Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Schoenberg Code: Chapter 1

The Schoenberg Code” is a serial novel in 12 chapters, a parody of Dan Brown’s novel, “The Da Vinci Code,” as retold from a musical perspective by Dick Strawser. This is the first installment of the revised edition. The material is, in so far as parody is concerned, more or less original. -- Dr. Dick
= = = = = = =

The room was still deep in shadows when I was suddenly awakened by a piercing noise. Perhaps it was all part of a bad dream. No, I thought, blinking into the fading darkness, this sounded quite real. But it was the middle of the night, wasn't it? Bleary-eyed, I rolled over to shut off the alarm clock, wondering why I had set it so early when the dratted noise kept on ringing and I remembered I didn’t have an alarm clock.

Another moment passed before I realized it was the phone.

“The sun was just coming up – why would anybody be calling me at this ungodly hour?” Musicians are frequently incapable of understanding the way the rest of the world works. I picked up the phone and with a deep breath tonelessly croaked “Good morning...” It was not the voice I'd want to greet my students with, but at the moment it was the only one I could find.

“Dr. Dick?” The voice did not wait for confirmation but rattled on. “This is Chief Inspector Albert Hemiola with the International Music Police and I have a very urgent request to make of you.”

“Request?” The fog was beginning to lift slightly from my brain. He must think I work at a radio station or something. I tried to imagine why someone from the International Music Police would be calling me? Had I made some political aspersion in my 20th Century lit class relating to Charles Ives' contemptuous dismissal of his mollycoddled conservative friends who had no interest in challenging themselves with contemporary music, a remark that had been misinterpreted by one of my less than attentive students who'd then reported me to the dean for disparaging President Bush?

“No, I don’t think you understand. I’m calling from the Green Room of Carnegie Hall. You were going to meet with a conductor named... Schnellenlauter this afternoon?”

Of course, I had forgotten! It was Saturday, June 24th, my great escape to the Big Apple to take in a weekend concert at Carnegie Hall. It was 2006, a year of major anniversaries for both Mozart and Shostakovich. And here I was, slowly becoming aware of my surroundings: a hotel room in Brooklyn, not my home near the small-town college in Central Pennsylvania where I was a well-known music professor and blogger of various music-illogical inanities. On a scale of 1 to 10, I was about to show up on the chart any minute, now.

My grad assistant, Buzz Blogster, and I had found some rooms in a small hotel overlooking Manhattan – well, the hotel overlooked Manhattan, I wasn’t sure exactly what my room was overlooking: some air-shaft in the back of the building, I gathered. I could never remember the name of it but we called it the Cheap Bastard Arms.

That night, the famed Dodecaphonic Symphony Orchestra of New York had played a program of Shostakovich's 10th Symphony and Alban Berg's Violin Concerto with the Russian violinist, Vassily Skratchenitchen. Tonight, their second concert would feature Schoenberg, Boulez and Elliott Carter. I could hardly contain my excitement. My old friend Hans-Heinz Schnellenlauter, a champion of the gnarliest of gnarly 20th Century music was conducting a short two-day series that was part of their Pops Concerts called "Atonalment" that had been selling well on New York’s underground new music scene, most of its audience people who enjoyed contemporary music but were afraid to admit it to anyone else.

“We’re planning on having lunch before the concert. I haven’t seen him in years. I was at last night's concert but didn't have a chance to see him backstage.” I also thought of the young woman who was now the orchestra’s manager: her mother had been a fellow student of mine when we were at the conservatory together but had lost touch over the years. She was a cellist with a lot of self-confidence issues. Her most recent e-mails still included things like “does this font make me look fat?” It was hard to believe her daughter was now the manager of a major musical organization in New York City. It was also hard to believe her daughter was a violist, but that was another issue.

“Well, he’s... uhm... here with me now,” Inspector Hemiola said but there was a tone in his voice that made me aware that perhaps all was not well. I can be quick that way. Sometimes.

“What happened? And why are you calling me?” I was about to ask how he had found me, for that matter.

“The IMP has been called in because it is believed this is more than just a routine murder.”

Routine murder. The words echoed through my brain. Not just a murder but one that was not routine. Is that possible? But I’d read enough mysteries to realize after a while all murders begin to fit into a pattern of some kind or another. Or at least the books did. Just like music: recognizeable forms could be broken down into standard clichés that no matter how you thought you’d varied them all had some kind of common denominator. That’s what I remembered most from one of my favorite professor’s classes, back when I was still an undergraduate, how you needed to get beneath the surface of the music to find that, after all, there was always some kind of innate, underlying structure which...

The voice on the phone interrupted my thoughts.

“So if you could be ready, someone will be there shortly to pick you up. See you soon. Appreciate your help.”

“Help? What help?” But the caller had hung up and there was nothing but dial tone. Then there was a knock at the door.

“That was quick,” I mumbled to myself.

Stumbling out of bed and realizing I was soon going to need copious amounts of coffee, I made it to the door by the twelfth knock. People are too impatient: it’s the middle of the bloody night, after all, cut me a break. Then I remembered my friend, apparently murdered: how bloody can it be?

When I opened the door, it was Buzz Blogster. “Hey, Doc, somebody called me and said we’re supposed to be over at Carnegie Hall in fifteen minutes. They’re sending over a driver to pick us up.”

“Who is sending a driver? What’s this all about?” I didn’t really know how to answer my own questions. Buzz didn’t know any more than I did. He was one of those irritating 20-somethings who never seemed to be anything but bright and perky, always bubbling over with curiosity, usually a lot of fun to be around but not at 7 in the morning. Of course, he was probably out all night, enjoying New York’s party life. Me? I just looked it. Hanging out with Buzz made me feel younger, I told myself, but others probably thought I was really just another 30-something who’d led a hard life.

The driver from the IMP was waiting for us outside what passed for a lobby, the engine left running in the tiny compact car that seemed even smaller compared to all the gas-snorting soccer vans I was used to back home, the kind that could hold a live string quartet in the back instead of just a CD player. The driver was all business which was great as far as I was concerned. It was too early for small-talk. The radio was playing some 18th Century symphony by one of those faceless Mozart Wannabes, something that sounded interchangeable with one by any number of other Mozart Wannabes. I forgot, this wasn’t a cab: it was a car sent over by the International Music Police. What kind of music did I expect them to play? In a matter of seconds, it felt like we were airborne, the pilot accelerating from ♩=60 to ♩=357, an odd choice of tempo, perhaps, as we careened through the streets at what felt like warp speed, the faceless Mozart Wannabe notwithstanding.

It seemed like only minutes before we were pulling up to the back of Carnegie Hall. It was a fast ride in a short machine.

Chief Inspector Hemiola from the IMP met us. Standing beside him was a shapely young woman wearing a black pants suit with a tight-fitting silvery-looking short jacket that for some reason reminded me of Ravel. This, it turned out, was my friend’s daughter, Antoinette Avoirdupois. I figured she’d changed her name to protect her family after she'd become a violist, even though she’d gone for a math degree originally on the assumption that she could still play the viola if she wanted to but needed something realistic to pay the bills. And very clearly she didn’t need to worry about what font she was using. I could sense the attentiveness in Buzz as he stood next to me, clearing his throat as we were being introduced. If he had any thoughts of stealing the sex scenes in this story, I would have to remind him that this is my blog...

As we quickly ascended a stairway to the backstage area and I was contemplating how many times I would have to type “Antoinette Avoirdupois” in this story, she confided to us that her friends called her “Tony.” Buzz kept clearing his throat: perhaps he had allergies.

We reached the Green Room through a series of elevators and a warren of narrow hallways in the old building. I would need breadcrumbs to find my way out of here but figured the rats would have eaten them all by then. There must be an easier way: at this rate, the murderer could still be in the building, hopelessly lost. A large-framed guard, possibly once a bass-player, stood by the door, wearing the official insignia of the IMP. Everybody these days seemed to be using a slightly leaning treble clef for their logo and feeling that it said everything about music. That wasn’t a logo, I snorted to myself: that was clip-art. And it was also strangely discriminatory, as if anyone who didn’t play a treble-clef instrument was somehow not considered part of the musical tribe. Who are the International Music Police, anyway? I'd never heard of them before. The guard waved us through.

Under the glare of fluorescent lights, there was the body of my friend, stretched out on the floor. I would have recognized him easily but would prefer not to see him like this, his face and body contorted in pain, his mane of snow-white hair looking most un-maestro-like. There was a wire pulled tightly around his neck, which had turned purplish from the bruising. He clearly had been strangled, but the two holes in his shirt-front and the odd stain that emanated from them indicated he had also been shot twice in the chest.

“We’re considering this a suspicious death, of course, but we would have to wait for the official forensics report following the autopsy to be sure,” Inspector Hemiola said. “But we thought the positioning of the body rather odd. What do you make of it? We were thinking perhaps a letter K as if maybe his killer’s name began with... K.” How Kafka-esque, I thought.

His left arm stretched out above him parallel to the wall, his left leg stretched in the opposite direction, also carefully parallel to the wall. His right arm and leg were pointing outwards at odd angles, about 45 degrees, give or take. I thought he looked more like a giant alto clef (not the typical curvy kind but the one that, yeah, looks like a 'K'). It's a musical symbol that's been used to confuse musicians through the centuries. It was used almost exclusively for viola players and they’ve been bitter ever since.

“Perhaps it’s a tenor clef,” Buzz mused, thinking of possible alternatives.

If there were a red herring, Buzz would be the first to find it, I thought.

“No, look at this,” pointing to the wire that remained tightly wrapped around the dead man’s neck. “This is not just a wire. It’s a string – aluminum-wound gut would be my guess, fairly cheap at that. I think we can say he was killed by a free-lance string player, maybe a member of his orchestra, probably a grudge killing.”

“You think it was the violin soloist who’d didn't like the way his concerto had gone, so he butchered the conductor?” Buzz was always reading: he especially liked bad reviews. “And then splayed him out like this to shift the blame on to a violist?”

“It’s not for us to jump to conclusions: that’s what the news media is for. We’ll let the police do their investigation but my guess is... it was a violist. And a fairly strong one. That, I think you’ll find,” indicating the string around the conductor’s neck, “is a C-string of a viola...”

“But he was also shot in the chest. Twice! Why would somebody strangle him if they could shoot him through the heart?”

“He’s a maestro - he has no heart! The killer probably realized that too late and had to garotte him to finish him off, not realizing of course that the bile in his heart would eventually fill up his body cavity and poison the rest of him. It was a slow painful death, obviously, but it gave him time. I don’t think the killer left this message for us. I believe the victim did.”

Buzz looked around quizzically. “Message? What message?”

I knelt on the floor so my eyes could follow the sight-lines of his right arm and leg. There were pictures on the wall, as one might expect. The arm pointed to a portrait of Mozart; the leg, to one of Shostakovich. That seemed conspicuous, since it was an anniversary year for both composers: the world has been celebrating Mozart’s 250th for some time now, and Shostakovich’s centennial would take place officially in the fall. But what did that have to do with my friend? He never conducted Mozart – he always said he didn’t need to, since everybody else did, mostly badly at that – though I knew he was upset Shostakovich was being overshadowed in the season’s programming. And he had just conducted Shostakovich's 10th moments before his gruesome-looking death. But what could that have to do with it? If it hadn’t been for the left arm and leg, carefully placed parallel to the wall, I would’ve just thought he was pointing to two composers’ pictures. There must be a viola connection.

“Quick,” I asked Buzz. “What viola connections do Mozart and Shostakovich have?”

“Uhm, I hate it when you do this. Okay, Mozart liked to play the viola...”

“Right. And Shostakovich?”

“He was a pianist. But... oh, I know – his last composition was the Viola Sonata.” He was fairly beaming, he felt so clever. “People joke that viola sonatas killed both Brahms AND Shostakovich.”

“Not entirely accurate, on Brahms' behalf, mind you: they were originally clarinet sonatas. But what is he trying to tell us?”

I was lost in thought when Inspector Hemiola handed me a slip of paper. “We found this in the shirt-pocket. The one bullet narrowly missed it.”

A small folded piece of manuscript paper: on one side was scribbled a stream of letters, barely legible; on the other, a neatly printed kind of poem.

Bears a child
That is not his own.
A violist knows transfigured nights.”

“It’s a fib!” Odd moment for my voice to sound oddly pleasant, I thought, at this sign of recognition.

Hemiola asked if Schnellenlauter had a habit of lying: maybe this whole thing was a bad joke?

“No, no,” I said, pointing at the lines of the poem. “It’s a poetic form based on the Fibonacci Series.”

Tony spoke up for the first time. “Where you add the numbers together to get the number of syllables of the next line. I see: 1 + 1 = 2... 1 + 2 = 3... 2 + 3 = 5... 3 + 5 = 8,” explaining it slowly for Hemiola's benefit.

But Buzz thought differently. “No, the last line is nine, isn’t it?”

“You’re pronouncing ‘violist’ as three syllables, not two: VYOH-list.” Buzz looked crestfallen after Tony corrected him in that tone of voice: he had failed in her eyes. He was reduced to my young sidekick and therefore, now, insignificant.

I turned the scrap of paper over to look at the back: my name, followed by twenty-four letters that made no sense, written in a fading red ink as if the pen was soon to run out. It was clear it must have been the last thing he had written down before he died.

“Wouldn’t it have been easier just to write down the name of his killer,” Tony said. Apparently Hemiola, who was losing his patience, agreed.

“Let’s assume he didn’t know who his killer was. But perhaps he knew why he was being killed.”

It sounded brilliant and for a few seconds the accompanying silence was stunning. I knew Schnellenlauter was always a great one for puzzles, especially musical puzzles, but it’s strange because he knew I didn’t have the mind for them. Why me?

Just then the silence was shredded by the ringing of a cell-phone. As if on the downbeat, every one else in the room reached for their pockets except me (I still didn’t have a cell phone). But they all realized it wasn’t theirs.

“It’s coming from the body,” I said calmly. “Listen to it.”

Buzz was the first to speak. “It’s a four-note musical motive. I’ve heard it before...”

Tony identified it correctly. “It’s Dmitri Shostakovich’s musical signature: D-S-C-H!”

“Correct – the pitches that spell out his initials, at least in a German translation. The ‘SH’ of Shostakovich is a single Russian character that can be transliterated into ‘SCH’ in German.”

“So...” Buzz seemed hesitant to guess but felt strongly the need to restore himself in Tony’s beautifully dark brown eyes. “That would be D... E-flat... C... er... B-natural?”

“Correct again. ‘S’ in German was really E-flat and ‘H’ was B-natural... it was an old musical code that allowed composers to write their names into their music.”

“Like Bach – B-A-C-H... the ‘B’ is really B-flat, right?”

“Very good, but there’s a problem here.” Everyone stopped. “Isn’t anyone going to answer the damn phone??”

Inspector Hemiola reached into Schnellenlauter’s pocket with his latex-gloved hand and retrieved the phone, flipping it open just as the ringing stopped. “No one’s there. We waited too long.” But he wrote down the number to have it traced, handing the slip of paper to the sergeant beside him. “Not likely it will be much of a clue: could be his wife calling to see where he is.”

“No, his wife died some years ago.” I couldn’t remember exactly when Frieda had died, a fine old opera singer long past her prime by the time I'd met her more than twenty-five years ago. I'm not sure anyone remembers Frieda F. Erden, now. It may not have been the happiest of marriages, true, but he had remained faithful to her memory, all the same. “But whoever it was gave us a valuable clue.”

“And that would be...?” Hemiola looked eagerly from one to the other, his eyebrow arching like a fermata. Neither of my colleagues seemed to notice.

“It’s not really D-S-C-H... it’s a whole tone flat. The first note was a C-natural, not a D.”

“Which means it’s really C... D-flat... B-flat... A-natural? Who the heck is that?!” Buzz sounded put out.

“No, no, I think it’s still meant to be recognized as Shostakovich’s signature, but it means we have to transpose something DOWN a whole-step.” I reached for the scrap of paper with the gibberish on it. “Get me a pad and pen, would you, Inspector? Let’s look at this.”

We went to the one small table where there were still water-ring stains from last night’s drink glasses but decided to let the IMP proceed with their work. A scene-of-crime officer had come in and began to examine the body, commenting in a bad stage-whisper that with rigor mortis this advanced they would never get him into a casket. Inspector Hemiola escorted us into one of the dressing rooms down the hall where we set up a kind of temporary office. The sergeant who had accompanied us brought in three cups of coffee that smelled, frankly, too generic to be anything but some ghastly instant brand. We’re in New York City and you mean to tell me this was all they could find? It was going to be a long day.

“What do you make of the little Fibonacci poem, Buzz? Ring any bells, Tony?”

“Well, ‘Transfigured Night’ is the famous early piece by Schoenberg. It tells the story of the couple walking in the moonlight when the woman tells her boyfriend that the child she’s going to have isn’t his.”

Buzz continued the thread. “Right, but he says that’s okay because he loves her and they will raise the child together. But the line says ‘A violist knows transfigured nights’ – Schoenberg wasn’t a violist, was he?” He sounded kind of tentative.

“Actually, he played the cello, but Schnellenlauter played the viola, at least when he first started his career.”

“He did?” Tony seemed suddenly intrigued. “He never mentioned that to me.”

“Do you think his wife was pregnant with another man’s child when they were married?”

“I know their daughter was born... well, shortly after they’d been married, but I never considered it might not have been his daughter.” I settled down at the dressing table, noticing Tony’s reflection in the mirror and how little she reminded me of her mother. But she did look vaguely familiar: I just couldn't think of who. I also noticed how Buzz kept stealing glances at her, but I let it pass. “It was one of those little scandals in the arts world that no one really was too shocked by, after all. I think I read about it in the paper somewhere, but he never mentioned it. Now, let’s see what we can find here.”

I wrote out the string of very carefully spaced letters he’d written down.


“Not very promising,” Tony said sadly. “What do you make of that?”

“Not many musical pitches. Doesn’t look like anything to me.” Buzz sounded resigned to failure, already.

“I’m sure Schnellenlauter would not have taken the time to write this down if it didn’t mean something. Let me try something: if I transpose each letter down a whole step – remember the ring tone? That would be two letters… maybe it will spell out something more obvious.” I began to scribble onto my scratch-pad.

“Wait,” Buzz interrupted. “Are you transposing up or down? If the ring-tone was starting on a C but it should be a D, shouldn’t you be transposing up? That would be the written pitch, after all.” Buzz didn’t have to remind me he’d played alto saxophone in school and was all over the transposition thing.

“Okay, you’re right!” I scratched out what I’d already started and began a new series.


Sitting back in my chair, I sighed heavily. “That doesn’t help much, does it.” Then it occurred to me, “Wait, maybe it’s a retrograde – you know, backwards?” I held it up to the mirror and we all three peered at it hopefully. But again, it made no sense. I took a sip of the coffee which, frankly, tasted no more rewarding than our clue and as uninviting as it had smelled, but it was better than nothing. Equally frankly, I was beginning to feel a strong need for something to eat.

It was then I remembered a conversation from years ago, not long after I’d first met the Maestro, perhaps thirty years ago, now. Schnellenlauter and I were sitting at a table of a sidewalk café near Columbus Circle one beautiful spring day. While I could even remember that he had complained about how weak the coffee was, I tried to get to the heart of something he’d been talking about. It was something about… about a code he had discovered, something…

“Aha! Now I remember it,” I blurted out. “He called it the rule of… the Rule of 12, of course! Obvious, for a serialist: how could I forget? You take every 12th letter…” and I began scribbling furiously, counting letter by letter. In a short time, I had what seemed to make more sense.


The look of satisfaction on each of our faces quickly changed to dismay. Clearly, Dr. Dick had his work cut out for him.

To be continued...

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Dr. Dick
© 2009

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