Monday, September 14, 2009

The Schoenberg Code: Chapter 3

Welcome to Chapter 3 of "The Schoenberg Code," a serial novel by Dick Strawser, a parody of Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code.' The story continues...

--- ----- -------- ----- ---

We scurried through the back-alleys behind Carnegie Hall, quickly working our way into the flow of pedestrian traffic toward Columbus Circle and Central Park. It was now 8:52 and it would be easy to lose ourselves in the morning crowd. Odd that there were no guards posted at the back entrance of the hall, but then perhaps they weren’t expecting us to escape, either.

“Good thing they didn’t know some of these dressing rooms have common bathrooms,” Tony said.

“And how convenient this one had a door just around the corner from the one they’d locked us in. I wonder if the guard even heard anything.” I also wondered if the sergeant had actually gone back to the murder scene. So far as they knew, we had no idea we were being suspected, not that finding the door locked would’ve been such a big clue.

“We could've just as easily crawled out through the bathroom window, Dr. Dick.” Buzz always had a sense of adventure, no matter how misplaced.

“Sorry, Dr. Dick doesn’t do windows, especially ones that aren’t on the ground floor.”

“Aww, piece of cake,” he said as he pretended to cuff me on the shoulder.

“Unfortunately, too many pieces of cake have passed through these lips,” I said, pretending to nurse the pretend bruise his pretend cuff would probably have caused. “I would’ve been wedged in so tight, it would be up to you guys to solve this mystery without me. And also to prove I didn’t kill anyone recently, either...”

In the meantime, we had clues to solve and, speaking of cake, food to find which, you’d think, this being New York City, should not be such a big deal.

Buzz went off to forage among the park’s many hot dog stands while Tony and I settled on a quiet bench under a large beech tree set back several yards from the path. I scribbled some ideas down on the note pad, wondering if Inspector Hemiola would add to my crimes petty theft of police property.

“So, who wrote Opus 45s? Something that might have a secret message in it, I’m guessing,” I asked Tony. “We can probably rule out things like Brahms' ‘German Requiem’?”

“What about Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, his last piece? Isn’t there some secret quotation in there?”

“Let’s see, there’s the standard ‘Dies irae’ chant which he quoted in almost everything he wrote – I’ve always thought it odd someone so Russian should have been so captivated by something so Catholic but obviously it had a very deep meaning for him. There’s also a quote from his liturgical setting of the ‘All-Night Vigil’ which has a kind of valedictory feel to it and very curiously something from his first symphony which no one would ever have recognized as a quotation.”

“Why was that,” Buzz asked, sitting down beside us with an armful of hot-dogs which he proceeded to distribute among us.

“Well, first of all, after that disastrous premiere sent him into a creative tailspin for, like, three years when he was a young man, he destroyed the score: no one had ever heard the work since that one-and-only performance, so it must have been something he did for personal reasons, forty years later. When you consider the ‘motto’ of that failed symphony was a biblical quote by way of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, ‘Vengeance is Mine – I will repay,’ it's a rather personal quote, when you think about it, figuring he probably was writing his last piece, then...”

“Vengeance is mine – Dies irae, day of wrath, day of judgment. Hmmm, I wonder... Do you think that's why Rachmainoff used that “Dies irae” motive the rest of his life in practically every piece he wrote? As if he were always looking for vengeance on that horrible moment early in his life?” Tony was looking askance at the mound of salsa on Buzz’s hot dog and wondered what kind of vengeance he would have to deal with, considering there was probably a chase scene in our immediate future.

“Or used it to remind himself that he had, after all, become famous despite the hateful critics who'd consigned his first major effort to hell? That some day he would meet them again but now he could laugh at them? Hmm, possible...” So much was open to conjecture, I supposed: who knew what he thought, himself. Still, there had to be a reason that theme showed up in his music time and time again, if not outright, very subtly.

Buzz sat back, holding the hot dog out in front of him for us to admire. “Yes, my friends, life is not like a box of chocolates: it’s more like a jar of jalapeƱo peppers – what you do today, tomorrow might just burn your a–”

“As you were saying, Buzz – and, well, thank you for that bit of insight, too – but we have some work to do here. You’re the one into transposing: work on this line from the one Fib: CEGUFQTJVMUNP.” I handed him the note pad and he studiously tried to apply the art of whole-step transposition and the Rule of 12 to its thirteen letters without applying any of his hot dog.

Tony began helping me on trying to make sense out of the eels – Buzz looked over wishing she was instead helping him.

“Why do you think he’s being so secretive? What could he possibly know that someone would kill him for it? And why, for that matter, would anyone kill Plusvitefort, too? What would they both have known that this guy would kill them for it?”

“I wish you had more answers than questions, Tony. I don’t really know: I hadn’t even thought about Plusvitefort, yet. One solution at a time, now, okay?” I pointed to the puzzle in front of me. “Eels...”

“You said it referred to the Hungarian immigrant in a Monty Python sketch. With all this stuff about Fibonacci numbers and Divine Proportions, do you think he means Bela Bartok? He used those ideas a lot in his musical forms.”

“Except Bartok didn’t use opus numbers... what is Bartok’s Opus 45?”

“Got it,” Buzz said, proudly handing me his assignment, “not that it makes sense, but hey, I just work here...”


“Well, you’re right about that, Buzz, it doesn’t: try it by seven,” I said nonchalantly. It almost sounded like I was just trying to keep him busy.

“Why seven?”

“It’s the other scale,” thinking seven pitches in the classical diatonic scale – say, C Major – as opposed to twelve in the all-chromatic scale. “I remember him saying sometimes he’d use that, but I’m not sure why.” I wasn't going to confuse them by saying maybe it's by eight, instead, considering the octotonic scale is something many composers have also used on occasion.

“Maybe it's a tonal composer,” Tony said brightly, “with a 13-letter name in three syllables?”

“Okay, try this,” Buzz offered. “Looks more promising. Not that I can think of Malcolm Arnold’s Op. 45, off the top of what's left of my head...”


“Arnold’s Sketch!” I laughed. “Not Malcolm Arnold, but Arnold Schoenberg – and his Opus 45 is the String Trio. I should’ve known, it’s practically an obsession with Schnellenlauter. Well, was...”

“And presumably continues to be,” Tony quipped, “even posthumously. Just the other day he was telling me it was something I should be playing. I’ve never even heard it!”

There was a wistfulness about her tone of voice, as if “just the other day” was already deep in the realm of nostalgia. It certainly was for me: that would be before I’d come to New York and gotten pegged for murdering two famous conductors!

“Funny, too – thirteen letters.”

“Why funny,” Buzz asked, gathering up the remains of our hasty lunch and disposing of them in a near-by trash, already overflowing by midmorning. I noticed the squirrels were eying us up. Apparently, not just squirrels, though.

“Schoenberg was triskaidekaphobic. Born on Friday the 13th, he was afraid he’d die on a Friday the 13th. And eventually, he did - in fact, he even died before he wrote this trio, so...”

“Before!?” Tony seemed shocked by the possibility. Buzz was once again clearing his throat.

“Schoenberg had something like a heart attack and was technically, clinically dead when the doctor injected something directly into his heart, bringing him back to life. As soon as he was able to, he began writing this trio, kind of a musical souvenir of the experience. I suspect we should go take a look at it,” I suggested, noticing Tony’s growing uneasiness.

“And quickly, I think, Dr. Dick,” Buzz added. “I assume word must have gotten out. If you haven’t gotten the feeling people are looking at us, perhaps you haven’t noticed a group of policemen who just walked into the park down there?”

“Ah, no, I hadn’t. Then it’s time we exit stage left – and visit the Gatekeeper.”

“The gatekeeper?” Tony didn’t sound reassured.

We blended back into the crowd and worked our way toward Broadway. “Next stop,” I said, “the library at Lincoln Center.”

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

Nepomuck smashed his head against the door jamb.

“G’aah! How could they each have lied to me! They each told me the same exact thing!” He cursed under his breath.

He had just received a phone call from The Serpent who hissed that he had, unfortunately, failed to find the truth after all. They had sent an agent into the Musikverein, following what Nepomuck had told him, but the only thing they found under the bust of Beethoven was a small stone inscribed with a motive from his Op.135 string quartet, famously set to the words ‘Muss es sein? (Must it be?)’ – flipping the stone over, he had expected to find Beethoven’s own answer, ‘Es muss sein! (It must be!),’ perhaps with further instructions to locating the secret but instead found the correct notes inscribed only with the wrong words: “Es nicht sein! (It is not!)”

“Sssssomeone’s idea of a sssssick joke, don’t you think, Nepomuck? And for thisss, three famous conductors had to die? Ah well, but perhaps you will be able to redeem yourself yet. We shall ssssee.”

And with that, The Serpent had cut the connection abruptly.

Once again, Nepomuck tightened the A-string around his thigh and once more felt the soothing pleasure of his blood flowing down his skin. The phone rang again, but this was his other phone: the Serpent had given him one just for his calls, only; the other phone, which played the Pachelbel Canon, he used for friends, for regular business like gigs and calls from his mentor who at this moment was probably on his way back from a very important meeting with the board members of The Penguins of God in Vienna. He was tempted to let the phone continue to ring. He loved the soothing sounds of the Canon. He also knew he could identity his real friends by those who complained when he answered the phone too quickly and those who complained he hadn’t answered it quickly enough. That is, if he had any friends. As usual, it turned out to be Charles Leighton-Quackerly: Nepomuck very rarely got calls for gigs anymore.

“Yes, master, I have failed but it was not for want of effort. They lied to me: they deserved to die.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Nepomuck, you did what you had to do and they deserved to die anyway. It happens to all of us, eventually, you know.” The slightly fussy, matter-of-fact British accent underscored the often venomous reviews he wrote that appeared in print and on-line around the world, always castigating performers today for not being good enough, never as good as the past greats, not to mention composers today for having lost “the way,” as well as audiences for rewarding indifference and being too easily snowed by empty showmanship rather than true artistry. “But I may have news for you, so keep yourself prepared, shall we say? Hmmm?” He said nothing of how the meeting went in Vienna: that would come later, perhaps.

“Yes, master,” and Nepomuck put the phone away with a reverence of friendship for a man who could be both a hard taskmaster and a gentle guiding spirit that helped give him meaning. It was Leighton who took him out of that awful music school in Edinburgh where he’d spent years playing a violin far too small for his massive frame and gave him instead a viola. Then he gave him the White Viola and with that further gift came the one special purpose of his life: as part of the organization that was destined to protect Classical Music from all that is ugly, Nepomuck now answered to a higher calling, to bring great art back to the beauties of Mozart and Beethoven that had long been lost, in particular through the heresies of The Beast himself, Arnold Schoenberg, the man many believe single-handedly destroyed beauty in music.

After Leighton had given a talk at Nepomuck’s school called “Why You Don’t Like Schoenberg,” he felt compelled to go up to him afterwards and volunteer for the cause. Later, when the speaker was being attacked by a small group of deluded young pro-serial radicals on his way out of the lecture hall, it was Nepomuck who sailed into their midst, fists and knees flying until the alleyway was littered with the broken and wailing bodies of these effete but otherwise ineffective intellectuals.

And with that, Nepomuck found a home. As an orchestra player, now, he could militate from within the ranks of performing musicians against the inclusion of new music in symphonic programs, proselytize among his colleagues to subtly undermine the maestros during performances of new music, make comments to the local press when he had the chance about the evils of new music. Dressed in the traditional tuxedo of his office, he had quickly become one of the most devout members of the Penguins of God.

He had not always been named Nepomuck; in fact he could no longer remember what his real name was before Leighton had taken him in – probably Fred, or something common like that. He took his new identity, by way of revelation, from the student of the Divine Mozart, Johann Nepomuck Hummel, whose “Fantasy for Viola and Orchestra” he was working on shortly before he joined the organization Leighton’s own mentor had founded back in the 1950s. If his own devotion were to be rewarded, Nepomuck saw himself as the next-in-line, taking the Penguins of God further into the New Century.

And then there was the White Viola, his wonderful instrument. It was sometimes known as Il Volpe bianco because of its ‘wolf tone,’ something that many stringed instruments had, a note that sounded harshly and needed either special care when playing or some kind of mechanism to correct. Usually they were mysteries, a cipher, some structural anomaly that often rendered otherwise fine instruments useless. But this viola, with its odd whitened finish, possessed a special mystery, an anomaly so incredibly awesome, it proved in the right hands – or wrong hands, depending on your view of evil – to be a lethal weapon.

Antonio Stradivari is one of the best-known names in music, an 18th-Century maker of some of the most valued violins in the world, some of them selling today for millions of dollars. Though he made over 500 violins, he completed only twelve violas. The White Viola is the unfinished, unlucky 13th viola from his workshop and it got its creamy white finish from a fumbling apprentice named Ruggiero di Pastafagiole who unwittingly had dropped some of the cheese from his lunch into the varnish pot while applying the first coat to its delicately sanded wood. Stradivari, feeling his work had been ruined, abandoned the instrument and the varnishing was never finished. Years after his death, it was sold as part of a package to a violinist in Milan, Nicolo Mascarpone whose wife, Ricotta, had just discovered the art of decoupage. She took the viola, since it was not worth much in its present state, thinking it would look good as a decoration on the wall of her father’s cheese shop, and covered it with labels of some of the shop’s best-selling products. There it hung otherwise untouched for generations until the family emigrated to America in the 1890s.

In 1925, cousin Pecorino Fontina and his brother Enrico moved the family business to Rochester, NY, opening a new shop across from the newly founded Nazareth College, a shop they called “Cheeses of Nazareth,” when Enrico’s daughter, likewise named Ricotta – is history not an amazingly vibrant recycler of ironies? – unpacked the box with this white viola in it. Having recently begun studying the violin, she cleaned it up, put new strings on it and began to saw away at it night and day. It was then she realized that its smooth tone – “delicious,” her teacher had called it – was probably the result of the decoupage which also explained why, after the instrument warmed up, it smelled redolently of various blended cheeses.

And then she discovered the insidious wolf tone, at the octave point on the lowest open C-string. When combined as a double-stop, two notes played at the same time, with the same pitch on the adjacent G-string, it amplified the “wolf” considerably. When played slightly out of tune – just so – the sound became even more painful. Following the suspicious deaths of several members of the Fontina family, Ricotta and the instrument disappeared. There were several, mostly underground and presumably short-lived owners of the instrument in a short amount of time before it quickly gained notoriety as the White Viola or Il Volpe bianco, the White Wolf.

Most recently it had fallen into the hands of Charles Leighton-Quackerly who entrusted its care and usage to the more nimble hands of his faithful Nepomuck and thus had sent it out into the world as the chief weapon of the Penguins of God.

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

As we walked along the streets of New York, I mentioned another of Schnellenlauter's puzzle passions. It was bad enough he had, at times, been a veritable Uncle Rebus, sending me puzzles cut out of letters and images from the newspaper, but for a period of time, he had been fascinated by anagrams, especially of composers' names. He was disappointed that his own name yielded only “SUNNIER HAZEL ENCHANTS HELL” but he delighted in pointing out Gustav Mahler's name came out “M. RAVEL'S A THUG” or that Ravel's was “VALIUM CAREER.”

It was good to laugh, despite being surrounded by this sense of violent death and the impending thought of soon being surrounded by the police. Buzz said, “Well, at least it helps kill the time.”

Tony groaned and poked him in the ribs. “No points for bad puns.”

“Oh,” I said, remembering one more of Schnellenlauter's anagrams, “Claude Debussy is 'BUSY SCALE DUDE.'” Dmitri Shostakovich, remembering our recent discussion of his musical monogram, had come up “OH CHRIST, A KID VOMITS.” We all laughed.

“Then Mozart would be... uhm,” Tony hesitated (you could see her checking it out in her mind's eye), “A LITTLE GERMAN WALTZ GOD.”

I was going to add that his father Leopold was OLD ZEALOT ROMP when Buzz mockingly protested, “but that's Johann Strauss!”

“No, he's... er... 'SON'S RASH JUNTA.'” Tony was proving to be very adept at this.

“Senior or Junior?” Buzz got out the note pad again and scribbled for a bit while we waited for another street light to change. “That makes Alban Berg a 'RABBLE NAG'...” Buzz was getting into the spirit of the game.

“And, lest we forget,” I added proudly, “Arnold Schoenberg comes out 'BACHELOR NERD SONG,' though that's spelling the O-umlaut as O-E...”

“Ah, but Antonio Vivaldi is a 'VAIN VIOLIN TOAD' – I can't wait to share that with my violist friends.” Inevitably, there would be yet another performance of The Four Seasons in her future – if she had a future.

Suddenly, I said “No, not that way, let's turn here.” Seriousness had suddenly replaced levity.

“But why are we going to a library? Why didn't we just stop at Patelson’s to buy our own copy of Schoenberg’s Trio – can we take the one out of the library if we need it?” Tony asked breathlessly as we trudged through the crowd.

“Why are we going to a library at all,” Buzz wondered. “Shouldn’t we be trying to get out of Dodge?”

I rarely missed a chance to visit Patelson’s Music Store, just behind Carnegie Hall – it was the Best Little Score House in Town – but I pointed out to Tony that the coded message specifically said “Sketch” and that might mean something different from the printed edition. There could be something there that did not exist in the final copy, perhaps a passage that the composer later changed or maybe a coded message he later suppressed.

And we were still wondering how many eels you can fit into a hovercraft. But we were about to find out, soon enough.

To be continued...

- - - - - - -
Dr. Dick
© 2009

No comments:

Post a Comment