Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 4

In the previous installment of The Doomsday Symphony, Richard Kerr was reminiscing about his friend, Sebastian Crevecoeur, who had died over twenty-five years ago.

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Chapter 4
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I was not the last to arrive at the farmhouse nor was I the only one who managed to get lost. The drive down White Crow Road was straight-forward, but after the side road headed toward the village of Hill Top, after missing my turn, I twisted around on something appropriately called Lonesome Ridge Road until, in the midst of an unfamiliar pine forest, I saw the dilapidated sign and the barely recognizable, nearly invisible turn-off for "Belle Coeur Farm." The first thing that occurred to me was, how would anyone find this at night?

Cars were scattered around the edge of the drive, across the front of the house and toward the pond a few hundred feet down a slight incline beyond the barn. I found a spot to park not far from the pond. It felt wonderfully cooler in the woods, though still officially in the upper-80s. Frankly, every little bit helped.

There was not as much of a clearing across the front of the house as I remembered, the road almost completely invisible now behind the trees and underbrush. But then it had been almost ten years since I was last at the farm. Had so many things changed? Perhaps I wasn't remembering them as accurately as I should have. Walking up the steps into the front hall, I recognized several people who'd been at the concert, some of whom Victor had already introduced me to: with any luck, I wouldn't need to address anyone by name.

Victor immediately came over to greet me, pointing out how little, actually, had changed inside the house – much of the same furniture in nearly the same places, especially the old 1870s Steinway grand with its perforated music rack in pride of place in the Big Parlor. A young man standing near me volunteered to help with the drinks and Zoe led him out into the kitchen. Victor took me off to the room that had been Sebastian's study. There was the same, massive mahogany roll-top desk, something he was able to date back to 1897.

The whole house seemed like a museum. Whatever happened to that young banker who was so impatient to get back to New York City? On the desk was a family photo taken with three generations, Zoe holding her first violin, standing beside her little brother Philip, seated on Victor's knee. Behind them stood Sebastian and Alina, beamingly proud grandparents.

Victor unlocked one of the side drawers, carefully pulling out an old yellowed envelope which he handed to me. It was faded and brittle, clearly already old when his father died.

"Where did you find this?"

Victor turned to look out the window, as if giving me privacy to view the manuscript and connect with an old, long-lost friend. Holding it made Sebastian feel closer than he'd ever been since the weeks after the funeral. Of course, the fact the house hadn't changed since then made it feel even more like he'd never really left.

Nothing was written on the envelope beyond a printed logo in the upper left corner, the return address for a music shop in Hartford that had gone out of business years before I'd arrived at Cutler. Like me, Sebastian was one to keep old envelopes around to store manuscripts and sketches in, long before recycling had become a lifestyle.

Inside, by comparison, the paper seemed new. I expected sheets of paper covered in faded ink or one of those miserable diazo-process scores which, fifteen years later, would've turned milky gray around the edges but still reeked of ammonia. These days, with computer programs, you avoided all that but then lost the personality of seeing the composer's own calligraphy. Of course, with many composers, that's a good thing, but Sebastian was one who always had a very neat, legible handwriting as logical as his music, even if his life was disorganized and at times chaotic.

The cover was very simple:

The large block lettering, written with a broad black felt-tip marker, was very precise, centered on a page otherwise totally blank. It didn't look like Sebastian's handwriting, perhaps someone else's added after the fact, the copyist, maybe, or even Victor, before sending it off to have the parts copied.

What was it going to be?

I don't remember him telling me he had ever written something as large and grand as a piano quintet and this score had at least a certain heft to it.

What if it was something he was working on at the very end of his life? Alina told me he'd destroyed many sketches and unfinished works right before he died: did this somehow survive the bonfire? I’d assumed, not wanting to get my hopes up, it was an early work, written in college, but why was that a disappointment?

Sebastian, like many composers coming of age in the 1940s, destroyed lots of his earlier efforts so his roots didn't seem so juvenile compared to the increasingly complex style fitting in with what he called Ars Mundi, the internationally accepted style-of-the-day generically labeled serialism. Periodically, he'd hold similar bonfires in order to "cull the chaff" and "cleanse the herd."
If it were an early work, it could show us where the mature composer came from, part of a stylistic evolutionary process. But if it was one of his last works, perhaps his very last composition...?

I quickly flipped open the score, skimming through the pages at random. It was quite a long work, as it turned out, and definitely in Sebastian's easily recognizable calligraphy. His sketches weren't quite as neat, though still precise and logical, neater certainly than most composers' illegible hen-scratching. This was what we'd call a "fair copy," everything carefully realized, all corrections made and ready to be sent off to the publisher. But this was no early piece, like some Romantic tonal left-over: it was as complex as any piece he'd written in his last ten years.

With its challenging cross-rhythms and subtly layered textures, there were also lyrically soaring lines and basic "tonal" triads, something new in his style.

The first page's dedication read "To My Granddaughter, Zoe" which meant it was composed after 1978 – but flipping to the back page, I noticed the completion date after the double bar.

It read "December 19th, 2009."

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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.
© 2012

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