still a sense that the acute pain from such a universal shunning must still be fresh—and perhaps there are many profoundly difficult emotions that are not so hard for her to access.

I wondered if the conductor had more than Bizet in mind when he had spoken earlier in the evening about artistic struggle, rejection, and the high price of individual expression. And, of course, its eventual triumph.

The woman sitting next to me said one more thing in the rushed moments before Buechner’s performance. She told me that she worked in the medical profession and had encountered a fair number of depressed and suicidal patients as they struggled with their own issues around gender reassignment.

Buechner is a inspiration for many, she told me.

Though she may not have said it, the word “hero” comes to mind.

NOTE: I first released this piece on November 13, and shortly thereafter I got a kind note from Symphony Nova Scotia pointing out that the Beethoven piece I referred to was not, in fact, Symphony no. 3, but PIANO CONCERTO no. 3.
Now, this may not seem like not such a cataclysmic error, but actually the whole assumption in my column was that I was referring to this “heroic” third symphony.
So, much to my humiliation, it turned out to be a rather large mistake—one that I was baffled I somehow made!
Though a lot of what is written online is of a casual nature, since I am a professional journalist, even when I write columns for my own site I spend quite a bit of time fact-checking them. In truth I find this kind of error excruciating, and actually have only made one other like it in my entire career in 1996—ah, I remember it well!
Anyway, after hearing from Symphony Nova Scotia, and though they did not ask me to, I took down this article (or as well as you can in this online universe), said I was sorry etc., and was prepared to bury it 10,000 miles under the surface of earth. But, in my despair, I wrote to a friend—also a journalist and storyteller—and he reminded me of an interesting point. He said, yes, in journalism, of course, errors like this have no place, even though, since we are human, we all make them. But, on the other hand, he said, don’t forget, good things often begin from misunderstandings, mistakes, missteps. That they are a very important part of the creative process.
And I had to admit that, in this case, his arguments do ring true. I may not have been moved to write anything at all I had not mistaken the concerto for a symphony, or been jazzed about the idea of the hero, and put all of these ideas together with this wonderful performer.
So I’m sorry for the inciting error in this piece. On the other hand, all the points leading away from it about this inspirational and heroic performer remain absolutely true.
In other words, if I had to make a mistake, it’s maybe not so bad it turned out to be this one.