Saturday, June 23, 2012
The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 50
In the previous installment of The Doomsday Symphony, SHMRG's Man Kaye prepared his biographical feature on Mozart with a none-too-biased eye. Meanwhile, Dr. Kerr and Johann Nepomuck Sauerbraten have arrived - somewhere...
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"So I set the time-coordinates for a little bit earlier than Klangfarben's to give us more time to figure out where we are and who we're looking for," Sauebraten explained as we found ourselves standing in the middle of a busy street somewhere in 1765. "We'd have to arrive before she killed him, otherwise it'd be too late, right?"
"Wait, if we're looking for Mozart, that wouldn't be a problem: I mean, he's Mozart," I said, looking around trying to get my bearings. "We should be able to track him down without too much trouble."
"So, if we can remember him, now, that means we're in time." Sauerbraten gave me a high-five which must have looked strange to the good people of wherever we were, assuming anyone might have noticed us.
"Incidentally, there was a little more turbulence than I remember from the other times – you may want to make some adjustments for that."
Wherever we were, it was a chilly autumn day in 1765, judging from the feel of things in the air, looking at the way people were dressed. That meant Mozart was not yet ten and the family was somewhere in the northwest corner of Europe, between their trips to London, Paris and Amsterdam before heading back home to Salzburg.
"Let's just look around," I suggested, "and see where the Mozarts are giving concerts."
"There has to be some buzz happening..." Sauerbraten sighed.
Odd expression, coming from someone born only twenty years from where we stood now.
Given the time-device's instant translation technology, I could understand everybody around me, so we couldn't figure out our location just by listening to what the locals were speaking. Some of the signs were in German, French and Flemish, so we were probably somewhere in the Netherlands – let’s see, were they Spanish, Austrian or independent in 1765? I couldn't remember.
We stood in some kind of square not far from what looked like a large palace. Most of the people looked aristocratic – there were also a few soldiers standing around, making me feel a bit uneasy.
"We're not going to be in the midst of any battles, here, are we?" I wasn't keen on another adventure like Dresden in Wagner's day.
"No," he said, looking around, "things seem pretty peaceful, today, considering how violent the history'd been for centuries, here."
"Let's ask these guys over here: they look like they'd probably be interested in music."
Four gentlemen, all comfortably dressed, peered at us with some amazement.
"You haven't heard?"
"Heard what? We just arrived in town," I explained, "heard they might be here."
"Sad story, that," the older one nodded.
We were still too late? How could that be, if Nepomuk got the coordinates right?
Another one explained that he was a friend of the countess' physician who'd been called in to treat the daughter.
"Intestinal typhus," another said, shaking his head sagely.
“As soon as they arrived, the sister became terribly sick, right to the brink of death.”
The concerts they were planning had all been canceled. Even the private audiences they were to have with the prince were postponed.
"I'm afraid you've come to town for nothing, my friends." And with that they started to move away from us.
"Wait, please" I asked, perhaps a little too desperately, "does anyone know where we could find them?"
They seemed to buy my excuse that we were friends of their landlord's back in Salzburg, just wanting to pay our respects – maybe offer some help – as long as we were stopping by in the neighborhood.
Some horses clattered past, a little close for my comfort, making it difficult to hear what they'd said, but one pointed the way.
"Here comes my friend Johan van Gyllenhaal," the youngest of the four said. "He's with Count van Wassenaer's household – he’d know." And with that they introduced us to a personable young man with piercing blue eyes.
He bowed deferentially – did we look that foreign or that distinguished? – and explained he was just going to where the Mozarts were staying. The Count, a personal friend of the Princess Caroline's, had volunteered his best townhouse, closest to the palace, for their use while they're in town, though in one sense they'd already long overstayed their welcome. The count was impatient, hoping to occupy the place himself before the winter set in. If he were needed at court, young Gyllenhaal whispered, the last thing Count Henrik wanted was to be stranded in the country.
"This whole trip for them," he explained, referring to the Mozarts, "has been a disaster. First they leave London and arrive on the Continent to bad news their Emperor has died – he had been very kind to them in Vienna. The father had been ill in London and then the boy was sick with something – tonsils? I don't recall..."
Our new friend was a fount of information, explaining how the father became sick again, complaining of dizzy spells or something, but that despite a cold, the son must have played on every church organ from Lille to Antwerp and Rotterdam. Then no sooner did they arrive in The Hague than the daughter, now, comes down with a cold.
"What bad luck" he said, since she could not be presented at court. "It hurt her deeply, such a pretty girl, just becoming a woman..."
By this time, we'd arrived at the house: quite an imposing façade.
"And that's only the start of it," he concluded, indicating he would leave us now. "The Mozarts are on the second floor," he said quietly, pointing up the steps. "Despina can introduce you – she’s one of our maids, looking after the Mozarts."
A young dark-haired woman, plainly dressed and full of curiosity, appeared at the top of the steps.
"Excuse me," I said, hating to be such a bother, "but I was wondering if you could... well, tell us: what is the date, today?"
"Why, I believe it's the 14th," his brow furrowing in curiosity.
"I'm sorry," I laughed, "we've been so long on the road on our way to Amsterdam, I can't remember if this is October or November!"
"Trust me, it's already November," he smiled and turned to leave.
I thanked him for his generosity and all his news, bringing us up to date on our friends – well, friends-by-way-of-friends, I corrected myself.
"Ah, one more thing," I said, placing my hand on his arm, "you haven't by chance noticed a rather handsome woman, young despite her silvery hair...?"
He looked confused considering any respectable young women would be wearing the fashionable white powdered wigs.
"No, this," I emphasized, "would be unlike any wig. Well, if you do see her, uhm... how do I put this," trying to make it sound even more mysterious, "she is a secret emissary from Leopold's mother in Augsburg and there's some nasty business I've heard about, though I'm not sure what, exactly."
He looked shocked.
"Oh no, please, nothing like that," I assured him, whatever he thought "that" may have been. "But still, would you try to delay her from going up to see them? It could be very uncomfortable for the family to have to deal with, at a time like this? And she might be here any minute, now."
Looking worried, van Gyllenhaal said he would alert the footman not to let her in, since the child was too sick for the family to have more visitors today."
I smiled and thanked him profusely.
"What exactly was that all about," Sauerbraten wanted to know as we climbed the stairs to the waiting maid.
"Buying us time," I whispered.
I remembered it was in The Hague that Nannerl had fallen sick and nearly died but as she began to recover, then Wolfgang fell ill – and that was on November 15th. We were barely just in time.
“Are you the maid, Despina?” I asked.
The young girl curtsied, telling us that both parents were in with their daughter. Their son, meanwhile, could be heard practicing on the harpsichord in a room further down the hall.
Sauerbraten was clearly smitten. Despina stood about his same height and had thick auburn hair pulled back tightly under her cap.
“Are you from the Court,” she asked politely, eying up Nepomuk in particular.
“Actually, we’re friends of a friend of the Mozarts in Salzburg, Johann Hagenauer.”
“Yes,” Nepomuk added, “we’re just passing through and thought maybe…”
Leopold Mozart stuck his head through the door, looking somewhat annoyed.
“I was going to complain about the noise but then I heard Hagenauer’s name. You say you are friends of his?”
“Through business,” I nodded.
Introducing my companion as Herr Suaerbraten and myself as Herr Kränlich, I explained we were merchants employed by the Imperial Court in Vienna.
Leopold beamed at my mention of the Imperial Court, then immediately expressed his sadness over the recent death of the Emperor Franz, leaving Maria Theresa a widow. He had fond recollections of their friendship and support.
I explained how we were traveling to Amsterdam on court business and just happened to hear the Mozarts had arrived in The Hague.
With that, he ceremoniously ushered us into the room where his wife, Maria Anna, was sitting by the bed, holding the hand of their daughter who was still recuperating from a very serious case of typhus.
Both parents looked extremely worn-out from the constant vigil they’d been keeping day and night over their daughter’s sick-bed. Maria Anna patted the girl’s hand as her daughter looked up at her weakly, trying to smile.
“Poor Nannerl,” her mother sighed, “we even had the priest in for Last Rites three weeks ago but slowly she started to recover.”
“And your son – is he well,” I asked them. “We heard him practicing from the hall.”
Leopold quickly ushered us into the next room, proudly introducing us to his son, Wolfgang, who, by the grace of God, despite recent illnesses has been in good if not excellent health, he said while looking around for a wooden table to touch.
A small boy, looking younger than his nine years, glanced up briefly from the harpsichord, nodding to us as he turned boring scale passages into an improvisation of great dexterity even for someone twice his age.
We applauded enthusiastically when he finished his performance, standing up to take a formal bow despite the informality of our surroundings. It astounded me to know I was listening to a living, breathing Mozart, a true wunderkind. Sauerbraten, himself a wunderkind, looked equally astounded, realizing that he, given the time he had died, was exactly twice the boy’s age.
Leopold beamed, nodding his approval and appreciation, though considering how tired he was, it all appeared a bit forced, especially once he held his hand out behind his back in a familiar gesture that transcended centuries.
Rummaging through my wallet, I found nothing smaller than a twenty dollar bill and slipped one carefully into his hand, having no idea how it would translate through the time-space continuum like our language and dress. With considerable surprise and effusive thanks, Leopold crinkled it as if testing it, bowing deeply as he placed it ceremoniously in his pocket.
While Leopold explained to the boy how we knew the Hagenauers and whispered something else, Nepomuk whispered to me that a $20 bill fresh from an American MAC-machine translated into a healthy sum in 18th Century Vienna: considering Mozart earned about 225 florins for writing Don Giovanni, my little tip was then perhaps the equivalent of 1/8th of that. The Euro aside, different European currencies were as confusing to me then as now: I almost swooned to imagine going back to Vienna in 1788 and asking Mozart to write me an opera for a mere $160!
Sauerbraten was the first to remember we had a very serious project on our hands and no plan to implement it. We needed to get Wolfgang out of the house before Klangfarben would arrive. While the boy was showing me manuscripts of some violin sonatas he was composing the day before, Nepomuk chatted confidentially with Leopold in the corner.
He began his improvisation simply.
“I’m sorry you have had such a trying time with your daughter’s health. Perhaps we could help you out a little, since both you and your wife must be very tired.”
Raising his voice enough Wolfgang and I could hear him, Nepomuk offered to give the boy a chance to get out of the house and see a bit of the city, get some fresh air, take a walk in the square outside the palace, maybe indulge in a few of the city’s fine pastries, with his father’s permission, naturally.
Picking up on Sauerbraten’s generous suggestion, I immediately echoed the idea with an enthusiastic flourish, since we were planning on doing nothing more ourselves before leaving the next day, bound for the cheese markets of Amsterdam. No doubt the boy, looking pale enough and bored these long days of his sister’s illness, must be longing for some fresh air?
The boy ran over and tugged at his father’s coat, begging to be allowed to go out with us, especially for the pastries he’d heard everyone talking about, but adding in hind-sight, also the fresh air.
Leopold admitted they were all very tired after Nannerl’s illness – “two long months, poor little thing” – and how Wolfgang was bored with no one to play with.
“Yes,” he said, patting the boy on his head, “you may go, but,” he added, turning to us, “please be very careful with my son: he is very, very precious to us!”
With a great whoop that brought his mother running over to see what the fuss was, Wolfgang – a nine-year-old boy who would grow up to become one of the world’s greatest composers – ran to get his coat and cap like any nine-year-old would do, offered the chance to escape from the house he’d been cooped up in so long.
We dutifully promised both the parents we would look after their son’s safety – Maria Anna looked quizzically at us as we said that – and have him back safe and sound in time for their evening meal.
And with that, Despina happily led the little expedition down the back steps to the kitchen.
“You have no idea how good this is for the child. He’s had nothing to do but practice and compose. That’s no life for a little boy of seven!”
Sauerbraten was about to correct her when I waved at him to ignore it.
We each downed a hearty mug of warm punch before heading out into the maze of streets behind the count’s townhouse, asking Despina for directions to the nearest pastry shop.
Wolfgang clapped his hands in delight.
The boy was wonderful company, easy to talk to and full of tales about their travels, playing down his own role in the events but rich in detail about the kings and queens they met and that wonderful man, Johann Christian Bach in London, a man so very warm who treated him like an equal, not like a boy.
There had been many concerts and lots of time spent sitting in their coach, but there had been so much to see, also. He described Paris in not quite flattering terms – the women there wore too much make-up and his father thought they looked like over-painted dolls – and London, though vast, was quite different, not as grand as Vienna.
If there had been any complaints about his feeling like a “circus act” as many people would later say, it didn’t bother him. He enjoyed showing off but it did get a little tiresome after a while.
After downing a large croissant filled with vanilla custard that earned high praise from our new friend, we got directions to the palace square – the Plein, the proprietor called it – and walked through streets crowded with people and carts with horses heading in every direction.
Wolfgang laughed when Sauerbraten tried scraping off the horse-dung he had just stepped in.
In the Kingdom of Back, he explained, you would just walk backwards and your shoes would automatically become clean. Marveling at this unfortunately imaginary place, Nepomuk noticed van Gyllenhaal walking up behind us, waving his arms.
After greeting Mozart with a warm hug, the count’s secretary told us that woman we had mentioned had arrived, furious at being detained.
When I saw this great mass of platinum blond hair bouncing toward us, I urgently suggested perhaps we could drop in on the Princess. Gyllenhaal understood, agreeing that it was entirely possible and led the way.
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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.