Friday, October 02, 2009

The Schoenberg Code: Chapter 8

In the previous installment, our heroes found out that their plans, such as the were, were going to be changing: instead of tracking down Schoenberg's secret, it looked like it was Beethoven's secret, now. Was this, like, some weird reality game show? Eventually, today's installment will end with the ultimate cliff hanger. (Maybe the penultimate one... give or take a couple.)

- - - - - - -

In the ruins of Teabag’s library, Hemiola was having no luck questioning Heliotrope and the butler, Riff-Raff. The guy at the piano, when they finally got him to stop, apparently had a severe case of amnesia, like he’d just been washed up on the beach. All he kept saying was something that sounded like “Horror show,” and that - no doubt about it - it was. Hemiola felt he was getting nowhere presto agitato.

Agent Accelerando, out of breath as usual, reported no sign of Dr. Dick and his cronies or of Lance Teabag. It was as if they’d vanished into thin air. Agent Sforzando, punctuating his report with sharp blasts of sneezes – “dust, no doubt... from the cleaning accident,” Heliotrope pointed out – could find nothing, either.

Agent Fermata brought everything to a screeching halt when he went to help Heliotrope straighten up the mess on the piano, picking up the over-sized bust of Beethoven, much to Riff-Raff’s dismay. It seemed “the Master” never wanted them to touch it: it was very valuable and...

That’s when they heard the voices of Sforzando and Hemiola coming from the bust – something about a stupid professor, a stupid clue and then a stupid joke about erectile dysfunction which Hemiola declared he had yet to have any concerns about.

“Shut that thing off! Jeez,” Hemiola said, his face reddening as if he knew where this was going and didn’t need anybody else to hear it. Fermata put it back down and it stopped. “Where did that come from!?”

Sforzando said, “that was us talking back at the Carnegie Hall dressing room” – [insert sneeze here] – “remember? It must be” – [another sneeze] – “a listening device.”

Fermata picked it up to examine it again when it played another sound-byte, this time a man who had a speech impediment like a hissing snake.

“Sssssso, Nepomuck... you have your sssspecial viola ready for your big ssssssssolo thissss evening?”

“Yes, Master.” The second voice sounded deep but dumb, almost as if hypnotized. “I have practiced for hours.”

“You will visit firsssst the Polish woman... then the French guy... and by then, Sssschnellenlauter will be done with his rehearsssssal?”

Just then, the laptop on the fireplace mantle clicked into action and, after a little bit of whirring, started to play a video, opening a page from YouTube. When Fermata put the bust down to go look at it himself, the film froze.

“Keep that up,” Hemiola demanded. Accelerando tried to stifle a chuckle. “Okay then, just hold it, Fermata!” He glared at Accelerando who hummed a few bars of “Fools rush in” and looked away.

The video resumed. It looked like it had been recorded on a cheap phone. A large-built guy in a tuxedo was playing a viola. He had blondish-white spiky hair and his right eyebrow was pierced. His viola, slightly larger than the typical instrument, was also odd: it was almost pure white but with the grainy picture or a cheap camera, there was no way to know for sure. In the background, practically every inch of space was filled with a vast array of stuffed toys of various sizes and shapes, all penguins. Easily hundreds of them.

When the violist paused to take a full attack on a note on the lowest string, he stopped and turned toward the cam with an evil grin.

“And this, master, is where I start playing the wolf-tone.”

“Sssssplendid, ssssplendid. That should do more than knock their sssssocks off.” And then the video cut off. It had nearly 1,400 hits already.

Hemiola leaned against the mantle in disbelief. Just then, a side panel opened up and there stood a very confused looking Agent Libitum.

“Ha! I was wondering where this one led to!” He had been able to trail their suspects easily enough, after discovering another passage way in an adjacent room. “Follow me,” he said, and with that, they were off.

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

“What do you mean, Rochester,” he said in disbelief. “I’m supposed to land any minute now in New York City! Why would anyone be going to Rochester!?” Charles Leighton-Quackerly was not amused.

“I can’t talk much,” Nepomuck whispered, telling him he was supposed to be bound and gagged but since it was government regulation duct-tape, it had been easy to extricate himself. “The clue we seek is at Eastman. I need your help.”

“Alright, alright, since you put it that way. Just wrap yourself back up and play dumb.” That shouldn’t be too hard, he thought. “Why couldn’t it have been at Juilliard? Aargh!”

While the in-flight movie, “Catch Me If You Can,” was nearing completion, he approached a flight attendant and whispered in her ear. She took him to the cockpit and told the pilot this man had a bomb. Leighton told the pilot to reroute the flight to Rochester, NY.

“I can’t do that, sir: against regulations.”

Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out a DVD box and said menacingly, “I have a copy of Ben Affleck’s ‘Gigli’ and I know how to play it!”

With that, the plane immediately started to climb.

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

“It's not really a code, I know, but it certainly must give you some clue to what was going on in the composer's mind when he wrote it, some association. I mean, why did he choose, of all the tunes he could have used, 'Ach, du lieber Augustin'?”

Tony looked at me as if to say, “Yeah, what's that all about!?”

Buzz, starting on his second drink, looked back and said to me, “Yeah, what's that all about, anyway!?”

“Do you know what the song means, Buzz?”

“Well, no – it's a children's song, probably nonsense, I guess.”

“Not exactly – the refrain, 'Alles ist hin,' means 'All is gone.' What's gone? Well, one verse says the money's gone, the girlfriend's gone.”

There was a glimmer of understanding from Tony who sat up when she mentioned lines from the poem Schoenberg set as the next movement of his ground-breaking 2nd String Quartet – “lines about killing longing, closing the wound, taking away love and granting him peace. What was going on in his life when he wrote it? Everybody talks about how important the piece is, how the last movement is, like, the first truly atonal piece – what's the opening line, 'I feel the air of a different planet'? But I've never heard it live and I have no idea where it fits in to his biography.”

I explained how Schoenberg had taken up painting a couple years earlier and was working with a guy named Richard Gerstl who ended up painting several portraits of Schoenberg's wife, Mathilde.

“To make a long story not quite so long,” I began to explain in my typically verbose fashion, “basically she and the painter started having an affair. In June, she took the children off to the town where they were going to have their summer vacation – Schoenberg would join them later, along with some of his students and some other friends... including Gerstl. He'd already known about the affair and had already confronted his wife about it. I mean, in two or three weeks, she wrote him some twenty letters about it, how he was always brow-beating her and so on.”

“No wonder she had an affair...” Tony shook her head.

“Yeah, Schoenberg was no easy guy to live with, I'd be pretty sure of that. Anyway, he arrived at their holiday retreat about the same time Gerstl did. Then a week later, he gets a copy of a new volume of Stefan George's poems and he decides to pick up the sketches he'd started the year before of this unfinished string quartet. The first movement was done; the scherzo, not quite. So knowing what was going on in his life...”

My voice trailed off and Tony finished the sentence. “Maybe 'Alles ist hin' was running through his mind like one of those ear-worms you can't get out of your head?”

“Could be. He never explained why it was there and it makes perfect sense to me. Then he wrote the two songs that conclude the quartet, something so unexpected, just like that weird-sounding quotation of a seemingly innocent children's song.”

After a thoughtful silence as the plane sped high over the landscape of upstate New York, I continued the story, how he had finished the quartet probably by August and then caught his wife and Gerstl in flagrante delicto not long afterwards. “Mathilde left with Gerstl; Schoenberg went back to Vienna; his student Webern talked her into going back to her husband which she did, though reluctantly. So, in early November, Gerstl burned several of his paintings and sketches, stabbed himself and then finally hung himself, naked, in front of a mirror.

“So he could watch himself die? Ewwww...” Buzz sank uncomfortably lower in his seat.

“The quartet was premiered a few days before Christmas – another disaster: everybody started laughing when they heard 'Ach, du lieber Augustin' – and then in February the work was published with a dedication, 'To my wife'...”

“Sweet,” Buzz said with dripping irony. Tony glared at him.

“Do you think there's any kind of secret musical message buried in the pitches – motives built on names or a place where he describes... oh, I don't know...” Tony was trying to think of any one of those events or emotions the composer must have experienced.

“You mean, a passage that sounds like his wife and his friend going... uhm...” But Buzz realized it was not the time to make a rude joke. I missed the glare Tony threw his way but figured it was dark enough to stop him in his tracks. Sheepishly, Buzz continued nursing his bitten foot for some time, after that.

“But now, take Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, his first major work after Stalin’s death,” I continued, “Not only does he use his own ‘monogram’ in the last movement – D. SCH. – there’s also another person represented in the slow movement.”

“You mean that horn call? I’ve wondered about that: it sounds like something with a special meaning,“ Tony felt. “It never changes and it’s repeated constantly.”

By now, Buzz was starting to sleep off the affects of his second Dominant 7th. Teabag watched out the window impatiently, listening only half-heartedly.

“It’s a five-note figure – E-A-E-D-A – and sounds like something out of Mahler’s ‘Song of the Earth’ – from ‘The Drunken Man in Spring,’ in fact,” I added, looking over at Buzz, “but then everybody knew what an influence Mahler’s music was on Shostakovich so nobody paid any more attention to it. Until...” I said, pausing for effect, “some letters were made public about 15 years after he died. The woman who had kept them a secret almost forty years finally showed a student of hers the letters Shostakovich had written to her around the time he was writing... the 10th. Love letters.”

“They were lovers?” This was a composer she admired and it was just a surprise that great composers could be human, too.

“Not sure if that’s the right word: she was in Baku, in Azerbaijan, he was in Moscow most of this time, but she was clearly some kind of muse. Her name was Elmira.”

“How do you get E-A-E-D-A out of E-L-M-I-R-A?”

“In this case, a different way of translating letters into pitches, using Italian solfege – those do-re-mi syllables – where “la” would be A, “mi” would be E and “re” would be D. So he substitutes A for the L for “la,” then uses another E for the M-I... and finally, the pitch D or “re” instead of R. It’s all very simple. And then this is where he introduces his DSCH motive as well, intertwining his name with hers.”

“Oh.” Her thoughts were full of romantic notions: how sweet. “But what is the significance of that? I mean, for the whole symphony? To me, it sounds like the whole point was his celebrating having survived the Stalin years.”

“Well, since nobody’s found anything in Shostakovich’s own handwriting to explain it, anything would be just conjecture,” I said, looking sidelong at Teabag who’s made a career of such leaps of imagination in the past. He was clearly bored by all this talk: been there/done that.

“However,” I continued, “there’s another quote that most people are not aware of, even if you read the program notes about the two musical signatures. The dark brooding opening of the symphony is based on a theme he quoted from one of his own songs written years earlier, setting a poem by Pushkin, ‘What is in my name?’ The title alone implies these signatures would have some significance.”

“But what?”

“If you figure years – decades – from now, your little secret was to be forgotten, or you yourself would be forgotten, your music buried somewhere, how important is your name? The last lines of the poem are something like ‘Say my name quietly to yourself so my memory doesn’t vanish... that in one heart, I am still alive.’ Something to that affect...”

“Wow...” She was deep in thought.

“Speaking of names, Tony...”

“Ah, yes... well...” She took a deep breath and looked out her side of the plane as it sped across the countryside toward Rochester. “My mother named me Philomel which I always hated: I mean, who else is named Philomel? When I was in school, kids started calling me Phil or – worse – Mel... I built up a secret fantasy world where I was named something exotic and I liked the sound of Antoinette, for some reason, even after I found out about the Queen of France. So when I was old enough to move away from home and go off to music school, I changed my name legally. My last name, too – I just wanted to break away from Mom and Dad.”

Her momentary silence indicated some wistful memories, perhaps not unpleasant after all the years of estrangement.

“I mean, Andy and Fern Geliebter – what a pair, you know?” There was some pain in her voice. “You knew Mom in school: you knew what her dreams were. They were both frustrated musicians... I used to think ‘failed musicians’ – they just never realized their dreams and I imagine it was painful enough for them without me mucking it up. They just didn’t want me to go off and become a musician, too, and have to deal with the same problems they’d had, not being good enough or having to sacrifice so much to make a living and then, I guess, just shelving it to do something more practical. There really wasn’t much else I wanted to do – I felt I had music in my blood, I guess. Their final curse, after all, wasn’t it? So yeah, I did the whole math major thing, since I was good at it in school – I even chose my last name, Avoirdupois, not just because it sounded sexy but if they were failed musicians, I wanted to be a failed mathematician with a mathematical name...”

“It beats Antoinette Tetrahedron...”

She smiled, turning to look at me. “Yeah, one of my friends actually suggested that one.” Then she wrinkled her nose. I hadn’t realized how cute she looked, or how her eyes could be such a deep blue.

“Are you happy? I mean, now that you’re a musician?” I could sense we were becoming more intimate on this level. In the distance, I could hear the big tune from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Buzz, in his stupor, began clearing his throat.

“Oh yeah, definitely. I play in a really cool orchestra which I help manage – the math actually comes in handy with operating the budget and all that (musicians are so totally helpless when it comes to things like that), so yeah, I’m happy. For now. And I love my viola.”

“Philomel, though... think about it. I mean, the name is both mathematical and musical.”

“It is?” She looked at me quizzically. This apparently had never occurred to her.

“We’ve been talking so much about the Fibonacci numbers and the Golden Section. You know the Greek symbol for the Golden Section is ‘Phi’?”

“Of course – oh, wait! The first three letters of my name!”

“And the last three letters – M-E-L – is short for Melody. In all, eight letters – PHI plus LO plus MEL – which is 5 (or 3+2) + 3. So I’d say it’s almost a perfect name, wouldn’t you?” How much of a geek must you be to find the Fibonacci numbers such a fascination?

“Except,” she hesitated, “what does L-O stand for?”

“Well, I said almost perfect...” It would be pretty difficult to turn it into a musical motif, though, if I wanted to enshrine her in a piece I could compose, maybe a viola sonata. Now, if I had her social security number, I could turn that into a theme, translating pitches into numbers. If C is 0 and C-sharp is 1 and so on, all the way up the chromatic scale to B which becomes 11, that could be easy enough. I could use her phone number, I guess, but she might change that and then I’d have to rewrite my sonata.

Buzz was practically convulsed in an attack of throat-clearing. He awoke with a snort.

“Bad dream, Buzzie?” Teabag leaned forward, sounding very solicitous.

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

After breathlessly running through dark and winding corridors that led further and further down, the policemen found themselves standing in a large room, something between a garage and a... well, Libitum thought it looked like an airport hangar. There was a pile of duct tape to the one side, a tank and some boxes, large strange-looking drums and a wall full of tools and strange-looking parts on the other, not that a musician would know anything about tools and auto-parts anyway.

Fermata was the first to speak up. “Wait – what’s that?”

Sforzando had stopped sneezing, thankfully – with his allergies, he was getting to be almost as bad as one of the older agents, Inspector Hockett, who had to retire while still middle aged because of his severe hiccups – and pointed to the light switch he saw at the opposite end of the room.

“Guys, I hate to ask this again but...” Hemiola looked around at his men. “Who stayed behind with those three characters back in the library?” Just then, he could hear the faint strain of the Ride of the Valkyries: his cell-phone was receiving a call. “Great – they could lock the secret entrance and we’ll be stuck in here forever. Good goin’!” He started his trademark nervous pacing again as he answered his phone. He could barely hear who was on the other end.

“We can always get out through the garage door, here, sir.” Accelerando flipped the switch they’d all been looking at and suddenly – and very quietly – a great doorway opened up in front of them. Hemiola by then was only a few steps away from the entrance and started to walk out onto the runway to find better reception for his phone when he realized there was, in fact, no runway: it was a sheer drop down the cliff!

“Can you hear me NOWWWW?” He almost dropped the phone trying to correct his balance.

It was Agent Al Rovescio who had been walking his beat around the crime scene when he made a discovery. While patrolling from the front of Carnegie Hall around to the back and then studiously retracing his steps, he stumbled upon something of a witness.

Meanwhile, the others were gazing in awe over Manhattan and the Hudson River below them, wondering what manner of vehicle Dr. Dick could have escaped in: even a small private plane would need some kind of runway and another helicopter would have been audible even over the pounding pianist in the library. Accelerando imagined some kind of pterodactyl-like air-craft that just fell of the cliff-face before gliding out into the air-currents but Libitum laughed that he’d been reading too much Calvin and Hobbes lately. Fermata held up his hand for silence when Hemiola impatiently waved his arm at them to shut up.

Libitum tried to follow Hemiola’s side of the conversation but was distracted by an odd glint off in the distance, like the sun reflecting off a skyscraper’s windows except this was high over the city. There couldn’t be anything there that high, could there?

“Great news, Agent Rovescio! Tell me more.” But as he relayed the report to Sforzando, who was hurriedly scribbling it down in the casebook, their jaws dropped.

Then he noticed an odd glint of sunlight over Manhattan swiftly darting off to the northwest: it was gone in a flash.

With no idea what could possibly happen next, they just stood there in the cliff-hangar.

To be continued...

- - - - - - -
Dr. Dick
Author's note: The Schoenberg Codeis a musical parody by Dick Strawser of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.
© 2009

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