Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Schoenberg Code: Chapter 11

Following the antepenultimate installment in this musical parody of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," we have now reached the anteclimax, setting the scene for the final battle between good and evil in the rather limited if not terribly exciting world of musicillogical studies.

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I.M.P. Agent Al Rovescio arrived at Chez Teabag only to find the place completely deserted. He had been assigned to examine the mysterious bust of Beethoven on the piano. It was apparently a cleverly designed computer server storing a great deal of information. As he doggedly worked his way through the different sound files, he heard several conversations between the man with the hissing voice and the viola player named Nepomuck who was in the video, the guy with the spiky whitish-blond hair. It was enough to prove who the murderer was as well as who the mastermind was, for that matter. What it was they were searching for, however, did not come to light, yet much of the other information that Rovescio could find involved Beethoven, the Immortal Beloved, a mysterious box of letters and numerous libraries and concert halls around the world. From one of the files, he was able to figure out the phone number the man with the hiss was dialing.

He called Agent Solfege with the number and she traced it to a certain Count Johann Nepomuck von Bratsche. He dialed the number but no one answered. Instead he got voice mail: “You have reached Nepomuck but I’m busy practicing the White Viola or otherwise tied up doing your bidding, master, and unable to...” but since he didn’t want to leave a message, he just hung up. That was when he decided to call Hemiola.

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

“Poor guy,” Renfrew thought, looking at Nepomuck all trussed up with duct tape. “Put a mailing label on you and I could ship you anywhere in the USA.”

Nepomuck looked at him cautiously, not knowing what was going to happen now. They had known each other only briefly back in their Glasgow days when both were students and Nepomuck had been teased for being the “Albino of Albion,” but either they failed to recognize each other or chose not to. He had put the tape back over his mouth and around his wrists fairly convincingly, he thought, after he alerted Leighton to the, errr... well, change of plans: at this point, he was wondering how slim the possibilities were of being rescued at all, especially since he still needed to finish the job, even though he still wasn’t quite sure what it was he was looking for. He had just missed a call from The Serpent and did not want to disappoint him again.

“Well, as Mr. Teabag’s servant, it’s my responsibility to see that his guests are looked after and since it is almost dinnertime and you had interrupted our little tea, perhaps I could scare up a little something for you to eat, hmmm?” Renfrew went back to the front of the plane and quickly returned with a china plate piled up with the last of the left-over haggis, apologizing for not having the necessary neeps and tatties to go with it, plus a wine glass of his best vintage Cabernet Sauvignon, though whiskey might be more authentic.

He set the dinner in front of Nepomuck before leaning forward and, with a quick jerk, yanking the duct tape off his mouth. Renfrew mistook the scream for one of agony and smiled, unaware that Nepomuck was thinking he would have to try that again on his own, especially after he hadn’t shaved for a day or two.

While his guest ate, Renfrew let loose with a stream of complaints about life under Teabag but now, he thought, perhaps that was about to end. This “thing” that Nepomuck was hoping to find, this silly box of letters, whatever it was, must be valuable, Renfrew assumed: if it wasn’t worth a lot of money, why would anyone be so interested in finding it? So he proposed a plan and if Nepomuck agreed to it, he would let him loose: then together they would find the letters and cash in on the discovery – together, of course.

Renfrew figured it would be no problem knocking this guy off once he’d served his purpose. Nepomuck agreed, thinking the same thing, since all he had to do was serenade Renfrew with the White Viola and then claim it all for his mentor, Charles Leighton-Quackerly, who this moment was winging his way to Rochester to help him.

One by one, Renfrew ripped off the duct-tape bonds. Nepomuck nearly swooned in ecstasy but knew there wasn’t time to have him tie him back up and do it again.

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

The pilot brought the plane in to Rochester without a hitch, the tank bouncing on empty. He saw the police beginning to swarm and knew that their hijacker would soon be behind bars.

As a music critic in London, Charles Leighton-Quackerly had been used to hijacking public opinion or burgeoning careers, but he’d never actually done a plane before and it was kind of exciting. He stood by the door waiting to deboard thinking he would just hale a cab and arrive at Eastman – where else would the clue be, he thought – in a matter of minutes.

But no sooner had they arrived in Rochester than someone else on the plane stood up and said “Who wants to be in Rochester? I want to go to... to the Virgin Islands! Yeah, take this plane to the Virgin Islands!”

Then a man in a business suit stood up and said “No, I want to go to Hawaii. Pilot, I demand you take this plane to Honolulu!”

It was getting ugly and soon everybody on the plane was standing and hollering, protesting where they would hijack the plane to. With a cabinful of wannabes, the flight attendants retreated into the cockpit just before the police opened the doors.

Seeing no airline personnel, the sergeant shouted and ordered everybody to sit down. “All right. Now... who’s the hijacker?”

Leighton stepped forward and said matter-of-factly, “I’m the hijacker.”

But no sooner had the police trained their guns on him than the man in the suit who wanted to go to Hawaii stood up and said, “I’m the hijacker.” Then another passenger stood up near the back, a young man wearing the pink Spartacus t-shirt, and said “I’m the hijacker.” In a matter of seconds, the entire cabin was again resounding with people standing up and waving their arms – even a 90-year-old woman who needed some assistance with her walker – all claiming to be the hijacker.

It gave Leighton the opportunity to sneak out behind the baffled policemen and stroll down the runway. At least this way, he figured, he’d have first dibs on a cab.

And in minutes, he was left off in front of the Eastman Theater. The question now was, where would Nepomuck be?

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

As they left the roof of the theater, Nepomuck checked his phone and saw a strange number on his message window. A hang-up. It wasn’t The Serpent’s phone that had called him, after all. Perhaps it was a telemarketer or just a haphazardly dialed wrong number. Or, he wondered, had the phone-line been breached? But if so, by whom?

Meanwhile, Renfrew was checking his own phone as they went through the back hallways of the theater. Years before he worked for Teabag, he had been an insider in Washington, walking through the halls of power but not as a lobbyist: he thought going in through the lobby was far too easy. He was more of a second storey kind of guy, himself, which came in handy for the various political parties’ dirty tricks projects he had worked on, planting false evidence in this office or complex bugging devices in that one. The most famous one he’d been involved with concerned a blue dress. So now he could return to the world of adventure, quickly figuring out how he could track down his boss and that annoying Dr. Dick, then eventually the fortune they were all searching for.

Thanks to Teabag’s health and the need to find him in that huge castle should he fall and couldn’t get up, Renfrew had installed a small tracking device on Teabag’s cell phone without his knowledge so he could locate him through the GPS. He smiled as he logged into the system on his own phone: aha, not surprisingly, he was in the library. A cinch. No doubt a cargo bay in the back would get him in without anyone knowing. After all, walking around with a near-albino over six feet tall, all cut and bloody wearing a tattered tuxedo, might be difficult to ignore. But they had to hurry: the surprise would be spoiled if left to simmer too long on the stove.

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

Hemiola barked into the phone. Reception, as usual, was very bad here. Not given clearance to fly Teabag’s helicopter, Accelerando had been forced to land at the nearest airport. The earliest available flight was a commuter plane from Muskrat Airlines that connected with Buffalo. Unfortunately, they had to make stops in Binghamton and Syracuse before they’d reach Rochester. Blame it on the austerity budget imposed on them at the end of the fiscal year.

But he had to admit what Rovescio had found some interesting information. Unfortunately he now had nothing but time on his hands to go back and forth over the possibilities.

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

We ran back to the rare documents reading room only to find it dark and empty. In the distance we heard the soft whoosh of an elevator, so we ran toward it. Teabag impatiently brought up the rear, hobbling along with his cane. I told him he should just meet us in the main lobby. At that point we saw the freight elevator had just reached the ground floor. We got into the other one and soon found ourselves in an open space on the street level of Eastman Place. Across the street we could see the theater.

And there was Buzz, smiling but dazed, as if he were waiting for us.

“What happened,” Tony asked breathlessly, “who grabbed you?” And then she looked at him standing there with his usual clueless grin and added somewhat caustically, “and how did you... uhm... escape?” (Me? I was just relieved we didn’t have to rescue him!)

Buzz tried to explain. “At first, I had no idea. He’d put this cloth over my mouth and I figured it was going to be some ether-like stuff that would knock me out but it smelled sweet and familiar and then I began hearing the Pachelbel Canon in my head which immediately began to relax me, you know? So then I realized I’m being dragged into this elevator but I could hear two men talking. One of them sounded familiar. And, well... by this time I was so relaxed listening to the Pachelbel I just... uhm, slipped into... So, d'you remember the chili?”

We looked at him blankly for a moment before it registered.

“Ewwww, gross!” she laughed.

“Buzz, I’m not sure chemical warfare is sanctioned in the Geneva Conventions, not that it matters any more,” I added, “but I’m glad you’re safe if not sound!”

“I think if I had eaten the whole bowl, they might’ve died. Well, they started gagging and gasping for air so when the elevator opened, they let go of me and went dashing out into the hallway so I was, like, able to slip away. It was... it was that big guy who broke through the window at Teabag’s place? And Renfrew, our pilot!” Looking around, he added, “Yeah, where is Ol’ Teabag, anyway?”

“Uh oh, I had a feeling something’s wrong here.” I felt for the latest post-it-note in my pocket.

I explained that we’re to meet him in the main lobby but I also voiced my reservations about his involvement: that he was in it for the greater glory of what little musicology would have to offer him for his discovery. Is this really what Schnellenlauter wanted us to do? His job was to preserve the Immortal Beloved’s identity, so I highly doubted he’d be telling us all this so we would reveal it to the world – or at least that part of the 3% of the classical CD-buying world who might freakin' care.

“But it seems something was going to be revealed tonight,” Tony said looking back and forth at us. “I mean, today is the Golden Section between the Mozart and Shostakovich anniversary birthdays, it’s Midsummer Day, it’s the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist... and, well... it’s also my mother’s birthday, but hey. Maybe these clues we're finding are meant to reveal something on this day.”

The question, of course, was what.

“Well, here’s something I did find in the library – the list may have been interesting, but I think I found what Schnellenlauter wanted us to find. Something he put into the file himself. I would certainly file this under long-range planning: he couldn’t’ve done this, last night!” I showed them the post-it note and we read it together.


“No coded gibberish to transpose!” Buzz was delighted.

“The magic square – you mean Sator Arepo again?”

“That was apparently a scratch pad Schoenberg was doodling on,” I said, “but I think Schnellenlauter may have slipped it into the Beethoven files years ago, maybe even back when he would visit the school when I was a student here, maybe in some attempt to protect it. But the post-it note is more recent.”

“How can you tell?”

“We didn’t have post-it notes when I was a student.” They looked at me in disbelief, as if I were trying to explain what a rotary-dial phone was.

“So what’s this reference to an identity crisis... you know, that stage of your life where you’re looking to find yourself? Is our next clue in California? Isn’t that where everybody went back in the ‘60s to find themselves?” Buzz thought back to our earlier discussion of the Sator Arepo Square. “How does that translate again? THE SOWER AREPO HOLDS THE WORKS OF THE WHEEL? What the heck does that mean!”

“It doesn’t translate well, no – everybody’s always assumed AREPO was a personal name, maybe some farmer. TENET can mean ‘understand’ as well as ‘hold’... OPERA is the plural of OPUS which we usually think of as ‘work’ but it also means ‘art’ as in ‘art-work.’ Now, ROTAS, for that matter, could be... uhm... accusative plural of ROTA or wheel... but it could also be the 2nd person form of the verb ROTO, to turn... Hey... it just occurred to me... if ‘you turn the works’ could be, like, turning a wheel to create something artistic, like fine pieces of pottery... and the ‘you’ here refers to an intelligent person who could follow such a riddle, maybe an artist... and if this farmer Arepo were maybe the lower-class equivalent of Joe Blow, could it be a statement to remind an artist that ‘The common man understands the art-works you turn out’? I mean, he comprehends them innately without having to be told how they’re put together, without needing to have them explained to him in order to appreciate them? I wonder... hmmmm...”

“Or...” Buzz began thoughtfully, “I dunno, Doc...” I hated it when he called me “Doc.”

“But this clue says ‘One Square’s Magic,’ not ‘THE Magic Square’ – just like he made the distinction between THE Immortal Beloved and AN Immortal Beloved before. He’s been leading us, bit by bit, to clues he’d planted long ago, figuring someday these would be needed to solve something... to answer some questions which might indirectly lead us to the location of the Immortal Beloved’s identity, but only indirectly...”

We thought for a moment. Then Buzz said, “Wait a minute! He’s been sowing the seeds for years so that at this very moment we would understand... the works or clues he’s been spinning along for us all day, now?” His tone of voice moved quickly from confidence to extreme doubt.

That’s when Tony discovered the group of numbers scribbled at the bottom of the note. They were almost too small for my middle-aged eyes to read.

“Look at this – a magic square. Okay, so it’s a very simple one, just three numbers, but look at the numbers! It only uses 1, 2 and 3.” She felt all tingly again as if she were on the verge of some important discovery. She pointed it out to us as we focused on the small piece of paper: there were the ‘dal segno’ signs in the usual pyramid shape and in the bottom center, a small square:

2 1 3
3 2 1
1 3 2

“If you read them in any direction – like your Sator Arepo palindrome – their sum is always 6.”

“And I don't think ‘stage’ is that ‘stage in life,’ I think he means a literal stage! And where around here do they perform operas?” Buzz pointed theatrically across the street: the Eastman Theater. “And on the stage, singers come down to the front – where you need to be careful about your lighting? To make things clearer to the audience?? Like an aside that the other characters can’t hear???” His dramatic over-acting increased exponentially with each question-mark.

“You’re saying ‘6' is a light cue?” Tony was skeptical but we had nothing else to go on.

“Hey, I’m on a roll! Work with me!” Buzz took off toward the front door. “Andale, andale, Arepo! Arepo! Yee-hah!” And in a flash he was speeding across the street.

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

Charles Leighton-Quackerly was not a man to be taken lightly, especially considering his ample girth. What was the point of having all this weight if he couldn’t throw it around a little? He delighted how, in London, artists quaked in their so-called fashionable boots awaiting his esteemed and knowledgeable opinions delivered in the morning paper like a personal edict from the Pope. A scathing review by Charles Leighton-Quackerly had had the power to put on hold if not actually destroy more than one promising career, especially if they were performing new music. He hated that term as much as he hated the music: what was so great about being “new”?

He had long arguments with people who complained that the world did not end in 1900, people he thought were simple-minded enough to be easily deluded by the Modern Music Guys into thinking their music had any relevance to Great Art. He blamed Arnold Schoenberg for destroying the beauty of music: to him, Beauty was everything. Oh, he could overlook the dissonance in Beethoven, maybe even in Mahler, because it always came back to something beautiful and thrilling as if to prove that this was the Right Stuff and all that ugliness that had gone before was the Wrong Stuff, losing out in the battle of Good versus Evil. With the exception of Rachmaninoff, anybody writing music after 1900 deserved to be forgotten and quickly, too. They were just a flash in the bedpan, as he often wrote: they would all disappear while Beethoven would survive and remain supreme. That, he felt, was his mission in life, spreading the Gospel of the Maestro. That was why he turned the Penguins of God onto a more activist path, seceding completely from the control of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. What was the point of having the musical equivalent of the Salvation Army if it didn’t actually behave like an army?

That was why he was in Rochester right now, this god-forsaken little town that had only two seasons – Winter and the 4th of July – with its piddly little music school that couldn’t hold a candle to any of the great schools of London: he was here to protect Beethoven. If he could find that stupid box of letters that had eluded Schindler’s grasp, he could destroy any proof that Beethoven had ever fallen to so human a level, this superhuman hero who had created the greatest music that had ever penetrated the ear of mere mortals.

Strutting into the front lobby of the Eastman Theater, he laughed his well-known high-pitched, nasal laugh, a braying outburst more than one musician thought sounded like the call of the Spheniscus demersus, more popularly known as the Jackass Penguin. He did not care for the reference, especially since he considered himself the Grand Emperor of the Penguins of God: “jackass” aside, he was more imposing than these popular little penguins that were, as far as he was concerned, just too cute for their own good.

The empty lobby reverberated as if he stood in the midst of a rookery full of penguins. But he had work to do. Surely Nepomuck must be around here somewhere! He sniffed the air with his beak-like nose, hoping to discover some tell-tale whiff of cheese, perhaps.

The concert hall was his favorite environment, the scene of many triumphs, squashing hopeful careers under the sharp-pointed foot of an impeccably turned phrase. The theater may have been empty but the stage was set up for a concert that evening – he had seen the lobby poster announcing the piano concerto of his despicable nemesis, Arnold Schoenberg. Perhaps he could manage to fit in a scathing review after all: who was this pianist named Klavdia Klangfarben that her career would not wither under his glare? And perhaps this young Russian conductor he’d been reading about, Samiel Skorishumnikov, too. Shostakovich and Schoenberg on the same program with just some token Mozart: how outrageous!

Perhaps there was still time to infiltrate the orchestra just like he had the Boston Symphony, where one of his most trusted agents surreptitiously tripped James Levine at the end of a concert – and they thought he fell, he added with a chortle. Though now it looked like Dear Jimmy would recover to conduct Elliott Carter another day. “Curses,” he thought: what was the first thing he was scheduled to perform after his recuperation? Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1! The same program from the night he “fell.” And the sacrilege of following it with Beethoven’s sublime Ninth! Next time, Leighton muttered, his agent will have to be more... thorough!

He shuffled through the empty theater and headed backstage. Pulling his black overcoat more tightly around him and straightening the mellifluous white cravat of his old-fashioned tuxedo, he hobbled up the steps and disappeared behind the curtain.

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

Running into the backstage hallways of the Eastman Theater, Nepomuck and Renfrew cursed their luck as they managed finally to get their breath.

“That was a close call!” Renfrew was still panting from his near-fatal experience. “The old man is around here somewhere... drat, the GPS is kind of vague in all this stone and marble. Can’t get a read on him. Let’s duck in here, shall we?”

Nepomuck hoisted the viola case down off his shoulder before pushing the door to the green room open. Standing in the middle of the room was a large ovoid figure in black. When he turned around, Nepomuck recognized him immediately.

“Ah, Nepomuck, welcome to my underground lair!”

“Master, it’s you! You made it!”

“AACK!” Renfrew’s blood ran cold. There, standing in front of him, was the largest, meanest, ugliest-looking penguin he had ever seen.

Leighton stuck his long pointy nose in Renfrew’s face. “What’s the matter with you, boy!?” He broke into a barrage of braying laughs. Renfrew stumbled back into the hallway.

All Renfrew could see was the starved gleam in the eyes and the gnashing of penguin teeth coming at him. “Don’t eat me, please don’t eat me,” he stammered over and over again as he slithered into unconsciousness.

“This one’s useless – truss him up with that gaffer’s tape there, will you, and stuff him into this locker.” Leighton didn’t want to get his tuxedo dirty. After all, he had more important work to do. Nepomuck looked like a little more dirt and sweat wouldn’t matter. “What happened to you, anyway?” he asked with little immediate sympathy.

“It has all gone very wrong, Master. I have failed you. But I think we may be very close to the end, soon.”

“God, I hope so, I don’t think I could stand another chapter!”

“No, no, I mean Dr. Dick is getting closer to finding the letters. I think they must be here”

“That would be good news, yes, and I think they are in the theater, now.” Leighton turned toward the stage.

“You can hear them?”

“I have the sharpest ears known to man, Nepomuck. That’s why I’m such a great critic. Now, get your viola ready. There’s dirty work afoot!”

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

The stage was ready for that evening’s concert. The piano had been pushed back to the side, the chairs and stands all in place following the rehearsal of the Shostakovich 10th. A microphone stood by the podium in readiness. Everything awaited the musicians’ arrival: it was a magical moment when the hall was silent, before music would fill the air with its beauty, its drama, its ability to speak through the ages to the depths of the modern soul.

I walked briskly out to the front of the stage and looked around in the near darkness. No one had said a word yet. I always relished moments like this, especially with a theater this beautiful, the enormous chandelier barely visible above me. There was an amazing system of catwalks and crannies above this ceiling with its rosettes, much more delicate in real life than it looked, so I was told by students who’d been up there – like the friend of mine who claimed to have been one of the feather dumpers during an 1812 Overture performance that had become legendary. A box of letters – how big are we talking, here, I wondered – it could be hidden anywhere up there: lights and shadows, it almost made me dizzy thinking about it.

“Found it,” Buzz hollered from the back.

“Hit it,” I shouted back to him, and with a whir, the floor beneath me started to shake. “No, no, that’s not it, that’s the hydraulic lift for the orchestra pit.” I jumped back onto the main part of the stage just in time. Luckily, that was where the piano would go for the Schoenberg, so the whole apron was empty. Quietly and quickly, in a matter of seconds, the stage floor had descended all the way to the basement. It was quite a precipice.

“But that was No. 6 on the panel.”

“Are you sure that’s the lighting board? I can’t see anything else back here.” Tony was on the other side and I heard her kick something, maybe a wastebasket. The light on stage was fairly dim, but enough to see where you were going. Behind the stage wall was another matter.

From the direction of stage left, I heard a door squeak open. In the light from the lobby I could see the silhouette of a tall craggy man leaning on a cane. It was Teabag.

“Dr. Dick,” he said, his voice whining with annoyance, “have you forgotten you were to meet me in the lobby? I’ve been waiting ever so long for you!” He slowly climbed the wooden steps that had been placed at the side of the stage. “Did you find Buzz?”

“Yes – yes, in fact, we did, Lance, but something came up suddenly and I, uhm... thought... there was something in here that... you know,” I said, lamely peering around, “would help us find the next clue.”

“Really?” By now he stood on the edge of the stage. “That is good news. Tell me where you think it is.”

“I’m not sure yet, it’s just a...” I was looking around trying to find some light but only found plenty of shadow.

Then there was a loud honking cackle from the opposite side of the stage. Charles Leighton-Quackerly waddled out into the pool of shadows on stage right. “Yes, Dr. Dick, tell us where it is, won’t you? We’d all love to know!”

I wheeled around. Who the hell was this?!

Other doors opened up as if on cue: Buzz appeared, back by the piano, and over on the opposite side, where the basses would be, I saw Tony steal on-stage. But then a door at the very back, behind the risers where the trombones would sit, opened slowly and I saw the big guy with the shredded tux, his whitish-blond hair glowing eerily in the half-light, creep out onto the stage, carrying a viola under his arm. Pausing a moment to tighten the hairs of his bow, he was getting ready to play.

Surely there must be an easier way to arrange an audition, I thought. I turned to face him as Tony, sounding alarmed, called out to me, “Look out, Dr. Dick – he’s got a viola!”

To be continued...

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Dr. Dick
© 2009

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