Wednesday, May 02, 2012
The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 5
In the previous installment of The Doomsday Symphony, Richard Kerr arrived at the Crevecoeur farmhouse, following an outdoor summer concert on a blisteringly hot day, looking forward to dinner with friends, to be followed by a read-through of a recently discovered work by Sebastian Crevecoeur who had died over twenty-five years ago. But Kerr, paging through the manuscript Sebastian's son Victor had shown him, noticed the completion date was December 19th, 2009.
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There was a quick knock at the door and Victor just as quickly took the score out of my hands, locking it back in the desk drawer before I could ask the obvious question.
A woman stuck her head in the door and announced the musicians had just arrived. “I think that means everybody's here,” she added.
He introduced me to his wife, Mary, whom he’d married since I last saw him. She was an author, he told me, writing mysteries under her maiden name, Mary Hartgrave. Victor added with a mix of pride and reserve that if it hadn't been for her royalties, they would probably have had to sell the farm after he'd been laid off.
There was more commotion in the front hall so Victor whisked me out, carefully closing the study door behind him. The latest arrivals included the rest of the musicians: Devon Cilnois the violinist who, with his partner, pianist Rafe Poiton, was going to play a sonata recital in two weeks that included Sebastian's Violin Sonata from 1974; cellist Loni LeVolco, busy hiding her instrument case behind the piano while her husband, Dima Agabálov, the violist, went in search of some much needed cold beer. They were all very glad to be away from the concert, Loni rolling her eyes when Dima mentioned the Chopin.
“Don't even get me started,” she said, taking a beer from him. They all laughed. Devon was the one I'd overheard saying how the soloist should be shot.
Two young men wandered in from the kitchen. Zoe introduced the younger, her son Zachery, explaining he preferred going by X-a-q. The other young man, a long-time student of hers recently graduated from high school, was named Cameron Pierce despite a look of exotic heritage that made me wonder what his story might be.
I’d already met the academically imperious and socially intimidating Dr. Helen Highwater and her comparatively dowdy friend brought along because she felt a new work by a composer dead over twenty-five years could use a medium.
“Mary Rowberson,” Dr. Highwater informed me, “is famous for communicating with many of the great dead composers of the past.”
Rafe asked if all great composers of the past weren’t, by definition, dead.
“Not all,” Kent-Clarke responded. “Many live on in their music, you know.” He sidled up to our little group with a smile as Victor started ushering everybody toward the dining room.
There was another flurry as the latest arrival stumbled in off the porch, full of apologies for being late.
“I didn't know if I'd be able to make it all. Mother was having such a bad day until she had lunch. I only got away at the last minute when my sister arrived.” She was probably in her seventies but there was little about the way she acted that made you think that: vibrant, cheerful and, despite the heat, happy to be there under any circumstances.
Victor helped her inside with a large suitcase. She was apparently planning on staying for a few days, hoping her sister would be able to look after their mother for a little while, at least.
I recognized her voice immediately in a flood of nostalgia but hadn't seen her in over thirty years – not that she'd changed all that much, but I hadn't expected her: Victor had said nothing to me about who else would be there.
“Excuse me,” I asked, “Dr. Portnoy from Cutler University?”
“Whoa, that's a long time ago...” She stopped suddenly, squinting at me as if she'd spent too much time in the bright sun. Then the look of recognition lit up her face with a vast smile. “Richard Kerr, as I live and cough!"
We gave each other warm hugs, two former colleagues from a distant past trying to catch up on three decades of “so-what-have-you-been-up-to” as Mary and Victor again tried ushering everybody into the dining room.
There were fourteen of us to fit around a very full table designed for a party of twelve, making it a very packed room. To my surprise, there were name-cards at each setting and so, with the excitement of a gathering at Pemberley, we found our places and waited for our hosts before seating ourselves. In lieu of servants, however, like good Americans we all dug in to pass around great vats of potato salad and plates heaped with grilled chicken and salmon.
Rogers Kent-Clarke had changed out of his concert clothes but he was still tugging at the collar of his shirt. Looking down the table at him, I asked if his neck were feeling better, now, after the concert.
He looked quizzically at me, then laughed. “Oh, you mean the whiplash? Just a bit.” Rubbing the back of his neck, he added, “I've never known rubato to be as kinky as that!”
Victor pointed out, if Dr. Portnoy had been unable to make it, there would have been only thirteen guests. “And you have no idea what that would do to Mary's mystery-writing mind,” he added with a wink.
“It's good that pianist isn't here, then,” Dr. Highwater said, smiling across the table at Kent-Clarke. “There would be no end of suspects if he should find himself murdered.”
“The crime, I’m afraid, took place earlier this afternoon,” Rafe mentioned, as if he were the prosecuting pianist. “He absolutely butchered Chopin today – and in front of hundreds of witnesses!”
“But the audience,” I pointed out, “loved it. We may think it was bad, but convince them.”
“Yes, to the great unwashed audience,” Kent-Clarke intoned, raising his glass in praise of the ubiquitous standing ovation.
Dima the violist added defensively, “Still, if it's not for the audience, then why are we here?”
“Oh, of course it's important for us to believe in the audience,” the conductor said, “but unfortunately there are some musicians,” he added rolling his eyes, “who believe the audience is a bunch of idiots.”
Thinking of the contributors who'd invested in the concert's presentation, Victor said, “I'm sure our local music critic will give us a glowing review which hopefully will bring in more audience next week.”
“Ah, speaking of idiots. If you call those 'reviews,' has Humboldt Pye,” he countered, referring to the arts reporter of the Collierville Courier, “ever attended a concert that wasn't the event of the season?”
“Sebastian was such an everyday, unpretentious person,” Dr. Highwater reminisced. “I could never really justify the man with his music. To look at someone so casual in his approach to life, to the way he dressed… I'm sorry to admit, Victor, I never understood your father's music. What was it, ‘how Late Beethoven Quartets must sound to a dog’?”
(When did this woman find time to eat?)
“Why would anyone write such complicated music if only a few people could really appreciate it? I mean, I have a doctorate and economics is no easy subject...”
Zoe spoke up for the first time. “I think most of this audience we're talking about would lump many 20th Century composers into a group called 'The Un-Listenables' – dismiss them without even trying to understand them.”
“Yes, but why do you need to... understand them? Really, why can't you just listen to them and 'get it,'” Dr. Highwater pondered.
“More potato salad, anyone,” I offered, holding the dish up for any takers.
“Now, I admit I'm not a trained musician, I'm an economist,” Dr. Highwater continued thoughtfully, “but I don't think I'm... what do they call the uninitiated in Harry Potter?”
“Muggles,” Zoe's son threw in, the first time he'd felt part of the conversation. “They're called Muggles.”
“We should come up with a term like that for uninitiated music-lovers,” Kent-Clarke challenged.
“Well, most people,” Loni grumbled, “unfortunately call them amateurs.”
Dr. Portnoy recalled I referred to them as “students majoring in non-music” at Cutler.
Devon mentioned how Samuel Barber, whose Violin Concerto they were playing next week, had been ridiculed during his lifetime by the serialists. “Now,” he said, “it's the serialists who are on the run from modern critics."
“However the worms turn, I can't see the need for anyone to be writing music that's that intellectually conceived today,” Kent-Clarke blithely countered.
“You know, Victor, I think this salmon is just grilled to perfection,” I mentioned.
Dr. Highwater returned to the fray, waving her fork. “Why even perform works by Schoenberg or Carter anymore? It's so... so yesterday.”
Cameron mentioned how much he had enjoyed hearing the world premiere of Elliott Carter's recent Clarinet Quintet, written just before Carter turned 100.
“But complexity like that is so thoroughly out-of-tune with today's world,” Kent-Clarke argued.
"Today's world is getting more complex," Mary chimed in. “If anything, a lot of this minimalist pablum is just escapism, to my ear."
Mary Rowberson, sitting there stoically working her way across a plate heaped with food, suddenly felt a surprisingly strong chill. As hot as it had been, no one else really seemed to notice. Victor thought it was nothing more than anticipation, hearing a new work by a dead composer, something no one had ever heard before. We all laughed.
Thinking of the score's final page, I wondered exactly how he meant “a new work by a dead composer.”
Victor coughed, then corrected himself: “I mean, a newly discovered work by a dead composer, of course.”
“Oh, I remember when Chopin played me a lovely new nocturne he'd just written.” Ms. Rowberson didn’t need to remind us she was a well-known clairvoyant. “Of course,” she added demurely, “I was much younger, then.”
More like over 160 years younger, I figured, if that's the case. Judging from everybody else's silence, I wasn't alone in my skepticism.
As Dr. Portnoy and I helped Mary clear away the dinner plates, Zoe stood up and apologized that the musicians should probably start warming up for the performance. It was time to bring in the dessert.
“What, no dessert?” Loni sulked, pushing back her chair.
"Just what we need – a sugar high," Dima joked. “That second movement's fast enough!”
Rafe thanked our hosts for a delicious dinner even though he had no comprehension of even the basics of cooking, then added for Dr. Highwater's benefit, “now I hope you will enjoy our contribution to tonight's experience.”
Even without air-conditioning, the old farmhouse felt refreshingly cool by comparison to the outdoors. We carried in a tray of homemade blueberry cobbler and several small dishes of something Mary called malinnik or cold raspberry soup, an old Russian recipe handed down from Victor's grandmother, which we greeted with great sighs of anticipation on this stiflingly hot summer day.
"Let's eat, drink and thank Mary," Victor began, amid the hubbub of clinking silverware.
But it was the conductor who rounded it out: “For there are only 518 shopping days left till the End of Time.”
The ensuing silence was so palpable, you could easily cut it with a spoon.
“What! So you haven't heard about the Mayan calendar running out in 2012? But what's the American response to disaster? Go shopping!”
“That may be,” Dr. Highwater sniffed, “but it's hardly the sort of thing you’d want to bring up at a time like this.”
“Ah," Kent-Clarke apologized, continuing to spoon out more blueberry cobbler for himself, “I’m sorry. That was my inner Epicurean trying to break through.”
“But you have to admit,” Cameron added, “the idea the world will come to an end in the midst of the Christmas shopping frenzy is a level of irony even the Mayans could never have predicted.”
“My mother,” Dr. Portnoy mentioned, “is very concerned about this whole Mayan calendar thing, especially after that horrible movie from last year. Her 100th birthday's on December 22nd, 2012 – she’s afraid it might dampen her festivities.”
The rest of us scoffed at the idea some Mayan priest a thousand years ago could predict Time would cease on December 21st, 2012. Of course, regardless, it seemed like so much “dancing on the precipice." How could you prepare for it? And in the end, what if it was nothing more than The Great Disappointment of our time?
“I don't pretend to understand the Mayans’ calendar – speaking of inordinate complexities,” Dr. Highwater began, “but doesn't it just start over again? They had no sense of a violent apocalypse like Christianity had developed in Revelation.”
“True,” Kent-Clarke countered, “but if they could figure their calendar back to 3,000 BC or so, they could have continued taking it further into the future by just continuing to add more cycles. However, they didn't.”
“Isn't it more of a transition to a different world,” Dr. Portnoy interjected, “rather than its physical destruction – perhaps it’s more like Männerdämmerung?”
“The Twilight of Mankind, indeed,” Dr. Highwater said, raising her spoon in triumph. “If we're at the end of the Mayans' calendar, that means 20th Century complexity is part of this egregious descent toward the apocalypse. It wouldn't take much to convince me our civilization's Golden Age was the 18th and 19th Centuries, that it's been downhill ever since! What would we do,” she continued to rhapsodize, “if it weren't for Bach and Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms -- or even Wagner?”
Victor argued that progress wasn't a cycle of constant progression but she ignored him.
Mary Rowberson peered into her empty wine glass, lamenting how she'd heard nothing from Franz Liszt in at least twenty years, now. “Apparently,” she said, “he's very upset with music written today, all this bland repetition.”
“But Liszt was pointing the way toward the 20th Century with his Dissolution of Tonality.” Victor finished his wine with a grand flourish.
“Well, a greater concern, I think, is the Dissolution of the Cereal,” I interjected. “Considering modern diets, why is a high-fiber breakfast a good thing but music you can sink your brain into a bad one?”
Victor looked over and smiled, “I was wondering when you were going to pipe up, Dr. Kerr. You've been pretty quiet throughout dinner.”
“Oh,” I replied, “it's just the anticipation, hearing a 'new' piece by an old friend – there’s an awful lot to think about.” Of course, I didn't want to mention that most of the conversation really wasn't.
With that, the dinner party began to break up.
Dr. Portnoy quietly thanked Mary for all the wonderful food, especially how the raspberry soup was “to die for.” She was looking forward to her few days' stay. “It's just exquisite," she said, looking forward to getting away from the pressures of home, living in such rustic peace and beauty.
“It's like living in a time capsule of Americana.”
“Funny,” Mary told her, “but Victor always hated the place after Sebastian bought it. Now that he's retired here, he loves it -- won't touch a thing”
I could overhear Dr. Highwater and Victor off in the one corner, talking shop about the economy and how everybody's suffering these days, glad she's retired and happy that Victor got out before it got worse.
Meanwhile, Xaq helped his grandmother clearing away some of the dishes. Bored by the chatter, he tried to remain as invisible as possible.
In other corners, Dr. Portnoy was now filling Cameron's head with tales from Cutler University, no doubt misinformation, judging from his grin, specifically the true identity of the music department's supplier of chocolate goodies, the Great Pumpkin. Kent-Clarke, after getting updates about many of his favorite composers from Ms. Rowberson, was complementing Mary on her dinner and the farmhouse.
Mary explained how they were thinking of turning it into a bed-and-breakfast, shyly admitting they could always use the extra income.
Back for more dishes, Xaq ended up having to clarify his “unusual name” for Ms. Rowberson.
In the parlor, the musicians began taking their places around the piano as Victor, tapping on a glass to get our attention, suggested we should all start moving into the next room and take our seats. Bringing in a few extra chairs as needed, we left the musicians enough room as Ms. Rowberson sat dead center in the front.
The rest of us filled in the empty seats as the musicians rearranged their chairs, checking their sight-lines and adjusting music stands. Victor, speaking with only a few vague words, quietly introduced his father's “new” piece.
Because of my back trouble, I preferred standing in the archway behind the audience. Victor, nodding to the musicians, walked over to join me, whispering it gave him a chance to watch reactions without being seen.
Sitting in front of us, Cameron turned and whispered, “Something very interesting is going to happen here: I'm just not sure what, yet.”
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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.