Monday, April 30, 2012
The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 3
In the previous installment of The Doomsday Symphony, our narrator, Richard Kerr, attended a summer concert that passed not without some difficulties, especially an over-the-top and under-the-bar performance by a once acclaimed pianist. Now, it's off to the old Crevecoeur farmhouse for dinner and a read-through of a recently discovered work by his mentor, Sebastian Crevecoeur.
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Sebastian used to say "for every accounting of a person's life, there was an equal and opposite recounting." No matter how your life would read officially, there was always something more – deeper layers, different viewpoints – that you'd probably never want others to know about. Those in the public eye were more susceptible to this kind of scrutiny but then he'd joke how, as a living composer, his life "wasn't exactly public, was it?" No one would really be interested in him until he was dead, any way. Though he had several compositions performed around the world and a few recorded, Sebastian Crevecoeur wasn't exactly a household name even in those rarefied "new music circles."
Before I started teaching at Cutler University, I had heard of him but had never heard any of his music. What I'd read about him, once I applied to teach there, led me to assume I would like his music, but since this naive evaluation had led to disappointment with other composers before, I thought it best to reserve judgment until I had a chance to acquaint myself with the music he wrote. Besides, liking the music did not necessarily mean I would like the person who wrote it. And the opposite would prove true often enough, as well.
Sebastian had taken me under his wing from the day of my interview, and was quick to support me after I was officially hired, helping me acclimate myself to life at the college and in the community. It was through a friend of his that I managed to find my apartment and it was two of his grad students who helped me with the physical process of moving in, once I'd dragged everything up from home. The first faculty home I'd been invited into for a sociable dinner was Sebastian and Alina Crevecoeur's. Despite the classy-sounding names, they were two very down-to-earth people, unpretentious, a bit bohemian and for some of their colleagues, maybe even a bit low-brow. Their home was simple, the menu "no-frills" and the overall attitude so realistic, it was one of the more pleasant moments I had, adjusting myself to my new environment.
Actually, I saw his music before I heard it. Classes had not officially started yet when I stopped by his studio one afternoon unannounced. Instead of sorting out paperwork for his first classes as others were doing, Sebastian was going over the final touches of a new manuscript, a string quartet he'd just finished copying, a commission for the faculty quartet who'd scheduled the premiere for the springtime. Pushing the score toward me, he said students of his would copy the parts for him: that was the real drudgery of being a composer, he said, glad to pay someone to take it off his hands.
Paging through the score, the first thing that crossed my mind was how music like this, more complex and intellectually conceived than I was anticipating, could have been composed by a man as everyday-looking as this man. Perhaps people in Vienna in the 1820s had a similar "disconnect" when they heard Beethoven's last quartets, then saw a man so unkempt he had once been arrested as a vagrant.
Middle-aged, which he joked meant "aged around the middle," Sebastian was of "middling" height and "middle-of-the-road" about the way he dressed, too casual for some of his colleagues but not sloppy enough to be branded eccentric. There was nothing really remarkable about the way he looked or acted. When he stood up to take a bow after a performance of his music, some might scratch their heads and think, "That's not what I expected him to look like." He seemed to delight in this.
He pulled the score back with an apology, then said, "Let's go down to the Canteen and get some lunch. I'm starving." Sebastian placed the score on a shelf behind his desk and we were off.
The official biography, the short-version, would sum up the important highlights – birth and, eventually, death; lists of works, important premieres, any prizes on the trophy shelf of life, important professional positions as well as teachers and famous students (if applicable); a choice critical reaction, perhaps; and from the personal world, mentions of names – parents, spouse, children, survivors – but little more. In other words, a curriculum vitae turned mortis.
Such a biography would tell you that a work was written, but not why or how. If there was anything beneath its surface, unless the composer left some specific reference that could be quoted and proven, it will go unmentioned. It might not be important what a composer had for breakfast the day he completed the work that almost won him the Pulitzer Prize that year but the fact he'd broken off the closest friendship of his life the week before he started it could be.
What's more important: the fact his latest string quartet divides clearly according to the proportions of the Golden Section, down to the smallest structural details, or why the composer thought that was significant? Experts may analyze its technical details but who would sift through the disparate details of a personal life to patch together the individual who created it?
What about the unknown works, ones he didn't create, the ones tossed out as unworthy or left incomplete and put aside to be reconsidered, then forgotten? What about the dreams he had and those he never realized?
It had been no secret years of academic politics had worn him down and in frustration he abruptly resigned. Fortunately, Juilliard thought he was enough of a catch to offer him an appointment. He felt he had jumped off a cliff and landed on his feet in the middle of a rose garden, from the frying pan into paradise.
There was always that undercurrent of surprise, rippling out from the tide-pools of political in-fighting, that he'd been pushed from Cutler rather than leaping on his own. But the step up was seen as a culmination.
Depending on whom a biographer might ask among his former colleagues, there were those who'd say it was a quiet compromise, some gentleman's agreement reached between him and the Dean but left in private, going no further than enticing innuendo; others could say it was a rash decision. And really, who would know which ones were telling the truth?
But the pattern repeated itself. Four years later, it was announced simply that Sebastian Crevecoeur was retiring. The facts were these: having found an old farmhouse in the Pennsylvania Poconos where he would spend his weekends and summers, it came as a surprise to no one when a few years later, able to retire at the age of 62, he chose to leave the hassles of academic life and the hectic pace of New York behind him to pursue creative endeavors without intrusion, though he did say (officially) that at least he would miss his students.
That's what one biographer might report. Those who knew and those who thought they knew considered past rumors and drew their own conclusions. But the facts themselves did not explain the "funk" Sebastian found himself in that first summer when, instead of being busy in his studio, he sat in the back yard and got drunk every day.
Before, he'd find an idea, work out the possibilities, grab hold of something and thrash it into submission – for him, creativity was always physical – but after he found himself with all the time in the world, it took all the time he had to find an idea. Rather than work at it, he chose to sit and wait. "Inspiration," he told me, "is where you find it: temptation finds you." The farm's tranquility, initially, had helped activate his mind. Alina noticed he had suddenly begun writing again. But eventually, as time passed, inspiration came less frequently.
As Sebastian adjusted to retirement, the routine of days and weeks turned into months. Eventually, he'd find an idea somewhere, then sit at the piano for a few days, long enough for the drinking to stop. He scratched out some possibilities, then took them out to the back yard, letting them stretch into something that might become a piece. But the initial fertility gave way to increasing challenges. He might eventually finish one, reluctantly leaving it go out into the world. In many cases, they were met with indifferent success which made things more difficult.
That last summer when I was visiting them for a week, Victor stopped by unexpectedly. That night, I heard a loud discussion down by the pond between father and son. By breakfast, Victor had already left. He never cared for the farm. His career, everything, he argued, was in New York, "where the life was." The farm was pointless.
Away from the stress of academic life, Sebastian, according to his wife, became more reflective, less nervous – almost happy. Eventually, he'd managed to quit smoking and, finally, drinking, spending hours locked up in his study, writing. So it was a complete surprise, one night, his announcing calmly over dinner how he'd just burned the sketches for several new works.
The disappointments of these past several years had probably been welling up inside Sebastian then, but something else must have happened that summer. Whatever it was, it clearly hit him harder than anyone was aware of.
Looking forward to Zoe's first extended summer visit – unlike her father, the child was fascinated by the farm, and loved to look out across the back yard, watching several deer scampering around during last year's Christmas holiday – Sebastian was crushed when Victor, leaving for a month's vacation in Paris, suddenly announced Zoe would be staying with his in-laws instead.
During that visit, we'd sat in the backyard or walked around the pond, talking about music, about getting older, about what we wanted to compose or how to deal with what we hesitated calling failure. He saw himself as sunlight reflected in a drop of water, reminding me you needed millions of such drops to create a rainbow.
Still, he'd seemed up-beat a few days earlier, talking about a new piece for orchestra, something different for him and challenging.
Then a week later, Alina called to tell me Sebastian had drowned himself in the pond.
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To be continued...
- Dick Strawser
The novel, "The Doomsday Symphony," a music appreciation thriller written between 2010 and 2011, is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.