Friday, September 18, 2009

The Schoenberg Code: Chapter 4

˙˙˙pןoɟun oʇ sǝnuıʇuoɔ ʎɹoʇs ǝɥʇ ¿ɯıɥ ǝʞɐʇ ǝɹnʇuǝʌpɐ ǝɥʇ ןןıʍ ǝɹǝɥʍ ˙ƃɹǝquǝoɥɔs pןouɹɐ ɟo ɔısnɯ ǝɥʇ uı sǝnןɔ snoıɹǝʇsʎɯ uʍop ʞɔɐɹʇ puɐ ɹoʇɔnpuoɔ snoɯɐɟ ɐ ɟo ɹǝpɹnɯ ǝɥʇ ןǝʌɐɹun oʇ sǝıɹʇ ǝɥ sɐ ʞɔıp ˙ɹp ɹoɟ uʍop ǝpısdn uɹnʇ oʇ ʇɹɐʇs sƃuıɥʇ ”˙ǝpoɔ ıɔuıʌ ɐp ǝɥʇ“ s,uʍoɹq uɐp ɟo ʎpoɹɐd ɐ puɐ ɹǝsʍɐɹʇs ʞɔıp ʎq ןǝʌou ןɐıɹǝs ɐ 'ǝpoɔ ƃɹǝquǝoɥɔs ǝɥʇ ɟo 4 ɹǝʇdɐɥɔ oʇ ǝɯoɔןǝʍ
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We looked like any other tourists in New York City, wandering through Central Park, gawking at the buildings as we headed for Lincoln Center. As we left the park behind us – and the intrepid officers of the International Music Police who were apparently now aware we were a trail of interest – we passed a great stone facade that reminded us of some great gothic pile more associated with Paris than America.

“The Hotel des Artistes?” Buzz said, reading the sign with obvious amazement. “I don’t know too many artistes who could afford to live here!”

“Well,” I demurred, “not the ones on our level, perhaps, Buzz...”

“So what do you expect to find at the library? A secret coded message from Arnold Schoenberg?” Tony was trying not to sound skeptical.

“I don’t understand the whole fascination behind Schoenberg’s music,” Buzz admitted petulantly. “Everything he writes sounds like it must be in some kind of code I’m not smart enough to understand. Well, except the earlier stuff: I like ‘Transfigured Night,’ that’s pretty...”

“Oh, so you just listen to music for what soothes you, something pleasant, something you can listen to like a musical fish-tank?” Tony sounded annoyed, like this was going to be more than a philosophical argument about aesthetics.

“Well, no, it’s not that,” he offered in an attempt not to dig himself in any deeper. “I like a lot of new music but Schoenberg – I just don’t get it. It all sounds like some big crossword puzzle with its Retrogrades and Inversions and rules about not using any one pitch until all twelve notes of a chromatic scale have been used and...”

I cut him off as we dodged dog-walkers headed toward the park: “But you like Mahler, right?”

“Oh yeah, I love Mahler,” Buzz enthused, suddenly excited to be on familiar ground. “Mahler is God, he puts me in a deep emotional world with those long ever-expanding phrases and sudden harmonic twists and... man, those climaxes just send me over the top!” He was beaming.

“But what were your first reactions to Mahler?” I pressed.

“Well, I admit I didn’t really care for it, at first, you know – I mean, it sounded too long-winded with phrases that never seemed to go anywhere and then suddenly in the midst of all this... this stuff was some climactic chord that just sounded so over the top...”

“So what changed your mind?”

“I figured maybe I was just listening to some bad performances. So I went out and bought lots of recordings and listened like crazy until his musical language became familiar to me. It was like a revelation, I guess... and... uhm... errr...“ he began stammering, then ended sheepishly under the glow of the epiphany I had been anticipating. “Oh, right... okay...”

The light changed and we crossed the street.

Buzz stopped in front of a shop window were they were selling TVs and radios as some audio piped out onto the sidewalk, sounding like a refugee from an old TV police show, made an ominous announcement.

“Also loose in the city, three presumably dangerous characters, two men and a woman. They are wanted for the murders of three conductors whose bodies were discovered this morning in various places in mid-town Manhattan.”

Three?!” we all gasped.

“That’s right – three! Police found the bodies of” – there was slight pause in the delivery – “Hans-Heinz Schnellenlauter, Jean-Claude Plusvitefort and...” – another longer pause – “some Polish guy, all of whom were to be conducting concerts this evening in New York City.”

“Oh my gosh – could he mean Budzyka Szybkogromska?” I stammered in disbelief. She was one of the rising stars on the Polish new music scene.

“Yeah, that’s the one,” the voice continued. “Anyone sighting them should immediately contact the nearest city policeman.”

“I was supposed to do brunch with her tomorrow after her concert: she was conducting a chamber orchestra program of Penderecki, Panufnik and a new work by Marta Ptaszynska at Symphony Space tonight, the Three P's of Modern Poland! It was very difficult trying to decide which of their concerts to attend!”

The voice continued. “So, be on the look-out for two really cool-looking 20-somethings – a tall thin guy with reddish-blonde hair and a trim goatee wearing a spiffy open-collar off-white shirt and khaki pants and a slender woman with long black hair wearing a very stylish black pants suit with a silvery kind of short jacket who looks like she could be a model but is reputed to be a violist – and their ring-leader, a short rumpled middle-aged guy with gray hair and a bushy mustache and goatee who goes by the name of... Dr. Dick.”

“Hey,” I said a little too loudly, “I resent that stereotyping!” Buzz shooshed me just as the television set in front of us suddenly switched to a picture that took our breath away. There we were, the three of us – Buzz on the left, Tony in the middle and me, looking particularly rumpled, on the right – all staring at the camera in disbelief!

Then Buzz noticed, looking up at the corner of the window, “Oh wait, that’s just a surveillance camera on a closed-circuit monitor here and they must’ve just switched to it – see?” He lifted his arms in a kind of slow motion chicken dance, gracelessly mirrored on the television screen in front of us as if it were miming us.

Slowly we turned and walked away as nonchalantly as possible, hoping to blend back into the crowd before anybody would have noticed. The word was out – how long could it be before someone would point us out to the police? With any luck, something else would distract them for the time being, perhaps another episode of “American Idol.”

Tony decided we should take the side streets rather than Columbus Avenue, so we cut down 66th Street to get to the back of Lincoln Center. When we found the right entrance, no more than a fairly inconspicuous back door, we hurriedly entered, not without quick glances up and down the street to see if anybody noticed us. “Not too suspicious looking,” I thought.

Inside was a dim and rather grimy security lobby, nothing fancy, just a bare white-walled room, as white as years of smoke and dust would allow. A couple of chairs lined the one wall opposite a few faded photographs of the usual composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and (curiously, given our previous topic of conversation) Mahler who had, after all, once conducted the New York Philharmonic. In front of us, sitting in a glass security booth with its bank of surveillance monitors, was the woman Schnellenlauter had always referred to as “The Gatekeeper.”

She looked even shorter than I remember from before, barely five feet tall if she stretched and was wearing three-inch heels. Her hair had turned almost white, now. She’s been at her post for probably over 30 years, I thought, even before Schnellenlauter had first brought me here to see some of the manuscript collections he enjoyed looking at when he was in town. Technically, this was a back-stage entrance at Lincoln Center that also led to the New York Public Library for Performing Arts tucked away between its larger neighbors. Many scholars and performers preferred using this entrance to avoided all the front lobbies and exhibit areas. I hadn’t been here since the library re-opened after extensive renovations a few years ago and wasn’t sure what may have changed.

But the Gatekeeper, with an incredible memory, had not changed and she seemed to recognize me almost immediately.

“Dr. Dick,” she said in a husky baritone voice, “You I haven’t seen in years! Back you are most welcome.”

“Hello, yes, it’s been at least... uhm, ten or more,” I said, trying to remember the last time I’d been there. I couldn’t even remember her name or even if she ever had a name. “I’ve come by to check something... for Maestro Schnellenlauter. He’s, uhm... detained right now,” I improvised, hoping Buzz wasn’t rolling his eyes, “and he wanted me to check one of the manuscripts upstairs for him.”

“Do you an appointment have? No? We require now for the reading room appointments,” she added, checking the wall of security monitors in her booth. “Well, you I think are in luck because empty is the reading room and Ms. Petri probably company wouldn’t mind. You I will let in.”

Buzz immediately started moving toward the door.

“Uh uh uh, not so fast. First, you must prove yourself... worthy.” Clearly she had come up with some kind of entertainment after years of boredom behind glass. “Of each of you will I ask a question. You, boy,” which immediately got Buzz bristling inside. There was a pause. Then she pulled herself up and smacked her lips in anticipation. “Name one major string quartet in which most of the basic pitch material is taken from an all-interval set – a hint I will give you: H, F, A and... B.”

Buzz thought for a split second, then erupted wildly, “Wha’??? Who the hell’d know anything as esoteric as that? Come on...”

“It’s Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, Buzz – elementary, my dear Blogster,” I added trying to calm him down.

“Dr. Dick.” The Gatekeeper sneered, then turned toward me. “What... is... your favorite color?”

“Blue!” That was easily proven, wearing a light blue denim shirt with the music school's logo, a dark blue T-shirt and faded blue jeans.

“Hey,” Buzz exploded again.

“Okay,” she said, “enter you may.” Looking at Tony, she simply said, “You, I can tell, need not any question: your innocence alone speaks opus numbers for you, if you had any idea what strength flows within you. But you will need to discover this, soon, and I would suggest you consider the numbers 1-3-2. You, also, may enter. And may the forte be with you.”

Then wheeling her head sharply toward Buzz she snapped, “You, young man – sit!” and she pointed to one of the chairs. Buzz sheepishly sat down as Tony and I passed through the elevator door that opened with a click and a hum. We were on our way upstairs.

“That was kind of creepy: what did she mean by all that? Was she always into fortune telling?”

“I’m not sure. She seemed more like the Delphic Oracle. Maybe the fumes from the subway have been getting to her.”

“I wonder what she meant by 1-3-2? And what was all that about the Berg Lyric Suite?”

“Oh, just old facts lumbering around in my brain from my grad-school days, though it was since then that one of my professors, Douglass Green, discovered a secret message in the piece that had been overlooked since the work was written in 1926. There was a manuscript of the Lyric Suite in a Vienna library that had a cryptic text included in the last movement's rough draft. He figured out it was actually the text of a poem, like a secret love song that was not included in the final version. A couple of years later, George Perle discovered a fully annotated copy of the Lyric Suite – it ended up in an attic in New Jersey, of all places – which had different colored inks highlighting lines and pitches here and there with the actual text written in under the different string parts, though it was never intended to be performed that way – he just absorbed this love poem into the string parts.”

“A secret message just for one listener? Something no one else could ever hear?”

“Right, no one else even knew about it, presumably, until 50 years after he wrote it. And only because of this copy he’d given to his beloved Hanna who’d inspired him to write the piece.”

“H is for Hanna, not Helene, his wife?”

“No, in this case the pitches H-F and A-B stand for Hanna Fuchs and...”

“Alban Berg, I get it! So their initials become significant pitches throughout the piece, then.” She was beaming with this discovery.

“This particular 12-tone row” – that series of pitches that forms the pitch-generator for the melody and harmony of the music – “is based on several four-note groupings: depending on how you transpose it, you’ll find H-F-A-B – or B-natural, F, A-and B-flat – in some order as a four-note group.”

The elevator door opened and we found ourselves in a spacious, well-lit but otherwise empty reading room, which I thought odd but over all good news for us: we wouldn’t be disturbed. Sitting at the desk was a woman of a certain age trying not to look a certain age despite the traditional librarian’s regalia she wore – harlequin glasses on a string hanging around a tightly closed high collar, hair primly pulled back in a bun, a name tag that probably also said “SHHH” on it. I could imagine her looking completely different in the privacy of her own home, otherwise unrecognizable from her work persona.

She stood up to greet us. “You must be Dr. Dick? Agnes phoned you’d be coming? I’m Gloria Petri, the assistant librarian on duty this morning? And though it’s highly irregular, I’m sure even without an appointment, I can help you with your research?”

She spoke with well-studied diction but with an affected question-mark punctuation to every phrase she spoke, as if she could appear younger if she at least sounded younger. She clearly needed to spend more time in the declarative state.

“Agnes - yes, of course.” I hadn’t even thought she had a name.

“Agnes Day, she’s very fond of Maestro Schnellenlauter? He was just here the other day, spent hours poring over the sketches we have for Schoenberg’s String Trio?” She twiddled her glasses as she spoke.

“Hours. I’m afraid I don’t have hours but he had, er... suggested I should look at this, too.”

“Ah well, I know he’s conducting tonight, but he had made an appointment for... well, 9 this morning?” She looked down at the large notebook open on her desk. “Perhaps he’s been detained?”

It was now well past 9:00, but I could hardly tell her it was unlikely the Maestro would be making it at all. “Actually, it was the Schoenberg Trio I wanted to check myself – would it be possible...?” I wondered how long it would be before she might hear the news.

“Since he was supposed to be here this morning, I’d already pulled the folder in advance? If you want, well... you can look at it until he shows up?” Gloria held out the badly tattered manila folder toward me. It was like an offering – a musical offering which I accepted graciously. She motioned us over to a table in a distant corner where we sat down to page through the loose sheets of brittle paper.

I thought it would be only photocopies, not the original, but this was a handwritten copy, not much neater than a rough draft would be, though I suspected the original draft would be at the Schoenberg Museum in Vienna if not at the University of Southern California when he lived in suburban Los Angeles, not far from Igor Stravinsky and where he occasionally played tennis with George Gershwin.

In hushed tones, suitable to a library, I was explaining to Tony how Schoenberg had come to write this piece, how he’d had what was apparently a heart attack, presumably as a side-affect of a new pill a specialist had given him for his fainting spells, and how later that night he seems to have died moments before a doctor – a different doctor, by the way – injected him with something called Dilaudid, I think, directly into his heart which then revived him. This was something he referred to jokingly as “my fatality." I wasn’t sure if it’s possible that he had actually died or if it’s what we’d just call a near-death experience, but he was almost 72 and it was very scary, all the same. In less than three weeks as he was recuperating, he began composing this string trio, finishing it a month later. He told his students the piece depicted his brush with death in music.

I showed her the opening measures and pointed out some of the little kaleidoscopic gestures that sound almost spasmodic, as if nerve fibers are bursting back into life, hesitantly at first, before longer lines – perhaps memories or the return of consciousness – begin to form. Here was a pattern that almost outlined an A-major chord... how this passage sounded almost waltz-like, and so on.

She laughed. “I thought you’d be pointing out the row forms like my old theory teacher, Professor Staub.”

“That’s only one way to look at it, sort of like going through Beethoven and identifying the pitches by whether it was the tonic, dominant or subdominant level of the scale and leaving it at that, as if that would unravel all you needed to know about the music.” That was when I noticed something, leafing through the first couple of pages. “Hmm, look at this,” I said, pointing to measure 74 on page 4, “notice anything unusual?”

“Such as...?” She peered closer, not sure what she should see.

Moving my finger up to the line above, directly at the viola part, I added, “like between here and here?”

“You mean the alto clefs?”

His usual method was to use an easily written box-like clef, parallel vertical lines with two parallel horizontal lines in the middle to highlight the middle-C. But here, for some reason, he changed to the more typical printed but more involved alto clef, what I called the ‘fancy’ clef (which looks more like a |B) rather than the kind I’ve always used, the much quicker to write |K-shaped clef.

“The way we found Schnellenlauter in the green room.” She shuddered at the memory. “Do you think that means anything?” She looked more carefully at the pitches. Then she chuckled. “I know it sounds funny, this being an atonal – well, 12-tone work, but could this use of the alto clef be the key to what we’re looking for?”

“Don’t know... but since clef means ‘key’ in French, this could just be the keystone that will help us solve the mystery of why Schnellenlauter – and the others, for that matter – were killed. But so many clues refer to the Fibonacci series and the Golden Section. I’m wondering if there’s something hidden at those places where we’d divide the piece by the Golden Section?” I flipped to the back sheet. “Measure 294. Hmm, I’m noticing lots of A’s and E-flats, especially in the very last measures. Mean anything to you?”

“E-flat is S, right? So A and E-flat – a tritone – would be A and S... his initials, Arnold Schoenberg!”

Her excitement made me smile. “Okay, you’re the math whiz: what’s the Golden Section of 294? Divide by the Golden Ratio, 1.618.”

“Uhm, okay... wait a minute... 181.7. There should be something in Measure 181 on maybe the fourth beat or so?”

We both started turning the pages back... and there it was.

Granted, it wasn’t what I expected to find but it was a significant find all the same. A yellow post-it note!

Just then, Tony’s cell-phone beeped and Ms. Petri glanced at us, peering over her glasses with disdain. Tony cautiously answered it. It was Buzz calling from the lobby. She handed the phone to me. I hardly knew how to hold it, I’m such a luddite.

“Houston, we have a problem,” he whispered cautiously.

Just then, Ms. Petri’s phone rang and she too seemed deep in conference.

Buzz was unable to explain before he was cut off. Darned inconvenient place for a dead zone, I thought! I handed the phone back to Tony as I noticed Ms. Petri walking toward us. Deftly, I peeled off and pocketed the post-it note, then closed the folder to hand it back to her. But she didn’t seem interested in that.

“Dr. Dick?” She hesitated before continuing, carefully choosing her words. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave?” Then she motioned silently toward a different elevator than the one we’d entered. When the door opened, there stood a very sheepish-looking Buzz and... a very upset Gatekeeper. Buzz shrugged his shoulders.

I figured the word must indeed have reached them and we were soon about to be turned over to the International Music Police. It was not the way I had wanted to be on television – I always thought my own show on PBS would have been preferable but those days seemed long over.

“Get in,” the Gatekeeper... I mean, Agnes said very curtly. “With me you have been not honest quite, I am afraid.” Ms. Petri stood behind us. We had no choice but to enter the elevator.

Who knew what Fate would have in store for us on the other end of the shaft?

To be continued...

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Dr. Dick
© 2009

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