Monday, May 07, 2012

The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 9

In the previous installment of The Doomsday Symphony, the read-through of Sebastian Crevecoeur's Piano Quintet was halted when Mary Rowberson fainted and it was discovered that Victor had disappeared. The guests organize a search party to find him.

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Chapter 9
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I'm sure it’s been said before, how "all happy composers are probably alike; all unhappy composers are unhappy in their own ways."

In all those years I'd known him, I doubted Sebastian Crevecoeur was ever happy.

Almost imperceptibly, it was turning into chaos at the farm that last summer visit though I was only partly aware of its undercurrent. Perhaps like many couples, Sebastian and Alina had managed to keep their different personal issues from overwhelming them while I was there, submerging problems for propriety's sake as well as for their own peace of mind.

I didn't often catch them arguing or snubbing each other after some minor disagreement, yet like any married couple, there were moments, little flashes of reality, that might go unnoticed by a single person like myself. Perhaps part of my obliviousness was also the intentional unwillingness of a guest to get involved in something clearly none of his business.

Each had their own schedules and designated domains, Alina looking after the house while Sebastian spent the day working in his study, each preferring not to be interrupted by the other, despite their orbits of proximity. Sebastian needed to be looked after just as Alina needed someone to care for, and so they served a purpose for each other. Whether these divisions of the relationship's responsibilities worked when their son was growing up, this was their routine once Victor left for college, even after Sebastian was no longer teaching and probably not writing very much, either.

When was Sebastian ever happy? I mean really happy? These probably weren't things we openly talked about, something as personal as that. Were there moments in my own life I was, by whatever definition, actually happy? I don't know if I could answer that, today, so many things colored by hindsight, looking back on it filtered through failed expectations.

Like me, the time Sebastian spent working on a new composition was never what we'd call a happy time. It was hard work, wrestling and often losing, spending long hours with little to show for it.

Then when he'd hear the first performance, he experienced what he called a "double-edged fear" – fear that the musicians would not play it properly, fear that he had not adequately realized what he'd had in mind. Artists often talk about their works as their children, and once Sebastian mentioned he'd been treating his son like one of his compositions.

Victor had always been closer to his mother. Between teaching and composing, Sebastian rarely found time for the boy, whatever the excuse. Consequently, things were often reserved between them if not openly antagonistic but rarely combative. It didn't seem wildly different from what other families experienced, the typical generation gap or however we used to describe the rift then.

Around the time I'd first met Sebastian, visiting that house not far from campus, Victor was already a college junior living out-of-state who didn't see the need to come home much except for holidays and summer. The year before, he'd decided to drop music in favor of a business degree, something Sebastian saw as the antithesis of the artist. Whether he felt pressured to pursue music or not, Victor realized he was inadequately prepared to meet Sebastian's expectations. So, without a lot of soul-searching, he simply decided to choose something he felt was more realistic.

Even talking with him years later, I doubted Victor ever regretted that decision, at least in the greater scheme of things. I imagine he felt he would have failed sooner had he stayed in music. He felt he could develop an aptitude for business – it seemed natural enough – but nurturing a talent for music was just too much work.

At the time, Sebastian was surprised how very disappointed he was at this. Perhaps the death of their daughter when she was only six made him over-cautious with his parental responses, transferring her share to Victor’s.

It wouldn't take much to convince me everybody's brain is "wired" differently. You don't have to read much about the various personality tests they'd come up with, figuring out "what makes you tick," to realize this. Whatever it was that affected Sebastian's professional relationships, his inability to deal with social politics also seriously influenced his personal and interior lives.

Only later did I realize how self-destructive I'd become myself, like Sebastian’s speaking before thinking, feeling I was being perfectly natural – for me, "normal" – while many of those around me perceived me as disconnected and arrogant.

A lot of people at Cutler regarded Sebastian as a significant composer and a good teacher. His friends, despite his "creative aloofness," probably thought he was a nice enough guy despite his foibles and occasional issues. But a rival faction in the department didn't like his music and felt his artistic aesthetic was a "bad influence" on the students.

Whatever sense of paranoia this may have generated in his mind, disturbing his perceptions, Sebastian tried to ignore this political undercurrent with its evolving insecurities and just go about writing his music and teaching his students. It was important, he felt, for them to learn all kinds of solutions to the various stylistic issues facing composers at the time.

If anything, it only solidified his sense of writing what he felt was innately right for himself rather than writing to please either his audience or his colleagues. The university was a place to nurture, not stifle.

Only recently I'd read somewhere that most creative people's brains probably contained some level of autism which affected the functioning of their creativity but also had an impact on their reaction to the reality around them. If you thought about Beethoven or Wagner, how could you explain the difference between them and anyone else then who'd considered themselves "normal"?

While we find it hard to believe the great composers we admire had their detractors, it was easy to imagine the same artistic intrigues being carried out on a much smaller, more local level against ourselves.

Sebastian was never one to see himself as an equal of Beethoven's being persecuted by les petits riens of the academic arena. The atmosphere at Cutler, like many small – or small-minded – universities only made it worse. Were the personal issues his rivals complained about Sebastian's own or were they the result of his colleagues' attacks? Who could possibly know?


It wasn't the hottest summer he could remember, but still, Sebastian Crevecoeur sat at his desk wondering when he'd last dealt with a heat wave like the one that hovered around 90° for the past week. Even in the woods, it was still stifling, making him sorry they hadn't installed central air-conditioning that first summer in the old farmhouse.

Lately, whenever he'd go for his walks, he'd started stuffing odd pebbles or interesting-looking stones into his pockets. His desktop was littered with different colored rocks, though he had no idea what most of them were.

He pushed them aside, fumbling through some of them – especially the moss agates which he particularly liked, so smooth and calming – before gathering several sheets of paper together and locking them up in the desk drawer. One last drink from the antique brandy decanter, almost full earlier in the afternoon when he'd begun working, and it would be empty.

It was quiet in the house, peaceful. The rest of the house was dark, the air heavy once he'd turned the fans off. He was alone downstairs, sitting in his cluttered little study where he spent so many hours – mostly useless hours – working on some new compositions it seemed few people wanted to perform anymore and fewer enjoyed hearing. Alina had gone upstairs to bed, leaving the window fan on in their bedroom, hoping to cool things off enough they could sleep comfortably. It was getting late and Sebastian was very tired. The brandy felt refreshing.

Sebastian often thought about the subtle difference between being lonely and being alone. As a composer, he knew the profession he'd chosen was a solitary one, immensely vulnerable and often at odds with being a teacher. Still, he wasn't like other colleagues, putting themselves out in front of audiences as performers or conductors, something he had little stomach for.

Looking around his study, he sensed the spent emotions of one passed by, someone who's becoming a burden. What was it like, going from a vital, respected contributor to becoming someone old, ill, useless – and waiting?

When ideas wouldn't come to him, he'd spend the morning reading. Recently, Sebastian began, not for the first time, a novel by Virginia Woolf, picking up a used copy of "Mrs. Dalloway" at the local bookstore. His dog-eared copy had passed through many hands, apparently, but for some reason he could not focus on it, and this bothered him.

Even though it was late and he was very tired – tired of so many things – he decided he'd go for a short walk. It was still warm out but not as uncomfortable as it was at lunchtime when he stuck his head out to look at the garden. The moon, almost full now, began to rise above the trees.

Despite the night's warmth, he grabbed his shabby jacket, the one he wore once autumn rolled around while there was still work to do outside. He figured it was the anxiety that made him feel chilly.

Slowly ambling his way down the path, he glanced back at the house, wondering if he'd left the light on in the study – couldn't tell, from here. The back door had probably been left open, too...

He stood at the edge of the pond, hugging his jacket around him, watching the moon which still had that new-risen, butter-rich color.

Like many musicians, it was a slender association bringing music to his mind, the way other people remembered iconic movie moments: for him, tonight, it was the scene from Berg's Wozzeck, Marie's murder by the pond. "How red the moon is," she remarks before he stabs her. Later, Wozzeck comes back to throw the knife out into deeper water.

Then he thought about Virginia Woolf, again, as he picked up some stones by the water's edge, stuffing them into his pockets. As he walked out slowly into the pond, the water felt cool and rejuvenating.

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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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