Friday, August 22, 2014

Completing the Klangfarben Trilogy

Writing novels in a series is a bit like Sisyphus and his rock: you work hard getting a novel started, then you finish it but then you realize you need to start writing another one so you start all over again, pushing that rock.

This past Wednesday morning, I finished the last remaining bit of the third novel in my series of classical music appreciation thrillers, the “Klangfarben Trilogy.” This began about four years ago with The Doomsday Symphony (which you can read, beginning with this link) and then continued last year with The Lost Chord and has now concluded with The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben which I began writing last September and completed this past June except for its... well... prologue, of sorts.

(Two excerpts from The Labyrinth have been posted on the blog: the story of the villain Nepomuck and the murder weapon, a white viola (you can read it, here) and the self-contained “Tale of the Master and of His Belovéd” about Beethoven and the Immortal Belovéd as told by a friend named Rainer Knussbaum who was also a figure in the second novel, The Lost Chord (you can read that excerpt, here).

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The Doomsday Symphony, set in the summer of 2012, introduced the unlikely hero, composer and retired music professor Dr. T. Richard Kerr, who, attending a house-concert in which a seemingly new work by his mentor, Sebastian Crevecoeur (who'd died, like, 24 years earlier) was being given its first performance. The mystery deepens when Kerr sees the completion date at the end of the manuscript – only a few months before – and then their host (the composer's son) disappears along with the manuscript.

From there, it involves rabbit holes that take the unsuspecting Dr. Kerr and his friends to a parallel universe where not only do they meet the late Sebastian Crevecoeur, they also end up at Stravinsky's Tavern where many of the late great composers go to hang out. You see, this is Harmonia-IV where dead composers go but continue composing.

Crevecoeur, it turns out, has discovered a plot in which a disgruntled musicologist named Klavdia Klangfarben has found a way she can go back in time and kill off the great composers of the past. What will happen to Classical Music as we Know It if the music written by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner and other works inspired by them no longer exist? And so he prevails upon Kerr and his friends to chase Klangfarben and her Harmonian accomplice, the lawyer Abner Kedaver, to undo all the changes they have managed to influence.

In the process, one of Kerr's friends, a frustrated but mild-mannered assistant conductor named Rogers Kent-Clarke (and who dreams of becoming a super-conductor) runs into Mahler who has just completed another symphony, this one inspired by the impending Mayan apocalypse. Kent-Clarke steals the score with the idea he would give the work its world premiere (back on Earth), unaware that the climactic chord in the final movement could actually initiate the much-hyped End of the World on December 21st.

Did I mention this is a comedy?

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The Doomsday Symphony was my first attempt at writing a more-or-less original “comedy thriller” based on Classical Music – speaking of “niche audiences” – following two earlier parodies on Dan Brown thrillers that became The Schoenberg Code (after Brown's The Da Vinci Code) and The Lost Chord (after his The Lost Symbol).

But when I realized I didn't really like this second parody, I was reluctant to just throw it away, especially given all the wonderful characters' names I'd come up with.

So I then set about completely rewriting it, keeping many of the names while changing specific plot details but keeping, confusingly, the title as well. Since there are already numerous uses of the title “The Lost Chord” in music, itself a perfect parody on Brown's title, it didn't seem as much a rip-off of a popular novel as a reference to, say, Sir Arthur Sullivan's hymn, “The Lost Chord.”

Considering one of the main aspects of the plot concerns inspiration and creativity, this Lost Chord takes on a deeper meaning.

Using some of the same characters as The Doomsday Symphony, this new Lost Chord version started out as just a second book until about two-thirds of the way through when I decided to introduce a new character who could be one of the villains from the previous book, the ill-starred, would-be femme fatale and former forensic musicologist, Klavdia Klangfarben. Having failed to achieve her mission, she ended up sending herself back in time to rescue her mother only to find herself stuck (cheap batteries) as an observer of her own childhood without any way of getting back to the present except to wait it out.

By the time she catches up to Dr. Kerr whom she essentially blames for foiling her plot, she's pretty pissed off, living all those years as a homeless person in Manhattan. But her attempted revenge fails.

I'll spare you the synopsis of The Lost Chord except to say there's musical-political intrigue behind the murder of Kerr's friend, composer Robertson Sullivan, placing his cousin, LauraLynn Harty, in grave danger. Also, there's a madman who calls himself Tr'iTone who is seeking the Fountain of Inspiration which Sullivan apparently has knowledge of. And there's a secret journal that had been kept by LauraLynn's great-grandfather, Harrison Harty, when he attended a summer music camp held at the legendary Schweinwald Academy with his friends Gustav Mahler, Hans Rott and Ethel Smyth and which could reveal information about Beethoven's Immortal Belovéd, perhaps one of the greatest mysteries in classical music.

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Even before I had finished this completely revised Lost Chord with its director of the ICA (International Composers Agency) Yoda Leahy-Hu, the villain Tr'iTone and the bumbling SHMRG agent, Garth Widor, the next novel in the series began to form itself in my mind.

And for this one, I returned to The Schoenberg Code, my original Dan Brown parody, again primarily to keep many of the names I'd come up with, most of them musical puns – especially agents from the International Music Police like Inspector Hemiola, Mimi Solfeggio or Ben Rubato, the conductor Hans-Jörg Schnellenlauter and his companion Frieda F. Erden, among others – and then completely altered the plot (or at least, most of it: there are some plot details that are so typical of the genre, it would be hard to avoid them) after finally finding a way to make Klavdia Klangfarben, once again, the main villain.

It went through several working titles until I decided on The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben which also altered the details of the ending which I'd left vague hoping “inspiration” would somehow fill in the blank.

Again, let's leave the plot synopsis at “it continues the quest for the identity of the Immortal Belovéd and discovery that she and Beethoven had a child.” Was the conductor Hans-Jörg Schnellenlauter murdered because he's about to conduct the opera that got its composer, Robertson Sullivan, killed – or because he knows who the Heir to Beethoven is?

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The other thing was, for matters of structure and proportion (which I won't go into, here), I didn't just need a “prologue” for this novel which, in its entirety, was to be a little less than 150,000 words: it required a semi-independent short story of about 27,000 words which I wanted initially to just be an “interlude,” perhaps a short mystery of its own. And since I'd decided the novel would open with Kerr, on a train, awaking from a dream and then, ultimately, close with Kerr, on a train, falling asleep, it seemed logical that this short story would be a dream-sequence. And in this, it would bring together various elements of the earlier novels – memories of the visit to Harmonia-IV, especially, and tying in some characters from The Lost Chord that were not as developed by the time they've shown up in The Labyrinth, like LauraLynn Harty's cousin Maurice who gets a nice Momento Maurie here.

The initial plot for this short-story was left very vague as I began the novel that would actually follow it: I decided I wanted to write the complete novel and discover what sorts of things might need a little more explanation – especially the fact that Kerr keeps thinking Phlaumix House (the great 18th-Century English house where most of the novel is set) was familiar though he'd never been there before.

Then, better yet, I decided to introduce plot-elements into it which would seem completely unrelated – a separate, self-contained case. It involved Kerr attending the premiere of his latest composition, a long-form piano piece he entitled “Labyrinth” but everything that could go wrong was going wrong. Around this were various sub-plots, some of which recalled elements in the previous books or looked ahead to what would (or might) happen in the novel itself. One of these involves a symposium about the pendulum-like changes in classical music styles attended by many of the great dead composers organized at some great old English manor house by Sebastian Crevecoeur.

This interlude – or “Intermezzo,” since I'm using musical terms – is primarily set at a community college in suburban Philadelphia. I had quite arbitrarily placed the home of Dr. Kerr in a fictional part of Doylestown, PA, but when I was half-way through The Labyrinth which is set in England, I discovered there is a town – more officially, a township – outside Philadelphia called Marple. Well... with a nod to Agatha Christie, I had to set my next mystery, there.

I created St. Sisyphus Community College whose football team is called “The Rocks” and whose mascot is a large stone without arms or legs, and where the student lounge serves “Rolling Rock” beer.

Finally, I hit upon the idea that the basis of the story should become the central plot of yet another novel and would involve Kerr's old friend, another composer and soon-to-retire professor named Tom Purdue who has inexplicably disappeared. Hence, the new novel will be called In Search of Tom Purdue.

For those who know their Proust, this is a take-off on In Search of Lost Time. “Lost Time” in French is temps perdu.

An Escher-like Illusion
Since the final scene of The Labyrinth takes place in a vast, round room with a giant pendulum which opens to reveal a possibly four-dimensional labyrinth, images of M. C. Escher came to mind and it occurred to me that a dream sequence, which has little logic to it anyway, could easily reflect not only labyrinths but also Escher-like optical illusions (or, in this case, optical allusions) so everywhere Kerr went, the paths were too long and convoluted or he'd walk through a door and end up in a different building across campus.

Another “allusion” would be to Edgar Allan Poe's “Fall of the House of Usher,” one of my favorite stories from my childhood (I'd set it as a chamber opera when I was in my late-teens). There are frequent references to passages from Poe – including the weird all-white underground passageway in one of Roderick Usher's drawings – the use of particular adjectives in particular ways. The President of the college where this takes place is Roderick Ulster; the Dean of Fine Arts is Madeline Wilsher (in the concert program, she is mis-identified as “Dead of Fine Arts”), named after the ill-fated twins Roderick and Madeline Usher. Even the name given to the otherwise anonymous narrator in a film version of the story appears as an assistant to the President. In the end, it is revealed that Tom Purdue (who has yet to be seen) has been diagnosed with Usher Syndrome, a condition that leads eventually to blindness and deafness.

And the house where Kerr is staying on campus is owned by the foundation who'd commissioned his piano piece, the dePaula Escher Fund. The house is itself a cross between the optical puzzles of M.C. Escher and Poe's tale, a very dark fun-house of a place.

So, the title of the short-story became “The House of dePaula Escher” which nearly mirrors “The Fall of the House of Usher” as close as I could get. Granted, dePaula is an odd choice for a name but I needed something to reflect the vowels and rhythm in “the fall of...”

I had completed the “novel proper” on June 12th and now the short-story that would become the “Intermezzo” between the second and third novels was finished on August 20th, in so much as it “ends” (it's a dream-sequence: basically he wakes up before anything is realized).

(And yes, “The Klangfarben Trilogy” consists of three novels and a short-story... Deal with it.)

Normally, I like to wait a couple of weeks before going back to read through the rough draft and start the editing process, giving it a little time to settle.

But I want to get the second novel posted on-line even though it's been through two drafts already – I just haven't gotten around to it. So I'll do the third draft of the second novel and post it on the blog before I do the second draft of the third novel before starting on the first draft of the fourth novel.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Tale of the Master and of His Belovèd: Beethoven & the Immortal Belovèd (Part 2)

This is an excerpt from my recently completed novel, The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben and is a continuation of the account by Dr. Reiner Knussbaum concerning the relationship between his friend Ludwig van Beethoven and the mysterious woman known to history (at least, music history) as The Immortal Belovèd. I remind you that this is purely fiction.

You can read the first half of Knussbaum's Tale here. It concluded with Beethoven meeting a young music teacher in Vienna named Simon Sechter.

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Sechter was a young man of 26 who had studied with Koželuch (though the Master did not hold that against him) whom Beethoven, now considerably changed, had liked instantly despite his being so academic. Greatly honored by the request made of him, Sechter would take over the "administration" of what Beethoven now called "our Project." Sechter would look after the banking, keep the books and administer the fees to be paid to my uncle, Tobias Pflegermann, for the "maintenance" of the woman known as "Rosa Kohl" at his inn. It was my great responsibility as "Resident Hermes" (now, alas, no longer skinny) to carry correspondence between Sechter and the Master as well as any such correspondence directly between the Master and the Belovèd. Sechter and I jokingly called ourselves the "Unsterblichesverein" [the "Immortal Society" – translator's note] and such, I admit, was its unlikely beginnings.

My uncle, of course, had no idea regarding the source of this income, knowing only of the agent he corresponded with, Baron Ludwig von Zwischenstein-und-Schwerplatz, a fellow who acted for an unnamed Viennese aristocrat. Fortunately, it gave them the impression "Rosa" was to have married a nobleman, an assumption that didn't hurt our project's cause. It might ultimately explain why she found kitchen-work beneath her, whatever the cause, even if at times she put on airs. I told them reminding her of her loss would only sadden her more.

It was during the springtime of the following year – this was now 1814 – after "Wellington's Victory" had become a great success, much to the Master's constant bafflement and delight, despite some critic's occasional complaints (as Beethoven scoffed to me over lunch once, after reading one such review, "I shit better than what this moron composes!"). Not only did it bring him some much needed income, it brought with it a renewed popularity, even more than before, but more importantly, for his own benefit, a renewed sense of his self-esteem.

Fidelio was revived and was finally a success, the Viennese seeing it as a triumph over the inevitable fall of Napoleon (originally premiered during the French Occupation of 1805, it had been a disaster). And when, with Waterloo, Napoleon's collapse became reality, Vienna danced as Europe converged, redrawing the map after twenty years of war.

These were heady times for a boy in his mid-teens as much as they were for a genius in his mid-forties. Beethoven had many works inspired by current events that were being euphorically received. Sechter had taken me on as a student both in organ and theory, the better to explain my frequent appearances there. Though by now Beethoven had gone from having been forgotten to being acclaimed, he'd also gone from hard-of-hearing to totally deaf. He could scoff at what he was composing: he didn't mind the acclaim.

My uncle was amazed to discover I was becoming a frequently employed musician (no doubt through good connections with Baron Zwischenstein-und-Schwerplatz). He and my aunt (if not “Rosa” herself) were gratified I'd outgrown kitchen-work. But “Rosa” warned me in her half-serious way, that if nothing else materialized, one could always find work in a kitchen.

The strain of these years and her prolonged absence from the Master's side had no doubt been weighing heavily upon “Rosa,” and at times I could tell she missed the excitement of city life. Alone with Amalie (and how quickly she grew), life must still be dull living at a country inn far from Vienna.

Once, I suggested to the Master that I bring “Rosa” and the child in to Vienna for one of his concerts. He declared it would be more than he – or possibly she – could bear.

Wellington's Victory had struck a chord with people who never went into a theater to hear one of the Master's symphonies. Patriotic fervor rode high among the light-hearted Viennese and Beethoven mined it easily. Fame it may have been, but it didn't last long, a glorious moment like a flame extinguished by a fickle wind. As life after years of constant warfare gradually settled into a new normalcy, people wanted to feel comfortable, to be entertained. They didn't want to grapple with those intellectual issues fueling his earlier works.

With the responsibility of the Belovèd's finances given to the efficient Dr. Sechter, and relying less on me for any communications, it seemed the Master forgot about her and his daughter living far away. If everyone chose to ignore their own circumstances, was Beethoven doing the same and hiding one of his life's greatest frustrations?

So it was to my considerable amazement when – this would be late-winter, 1815 – the Master requested I visit him some evening. I don't recall having seen him once all season, busy with my studies. And when I arrived well after dinner, making sure not to disturb him, I found him neatly dressed and smiling broadly.

"Come, come," he said like an eager father, brandishing a sheaf of papers. "Look, look," and dropped it on his desk. He pulled out a chair and set me down in it. "There – see?"

The Master pointed impatiently at the top page which was only barely legible. "I finished it this morning – it took months!" His excitement continued as I paged through it, trying to read it (unsuccessfully). "You will need to copy it, with parts, then show it to Sechter, and find some friends to play through it."

I asked why he hadn't contacted Schuppanzigh who usually played his new quartets, but he only laughed, pushing his chair back.

"No, no, Falstaff" (so-called because of his girth) "will want to perform it."

That seemed a logical assumption, I told him, but the Master was adamant even though I couldn't possibly do it justice, looking at the second violin part which was far beyond my meager talents.

"Well, Hermes, then you will have to copy it and learn it quickly, for you must play it for Amalie's birthday."

The quartet, Beethoven stressed again and again, had to be kept a secret, intended only for the ears of his family which, likewise, had to be kept a secret, away from Vienna's prying eyes. This music had grown from his innermost feelings – whether the heart's or mind's – and became the most personal of utterances imaginable. It was the opposite of everything else he'd been composing during this time, all of it otherwise for the public moment. In this piece, there was nothing public there, only his most private thoughts.

"The world beyond these walls would not be ready for such 'interior' music, a world interested only in show and cajolery," he argued as I carefully deciphered his scrawl into something mortals could read. "I do it to protect myself from maladroits who could never understand it, but I do it also to protect them."

As I would begin copying a new section, he would carefully point out what this phrase or that unexpected modulation meant, thoughts behind his musical thinking, not mere story-telling but more than purely academic. It wasn't telling the story of some people as if on a stage, but described those responses he felt about them.

This motive, he'd say, was inspired by a glance from the Belovèd herself and how this new idea came from it – "there," his finger stabbed at the manuscript, "see?" – which became the child's theme.

It was music unlike any I'd heard before and rarely equaled since then – though I heard it only inside my head – both lyrical and dramatic, beautiful yet intricately complex – and long, much more expansive. There were passages he would blush over when I asked him about them: "those, I'm afraid, are too far beyond words."

It struck me far more serious than his last quartet, the F Minor (finished four years earlier, and still held back) yet he considered it overall a joyous work, much like his Seventh Symphony.

In the last movement, he pointed out how it became a dance-like fugue with a subject based on the Belovèd's motive; how the counter-subject expanded the Child's motive – turning eventually into a double fugue. Sechter, the master of counterpoint, had bragged of writing a fugue a day: how would he react to seeing this fugue?

By the time I had finished copying it and my colleagues and I had learned it (an arduous task in itself), we were two months late for Amalie's birthday – doubtful the child would notice. Only Sechter and myself knew the author's identity ("Rosa," of course, could guess) but there was no problem keeping it secret.

We had difficulties enough playing it but the others had more in listening, Amalie not the only one who fell asleep. Even Sechter, there as my teacher not as Beethoven's agent, found it indecipherable.

Gradually, my aunt, uncle and what few other guests all left the room to partake of beer in the outer parlor. Only afterward did an old gypsy woman staying nearby appear in the doorway.

She began reading everyone's palms, telling their fortunes. Rosa's palm proved a mystery: "such a long life-line – you must be immortal!"

When she got to the child, Amalie's hand created in her an immediate energy, causing her at first to drop it.

"There will be twins – and from their union..."

"Horrible – that's incestuous!" someone muttered.

"No, generations will pass, but when they join – and I see great peril – greatness equal to this child's father will result."

After everyone else had left, Herr Sechter and I remained by the fire, pondering this over another pleasant glass of wine.

"Where did that come from," shaking his head. "Plus, didn't she mention 'peril'?"

(after several events in the novel's course intervene, Knussbaum's narrative is then renewed.)

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Being the conclusion of Knussbaum's "Tale of the Master and of his Belovèd"

There is little to add at this point beyond recounting the excruciating details of those well-known events of the Master's life, or, for that matter, those of the woman whom Beethoven called his "Angel" or the child he knew was his daughter. There was never any indication he ever said anything about them again except on rare occasions when he would ask me how the project's fund was holding out, whether the finances remained suitable enough. The quartet ended with a rising motive and three startling modulations before the final cadence which the Master told me represented "Eternally yours," "Eternally mine," and the final resolution to E-flat Major, "Eternally we." But yet, this motive, he said, became transformed into something for almost every piece he wrote from the Missa Solemnis forward.

For in reality, he said, thoughts of her and their child inspired not only the mass through which he sought forgiveness, but the last piano sonatas, the great Choral symphony (not just the finale), and especially the series of quartets he was embarking upon at the time, a motive so transformable as to be unrecognizable. When he showed me the manuscripts, I said I could not see what he was referring to, and he laughed aloud. "That, my rotund Hermes, is exactly the point! Only I know it's there!"

There is little to say about "Rosa Kohl" (it was how she was known to my aunt and uncle, after all) except that she continued to live the quiet life of a country widow, raising her child who enjoyed growing up with other children living nearby in the quaint if somewhat limited village of Oberunterdurchenwald. She never once went into Vienna because Herr Sechter had told her he would cut off her support if she did and she found village life for herself quite boring enough without being poor.

Every year around Amalie's birthday, I would bring three colleagues out along with Sechter to play for her her father's quartet though she found the music boring and her mother thought it was insufferable. And every year we would travel back to Vienna and tell the Master how much they both had enjoyed the music.

We both knew the Master would never release the quartet for publication without having to admit to whom it was dedicated and that the primary reason for their secret existence became the quartet's, also. After one such birthday, Beethoven made us once again swear to maintain the secret and continue the project past his death. He now wanted us to wait until after Rosa's death to publish it – even he had started to call her that – but to make no reference to her identity or to their daughter's existence.

Once, the Master belittled Sechter's habit of writing such academic, indeed awful fugues. Embarking on a series of new string quartets, Beethoven bragged he would show him how to write a really great fugue. (Whenever Sechter or I visited, we would keep our own separate "conversation books" to ensure nobody could read what we'd said.)

Another time, not long before his nephew – poor deluded boy – tried committing suicide, I again argued to release the Giocoso Quartet. When he said he would not, I shook my head: "Must it be?"

Slapping his palm on the table, he laughed, "It must be!" then paused and said, "wait, I must write that down..."

The Master's health was rarely good but there were times when it improved and it seemed he had many years left. Yet “Rosa” imagined he would die in the springtime during a fierce thunderstorm.

That December, after Beethoven returned from his brother's house in Gneixendorf, his nephew beginning his new life in a military regiment, the Master was seriously ill, so ill doctors thought he might die soon. I went to see him and again he pressed me about "our Project," hiding from Amalie what he called his "shame." He gave me several boxes filled with letters – those I'd carried back and forth between them over these past many years – of which he now said, "Hermes must give these over to Vulcan's fire."

He urged me to destroy our conversation books and to secure any letters from him which “Rosa” herself might have kept, consigning those to flames through which his sin could still not be cleansed. The next day, after a terrible storm, Sechter and I went to see the Master only to find him already dead.

We could not assist in the funeral arrangements because most of those close to him then knew nothing of our association. Instead, we walked amongst the throngs of mourners and grieved for our loss. Trudging along behind the coffin, someone asked me how I knew the Master. "Certainly as anyone who loved music knew him."

As we returned from the cemetery, deep in thought and lost in sadness, Sechter and I talked long into the night and wondered what need there was to continue hiding “Rosa” and Amalie's identities.

But soon we heard Schindler found among the Master's papers in his desk, a six-page letter written to an unnamed woman, someone called, among other things, the "Immortal Belovèd," a sad thing to read. Immediately, Vienna was abuzz with wonder that such a thing had gone undetected, that even his closest friends had suspected nothing.

What other things he may have forgotten to give me before he died, Sechter and I continued to worry anxiously about. Would there be more recent letters that implicated our roles in this deception?

Schindler had his theories and others made their own suggestions, to no avail: no matter who one guessed, it remained unprovable. And yet nobody was anywhere near the mark – they didn't know "Rosa" existed.

After hurrying off to Shady Pines, I was met by a stoic “Rosa” who told me bluntly that Beethoven had died.

Two unrelated things happened a few years not long after the Master died: my uncle Tobias died quietly in his sleep and Herr Sechter was offered a job teaching in Bavaria, someplace called Schweinwald(*1). Since Aunt Sophia said she could no longer maintain the inn by herself, she announced she was prepared to sell it. This meant we needed to find a place for “Rosa” and her daughter in order to remain true to the Master. Then Sechter announced he'd take them to Schweinwald as part of his household.

Fortunately, he also needed an assistant and someone who could teach organ, so he found a place for me, as well. There, together, we were able to maintain the secret indefinitely, far from Vienna. We had no idea how old “Rosa” may have been, by this time, but Amalie, now seventeen, made the trip easily.

The deception succeeded satisfactorily though not without curiosity, especially after Sechter resigned and returned to Vienna, having left Frau Kohl behind. By this time, "Rosa" was even less herself, if she ever had been. But it made others, asking me directly, wonder who she was to Sechter if he would not take her with him.

"She has become too ill to travel and being so well situated here, she would not do as well in Vienna. Therefore," I explained, "I had agreed to continue looking after both of them."

If I have time (which I fear I do not), I will return to write more about the Belovèd's life, here, and about Amalie and how she grew up practically as my foster daughter, instead, focusing here on what concerns the Master who loved Amalie greatly, her father except in being there to raise her.

Suffice it to say, she fell for the charms of student Everett Gutknaben and unbeknownst to him bore him a daughter to whom, for some unimaginable reason, she had given the name Claudia Ludwiga.

Barely two years later, young Amalie succumbed to an illness discovered too late, and then, on an otherwise felicitous summer afternoon, we laid her poor body to rest in the graveyard beyond the castle.

And so the years moved on, more quickly now than in the past, all without any further performances of Beethoven's quartet.

In the last decade of her life, our "Rosa" descended clearly into madness, brightened only by the presence of her granddaughter, and forcing me to swear, again, I would never reveal her family's secret. It was good that Beethoven should never have seen what their misalliance had led her to: he'd become even more despondent.

According to the Master's wishes that final day, after she was buried somewhere remote and safe, we should erect a monument, some likeness of him where he could gaze upon his "Fountain of Inspiration."

So this we did, Sechter returning for the funeral and for the quiet installation of Beethoven's statue on the castle's courtyard. But he returned to Schweinwald having discovered some disturbing news in the capital.

"There is clearly some peril," he reminded me, "attached to the revelation of the Master's secret, for we must proceed cautiously."

He explained Schindler unwittingly gave rise to rumours that this Immortal Belovèd may possibly have born a child to the Master, and some, incensed this besmirched his reputation, were out to destroy any proof.

According to some little list, apparently they suspected Schubert might know the truth: his death so soon afterwards now seemed suspicious.

"So it becomes clear, don't you see," my old professor explained to me, "we must continue to guard the Master's secret."

"And how do you propose we do this," I asked. "For all eternity?"

More years passed by in which I implemented Herr Sechter's improbably detailed plan to protect the descendents of the Master's legacy from the nefarious members of a secret society calling itself the 'Guidonian Hand.' We set up the Watchers – "Rosa" unendingly complained how we continually 'watched' her – responsible for keeping track of the future generations. These were people separate from the family line who were to act independently and, he specified, unbeknownst to the heirs themselves. No one who was descended from Amalie must know who her father was.

Of equal importance was that no one should know the true identity of her mother, he continued, not even the Watchers, thereby protecting them from this one crucial aspect of the Guidonian Hand's search. For the Hand's goal was two-fold: to destroy all evidence of those descendents and obliterate all knowledge of the Belovèd's identity.

Given the need for continued secrecy but also given the need for additional Watchers, at least those going into the future, we decided to induct Sechter's successor, Professor Dudley Böhm, into our "Immortal Club," a name we originally coined half in jest but which seemed, now, the Belovèd aside, a society for the "immediate eternity."

We had to make sure somewhere, somehow, someone would someday be able to discover the Truth and the secret be revealed. To that end we must hide the Belovèd's Will and the quartet's manuscript.

Alas, showing it to Sechter, I did not think this was what we wanted the future to know about their relationship, clearly having been the product of a diseased mind, as he put it. Who better than me to record the Master's side of these distant events? But not that just anyone could read it.

And so we devised a code that should not attract attention to itself but challenging enough not to be broken easily. (I need not explain what it is as you've already figured it out.)

So I will reluctantly hide with it the original manuscript and my copy of Beethoven's quartet which he called the Giocoso and which for obvious reasons Sechter and I always called The Belovèd Quartet.

Then, on a chilly April evening for what would have been Amalie's 35th birthday, we played the quartet one last time.

It was the first time in thirteen years anyone had heard the work which had by now grown on us considerably and Sechter and I wept for knowing we would never hear it again. My three colleagues who played it this time, never having heard it before, thought it a marvelous work worthy of publication.

It was the height of hubris to claim the work as my own so I said a friend had written it and she did not ever want it to see the light of day.

I have no idea whatever possessed me to say it had been written by a woman (rather than inspired by one) but that at least would explain the reason it could not be published.

Joking perhaps a rumour would begin it was written by the Belovèd herself, we then quietly burned the set of parts.

Now I am old and frail myself – my time is close at hand and I must finally put aside immortal longings and thank God (and the Master) for giving me such a long life.

It is a sad time, too, for Count von Falkenstein has died and with it any interest in maintaining the Academy.

Claudia Ludwiga has done well on her own, Count Albrecht Johann's second wife, giving birth to a daughter and twin sons.

Alas, one son died young without producing any offspring for any future union.

Count Albrecht's son, Ludwig, by his first wife, has closed the Academy and with it, quite frankly, my reason for living. He decided to sell much of the library, including our considerable Beethoven collection. Fortunately the library has been purchased by a music-loving English aristocrat whom I have met and chatted with at great length.

His name is Sir Sidney Leighton, the 9th Marquess of Quackerville, I believe, and apparently quite a "fan" of Beethoven's music. He had been traveling to Vienna when he heard about Count Leopold's collection.

We talked for hours about my having actually been in the Master's presence – he could listen for days to these anecdotes – though I was careful not to mention my most enduring connection to him.

It was then I decided this could be the Immortal Club's ideal solution: hiding the Belovèd in a distant English castle!

When I asked him if his castle's library had a musically knowledgeable librarian, Sir Sidney confessed there wasn't even a librarian, so I then took the opportunity of suggesting a former student of mine.

"He's English, a brilliant lad, and had been here a couple summers ago, having proved quite a promising composer and scholar.

"I think you would find, despite his youth and inexperience, a good selection and already acquainted with much of the material."

When he agreed, I told him the young man's name was Harrison Harty.

It makes me smile to think how everything has worked out – or I hope it will – keeping true to the Master. I wish Sechter and even old Böhm could be here to see it.

It does not seem possible to me, thinking back to those heady days, how it all began over seventy years ago!

I am giddy with excitement over how Fate has knocked at my door, how incredible it has been, answering that knock.

Young friends, recently entered into the Immortal Club, I leave you the future!

Now all that is left for me to do is finish this memoir, which I will instead leave here at Schweinwald.

(Yes, it would not do well for everything to be in one location.)

So now 'tis time to hand this to the next generation of Watchers.

(And have done so without revealing her name.)

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

(*1) Schweinwald is located in Bavaria and was at the time the estate of a German nobleman, Count von Falkenstein. He had converted the old family castle into a great music school where young composers from across Europe could gather to learn the magic of music and realize their full creativity. In 1880, the Academy is still in full force and a journal kept by one of the students there forms a major part of the previous novel in this series, The Lost Chord. In fact, much of the modern day part of that novel takes place at a music festival being held on the old Falkenstein estate. (Schweinwald is an actual location in southern Bavaria: it means "Hogwood" and seemed a logical choice for such a fine music academy.)

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This is an excerpt from The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben which I just completed earlier this month. The first novel in The Klangfarben Trilogy, another music-appreciation comedy thriller, The Doomsday Symphony, has already been posted on-line. Stay tuned for the second novel, The Lost Chord, which I will soon be posting here on the blog. Before I can post the third novel, however, I must complete a short story, an Intermezzo: The House of dePaula Escher, which immediately precedes The Labyrinth.

- Dick Strawser

© 2014 by the author, Richard Alan Strawser

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Tale of the Master and of his Belovèd: Beethoven & the Immortal Belovèd (Part 1)

 Last Thursday, I completed another novel, The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, which continues the adventures of Dr. T. Richard Kerr against the evil corporation SHMRG that began with The Doomsday Symphony (which you can read here) and The Lost Chord (soon to be posted in its fully revised version).

One aspect of the plot in the last two of these novels involves Ludwig van Beethoven and the woman he referred to in a single letter (found after his death) as The Immortal Belovèd. While the letter is entirely historical, the identity of the woman has never been proven and even today, despite all the theorizing over the last two centuries, no one can say for sure who she was. Josephine von Brunsvick, Antonie Brentano and several others all have their proponents and if you are a devotee of Hollywood films about Beethoven (at least those not involving a Saint Bernard), you might even think she was his sister-in-law, Johanna Reiss van Beethoven which, of all the possible possibilities, is the most absurd.

In the course of The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, Dr. Kerr meets an old friend, Frieda F. Erden, now in her 90s who has found an old manuscript written in the 1880s which she has translated. Its author, Knussbaum, was a friend of Beethoven's and taught at the legendary Schweinwald Academy (recounted in The Lost Chord) where the journal of one of the students, a young English composer named Harrison Harty, describes life there in 1880 along with his fellow students, Gustav Mahler, Hans Rott and Ethel Smyth. But Knussbaum knows a secret and when another student is mysteriously murdered, Harty and his friends find themselves caught up in what Knussbaum knows.

While my novels can be described as "comedy music-appreciation thrillers," much of what is described is based on historical fact - except of course for things like Harmonia-IV, a parallel universe where dead composers go and continue living and composing (the basis for the plot in The Doomsday Symphony which also involves a good bit of time-traveling). And of course a lot of things that may not be true but are considered true because, well... some people have different perceptions of the truth.

In this excerpt from The Labyrinth, there is more historical fact than most Hollywood versions of Beethoven's life, except for the description of the Immortal Belovèd, their relationship and that other aspect of the secret Beethoven kept for the rest of his life: that they had a child.

But in many ways, these secrets go a long way to describe the sudden change in Beethoven's life and creative output - from his suddenly increased deafness to the sudden stop in his creativity late in 1812 shortly after completing the 7th and 8th Symphonies and which only gradually recuperated over the following year before he wrote Wellington's Victory a year later.

In that sense, everything included here is based on fact: the reasons behind it, though plausible, are however purely conjectural.

Frieda has discovered she and her twins (whom she was forced to give up for adoption at the start of World War II) are in fact descendants of Beethoven and the Belovèd and has become part of a secret society intent on protecting her identity from the Guidonian Hand which is intent on destroying the heirs of Beethoven. But time is running out to find the offspring of her twins and the latest addition to this elite lineage before the Hand and the evil music-licensing corporation SHMRG find the child. And someone has already killed Maestro Hans-Jörg Schnellenlauter, whose research was closing in on the child's identity - and the location of the Belovèd's Last Will and Testament as well as the string quartet Beethoven had composed after hearing the news of his daughter's birth and which was also kept secret. 

In case I need to repeat it, this is a work of fiction.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * 

The Tale of the Master and of his Belovèd 
by Dr. Rainer Knussbaum

Seventy years have passed since these events began. Though I write this in my old age, it seems as only yesterday. I can hardly believe how much of my long life has been absorbed by a youthful promise to keep a secret. And yet I only write down this account because I know soon I will no longer be around to remember it: then the secret dies with me if I fail to pass it along. Even now, as I write, a thought regularly occurs to me that I might yet die before my work is finished, just as at any point in the past, I could have died unresolved. But you must understand, in those days, a few others knew the secret so it would not have disappeared with myself. Over the years, of course, there have become fewer of us who know – for a while, we called ourselves die Kenner(*1) – not that there were more than a few of us who shared it. But I thought, as we aged and one by one another would die, someone needs to survive to tell the tale. We began inducting others into our secret society – our Society of the Secret – but of my generation, there is only me. For you see, whoever you are, reading this, this secret began with me.

There have been times over these many years how I longed to tell this secret I knew to the wider world for, you see, it was not just any secret for just any friend. And when, alas, he died – this great friend – it would have been easy, an explanation of a certain letter left behind. Many asked me, I who had often been seen in my friend's company, what this was: did I know its meaning? Surely, he to whom I was so close would have told me something? But sworn to childhood secrecy I dare not break my oft-repeated sacred promise, most recently sworn again upon my friend's deathbed, nor could I even now, because he's dead, revoke his trust in me. For this friend was not just any friend: he was Ludwig van Beethoven. And therein lies the magnitude of my secret.

In the future, when I am gone and the others gone with me, the secret could be revealed to the world and the world won't break for the breaking of it (of my promise), by which I mean life will go on and no one will care, amazed that there was ever such delicate concern; but for now, that is not the case nor could it ever be as there are those who would be shocked – quite shocked, I tell you – to learn the full content of my secret. That is not to say that worse things have not been known about the moral turpitude of our most modern composers like Wagner and Liszt or of what artists consider suitable subjects for opera which would have offended the very fiber of our good and honourable society when I was a youth in Beethoven's shadow.

But I am only following my master's wishes (as he made me swear) insofar as it concerned his own particular feelings regardless of the laxity of the majority of those who lived around him, lest his own failings became fodder for his less-than-perfect brothers, Karl and Johann (the latter more often a gesture than spoken)(*2). Since the details of our discussion at various times during his remaining years reinforced his earnest desire to maintain our secrecy, he would place further restrictions that similarly applied to maintain it in perpetuity.

It was a boy of nearly twelve years working at his first job who saw the Master for the first time, a tall and spindly child (hard to imagine, for anyone who knows me) whose Uncle Tobias had allowed him to journey to Teplitz to work for his former employee who became their kitchen inspector. My duties were very taxing but Herr Kohl proved a mostly benevolent task-master, letting me play my fiddle in the dance-band that entertained the hotel's guests every evening after dinner outside in the garden. I was in the lobby chatting with a couple waiters when he arrived, a preoccupied man in a shabby brown coat. “That's Beethoven,” I blurted out in utter awe. “Who?” they laughed, quite baffled. Seeing no porter anywhere nearby, I ran over and grabbed both his suitcases, offering to lead him off to his room.

Alas, I didn't know what room was his and when he told me, I admitted I didn't know where it was. An older waiter – Virgil, I think – helped point me in the right direction. The great composer smiled at me and laughed, unlike the man I'd expected, dour and forbidding, but instead friendly and engaging. He handed me a coin and, thanking me, called me his 'Skinny Hermes' and I laughed, not knowing what that meant.

"My uncle lets me play your 'Spring' Sonata."

"Your uncle has good taste."

Imagine meeting Beethoven like that – I'd be appalled – yet that's what I did, an impetuous boy, not very bright, I admit, but he recognized my enthusiasm if that wasn't how one approached a genius. When I would tell people about this later, they blushed for my arrogance, yet it made him seem even more approachable. His deafness was not yet nearly so extreme as it would later become – in fact, that summer, he seemed only 'hard-of-hearing.' I noticed it didn't start getting really bad until after the following summer.

When he came into the garden after dinner with a stein of beer, he sat and listened to the band's playing and I was embarrassed we played trifles badly (because we so rarely rehearsed). Still, he saw me there, looked somewhat surprised, and gave me a smile. When some aristocrat interrupted him, his smile disappeared.

Every evening he would come hear the band and even asked me once to come play his 'Spring' Sonata for him (I only knew the first page by heart) giving me advice about bowings. He stayed until October, often employing me in running simple errands for him, taking messages here and there to other guests. And when he returned the next summer, he greeted me with a laugh and told me he was expecting a friend – a lady-friend, he added with a playful wink – only recently met in Vienna. Working hard on his 7th Symphony (the scherzo), he hadn't heard her enter after walking up 105 steps to his door. There he stood, roaring out a theme, pouring cold water on his head. This lady was a vision of angelic beauty appearing as if from nowhere, and they immediately fell in love – just imagine!

They needed, he explained, to get away from the prying eyes of Vienna, so they agreed on a holiday at Teplitz, traveling separately, but he was late and she, coming from Karlsbad, later still. Delighted at seeing me again when he arrived, he was a different man, a man preoccupied with the agonies of love. Still, he talked with me, heard me play, had me run some errands like carrying almost daily letters back and forth; and, most strangely, confided in me the thoughts and doubts within these letters.

That one he wrote her (which Old Schindler found when the Master died)(*3), written by the happiest and unhappiest of men, is full of hidden fears and vague doubts about his life in Vienna, with her or without her, either way unable to imagine living his life, protesting his love for her for all eternity. But then she arrived and caution flew with the winds that magical night – oh, still I blush to recall his passion. He bade me tell others he'd been taken ill, confined to his room.

From how the Master spoke of his friend, given his loftiness of phrase, I expected to see some beautiful, aristocratic lady, yet the woman I saw that afternoon was neither beautiful nor a lady. She appeared plain and older than I'd imagined but a genius who heard what he heard could see what he saw.

He confessed to a worrisome instability about her, no doubt from her blowing hot, then cold, and every emotion in between, and she left the next morning without explanation, why she went or where. The Master was bereft, inconsolable, his heart utterly torn out and stomped upon while remaining hopeful with visions of future happiness.

Over the next few months, she sent a letter, reappeared then left again, driving the Master to alternating rage and despair, returning after an unexplained absence of several months, already with child, that we realized it was necessary to keep both her and the unborn baby safe as she alternated between rage and despair herself and might well do damage – and to keep her away from prying eyes. For malicious gossips' wagging tongues would do their own damage, after a kind, and make a mockery of one's own shame, where social censorship from neighbors and total strangers fan the flames of guilt. The Master knew he could not have a woman soon to bear a child living with him, it would be impractical, his landlord Baron Pasqualati's(*4) disapproval one thing, her climbing those daily stairs another. (Seriously, no one liked climbing those 105 steps, the ever-winding, never-ending stone spiral: and a woman already irritable beyond measure? Unthinkable!)

By now, I should mention, my uncle had reluctantly allowed me to move to Vienna where I lived with Herr Dreckfahrer, Teplitz's dance-band director now living near Baron Pasqualati's house where Beethoven resided then. (Truth be told, Dreckfahrer cared little for the Master's music, especially his dances: "unfit for dancing – the man himself can't dance!")(*5) The idea had been for me to see the wider world and learn, perhaps, a better trade than a kitchen boy's. And while I worked and played my fiddle, I ran errands for Beethoven.

The Master had been bereft upon her inexplicable flight from Teplitz, his Belovèd, and followed her to Karlsbad before he returned empty-handed (and -hearted) to Teplitz where he spent a month sick in bed. Again, I carried Beethoven's letters back and forth, now to Fräulein Amalie Sebald, who brought him consolation and some chicken soup. It was the month after leaving Teplitz when the Master caused an uproar in Linz while visiting his youngest brother Johann, the apothecary, living with a woman who was his housekeeper and... something more.

For had he not lost his own Belovèd, the Angel of his heart, the woman he was now unable to marry? And yet his brother lived openly with a woman without benefit of marriage! For him, their sinful state resolved only with Johann's belated wedding to Theresa after which the Master, forlorn, returned to Vienna.

Despite everything that was happening, the Master acquitted himself of his Eighth Symphony, finalizing it in August after the Belovèd's departure, then finishing the full score in Linz that October before returning to Vienna. Back at Pasqualati's, he needed a new violin sonata for Rode in December (I tried out certain passages for the Master). He had already finished his glorious Seventh Symphony, a work full of the joy of love and thoughts of his Belovèd, a symphony so full of dance whether the man could dance or not.

Naturally, he hoped she would return to him, her doubts and fears resolved, strengthening his virtue and lawfully become his wife, but when it became clear she might not, his deafness began to worsen. His hearing now totally lost in one ear, talking in public meant shouting loud enough you were heard three rooms off.(*6)

When she returned, climbing once more the spiral staircase at Baron Pasqualati's palace, I thought his joy might restore his hearing. "Ach, mein' Geliebster," he roared, "not only does Fate knock at the door!" Instead, she had to shout about her condition so loudly, those in the kitchen four flights below must know her plight.

His joy quickly turned to revulsion and horror as she dropped her valise, fully intent on moving back into his life. What would the neighbors think? What would his recently wedded brother Johann say?

I stood there with my violin in hand – the Master and I had just plowed through the new violin sonata's variations – as she stared at me, an interloper reminding her of summer's better days, and while it embarrassed me to witness this abrupt change in the Master, my continued presence there was not without luck. Bloated and haggard, she resembled my Aunt Sophia before giving birth to twins (the very thought of which made her scream), but it gave me an idea which I quickly shared with them both.

Since Dreckfahrer was visiting his family in Graz, she could stay there momentarily while I contacted my Uncle Tobias back home. "I'll explain she's a cousin of Herr Kohl's who's fallen on hard times. The child's father was killed before the wedding," which she accepted if she and the child returned to live with Beethoven.

And so my uncle reluctantly received "Rosa Kohl," his former manager's distant cousin – "from the Belgian Kohls, most recently of Brussels" (I could not quite place her accent, myself) – to stay at Shady Pines. It was the slow season at the inn so, meanwhile, there was room if she could help out in the kitchen.

In the midst of winter, I took "Fräulein Rosa" to my uncle's inn, arriving with her half-frozen on a half-dead donkey. My aunt was clearly looking forward to a new-born child not her own.

My uncle took one look at "Rosa" and then at me and doubted I could ever be responsible for her condition, assuming a boy my age couldn't be interested in so homely a woman. Still, my aunt thought it odd I spent so much time with them, giving up Vienna to look after "poor Rosa."

Odder still, they thought, were the monthly payments they received in the post – "from her fiance's grieving family, to cover expenses" – which I knew were coming from Beethoven (through his publishers) at considerable hardship.

Come springtime, she wanted out of the house to walk about the farm and perhaps enjoy the pleasant change in weather. Aunt Sophia and I had joined her once, when a thunderstorm suddenly erupted.

Taking refuge in the barn, "Rosa" unexpectedly went into labour amidst the cows and was delivered of a healthy baby girl.

It was shortly after that most blessèd event I hurried off to Vienna bearing the eagerly anticipated news to the Master, having kept him apprised of the Belovèd's health and moods throughout her confinement. The winter had been difficult enough for him without contact from his Belovèd such that my letters often had adverse affects. He cut himself off from musical gatherings given the worsening of his hearing and sometimes avoided friends (and crowds) all together. Yet at several other times, his deafness aside, he might prove quite amiable. He was under great pressure, unable to compose, dealing with financial hardships and of course the suffering of losing his hearing: his brother Karl nearly died of consumption (their mother had died of it). In consequence, the Master urged him to change his will regarding the boy and make the composer his son's sole guardian.

And now here I stood on his doorstep, having struggled up those steps – I who thought working the farm was exhausting! – to tell him he was now the father of a daughter named Amalie, which was my aunt's compromise after she thought my suggestion – Antonie – too uppity, considering I thought her initial submission – Maria – common. I did not dare to tell the Master (then or in my letters) how "Rosa" preferred a biblical name (especially during childbirth, given her obvious and extreme physical pain), convinced "Satan" was reasonably appropriate.

After I hollered to him my news, joyful tears streamed down his face, tears which turned unexpectedly to tears of anguish when his mood again changed in an eye-blink, dropping from elation to despondency. "It would have been better had she died," he wailed, beating his chest, "or, no, that I myself had died instead!" Rather than making him happy, my news only made the Master more miserable, his next hours spent sobbing on the floor. I did not dare leave him for quite some time until he improved. The next morning, he was banging his fists on his poor piano's keyboard such that I was worried for its future but soon his roarings took on the semblance of melodic and rhythmical ideas. Within an hour he had started scribbling down in a notebook several indecipherable ideas he said were for a new quartet.

But before I left to return to Die schattigen Kiefern(*7) and "Fräulein Rosa," work on the quartet came to a halt, nothing he could revise into something useful nor discard for anything deemed better (not that this was any particularly unusual behaviour as there were often pages of continuously evolving sketches he'd eventually dispose of). His despondency returned when he realized the truth: he was completely incapable of dealing with that woman living under his roof, realizing that he couldn't live with her yet neither could they live apart. He kept thinking of Dr. Staudenheim's analysis, examining her at Teplitz that summer, how she was physically fit for her age but otherwise unstable mentally and might indeed remain an invalid throughout her life. He considered the possibility of committing the mother, then bringing the child to live with him, before quickly dismissing that solution.

I returned to Teplitz for one more summer in Herr Kohl's kitchen and Dreckfahrer's little band, knowing Beethoven wouldn't be there. This time, he went to Baden outside Vienna and had a miserable stay. A friend working there said, genius or not, Beethoven owned no decent coat nor even had a whole shirt to wear. He sat at a large table for dinner completely alone, avoided by everybody, where one guest complained he was "positively filthy." It wasn't until mid-September I could get away to bring him back home.

The Master was, as they say, "a mess," – completely withdrawn from society, not giving a damn about his appearance or manners – rude even with me before I had gotten him back to Pasqualati's house. Since the beginning of May he had composed not a note of music, wasting his entire summer holiday – four whole months! For the first time since he arrived in Vienna, he said, he had no great plans for a major new work, no symphony, no concerto, not even (here, he smirked) a new string quartet. The Great Beethoven, he moaned, was finished, done, his glorious career was ended, before asking me, "Who needs a deaf composer?" It was enough to reduce one to tears, seeing the great man thus. I did not know whom to turn to among his friends and patrons for surely he would not listen to them.

Several days later, going through a growing pile of unopened letters, I noticed one from that musical mechanic, the inventor Mälzel(*8). Scrawled above the address was the word "URGENT!!!" and beneath it, "Please Respond!" Beethoven brushed it aside with a scowl, grumbling about absurd ideas and such, but at least he let me open it. Considering the recent English victory earlier in June over Napoleon's army in Spain – and all Vienna was abuzz with this latest news of France's imminent collapse – Mälzel was urging him to complete his "Battle-Symphony."

But Beethoven would hear nothing of it at the moment, tossing it aside, "a stupid piece for a stupid mechanical orchestra." Though he seemed to have nothing but time, he considered it "wasting time." Still, he could not imagine himself writing anything, even to celebrate Napoleon's Fall, a counterpoise to his symphony about a hero. He said he needed the inspiration of something lofty to start composing again, more than the defeat of a fading tyrant. I would argue, wasn't "how are the mighty fallen" a lofty enough subject?

There were more pressing needs, certainly, the practical matter of providing himself income and, I added, a matter of personal concern, the payments to my uncle for Rosa Kohl's care and, now, her daughter's. They had stopped in May according to several notes received from Uncle Tobias who asked if, somehow, they couldn't be resumed.

When the Master heard I had sent home a large portion of my own meager income to defray the Belovèd's expenses, he began to weep again, counting it as another of his "miserable failings." Then it made him weep to think of her alone in the world, and then weep more thinking of his daughter. But then another thought would occur to him, should Uncle Tobias no longer be able to keep her at his inn, how she and the child, with nowhere to go, might return to Vienna.

This sent him into another paroxysm of tears for where would she go and who was there to look after them? There was no other solution, he would shout, for he alone was responsible. Yet when he imagined her living there with him while he tried to compose, the child crying, he wept even more.

He was the one who had been left alone, abandoned by the "angel" who denied him his virtue and his manhood – I had overheard him weeping to Zmeskall about his resorting to "vile prostitutes" – how he, without any spiritual union, found afterward no trace of noble feeling and now was left with nothing but remorse.

In his difficulties with hearing, he thought I'd called it "Die schändlichen Kiefern" not "schattigen" ["Shameful Pines," not "Shady" – translator's note] and he rose with great resolve, taking Mälzel's letter over to his piano.

Over the next few days, once he'd resumed work on those "poor inane sketches" he'd started the month before in Baden, bit by bit Beethoven's spirits began to improve at least for a time, during which I was able to convince him to make arrangements with Herr Zmeskall for a small loan ("for personal reasons"). While he did go purchase some new clothes and a pair of boots, most of this loan went to my uncle in order to ensure the continuation of maintaining "Rosa" for the long winter.

"It will give us more time, Hermes," (as he continued to call me) "in finding a better solution for their care," though I was reluctant to travel with such a sum through the countryside. At my age, he argued, ruffians little expected a lad of my years to have such a lining to my cloak.

Uncle Tobias was, of course, gratified (and surprised) to be receiving the money having assumed with the birth of the child the late fiance's family would have felt their obligations now at an end. He would be loath to do it, sending her out into the cold, but she'd proven too grand for kitchen work.

And so, as winter approached, "Rosa Kohl" and her daughter Amalie became long-term residents at the Pflegermanns' inn, "die schattigen Kiefern." The story told guests was her husband had died before the child's birth.

Anyone aware of Beethoven's story would know that, soon, his "Battle-Symphony," later Wellington's Victory, changed the course of his personal history. The Master suddenly found himself not only popular but also financially well off. He was able to sell the piece to a new publisher, Steiner, even making them a handsome loan (at good interest).

Through a partner there, he arranged a special account administered by Herr Tauschen (as long as he was not Herr Täuschen) ["Tauschen" means exchange, barter; "täuschen" means cheat – translator's note] to be kept secret.

No one else knew about the existence of the Belovèd or their child, but as it became more involved than previously, the Master now felt it necessary to bring someone else into his confidence.

About then, Beethoven met a music teacher at the Institute of the Blind named Simon Sechter(*9), a man he could trust.

To be continued...

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
(*1) – literally, “the knowers”

(*2) – for instance, in the Heiligenstadt Testatement, Beethoven did not mention his brother Johann by name but by a blank space

(*3) – you can read the actual letter (or, in reality, three continuous letters) to the Immortal Belovéd here (among many other such places on-line). Most on-line posts about the letter usually will identify the letter's recipient, theorizing about any number of possible candidates but as of this date, there has never been any indication to prove any one over another.

(*4) Johann Baptiste Pasqualati, Baron Osterberg, owned a house on the Mölkerbastei, part of the old battlements originally surrounding the inner city of Vienna. Beethoven lived in five rooms on the top floor which was indeed accessible only by walking up a flight of 105 steps. You can read more about him and Beethoven's apartment there at this link and about other places Beethoven lived here

(*5) Beethoven loved dance music though he himself “could not keep in step” according to his student, Ferdinand Ries. Several “dance-band composers” in Vienna at the time complained that Beethoven's music was not fit for dancing (see “Dancing and Dance Music” in Paul Nettl's Beethoven Encyclopedia.)

(*6) As composer and violinist Ludwig Spohr reports in his Autobiography about his visit to Vienna in December of 1812 when his own series of concerts were in direct competition with Rode's.

(*7) “Shady Pines”

(*8) Johann Nepomuck Mälzel, better known for producing the first (if not inventing) the metronome, also invented a mechanical trumpet player and a juke-box-like contraption called the Pan Harmonicon for which Beethoven initially composed Wellington's Victory.

(*9) Simon Sechter would become one of the foremost music teachers of his day: he is perhaps most famous for having Schubert take just a single lesson with him (Schubert died shortly afterward) and later Anton Bruckner studied with him for several years. In my novel, The Lost Chord, he had been the headmaster at the Schweinwald Academy. His involvement in the Tale of the Master and of His Belovéd” continues in the next installment.

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- Dick Strawser

The "Tale of the Master and of his Belovéd" is a work of fiction and is an excerpt from a novel, The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben. 
© 2014 by the author, Richard Alan Strawser

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

When Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto was New (2005)

Jennifer Higdon's life has been a busy one - not just composing tons of music that's been performed just about everywhere you can imagine - but attending premieres and performances all over the place. And she's been able to find the time in her schedule to come to Harrisburg for at least the Saturday night performance of her Percussion Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony this weekend at the Forum. The concert's at 8pm but Stuart Malina will be giving the pre-concert talk an hour before. The Sunday performance will be at 3:00 again with the pre-concert talk at 2pm.

You can read more about this concert in Ellen Hughes' article in the Patriot-News and listen to John Clare's video-interview from Composing Thoughts Live, recorded at the time of 2008's Harrisburg performance of her Percussion Concerto, posted on the symphony's blog, here (TBA).

It was the day after Thanksgiving Day in 2005 when I celebrated the future of Classical Music by going to Philadelphia to hear their orchestra play at Kimmel Center. My first visit there had been in June 2002 to hear the world premiere of a work by a composer then unknown to me. It was an exciting experience: not only was it an impressive, enjoyable new work I wanted to hear again, it was gratifying to hear the audience’s loud and vociferous acclamation of her and her music! It was basically a performance and a response that put Jennifer Higdon on the map.

This time, a road-trip with my friend and former colleague John Clare, we heard the world premiere of her latest work, a Percussion Concerto played by Colin Currie, one of the stars of a, granted, fairly small firmament but still an astounding artist I’d not had a chance to hear before.

This was only one of six premieres she’d had in the past two weeks – !!! – some songs, a work for string orchestra, some chamber music and the Percussion Concerto. Ms. Higdon has recently completed three new concertos: the Oboe Concerto premiered in September with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota; this Percussion Concerto written for Colin Currie which will also be performed with the Dallas and Indianapolis symphonies who’d jointly commissioned the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra; and the Trombone Concerto that will be premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony in February 2006. The day after she completed the Trombone Concerto, she began writing a commission for the Tokyo String Quartet! Among other commissions, she had two more concertos in the near future: a violin concerto for Hilary Hahn and a piano concerto. 

Since then, this Percussion Concerto, having gone out into the wider world, won a Grammy and in 2010 Higdon won both a Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto and a Grammy for the recording of her Percussion Concerto. Her recently completed opera, Cold Mountain, will receive its world premiere in Santa Fe in August 2015 and will then be performed in Philadelphia in February of 2016.

But this post is about attending the world premiere of her Percussion Concerto in November, 2005.

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We arrived for the pre-concert talk – I recognized composer Chris Theofanidis sitting at the end of our row (his “Rainbow Body,” another beautiful new work, is on that same Telarc CD you should have with Higdon’s “blue cathedral”). Ms. Higdon gave us some insights into how she wrote the piece, how she collaborated with the soloist.

“I e-mailed Colin and asked him what he knew about the Peking Opera Gong and he said ‘I just bought one today!’ so I guess it was meant to be”; in the same food court where conductor Marin Alsop suggested a couple years ago she should write a concerto for Colin Currie, she and Colin were having lunch before Wednesday’s one-and-only rehearsal before their premiere, making slight last-minute revisions in his part.

And there were certain things she pointed out to listen for. Imagine what it might have been like to have had Beethoven there to find out some of the inner thoughts and creative highlights about his Third Symphony which we’d also hear later that evening?!

She wanted to begin the concerto quietly – “you have to have somewhere to start from, because if you begin flat out - bam! - it has nowhere to go and after 25 minutes, you’d just run screaming out of the hall” – so it begins tentatively with a few isolated four-note chords in the marimba’s lowest register (“Colin is primarily a marimbist so I really wanted to feature that instrument” – plus he was playing a five-octave instrument that had one of the most incredible sounds I’d ever heard on a marimba, the equivalent of Bosendorfer concert grand piano).

In addition to interacting with the orchestra in typical concerto fashion, she also wanted the soloist to interact with the percussion section, so there was a good deal of back-and-forth interplay there as well. Since she’s writing for the Philadelphia Orchestra, she could also dream, something she can’t always do if she’s writing for a more practical purpose (like the middle school band piece she just wrote: “they told me the trumpets can only play whole notes and we have no oboes or bassoons and 16 flutes”).

She wondered, for instance – taking off from the all-percussion movement of her Concerto for Orchestra – what it would be like to have four percussionists all just playing wood blocks. So she wrote a passage that begins with wood blocks in the soloist being answered by different sizes and types of wood blocks and temple blocks from the orchestra (“and it just sounded like this gigantic attack of woodpeckers”).

There was one special effect played by the timpanist (who was moderating the pre-concert talk) where he places a cymbal on top of the timpani, then while playing a “roll” on the cymbal moves the pitch-adjusting pedal of the drum to produce an eerie kind of wah-wah-wah undulation, something she’d borrowed from her teacher, George Crumb who wrote a great deal of unexpected colorful special effects into his music.

Whether it’s borrowing or stealing (“I think it was Stravinsky who said ‘bad composers borrow, good composers steal’...”), as a composer, she’s always listening to music and squirreling away sounds in her brain that will pop up when she’s looking for something she can do here or there: the point is, of course, to make it work in your own language whether you borrow (or steal) it from Beethoven or Bartok. She also explained how she wrote the cadenza, the section of any traditional concerto where the soloist gets a chance to ‘show off’ by himself and which, in the old days, was supposed to be improvised.

The practicality here was how to work in and out of it, not just for the integrity of the music’s flow, but also to bring the orchestra back into it. She notated a beginning and a closing accompanied by the percussion section of the orchestra, but in between the soloist had the complete liberty of making it up as he went along. With all of these thoughts in our heads, we then proceeded into Verizon Hall to hear the world premiere.

Our seats were in the third tier’s front row (not high enough to cause nose-bleeds) so we had a commanding view, if you’re not afraid of heights. There, across the front of the stage, were little groupings of lots and lots of percussion instruments. On the right, the vibraphone (with antique cymbals), the marimba to end all marimbas (beautifully rich looking even before you heard the richness of its sounds). On the other side of the podium, a set-up of stands and tables littered with brake drums (yes, taken right out of an automobile), wood blocks, the Peking Opera Gong, a bowl and a variety of other odds-and-ends to produce a whole rainbow of colorful sounds; and then on the far left, a raft of drums from tom-toms to a bass drum with at least four suspended cymbals. The Four Stations of the Soloist (we were told at the pre-concert talk, Currie wasn’t wearing black dress shoes, but black sneakers).

The opening of the concerto, with its tentative chords in the marimba’s lowest register, was a mesmerizing hook: you can open a work with an attention-grabbing event like Beethoven did in his “Eroica,” two crashing chords, or you can do something quiet and subtle that draws you into the piece by creating a sound-world that makes you think “wow, what’s this?” Gradually, the percussionists from the orchestra blend in, augmenting the soloist – Chris Theofanidis, sitting in the lower level, told us at intermission he missed a lot of the interplay between the soloist and the back of the orchestra where the other percussionists were spread out, so it must have been amusing to see the soloist walk from the marimba over to the vibraphone and yet still hear the marimba playing – man, is he good! It’s one of the tricks a composer can use to bridge the sounds into a better flow and also, on a more pragmatic side, give the soloist a chance to reposition himself at these different stations on the stage without pointing out “okay, I’m moving, now,” and without getting out-of-breath in the process. When the full orchestra came in and turned everything up several notches, the soloist was now wailing away at the vibraphone – rapid-fire passages up and down the instrument which, perhaps by the accident of our seats, I was unable to hear well through the texture. Then it was back to the marimba and eventually back-and-forth from station to station to explore first this sound, then that one.

At no point did my interest flag; nowhere was I thinking “oh, that one, again.” It was always a new moment, and often, as Newman put it, “a magical moment.” The woodpeckers came and went (a smile of recognition, there) and by the time we got to the cadenza it occurred to me this was a 25-minute piece but did this mean it was going to be over already? (I would have guessed maybe only 10 minutes had flown by).

Currie playing the cadenza
The cadenza itself would have done Gene Krupa proud, an all-out big-band explosion (this is, after all, a concussion concerto) that came to a rapid boil: when it was over, several people in the audience started to applaud before they realized the piece ain’t over yet! The orchestra came back in and wrapped things up by driving it even further: I can’t even remember how it ended except with a collective whoop from the audience, a prolonged burst of applause and many people standing and cheering – for the orchestra, for the soloist but especially for the composer!

My immediate response was “PLAY IT AGAIN!” There was so much I wanted to hear that would need a second and third time to discover, magical moments to savor again, new ones that may have been overlooked in the excitement the first time around.

The orchestra never seemed a bit tentative as one might expect in a new work: you could tell they loved playing this music! Colin Currie owned the piece (figuratively speaking), an equally passionate advocate for just one of three new concertos he’s premiering this season (does he have favorites? probably the one he’s playing at the moment). And it only reinforced my initial reaction to the concerto the orchestra played three years ago: here’s a composer who really knows what she’s doing!

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While the light-speed classical music moves at doesn't compare to the popular world's (by the time a new contemporary classical piece gets premiered, heard round-the-world, recorded, and ends up in the repertoire can span life-times for some pop stars), the Percussion Concerto has been taken up by numerous soloists - the Harrisburg Symphony's Chris Rose was the second performer to play it after Colin Currie's exclusivity ran its course - and been performed in numerous venues around the world.

The Harrisburg Symphony first performed it here in 2008. "The crowd exploded," Malina said, [quoted in Ellen Hughes' recent article with the Patriot-News]. "It's the single most requested work for a second performance I've ever had - a compelling piece, played by a gifted performer," he said.

And so it returns as the final concert of the 2013-14 Season, called "Out with a Bang" not just because of the array of percussion instruments lining the front of the stage, but also for the triumphant (and noisy) finale of Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony that ends the concert.

It's rare to have a recent work repeated at all in most orchestra's programs, so it's amazing to get a chance to hear this exciting work a second time in Harrisburg in six years (has it been that long?). And especially rare for it's having been so frequently requested by members of our audience!

So excited!!!

- Dick Strawser

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Thoughts on Hearing Ann Schein & the Harrisburg Symphony Playing Chopin

Comments on hearing Ann Schein play Chopin with the Harrisburg Symphony on March 22nd. She will be offering a master class on Friday at 5pm at Messiah College and will perform a solo recital with Market Square Concerts at Whitaker Center Saturday at 8pm.

Ann Schein performs Chopin's 2nd w/Harrisburg Symphony
Sitting in the Forum last night, listening to the Harrisburg Symphony conducted by Stuart Malina with pianist Ann Schein playing Chopin's 2nd Concerto, it occurred to me “this is what music is all about.”

And by that, I don't mean that the playing was beautiful (though it was) and the piece was pretty (which it is) which meant the audience could find it entertaining (which it did) but that somehow this mystical arc from what-the-composer-wrote-down to how-the-performers-played-it to how-the-listener-responded-to-it completed an equation of communication that transcended time (in this case 184 years) to make a moment in our lives leaving, at least for that moment, the rest of the world oblivious and unnecessary.

If that makes Art escapist, then so be it, but what I feel it succeeds in doing is not to make us forget what's going on outside this concert hall but rather how we can deal with it and not be swallowed up in the reality. As the great acting teacher Stella Adler once said (a quote you can find on the home page of my Market Square Concerts blog), “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”

If this concert communicated anything to me last night (and hopefully others, whether they recognized it or not), it reminded me that I had a soul and it needs nourishment like this and that nourishment needs to be supported and sustained.

Now, I'm not a critic nor am I writing a review of this concert. In fact, I'm rarely tempted to put my thoughts about something I've heard into words. As a “trained composer” (and only moderately, at that), I listen differently than most people would. In fact, I'm not even sure how I could just “listen” to music without thinking like a musician either as a performer or a composer: most of the observations I might make would be of no interest to the usual listener, certainly to the casual listener.

I've often described this like eating a dinner and one of the other people there is a chef. Lets say she responds to nuance and flavoring and how it affects the palate and how well it follows the recipe (“too much coriander”) and how it compares to other dishes, perhaps by other chefs (“Now, Julia Child would do...”), plus how the wine complemented the entree and so on. Then, on those bases, she would reach a conclusion about the success or failure of the meal.

Me – I'm thinking “okay, I'm not hungry now, that was good.” If the steak was burned or the salmon still not thawed out in the center, that I might notice, but why I didn't like it – or even why I did – might not be something that mattered much to me.

And criticism is often considered to be about the mistakes – “yes, but did you hear that wrong note in the last movement?” “Yes, but did you not hear a few thousand perfect ones?”

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I attended the Friday night rehearsal not sure what there would be to hear, how musicians rehearse a piece like this. Chopin's concertos are infamous for being “orchestra light” with nothing much to do and I've heard two conductors (not to mention Ms. Schein's own experience with George Szell) who'd tried to talk a soloist out of programming them (and in one case succeeded).

But it became quite clear that Stuart Malina was not going to be giving Chopin the short-shrift during the rehearsal. He approached it just as he does every other piece I've heard him rehearse and he worked very closely with the soloist on getting the nuance of Chopin's famously difficult style – the flexibility of tempo within a phrase we call rubato – just right. Without it, the “joins” between soloist and orchestra often sound clunky and whether we know it or not become the equivalent of the proverbial hair in the soup.

When did I first hear this piece? Probably when I was a child – we didn't have many classical music recordings in the house when I was growing up at first, but most of the piano recordings were with Arthur Rubinstein, one of the great pianists of the 20th Century and with whom Ann Schein studied (and since Rubinstein took on few students, this is quite an endorsement). I heard Rubinstein play live only once – an all-Chopin program in the early '70s when he was already in his mid-80s. And I watched a broadcast of him playing the Chopin 2nd on television in the late '70s, recorded when he was around 88 and had been playing the piece for probably 80 years.

I'm not sure how many times I've heard it live – not often – but often enough to always be disappointed whenever I did. Pianists who played to the scoreboard, trained to win competitions, make a hash out of the spirit behind Chopin's intimate, intricate music. I remember passing up an opportunity to experience Lang Lang (considered one of the most acclaimed pianists today) because why would I bother with someone who plays to the crowd play Chopin? Chopin is not a crowd's composer.

Lang Lang always reminds me of a circus clown with lots of talent: when he is 60, if he lasts that long, I will listen to him play Chopin because by then maybe he will have had one of those epiphanies that Rubinstein had when he was young – how he realized he was just coasting along on his talented laurels but suddenly found it empty; how he took a year off, completely reworked his technique (it's not just hitting the right notes) and came back a completely different and astoundingly greater interpreter. It is not easy to do – it's not even easy to admit to – but it is something every artist sometime has to do to survive. It is too easy, these days, for young artists of any kind to believe their own hype.

Perhaps that's one of the reasons Ann Schein survives – she recorded the Chopin 2nd when she was around the same age Chopin was when he wrote it: 20. But there was never any hype about her the way we see today (Lang Lang, fresh out of conservatory, already acclaimed as “The Horowitz of Today”). She made some brilliant, well-received recordings, performed all over the world, but rather than pursue a career chose to raise her family and teach. But she has never stopped performing – she has, after all, played the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto over 100 times – but she has somehow stayed under the general public's radar.

There have been other pianists who are better known and more frequently recorded: to name a few, Alicia de Larrocha, Martha Argerich, or from earlier generations Dame Myra Hess (with whom Schein also studied), all of whom are regarded as giants. But even at 5'2”, Ann Schein should be regarded as just such a giant. And anyone hearing this performance at the Forum had an opportunity to realize that.

I thought I would never hear playing like this again.

Rubinstein and the great pianists of his generation(s) have all passed, now. Emanuel Ax and Krystian Zimerman (both, like Chopin and Rubinstein, Polish) may be the best Chopin interpreters we have today – and that's not too shabby, by the way – but this is becoming more and more a thing-of-the-past as we hear Chopin metered out by performers who search for audience approval the same way we determine winners on American Idol or what movies won big at the Box Office during their opening weekends (how many of those have won Oscars? How many of those end up as the Top 100 Movies of All Times?). I shudder to think of some future generation looking back on the present as a Golden Age and not just in the interpretation of Chopin.

Chopin himself had what critics called a “small sound,” meaning the sound he produced at a piano did not carry well to the back of a large concert hall – and that was before the days of 9-foot concert grands. Chopin was at his best in salon performances, not great halls, and “specialized” in writing miniatures for solo piano.

Perhaps this “small sound” was the reason for that, why he didn't pursue a career like his friend and rival Franz Liszt (who, disagreeing or not, at least understood Chopin's genius) and why he wrote no more concertos for himself after the age of 20.

Brahms had a huge, easily over-powering sound – and all you have to do is compare the B-flat Piano Concerto Markus Groh performed here in January with the Chopin F Minor Concerto Ann Schein performed here last night. They are as different in sound as they are in intent, Brahms writing a vast symphonic concerto while Chopin looked at the concerto from the other end of the telescope.

Yes, the focus is on the soloist – Chopin's concertos are part of the “virtuoso tradition” that also gave us Paganini and Liszt, in one sense, as well as a whole generation of long-forgotten pianists and concerto-writers like Kalkbrenner, Moscheles and Thalberg. Chopin's inspiration wasn't the symphonies and concertos of Beethoven (keep in mind this concerto was written only 3 years after Beethoven died) but the human voice, particularly that of Bellini's bel canto style which means literally “beautiful voice.” His piano writing sounds more like an aria in which the pianist's right hand becomes the soprano's voice, complete with all the nuanced varieties of the style – the “ornamentation” which, unfortunately, makes it sound like a frill in the wrong hands, or the use of rubato which pianists often take to an extreme and ignore the fact that, underneath this, there is still a pulse.

Pianists who love to play loud and play lots of notes as fast as possible – and the audiences that love them – will never understand Chopin.

But that still doesn't explain why I could be brought to tears during the slow movement of this concerto, last night, during this gorgeous aria for piano with incredible if minimal support from the orchestra.

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In addition to her own heritage, studying with great Polish pianists like Rubinstein and Mieczysław Munz, Schein stresses in her teaching the importance of color – listen to the radio interview given at Aspen in 2012  – again, more than just playing (much less “hitting”) the right note, but how you play it, how you make it part of the line, how you voice it within a phrase, how it balances with the harmony supporting it and so on.

When I heard the rehearsal the night before, the first thing that struck me was how unfortunate the piano sounded, a few notes fractionally out-of-tune (that can be fixed, hopefully) but, more problematically, poorly voiced. Her opening passage from the higher to the lower register and back again, sounded like it was played on three different pianos. How could she make bel canto out of this?

Since pianists do not carry around their own instruments, they learn to deal with what they're given at each and every performance venue. One piano can be a fine instrument and another one can be miserable (depending on its care and maintenance) – plus it also depends on the acoustical environment it fits into, a resonant hall or a dry one, for instance. And all this could be different from one pianist to another. So they learn to adjust. By giving a little more to this note or less to that one (intonation is something you can't compensate for but if it's on the high-point of a phrase, you adjust the phrasing so it doesn't sound so jarring, for example), you can make a listener believe the instrument is perfect.

By the time we had gotten into the second movement, I noticed the piano was sounding much better. And by the end, I had forgotten all about how poorly this piano sounded a half-hour earlier.

Now, after a good working session with piano technician James Hess, Ms. Schein gives him the credit for making the adjustments she wanted (these would vary from performer to performer, the bane of many a piano tuner's existence). If there were any doubts about the instrument, they were gone.

On rare occasion, I've had the experience of listening to one piano in one performance played by different pianists. It amused me to hear a new Steinway at the University of Connecticut which I had played myself and found immensely stiff and unresponsive (I am not, admittedly, a pianist, though I did, at that time, play the piano – and there's a difference), a problem I had to overcome by a few hard hours of concentrated practicing so that we could both become used to each other. I heard a teacher sit down and play, as I recall, a Beethoven sonata on it and thought this piano was only going to be “so good.” This was followed by one of his students playing, I believe, some Chopin, and I remember thinking, “When did they change pianos?” She wasn't a better pianist than her teacher, but she somehow was able to overcome the challenges of an instrument that was difficult to respond. So it's not necessarily the piano's fault – and how does one teach something like that to a student?

Ms. Schein said that Jorge Bolet, another great pianist of the last century who I heard play two Rachmaninoff concertos with Harrisburg back in the '80s, had a knack for memorizing how each note on a piano responded and could adjust his technique accordingly. She laughed that she didn't have the ability to memorize stuff like that, but yet she was able to achieve the same thing.

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But that's only part of the equation, getting what Chopin wrote to what I heard last night and how it affected me.

I am constantly amazed at how incredible an accompanist – collaborative artist is a better word for it – Stuart Malina can be as a conductor. This is not easy for anyone who picks up a baton: it's much more than “stick technique.” And while it may have gone unnoticed in the performance, hearing that rehearsal proved he is no conductor to think “there's nothing for the orchestra to do” in this piece.

Chopin was, after all, 19 or 20 when he composed this piece (it was premiered when he was 20) and he was not an experienced composer or a writer for the orchestra. What exposure he had to orchestras in his native Poland could not have been a great influence on him. Composers I know have laughed at his “orchestration” – the skill of writing well for the instruments – and granted, there are times when the orchestra plays soft sustained chords supporting this wonderful voice that is the soloist. Looking at the page, it is easy to think “this is easy.”

The difficulty comes in the phrasing – the music is, after all, between the notes, not the notes themselves – and the coordination of that phrase between where the pianist places the beat and where the chord played by 60 musicians needs to change. Given the style, this flexibility of tempo often means the tempo “changes” from beat to beat, sometimes several times in a measure, and surely as it approaches the cadence (again, the technical mumbo-jumbo that musicians need to make things work).

Conductor & Soloist Before Rehearsal
So many times, Stuart would go back and work on a simple-sounding phrase to get it just right. At one point, there was a question from the principal cellist about when they resolve that chord – on the lowest note of the pianist's arpeggiated chord or on the top note when the chord is completed? They agreed it should be the bottom (first-heard) note. Otherwise, ten cellists might play that one note of theirs at two different times – granted, a fraction of a second, but enough to make it sound sloppy. Now coordinated, that phrase and its resolution sounded perfect. Moving on...

A conductor follows the soloist and extends or pushes a beat as needed to ensure everyone reaches the downbeat of the next measure together. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds. Someone who keeps the beat strict will quickly make a hash out of Chopin – I've heard it often enough – and an orchestra that doesn't follow what its conductor is doing will be adding their own ingredients to this hash.

And it's not just a question of the conductor “watching” the soloist and the orchestra “watching” the conductor. There's a sympathy that evolves between everyone that is a kind of musical sixth-sense: no amount of rehearsal will ensure that it couldn't (and perhaps shouldn't) happen differently at the concert. And everyone has to be right there.

There were times when I found myself smiling because just such a moment happened flawlessly. The music breathed like it was coming from one player – and it was saying what, I think, Chopin wanted to say.

And then there were the tears welling up in the slow movement, which was beautiful beyond words. And the audience felt this, tears or not: it was only later I realized how quiet this audience was during that performance, the ineluctable modality of the audible.

It helps that Stuart is a fine pianist in his own right and also plays a great deal of chamber music. Too often, conductors find themselves needing to concentrate on conducting and let their playing slide. Or give it up entirely. A string or wind player who's conducting an orchestra would have a different concept of this than a pianist might, pianists who have to struggle to do whatever the person they're accompanying wants to do (for better or worse).

But there is this sympathy that comes with being a chamber musician, where everybody collaborates and communicates to each other in ways so mysterious, listeners who have never had the experience can never understand it and those who do can never adequately explain it to them.

This is what happened last night. Over 60 musicians in the orchestra responded to a conductor in complete synch with a soloist who completely understood what Chopin was trying to say.

Something like this should happen to every concert-goer more often than it does, but it was a thrill to sit in the Forum and experience it. I can't say I've felt it so strongly before, myself, as many concerts as I've attended in my life, both here and in New York City or Philadelphia. But it happened last night and it was nothing short of enlightening.

Malina & Schein share a bow after the Chopin

Now, if I were writing a “review,” I would never have been able to write as much as I have. My blog-master isn't standing over me with a deadline or a word-count limit (“really, 3,000 words?”). I should also include pithy observations about the recent piece by Guillaume Connesson that opened the program and certainly about the 40-minute symphony by Rachmaninoff that concluded the concert, but it has, alas, gone on too long (and for that, I don't apologize).

When concertmaster Peter Sirotin mentioned in his opening remarks that, over the summer, the State will be undertaking a major renovation of the Forum – new seats (applause), new restrooms (cheers from the women in the audience) – changes long overdue (I would be happy if they would just vacuum the place once in a while), but it was his comment about how important Ann Schein was as a mentor to him and his wife, Ya-Ting Chang, that made this concert special above all others he's played in Harrisburg since he first arrived here in 1996.

We all have people in our lives who believe in us and offer us those special insights that help us develop as musicians, as businessmen, as people.

It was the perfect fitting, in a sense, that at the end of the concert as I'm getting ready to leave, feeling so full of the soul of life that great music-making can bring us, that an elderly woman (older than me) leaned forward and said “I don't think you recognize me.”

I did, but couldn't place her.

She was the wife of my junior high school music teacher, Al Bethel, who had played trombone in the Harrisburg Symphony when I was a child, who played in a lot of jazz bands in the area and was an incredible Dixieland musician and a good friend of my dad, well known in his day playing the Hammond organ when he wasn't working at The Boston Store.

Al nurtured my interest in classical music and, along with another local musician, Al Morrison, a dance-band musician but also a pianist who played percussion in the symphony, help my parents contend with the challenges of raising a kid who wanted to become a composer. He gave me advice, suggested music I should listen to and above all took me seriously.

He also gave me my first manuscript pen, telling me (in those days before computer programs do it all for you) I had to develop good calligraphy, that art of clean, precise music-handwriting which performers, working from manuscripts, will appreciate. Though that pen had long since deteriorated, I still think of Al – and here was his wife, at this moment, asking, “do you remember me?”

Everyone should have an experience like this – everyone should have a mentor like this – everyone should be a mentor like this.

Then perhaps more people would continue to have experiences like this and be able to enjoy those rare moments when music communicates something beyond what we can only hope to comprehend.

Dick Strawser

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photo credits: the 1st and 3rd were taken by Kim Isenhour, marketing director of the Harrisburg Symphony; the 2nd was taken before the Friday night rehearsal by pianist Terry Klinefelter, principal keyboard player of the Harrisburg Symphony.