Friday, October 09, 2009

The Schoenberg Code: Chapter 10

Continuing the saga of the search for information about Beethoven's Immortal Beloved, having successfully evaded the International Music Police, this latest installment of the serial novel The Schoenberg Code finds our heroes deep in the Eastman library with a haystackful of miscellaneous information about Beethoven, knowing that time is running out...

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Renfrew sat on the roof of the Eastman Theater enjoying a cigarette when he heard a steady thumping from inside the Time Warp’s cargo bay. He didn’t mind staying behind since it was a much nicer day here than it had been in New York. Old Teabag hadn’t said anything but “watch” their guest; he didn’t say he couldn’t make things a little more comfortable for him. There were no plans about what to do with him, anyway: turn him over to the police? Hardly. Let him loose in Rochester and figure out his own way of getting home? That, at least, would be more fun. And by now, the big guy must be really hungry.

The mere mention of penguins had set his own nerves on edge. He decided to do the Samaritan thing and crawled into the back compartment.

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

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Inspector Hemiola called in to Agent Mimi Solfege, asking her to track down some information about the Penguins of God.

“Funny you should mention that,” she piped cheerily. “Someone from the FBI had just called in asking for some information.”

“You mean about the Penguins of God?”

“No, about some crazy Brit music critic who’s apparently hijacked a plane about to land in New York and then diverted it to – of all places – Rochester.”

“What about it?”

“Well, it seems this guy calls himself... uhm...” - she paused to check her notes - “the Grand Emperor of the Penguins of God.”

“Really!” Hemiola almost dropped the phone. “And he’s going to Rochester? Why would he risk hijacking a plane rather than just pick up a connecting flight once he landed?”

“Well, sir, you know penguins are not used to flying, sir. Oh, and I just saw this come down over the Homeland Security secret alert news-wire a few minutes ago: there was a suspicious UFO-like object seen hovering over Manhattan but... uhm... here comes an update... hang on...”

Thinking back to the glint in the sky he’d seen from the cliff-hangar, he found himself momentarily distracted. “Wait, you have access to the secret news-wire from Homeland Security?” Hemiola was impressed. Even Gutrune Gebich was having trouble getting that clearance.

“Yes, sir, my son showed me how to find it. OK, here it is – that UFO-like object has now been reported nearing... Rochester, NY? How odd. But the agent’s response was to have someone check it out first thing in the morning. So apparently it’s nothing serious.”

“Rochester, eh? And the Grand Emperor of the Penguins of God is in a hurry to get to Rochester, too. Verrrrry interesting.” Hemiola thought not only might Dr. Dick have been abducted by aliens but now he had this grand poohbah guy after him as well. It just kept getting stranger and stranger.

“What is the big deal about Rochester,” Hemiola wondered out loud as they hurried down the walkway to the gate. Fortunately, it was all downhill from here.

“Well, sir, it IS a major center near the mouth of a north-flowing river,” Accelerando mentioned.

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Sforzando sounded skeptical.

Libitum felt he may have been improvising on this one but remembered that other north-flowing rivers – the Nile, for example – were considered spiritual places, not unlike how people from around Boston considered the Concord River which also flowed north. There was a different kind of energy around rivers like that and, he pointed out to the gaping Hemiola, the Genesee River flowed north into Lake Ontario just beyond Rochester.

“Oh great, we’re going to run into a bunch of crystal-stroking New Age penguins celebrating Midsummer?”

“Hold on!” Fermata blurted out. “Look at that,” pointing ahead of them.

“What! I don’t see anything.” Hemiola peered toward the woods beyond the gate.

“Exactly.” Libitum was clearly bummed: the Ludwig Van was missing. Probably the three characters from the library had fled in it.

That left them with two options: the yellow taxi-like station wagon stuck off to the side of the road was deemed unreliable for a cross-country chase, so Hemiola decided the only thing they could do was to hot-wire Teabag’s helicopter. It would certainly be faster than the van and they needed to hurry. After they fueled up from the tank marked High Octave, and with Agent Accelerando placed in the pilot’s seat, they were off. Time was running out.

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

Time was indeed running out: as we approached the front desk to ask directions, the student warned us the library would be closing in about an hour. She looked at us cautiously until Teabag leaned over and whispered something to her which caused her to smile. She typed a few words into the computer, found a response, then typed a few more and then she printed it out for Lance, motioning us through without further concern. Soon, we were on our way to the rare manuscript collection.

“What was that sweet-talking the librarian all about,” Tony teased.

“Oh, just a little of the old British charm, you know.” He smiled back at her. “It got us in without setting off any alarms, didn’t it?”

“And no gatekeeper asking stupid stuff like what string quartet was based on an all-interval 12-tone row.” Buzz was still pretty miffed about that one.

“You mean Berg’s Lyric Suite?” Teabag asked flippantly as we headed toward the elevator. Buzz just scowled at him.

The “new” library had opened in 1989 but this was the first time I’d been back to the school since before then. This was a much grander affair built across the street from the main entrance, much more spacious than the dark and cramped warren of stacks and cubicles where I had spent so much of my grad-student life. Some people had complained the new facility was too spacious and too nice, not the image one always had of poor students and dusty old musicologists poring over poor and dusty old manuscripts and scores.

When we got to the section we were looking for, the man with the shaggy gray countenance seated at the desk, according to the name-plate, was Dr. Kerry Eliasson, whose name I had seen in various alumni magazines and who was noted for his research about late-18th Century Vienna, the city of Mozart, Haydn and a young man named Beethoven. His younger sister, Christine, had been a doctoral student here during my last year in residence and I remember meeting her in the old Swan Street library. How ironic to be meeting him the first time I’d be entering the “new” library.

“Ah, Dr. Eliasson, I presume,” Teabag began, jauntily proffering his hand, “allow me to introduce ourselves. I am musicologist Lance Teabag...” (he paused hoping for some sign of recognition that was not forthcoming) “...and this is Dr. Dick and...”

Immediately, Dr. Eliasson began to beam. “Dr. Dick, as I live and barely breathe!” He quickly stood up to his full imposing height and energetically shook my hand. “My sister Christie talked about you a great deal when she was studying here, how helpful you had been to her when she was trying to get her bearings. Just the other week, before she took off for Vienna, she was wondering where you were and how you were doing. Wait till I tell her you walked into my very own ‘office.’ There just aren’t enough people to go around in the world!”

I explained that we were on a tight schedule with the library closing soon and that I’d love to chat with him, perhaps over dinner somewhere nearby, later on. He told us he was just off for a meeting which might last past closing-time, so we could manage to stay till he’d get back, if we needed to. I quickly introduced Tony and Buzz and told him what we were hoping to find: some information about Beethoven that might be contained probably in miscellaneous files of contemporary letters and articles. Teabag, now reduced to an adjunct member of Dr. Dick’s posse, fairly steamed as we followed Dr. Eliasson back into the stacks.

There were, he explained, tons of material. Previous librarians here had been given the mandate to “buy everything” which is how the collection seemed to be expanding in geometrical proportions. When I was there, it had already doubled once since it became part of the school, and by the time the new building was under construction, it had more than doubled again. There was still much to catalog but, as Eliasson pointed out with a smile, “that will always leave something for another musicologist to discover in the future.”

We had reached a series of crowded shelves which he indicated with a wave of his hand as “The Miscellaneous Beethoven Section, mostly uncatalogued.” I looked at shelves and shelves full of “miscellany” and thought we have an hour: this could take days or even weeks to be even mildly thorough. I wasn’t even sure what we were looking for. A very small needle, in all of this.

He left us to devise our own plan of attack. After a quick “walk-around,” I suggested Lance and I start at opposite ends on the one side and work towards the middle, with Buzz and Tony working together starting in the middle of the next shelf and then fanning out.

Much of everything had been bundled into manila folders or envelopes clearly marked with a topic. How lucky would it be to find one marked “IMMORTAL BELOVED” but that would be unlikely. Teabag had been through the collection a few years ago, he explained, but found nothing that had caught his attention. Given Schnellenlauter’s clues, however, it was worth revisiting.

We were thinking there might be folders that would say “Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde,” which would be helpful, perhaps, but then if no one knew what the Academy dal Segno or the Knights Tempo were, they might put them anywhere: there were several unmarked files and several just labeled “misc,” stuck here and there among the shelves. It looked tedious to have to sort through all of them. Gradually we worked our way along and I wondered if perhaps Schnellenlauter’s nickname for musicologists shouldn’t have been “shelf duster.”

Even though there was no one in ear-shot, we maintained the habitual silence one feels necessary in a library, occasionally grunting after something that had some remote promise turned out to be nothing. This was more difficult for Buzz whose concentration was less involved in the search.

He was curious about this group called the “Penguins of God,” and Teabag explained that even though it was a fairly recent group by comparison to the Academy, it was an off-shoot of the Gesellschaft and primarily an independent performers’ society based in London.

“But why would they be trying to destroy evidence that Beethoven may have had a child – okay, I mean other than the fact his having an illegitimate daughter might be considered a scandal at the time. But today?”

“For some people,” Teabag said trying not to sound pedantic, “the idea that a genius like Beethoven could have had – well, moral failings like any mortal was more than they could bear. Perhaps they feared the trivialization of his music if the great monolithic image they wanted to maintain became too human. Here was a man who had suffered to create great art – they didn’t want to see him turned into... well, into a PBS cartoon series that would offer ‘Tickle Me Ludwig’ dolls as enticements to membership. That sort of thing.”

“Ludwig wants you to be his fwiend,” Buzz squeaked in a high sing-song voice. Tony poked him in the stomach with her elbow. “Ouch! Ludwig thinks maybe that chili was not such a gweat idea...”

Just as the recorded announcement was played that the library would be closing in a few minutes and it seemed finding anything was hopeless, I found something unexpected. Well, not really unexpected because somehow, considering how many musicologists, including Lance Teabag, had probably riffled through these folders over the years, it didn’t seem likely we’d find anything like a second letter from Beethoven to his Immortal Beloved, but probably something inserted into the folder by a more recent scholar, possibly by a member of the Academy dal Segno, maybe even by Schnellenlauter himself who, after all, had spent a good deal of time at Eastman years ago. I was half expecting to find another post-it note.

I held it up to Teabag who stood only a few feet away. His eyes widened considerably and then narrowed with the look of a predator who had just located his prey and was about to pounce.

A single sheet of old yellowed music paper which had various scribblings and doodlings on it, but clearly three ornate versions of the symbol musicians call “dal segno” – The Sign – one at the top center and again in each of the lower two corners, just like it had appeared on the post-it note found in the Lincoln Center copy of Schoenberg’s Trio. But the handwriting looked vaguely familiar. There were several signatures of Beethoven’s but they looked more like someone practicing to forge his signature rather than Beethoven writing his own name over and over again, like a child might do in a notebook. The paper didn’t appear to be that old, either. Opposite these were a few small grids almost obliterated in pencil but one was fairly clear: any student would immediately recognize it, even though it goes back to the days of ancient Rome.


A kind of “magic square,” the bottom line is the top line reversed; the second line reversed becomes the fourth line. The middle line is its own mirror. But in addition to reading the words across, as you’d normally do, you could read them down the side, backwards from the bottom up as well as up the other side from right to left.

It’s an involved Latin palindrome that no one quite agrees how to translate. “Sower Arepo Holds Works Wheel,” which didn't make a lot of sense no matter how free you were with the translation. It fascinated Schoenberg – and especially his student Webern: it’s actually engraved on his tombstone – and it led to the development of his own magic squares, the method he used to determine all the different forms of his 12-tone rows that became the basis of what we call, for better or worse, “Serial Music.” On paper, it looks academic and artificial, like a cross-word puzzle (not that people don’t find hours of satisfaction trying to figure them out) but it gave the composer all the basic forms of his musical material in its regular (or prime) form, its mirrored (or inverted) form, its backward (or retrograde) form and then its backwards-mirrored (or retrograde inverted) form.

There were also two measures of music, scratched out like a sketch on three lines as if for violin, viola (with its alto clef) and cello. There were four notes on each line, only two per measure – 12 notes in all: in fact, all 12 notes of the chromatic scale! How very un-Beethoven-like!

“Are you thinking that Beethoven actually had sketched something that was that far ahead of his time?” Teabag sounded both incredulous and skeptical.

That was when I recognized the handwriting. I had seen it earlier this morning – the musical calligraphy was the same as Schoenberg’s String Trio – and the two measures quoted were from the same piece, the section that started off with its B-A-C-H-like motif: what significance the music may have had, at this point, I had no idea, but now I understood why we were to look at Schoenberg’s sketch for the piece, not the printed copy. Perhaps the music itself had no significance on its own. Did Schnellenlauter just want me to be able to recognize the handwriting?

But why?

What significance would “Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas” have for the Immortal Beloved? I quickly scratched down the application of Schnellenlauter’s 'Rule of 12' and found this:


I had to agree with Buzz that it made no sense, but Teabag wasn’t so quick to give up on it.

“Look,” he pointed out, “there are five more palindromes created out of this. SETPA - APTES... TOERR - RREOT... and OANAO is its own mirror, just like TENET.” He was disappointed to find out, however, it would not form its own Magic Square and you’d have to start with APTES to make it even similar to the set-up of the famous SATOR square.

“But would could it mean? It’s not any language I can recognize,“ I offered as a Socratic roadblock. “It’s not Greek or Hebrew...”

“Perhaps it’s Egyptian, but we’re dealing with a secret society, here – you know, secret passwords, secret handshakes, secret codes, the whole bit.” Teabag was glowing with the possibilities of the discovery.

“All we need,” Buzz said, returning to his own folder, “is the Academy’s secret decoder ring and we’re all set.”

“Perhaps if I can figure out what language it is or what their code is, I can find the treasure of the Immortal Beloved’s letters!” Teabag looked practically transfixed, now that victory was in his grasp. “SETPA APTES TOERR OANAO RREOT,” he intoned like an ancient priest.

That was when it occurred to me perhaps he was not in this to help us but rather using us to lead him to something that was going to make him famous, make up for having had fame snatched away from him by others who’d found the Lyric Suite before he did. I decided I needed to perhaps give him less information, now, rather than more. But how could I “disinvolve” him: without him, we’d still be at Lincoln Center, or rather in some jail cell awaiting trial for the murder of three conductors.

I heard a noise down the narrow hallway and figured Dr. Eliasson was coming to tell us it was time to leave. It was already past 5:00.

That was when Buzz piped up. “Hey, I found Schindler’s List!”

“No, Buzz, we’re not interested in the movie right now,” I said mindlessly as I glanced at the back of the sheet Teabag was now gloating over. There it was: a post-it note stuck to the back. I had to get it before Teabag saw it and before Eliasson showed up.

“No, I mean it’s a list of names with stuff in German on top – on your Geezer-shaft der Music-froid’s stationary and signed ‘Anton Felix Schindler.’ Schubert’s name is crossed off.”

“What?!” This created the desired distraction as Teabag scurried as fast as he could to the other side of the shelf: what had Buzz found?

I quickly pocketed the post-it note – clearly another ‘fib’ and clearly in Schnellenlauter’s familiar handwriting. This was the clue we were looking for, but what, I wondered, was this list?

There it was – a handwritten list of maybe seven names, submitted by Anton Felix Schindler “Friend of Beethoven.” The first name was Schubert’s and it was crossed off with bold pen-strokes. The next two names were familiar, also: Karl Holz had been the second violinist in Schuppanzig’s quartet that played Beethoven’s last quartets in Vienna and who essentially replaced Schindler as Beethoven’s “amanuensis” when he was on the outs with the annoying Schindler; and Anton Herzog who had once “rescued” a disheveled Beethoven from the police after they found him wandering around lost and confused, arresting him as a vagrant, unable to believe this bum could possibly be the great composer until Herzog was able to identify him.

“Maybe these were people Schindler wanted blackballed from the Gesellschaft because they knew too much about Beethoven’s human side?” Teabag’s finger skimmed the rest of the list. On quick glance, none of them meant anything to me.

“But Schubert wasn’t voted out of the society,” I mentioned. “After he died, they even gave him a memorial concert.”

Teabag stood back with an evil grin on his lips. “True, but he did die about a year-and-a-half after Beethoven died, you know...”

“That’s ominous,” Tony said, moving in for a closer look. “Check out the date.” The paper was dated September 11th, 1828, a little over two months before Schubert died.

I looked closer at the paper. “Could that mean that... that Schubert was murdered?”

“Poisoned by Schindler?” Teabag also leaned in closer. “Hmmm, I wonder...”

That’s when Tony saw something which by its very suddenness, seeing it out of the corner of her eye, peeled her attention away from the list: a large hand reached around from the stack behind us.

And in a flash, Buzz was gone.

To be... continued...

- - - - - - -
Dr. Dick
The Schoenberg Code is a musical parody of Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code. The photo in the header is one of Schoenberg's more expressionistic self-portraits.
© 2009

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