Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Schoenberg Code: Chapter 6

The latest chapter of this serial novel, a musical parody of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, introduces us to a new and very important character and sets our heroes onto yet another new leg of their quest, following their escapes from Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Where will they escape from next? Find out, as the plot continues to thicken...

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Buzz brought the helicopter down onto the landing pad. The Gatekeeper had certainly been right when she said it would be easy to spot. The fact the pad also had “CHEZ LANCE TEABAG” written out in bright red letters across the target didn’t hurt. It would have hurt less, perhaps, if we’d hit the target a little better, but hey...

The house itself was amazing, built high on a New Jersey cliff overlooking upper Manhattan. An old ruined Victorian castle that had once been an artists’ hangout in the Age of the Hippies, it had been built on a tall stone plinth that gave it a sense of invulnerability. We could only hope.

“We’d all better get out on the passenger side, Dr. Dick,” Buzz suggested sheepishly. “I believe I’m a little too close to the curb.”

Looking out the window on the pilot’s side, I noticed it was almost a sheer drop down: I didn’t care if it was 40 feet or 400, I had no intention of skirting the edge of the building. But still, considering our take-off from Lincoln Center, it was amazing Buzz landed us as cleanly as he had done, without major mishap.

“And it looks like we have a welcoming committee.” I pointed to the people standing by the doorway, peering to see if any of them resembled policemen.

Tony was still in a kind of shock as she clambered down from the chopper – not so much from Buzz’s flying but from the realization of what Agnes may have meant by “one-three-two” and the fact she knew her real name had been Philomel, even though she had hardly ever used it since she was a child and had changed it legally some ten years ago. And still, what is the significance of “one-three-two”?

There was no opportunity to ask her more, since Lance Teabag stood waiting for us to approach and we would need, somehow, an explanation.

He had not aged greatly in the twenty years since I had first met him, a little heavier and a little whiter (it happens to the best of us), but his hair was still as frazzled looking as you’d expect for an eminent musicologist. He had been a cantankerous old man at 60, however, so I didn’t expect him to have mellowed much now that he was 80-something. The wildly baroque-looking cane he leaned on, a wicked shillaleigh with its bronze dragon-headed handle, only accentuated his reputation, the perfect accessory for his eccentric aura.

When I say he was an eminent musicologist, I should clarify that by saying he was better known as an eccentric musicologist-wannabe, digging into the shadows of music’s history, frequently jumping to conclusions that often dumbfounded or amused his colleagues. He had parlayed the family fortune into a career where he could study, write and publish anything he wanted. He didn’t need to apply for grants and wait months or years until his project might be accepted or rejected by some panel of experts: he could just pick up and take off for whatever dusty library or monastery he chose to spend a few days or a few months in, sorting through old manuscripts until he found what he wanted. If it were, say, in a dusty attic in New Jersey or outside Vienna, he had the money to buy the manuscript or at least entice the owner into loaning it to him as opposed to someone else with better credentials but no bankroll.

It was in one such attic he located sketches he said proved Antonin Dvořák had begun sketching his Symphony in E Minor, the one we know as “From the New World,” as an octet for strings and winds tentatively titled “A Small World Symphony,” but the sketches broke off after the introduction of the famous “Largo” theme.

Teabag had also been on the trail of Berg’s private copy of the Lyric Suite except Douglass Green and George Perle managed to be a few steps ahead of him to get what passed for glory in the classical music world. Considered a “muck-raking musicologist,” always digging up unnecessary dirt about great composers as if “The Musical Quarterly” could be found in the grocery check-out aisle, he had become famous for this kind of sensational behind-the-scenes story. After establishing his facts, he often jumped to some of the wildest assumptions. A lover of conspiracy theories, he was not called the Tabloid Musicologist for nothing.

You could argue that he had not gotten a doctorate from any university or conservatory and that I, actually, had, though it was also easy to argue he was a famous musicologist living in flamboyant luxury and I was... well, we don’t really need to go there, do we?

What we were doing here and how he might be able to help – and how long before our whereabouts became known – were all part of an unanswered question with more than one off-stage trumpet. How much could I tell him? In fact, how much did I know that I could ask him what he knew that I’d know could help us? The mind boggled...

He wordlessly accepted the helicopter’s key and our symbolic surrender with all the grace of a father gloating over a reprobate teen-aged son who’d absconded with the family car for an evening’s joyride and gotten caught by the police. Then his face brightened into something that passed for a smile.

“Dr. Dick! Welcome to my unhumble abode! They told me you would be coming.”

“They?” It was impossible not to notice the tentativeness in my voice but I didn’t want to alarm him that we were being sought by the International Music Police if he didn’t know that already.

“Well, she... Ms. Petri from the Lincoln Center Library had alerted me that you were going to be, ah... returning my helicopter which I had been forced to abandon the other night during a storm. Too bad: I had just sent Renfrew and Riff-Raff to retrieve it so I could make it in to hear Lulu tonight at Avery Fisher.”

Perhaps he hadn’t heard yet that the performance would have to be canceled.

“Renfrew?” Buzz was equally tentative.

Teabag turned to him nonchalantly to explain. “Yes, my valet and driver. I have no idea what his real name is any more, I’m not even sure he does. Riff-Raff is my butler but we don’t need to go there.” There was a bit of a twinkle in his eyes as he tipped his head solicitously toward Buzz. “And you are...?”

After I had finished making our introductions, he quickly introduced the two servants who stood behind him – the maid, Heliotrope, wearing a magenta and white uniform with fishnet stockings; and Sergei, his Russian blonde hulk of a male nurse with a fairly limited vocabulary and a fondness for the music of Rachmaninoff.

The castle's near-ruined exterior, of course, was only a ploy. The interior had been meticulously renovated to accommodate the most modern luxuries and technologies. We settled into what would pass for the library, full of books, scores CDs and LPs, a very impressive sound system, numerous computers (even a small lap-top on the mantelpiece) and across from the window a very old grand piano covered with an even older Turkish carpet on which were piled numerous books around the neatly centered, nearly life-sized bust of Beethoven. Heliotrope brought in a tray of tea things as Sergei sat down at the piano until Teabag motioned for him to leave.

Standing by the piano, our host began to speak after a long pause. “The highly innovative entrance aside, Dr. Dick, what otherwise unexpected propitiousness am I to thank for the singular occasion of your most surprising visit?”

Buzz quickly figured out that Lance Teabag was not a New Jersey native.

“We are on what appears to be a musicological scavenger hunt, Dr. Teabag.” I knew that to call him simply “Mr.” Teabag would sound offensive yet just “Lance” would be too familiar for the slight professional relationship we shared. He might prefer, I thought, “Lord Teabag” since he had about him the complete aura of a wealthy landed aristocrat even if there wasn’t any noble blood flowing through his family tree (at least, as far as I knew, on the proper side of the sheets).

“Oh please,” he fluttered, “do call me Lance. No, actually, I rather like the sound of ‘Dr.,’ I admit.” He handed me a cup of freshly brewed, overly sweetened Earl Gray. “But seriously, what is your quest? Not the Holy Grail, I hope? I’m all out of grails this morning!”

“We’re not even really sure what it is, but we’ve been... uhm... given a number of clues and, well, we just haven’t had time to figure some of them out... we’ve been kind of running around a lot this morning.”

He drew his lips into a tight moue as he contemplated the three of us seated expectantly on his couch. “And you’re hoping that I, the famous musicologist, shall do your dirty work for you, is that it? Help you find this... this object of yours? And if I do help – not that I’m saying I will, but I do like a good game now and then – what do I win if you obtain your prize?”

“Not knowing what we’re expected to find, I can’t offer you anything of value beyond...” My voice momentarily trailed off as I could think of nothing sitting around my office except some old tote bags I'd forgotten about. “Well, we would be eternally grateful for your help!”

He now held out tea cups for Buzz and Tony in turn, though neither looked particularly eager at the prospect. “Ah,” he noted, “perhaps you would prefer something of greater substance.” He looked at his watch and noted the time – almost 11:00. “Renfrew was in the process of helping with the sandwiches for luncheon, so perhaps I could ask Heliotrope to bring in what may be ready. I’m afraid it’s nothing fancy for a Saturday morning, just tea sandwiches made from last-night’s left-over haggis. It’s one of Renfrew’s specialties – he’s Scottish, originally – though he makes a very grand... what do you Pennsylvanians call it? Shoo-fly Pie? He does love catching those free-range flies, you know!”

“Oh... no, thank you,” Buzz protested, sipping his tea and trying not to wince, “really, this will be fine - just fine.” Tony drank her tea in silence. “Yes, fine - F-I-N-E, fine...”

We settled down to work at the ornate coffee table and I explained what we had so far found and determined, though it was difficult to keep from telling him just how we found it as we went from clue to clue.

Minutes later, Renfrew, just back from Lincoln Center, entered with a tray of sandwiches. Buzz eyed them warily.

“I am frightfully sorry for the interruption, sir, after our fruitless journey into the city, but I thought by now you – and your GUESTS,“ he added with a certain malicious emphasis, “might like a bit of lunch. I found some leg of lamb which I thought they might prefer to the haggis.” He placed the tray in front of us and stood back as if hoping to continue but afraid to do so without permission.

“Yes, thank you, Rennie.” Then realizing he was still standing there, added somewhat icily, “Will there be anything else, Renfrew?”

Noticing Tony’s hesitation with the sandwich – perhaps she was having visions of Lambchop in her head – he asked, “Perhaps Ma’am’s a vegetarian?”

Tony looked over her shoulder before realizing Renfrew must have meant her. “Me? No, not yet, anyway. Thanks, this will be just fine.”

“You were asking about how composers might use...” Lance began but then stopped when he realized Renfrew hadn’t moved yet. “Thank you, Renfrew, that will be all?”

With that, Renfrew made a deep bow and handed him a folded piece of paper. “This note, sir, uhm... just arrived. I thought it best you should read it.”

“Thank you,” he said, pocketing it, adding stiffly, “I’ll look at it later.” Renfrew frowned and left the room.

“Now, you were asking about how composers might include some kind of secret message in their music. It’s well documented that, in the Renaissance and Baroque Eras, there was a whole system of patterns – tone-painting clichés, really – that composers relied on to depict various emotions: rising lines for joy and expectation, descending lines for dejection, all of which seem fairly obvious to us today yet...”

“Dr. Dick mentioned Mozart’s use of ‘three’ in his masonic music and...” but before Tony could finish, the automatic professor in Teabag began the condensed version of his book while Buzz and I started scribbling away trying to decipher the latest “fib” – perhaps he thought we were furiously taking notes, though none of what he was saying seemed to bear any importance on what we needed to know right now, no doubt how many of my own students must have felt if they knew it wasn’t going to be on the test.

Buzz’s first solution didn’t seem to work. Using the Rule of 12, he had taken
transposed it and gotten

Then he wrote another line: “ACE ABLE GNAT.” When I added a “?” to it, he wrote underneath it “LANCE TEABAG.” We both tried stifling our laughter, but it was too late.

Teabag paused in mid-sentence, interrupting himself with all the disdain of a professor catching students passing notes in class which is exactly what we were doing. “Do you have something you would like to share with everyone, Dr. Dick?”

“In fact, I do, Lance,” I said sheepishly, quickly scribbling over Buzz's latest anagram. “My apologies, but while you were telling my friends here about your findings, I wanted to work on this last clue.” I shoved the paper over in front of Tony so she could see better. She, too, frowned that it made no sense.

Mozart and the Masons were quickly forgotten once I began telling Lance more about our clues. We had not yet really figured out the significance of the one that confirmed the “transposition rule” which also sent us to “Arnold’s Sketch” of Op. 45 while the “Divine Proportion” had located the post-it note. I pointed out, knowing the piece was structured around three parts with two intervening episodes, that this spot, the Golden Section of the entire trio, marked the beginning of the second episode, starting off with a fanfare figure in the cello. But there had not been time to examine the manuscript in terms of the last line, “Phrasings of Celestial Music.”

“That would make it 3 sections plus 2 sections, perfect according to the Golden Section, and maybe...,“ I pondered, “maybe the ‘Celestial Music’ was something he heard during that moment of his near-death experience, something he needed to write down before he could forget it?”

“Or something he needed to make sure someone else would discover if he died and otherwise took the secret with him?” Buzz sounded only moderately skeptical, this time.

“Perhaps we were to find specific pitches that we would then transpose a whole-step – like the coded messages – in the music?” Tony sounded dubious but added, “you know, like in Berg’s Lyric Suite. At that point, Schoenberg began incorporating some secret message that...?”

Teabag bristled slightly. “Who told you about the Lyric Suite?”

I had forgotten this was still a sore-point with him, having had everything snatched away from him by two reputable musicologists who’d gotten all the recognition for their discoveries of Berg’s hidden love-letter.

“But what would Schoenberg know and why would he hide something so secretively that could only be discovered long after he was gone?” It now sounded like Teabag had been completely marginalized and that was the last straw.

“My dear Dr. Dick, may I ask what the hell is going on here? You come into my house and ask for my help yet you’re not exactly making it easy for me to assist you in your quest. Please allow me to help you,” he said, sounding considerably wounded by our ingratitude.

So with some reluctance I began to lay out all the clues in order, though I wasn’t sure what was more important, the order we found them in or the order he had written them.

First, we had the Monty Python reference on the back of the codeless fib about the Transfigured Night. I had found the word “Viola” scrambled within “MY HOVERCRAFT IS FULL OF EELS.” It had not occurred to me before, but it was an 8-syllable line: was it perhaps missing the first few lines?

“Or perhaps,” he muttered, smacking his lips in anticipation of a challenge, “a substitute last line to replace the one about the violist knowing transfigured nights? I love anagrams, they’re such an easy way to waste a few minutes’ time.”

After a bit of scribbling himself, he asked “you wouldn’t happen to know anyone named Chet Rylf, would you? No, I thought not,” pushing the paper toward me.


“Ah,” Buzz pointed to the first two words – “there’s CLEF...”

“VIOLA CLEF,” Tony practically shouted, “yes, we saw that in the manuscript, where he used the fancier clef rather than the simpler box-shaped alto clef he’d used elsewhere!”

“Or how about...” I paused as I wrote out my own theory: SEE, VIOLA CLEF RHYTM SLURS OFF. “Except we need another H since ‘rhythm’ is misspelled...”

“So if we went back to Schoenberg’s sketches and compared it to the final printed edition, would we notice a difference in the rhythms and phrasing or bowings in the viola part beginning at the Golden Section?”

“But let’s look at the clue we did find there, the post-it note,” though I pushed forward my scratch pad rather than the note itself. “It starts ‘Look Back Fondly On school days...’ but I can’t see anything particularly nostalgic... oh wait... ‘Look Back’... in retrograde, maybe?”

One of the key principles of serialism was to take 12 tones, place them in some order to create a “row,” then create new variants on that order by turning it upside-down or playing it backwards or both – the principles of inversion, retrograde and retrograde-inversion. Those who hated his music, I mentioned, often used it as an attack on Schoenberg for inventing something so academic and unnatural, who could possibly be expected to hear it while ignoring the fact that in many of his fugues and canons, Bach had done the same thing.

“So if we read this backwards...” Buzz pointed with his pen, “the lines become...”

And we all read it out in unison: THE BUST DUSTER SEEKS AN IMMORTAL BELOVED’S QUEST.

“Now we’re on to something,” I said triumphantly!

“What...!?” Buzz sounded relatively clueless.

“The woman who married someone while pregnant with another man’s child? Did she marry a violist? But who was the father of the child? The answer to that may well be that last line: think!”

“The Immortal Beloved?” Buzz turned to look at me in disbelief. “You mean, the father is... Beethoven?”

At that moment, Tony sat back. “Weird... I just got tingly all over...”

“We don’t know who she was but we know what she was, right?” I nodded toward Buzz.

“A slut? Oh... sorry...” Buzz’s contrition sounded artificial but I let it pass, especially since Teabag seemed rather amused by it.

“So, Dr. Dick,” he smiled, sitting back in his chair, “it seems you are on the trail of...”

There was an urgent knock on the door. “Not... NOW, please,” our host shouted over his shoulder. You could hear the impending tantrum in the footsteps as they stalked away.

“Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved, apparently,” I said, finishing his sentence. Musicologists for generations had their theories about her identity and lobbied at international conferences for their favorite contenders. No one really knew. Beethoven’s sole remaining letter to her was found in his desk drawer after his death, a letter he’d written twenty years earlier, possibly never sent. He was very careful never to use a name or anything that could reveal her identity. He died with the secret, so far as we knew. Did Schoenberg know the secret? And if so, how? And why, more than a century later, all the apparent secrecy?

Teabag leaned forward and tapped a finger on the post-it note. “And this is what you found in the Schoenberg sketch?”

“Yes,” I swallowed as I moved it toward him. “Do you know the meaning of... The Sign?”

Again, Tony sat back. “Oooh, there it goes again!”

While Teabag pored over the note, Buzz cleared his throat just as I looked up to see in the mirror the image of an apparently very large man with frizzled blondish-white hair dressed in a tuxedo, falling face down with arms and legs flailing, past the window behind us. Another of Teabag’s servants?

“Yes, Dr. Dick, what you’ve found here is from someone who apparently is not only a member of the ‘Academy dal Segno’ but apparently very high up in the hierarchy. Who is giving you these clues?” He was more curious than demanding, but I didn’t know how much I could say.

Just then, Buzz blurted out, “you know, another clue we haven’t figured out yet was what the Mozart and Shostakovich pictures have to do with anything, the way the body was placed.”

“Body?” The room became suddenly chilled by Teabag’s icy tone. “What body, Dr. Dick?”

“Ooops,” Buzz said, leaning back on the couch.

Well, the cat was definitely out of the body-bag now, I figured, so I might as well level with him. Just as I began telling him what I knew about the murder, there was again an urgent knocking on the door. Teabag reached into his pocket and quickly read the note Renfrew had given him.

“Excuse me,” he said, interrupting the now familiar recitation of facts, “but Rennie seems rather impatient.” And with that, he hobbled out of the room, his cane barely touching the floor. He shut the door firmly behind him.

Now what,” I wondered! Buzz apologized for letting slip the reference to the body, and who knew what Renfrew’s note was about. Still, it seemed another escape was going to be necessary soon. What if that guy in the tux who fell past the window was NOT one of Teabag’s servants? But who would be wearing a tux at almost noontime on a Saturday?

“We’ve been talking about the Golden Section a lot,” I wondered, refusing to be flustered just yet. “Perhaps there’s some clue there, what with Mozart’s birthday 250 years ago and Shostakovich’s birthday 100 years ago. What would be the Golden Section between 1906 and 1756, Tony, can you figure that out?”

“Well, that’s 150 years, divided by 1.618... would be 92.7... which would be 1848.7. Let's see, 7/10th of a year would be the 255th-and-a-half day, right? So, are you looking for someone born around September 13th, 1848?”

Buzz sat there with his mouth open, speaking of a mind for figures: he couldn’t do that that fast even with a calculator.

“Hmm, Schoenberg was born on September 13th and Clara Schumann, too, but neither of them in 1848,” I considered. “Maybe it’s the day we’re looking for, not the year. How many days between Mozart’s birthday on January 27th and Shostakovich’s on September 25th?”

Buzz began working on his fingers, silently mouthing the lines “30 Days hath September...” but he hadn’t yet gotten to “all the rest have” when she said, “242.”

“And the Golden Section of 242 is...?” I looked at her expectantly.

“149.5.” She looked at me quizzically, adding that to January 27th. “But that... that’s...”

I had walked over to a wall-calendar behind Teabag’s piano, one with photographs of, as it said, “Famous Writers on Music” – June’s photograph was of Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker whose book The Rest Is Noise had become all the rage – but judging from the number of pin-point holes in the pages, it looked less like a pin-up calendar than a dart board. I suspected Lance Teabag had not made this year’s calendar, either. I quickly counted from Mozart’s birthday.

“Today!” she and I blurted out together. “June 24th! Midsummer Day.”

“And the feast day of St. John the Baptist," I added, "a very important day to the Masons, for example.”

“Officially that would be mid-day... noon – in fact, right NOW!” She stood up as the grandfather clock in the corner began booming out the noon chimes. “There it goes again!” We all felt some goose-bumps that time.

What was the significance of today’s date, we wondered. Was it just a coincidence? Had we landed here ironically through a wrong interpretation of the clue? Was something going to be revealed today? And if so, what!? Much less where...

The door opened quickly and Lance Teabag shuffled into the room, followed by Renfrew and Sergei the male nurse who immediately sat down at the piano as if ready to play. The moment was somewhat spoiled by Teabag putting a hand on his shoulder and whispering “Not yet, Rachie...”

"Horosho," he mumbled and sat their, intently pensive.

“Dr. Dick,” Teabag began with some astringency in his tone, “you have apparently not been entirely honest with me.”

“Ah,” I thought, “where have I heard that before?”

“Not only have you deceived me about the death of my friend Hans-Heinz Schnellenlauter, but you are suspected of being his murderer, including two other conductors, one of whom I was going to see tonight before his performance of Berg’s ‘Lulu’ at Lincoln Center. Would you, perhaps, care to explain this curious turn of events?”

But before I could begin, there was a great crash as a very large-built but fairly banged-up young man with frizzy blondish-white hair wearing a considerably shredded tuxedo exploded through the window wielding an especially nasty looking H&K MP5 10mm fully automatic submachine gun that looked like it could fire bullets the size of overripe zucchini and in the left hand, what would appear to be a viola case.

Needless to say, we all froze.

“Where is it? Where is the key?” he shouted desperately, pointing the machine gun first at me, then at Teabag. “Do you have it? Give it to me!”

Figuring he meant the post-it note, Lance pointed out it was, in fact, still on the table. As the intruder sidled toward it, he went to grab Tony as a hostage, but realized both his hands were full. In this moment of indecision, Teabag, with extraordinary quickness, brought the heavy bronze dragon-head of his cane down upon the hand holding the viola case. Rather than drop the case, he let go of the machine gun instead which went off with a dramatic spray destroying the chandelier and peppering the walls and ceiling before coming to a halt.

Holding his wounded wrist in a mixture of ecstasy and defeat, the intruder crumpled to the floor and was quickly subdued by Renfrew and Sergei. I grabbed Tony who had already retrieved our notes and pulled her toward me just as the chandelier crashed onto the coffee table with a dazzling spray of electrical fireworks when Heliotrope ran breathlessly into the room.

“The police,” she panted, “they are here!”

“That was decidedly quick of them, I must commend them on their timing. However, Dr. Dick, if you and your friends will follow me? Renfrew – and you, young man,” he said, indicating Buzz, “if you will assist with our latest guest, hmmm? Thank you,” he added as they gathered up the submissive but still struggling giant now safely bound fast with some ace bandages Sergei had in his pocket. It didn’t look terribly secure but it would do for now, I figured.

Teabag leaned against the mantle and a secret passageway opened up beside the fireplace. “Walk this way,” he bowed toward us, then turned to the male nurse and said calmly, “Rachie, now!”

“Horosho!” The blond hulk beamed as he sat down and began pounding away at Rachmaninoff’s C-sharp Minor Prelude as the wall closed behind us. We could hear the muffled shouts of Hemiola and his men who had just at that moment burst in only to find that, once again, Dr. Dick had eluded him.

Our day may have been turned upside down already, but for how much longer would our luck hold out? Racing down the secret passageway, we finally reached our destination.

"I don't believe it!" But seeing was clearly believing.

To be continued...

- - - - - - -
Dr. Dick
© 2009

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