(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)
In the previous installment, Rob Sullivan's cousin, LauraLynn Harty, arrives in style at the Benninghurst dinner and there's a brief reunion of three childhood friends. Rob has only a brief chance to talk to Kerr and mentions some unsettling news - including death threats and that he's convinced his mentor Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist's recent skiing death was no accident.
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CHAPTER 3 (Part 1)
The family called it “The Island” even though it really wasn’t an island, technically, but that was the family custom and Rob’s sense of logic never managed to prevail over age-old tradition. Certainly there was no need for my arguing with them since nothing I could say would rightly impress them. I was allowed to join Rob for one week out of the whole summer the Sullivans spent in Maine – one tantalizingly brief week once school was out, so much like paradise. The train ride from Philadelphia to New York was long and boring but across New England, beautiful and fascinating (who could imagine, at age 14, my professional life would begin here?). It would be less interesting taking the return trip, alone and mostly at night, a short seven days later.
We took the ferry already filled with “Summer People” across Penobscot Bay rather than taking the longer road from Rockland to drive out to the end of the peninsula, the Sullivans’ island, the first glimpse of the ocean I could remember, too young when my family’d taken me to Cape May. Mom said I’d stood on the beach, peering out to see Europe (whatever that might've meant) but seeing nothing, never bothered with it again, complaining only of the endless, broiling sand.
The Sullivan’s house – Endura, they called it – stood on a rocky promontory looking out over the bay, its back shielded from the ocean by a pine-covered hill they called the mountain (if they called this an island, they could call that a mountain), looking old and imposing and thoroughly grand. I could sense there was something different about the light, here, especially the way it played on the water, in my excitement, disappointed that Rob responded, “Yes, I guess there is.” He’d been coming here his whole life, I imagined, and must find it pretty boring.
“Not boring,” he said, “just part of our habit, always the same. It’s very comforting, though.”
Certainly not my habit, I thought, looking around as Rob gave me a private tour, more disconcerting than comforting.
It would take many guests to fill so large a house: his mother had arrived earlier with her sister Catherine, a slew of cousins from New York City expected the next day; his father, preoccupied on the trip with his brother’s family, would only stay a few days at a time. Meanwhile, Rob and I, left to ourselves, had the run of the place, immediately settling into the music room. There, we played the piano for each other and listened to records.
By this time, we had both started taking composition more seriously, listening to music with a more practiced eye, spending more time noodling around on the piano improvising instead of practicing. We would point things out to each other, a detail here, a nuance there, when something sounded more promising.
We played piano duets – Rob brought along several pieces by Schubert and Debussy – and read books aloud to each other, biographies or those “concert companions” about composers and their most famous works. But mostly we talked – about music, about what we wanted to be when we grew up, things like that.
We also started our “dueling improvisations” that summer, one starting off and then the other picking up the thread, the real challenge in making use of the other’s motives and harmonies.
Aunt Katie was the one who insisted we spend more time outside – that was what summer vacations were for, after all – so we’d go off on our own while she and Rob’s mom sat on the porch with the younger children, but instead of playing, we’d take our books and read. There were several spots that might pass for beaches – more pebbles and rocks than sand – but our favorite ones were those farthest from the house, of course, and facing the ocean.
We considered Maurice, Aunt Gracie’s oldest, an obnoxious twit, snobs that we were, only seven years old and too young for us but too old to be stuck with the babies. He had no interest in music and Rob didn’t like the responsibility of watching him down on the beach.
Besides, Rob said he always liked going out to Horizon Point where he could stretch out naked on the rocks; it wasn’t long until I, once the scandalousness wore off, joined him. It became very natural-feeling after a little while and, reading, talking or swimming, a regular part of our day. As long as we were back in time for dinner, we could spend the whole afternoon there by ourselves, and no one at the house seemed to mind we were gone.
Near the end of my week, lying on a large flat rock in the shade and laughing about some Ives piece the Philadelphia Orchestra had played which we thought was the ugliest noise we’d ever heard, Rob suddenly went silent before saying there was something he had to tell me.
Then Rob saw Maurie scrambling over the rocks and, too late to grab our trunks, sent him back to the house. Running off laughing, Maurie said he was going to tell.
Mr. Sullivan, back for his weekend and not far behind Maurie, saw us scrambling to get into our clothes, leading Rob away before he told me what he’d wanted to say.
Asked what we did that was wrong, his father said, “You got caught. Consider it a lesson in business.”
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Arthur Lemm glared back at me, miffed that all he had gotten from Rob was a simple, muffled “Thanks, Art” as Lemm guided him toward the front table without saying anything further. Once again, I watched Rob led away before he’d had a chance to say what he’d wanted to say.
Back in Maine, when I'd asked him about it later, he dismissed it with a shrug of his shoulders. Once again, something was being left unsaid: what would happen this time?
As Director Drummoyne stood at the head table, he announced they were going to begin if everybody please took their seats. I made it back to my table just in time. Around me, the chatter of conversation modulated to the scraping of chairs, the occasional clinking of glasses and silverware. Rob, settling into the center chair, took a while to cheer himself up, looking around as the guests were seated. His guests – friends, colleagues, some rivals – looked up at him and smiled. Soon, I could tell he was back to his normal, unaffected self, smiling and nodding, happy to be alive.
“Let it never be said you won’t get a great reception at Benninghurst,” Director Drummoyne said, beginning his remarks. “And given the late start, let’s serve the appetizers before I begin?”
With that, a series of well-trained waiters, gliding into place, silently distributed plates of summer salads to every diner. Almost an hour late getting started, they knew everyone was very hungry.
I informed Cameron that this could turn into a very long night.
“Why,” he asked, “because of the speeches?”
Leaning over, trying to avoid the waiter’s arm, I whispered to him that something very serious was bothering Rob but he hadn’t had a chance to tell me much of anything.
“He and I really need to talk and I don’t know how long it might take after dinner’s over. I can’t say much here, but he started mentioning something about threats.”
“Do you think he’s in any danger?”
“Danger, sir?” asked the waiter, holding up carafes of regular and decaf.
Sidney Drummoyne rose and cleared his throat again, testing the microphone which, after a round of annoying feedback, ended up being reset at such a low level, it really was almost useless.
“If you don’t mind eating while I talk, I won’t mind talking while you eat,” he began his remarks.
So many people had accepted their invitations, he’d been afraid there would not be enough room and, with the weather so uncertain, being unable to hold it outside on the lawn.
Looking around the room, he mentioned how impressive it was to see so many famous faces at Benninghurst tonight, names that were well known to him and to American music lovers, though I would have preferred, when he acknowledged those he didn’t know, he hadn’t been looking directly at me.
“And if you’d like to share in the on-going up-keep of Benninghurst during these difficult times for supporting the arts, please see me or my wonderful assistant, Ms. Darlinghurst, after the dinner.”
When she rose to acknowledge his nod, several of the older men in the audience mumbled their ardent appreciation.
“We’re here to congratulate a frequent guest at Benninghurst who has been a major contributor and active board member, who’s about to embark on a new endeavor in his illustrious career.”
Robertson Sullivan’s career might not have had the meteoric rise others saw but it was “slow and steady” enough to be inevitable and successful, though his father might – and often did – disagree. Rob often wondered if his slowness to succeed wasn’t the result of ignoring the career he’d been born to. His father had never been pleased his only child “betrayed” him by deciding to go into music after all, even after having been handed a career with his degree from Harvard. He certainly hadn’t gone into it for the money, knowing he had a considerable inheritance to look forward to but his father often threatened to disinherit him, punishment for his “betrayal.” Gilbert Sullivan considered his son a failure on any number of levels: he’d even failed to produce an heir.
But that didn’t mean Rob wasn’t satisfied with his life – well, at least with his career, he later told me, starting with two degrees from Juilliard after a lot of hard work. He’d always kept up with his music at Harvard but the composition, lacking the time, he inadvertently let slide. Going to concerts and listening to recordings whenever he could, he held his own when talking with other musicians, glad his coursework wasn’t too challenging that he could afford the time.
When one of his composer-friends heard him improvising at the piano, he offered to give him the occasional lesson, keeping it casual – good background for Rob, good training for his friend. So they would get together some Saturday afternoon whenever Rob had the time and something to show for it. Eventually, Rob found himself bringing in a new short piano piece every weekend, exploring new directions, he called it, a harmonic style both of us would’ve cringed at five years earlier.
When he had a dozen he felt comfortable with, he sent them to me, asking me to “be brutal.” Instead, I told him I would program them for my next recital. Eventually, after building up some much-needed confidence, Rob officially started taking theory and history classes in his junior year.
He didn’t graduate at the top of his class – too much study time wasted on useless music, his father complained – but his adviser suggested he consider a career combining music and business. At first, that didn’t sound satisfying but what chance was there he could make a living as a composer? Moving to Manhattan to work in his father’s office, at first he was impatient to resume his music studies, taking time for all the concerts and, his newest discovery, the opera. What he hadn’t realized before getting married was how little time there’d be left for concerts and the opera, especially since Beatrice found going to concerts boring and the opera unbearable. It was all he could manage to carve out a little composing time for himself early in the mornings.
After a few years of this, he had enough to apply to Juilliard where he started what he called his Masters on the Installment Plan, some composition lessons here, a course there, and in a few long years, he had managed to earn the credits for a master’s degree in composition. More importantly, he received a lot of positive attention for a piano trio and an orchestral piece he’d written, but who knew where he’d finally end up from such inauspicious beginnings?
To a round of applause and clicking of silverware on goblets, Robertson Sullivan rose to acknowledge his guests’ warm welcome, thanking as well Director Drummoyne for his kind (and kindly brief) introduction.
“It’s an honor so many’ve come,” he said, “even considering most composers would never say no to free food.”
There were a few chuckles but when someone piped up, “Yeah, and it’s late, too,” there were more laughs. Waiters, trying not to notice, hoped everyone knew it wasn’t their fault.
“You know, if you want a party to celebrate a milestone,” he said, “you should probably throw it yourself, so I just want everybody to know I’m paying for everything tonight.” There were cheers all around. “Since I’ve already missed my 60th birthday, I thought I’d celebrate my new opera.”
He mentioned how he’d just finished proofing the score only a couple hours ago, burning it to this CD-Rom which he pulled from his pocket and held aloft like the sacramental host, and how he was leaving for Germany tomorrow to assume his responsibilities as the director of the Schweinwald Festival.
“It’s been a long road, as some of you are well aware, creating an opera out of thin air, but it’s been a long road to Schweinwald, too, for that matter.
“It would have been nice if I had finished it back in January the way we’d originally planned this schedule, but you can never account for those problems that invariably come along. For instance, I found myself unhappy with the ending and it got worse as I got further into it. But coming around to a completely revised and totally rewritten conclusion is made easier when you’re your own librettist – however, then I have nobody else to blame if it doesn’t work.
“If there wasn’t enough pressure already, I was told this morning the premiere will be broadcast on German television and will be made available to several American affiliates for high-definition transmission. Without doubt, I’m one very happy composer, today: now all I need is for the critics to like it!”
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Until recently, few Americans would have known much about the Schweinwald Festival, tucked away in Germany near all those castles, overlooked in the brochures between more famous festivals in Salzburg and Bayreuth. It was primarily an opera festival but also included chamber music, choral and organ performances scattered across the region. Usually, the people who went to Bayreuth avoided Schweinwald because the repertoire was too modern, for the most part; those who went to Salzburg found its provincialism trite if not outmoded.
Since the area was already littered with several of the most fabulous castles in Germany, many the legacy of Mad King Ludwig who at first threatened to ruin his kingdom’s finances, tourists from around the world now wandered around Bavaria, gawking at the scenery and leaving behind lots of cash.
In fact, tourism had become such a major industry in the Bavarian economy, one of the finance minister’s assistants back in the early 1960s, a young man named Karl August von Falkenstein whose once noble family lived south of Munich, devised a plan to present operas at one of these castles. Unfortunately, the general wear-and-tear of a festival being deemed unrealistic, young Falkenstein became old Falkenstein by the time he decided, having his own castle, why not put on his own festival?
Technically Schloss Schweinwald was no longer his and it had fallen in such disrepair since his ancestor Johann Wilhelm von Falkenstein had converted it into a music school in the 1840s, it was dismissed as an iconic ruin suitable for little more than being a picturesque backdrop in horror films. But still, it could be useful in the greater scheme of things and so he began working with the local tourist boards in trying to organize a festival of many facets. Dress children up in folk costumes, get people to dance around the town square and show off buildings with little more value than their age, and the tourists would come running. And each summer, he would mount one “Gothic horror opera” in the courtyard of the ruins of Castle Schweinwald.
There would be small-scale operas by Mozart in the Theatersaal of Ottobeuren’s magnificent Kloster with young singers from the Munich conservatory eager for the experience, choral and organ music in its sanctuary, and chamber music concerts in the opulent rooms of the Prince Abbot’s Residentzplatz in Kempten, just down the road. Throw in some festivities honoring Saint Gummerus, the Patron Saint of Cowherds, offering tourists beer at inflated prices and tours of the more picturesque local farms, and it was a given.
After hiring cousin Berthe who’d once been the equivalent of a student intern to the Director’s Assistant at Bayreuth, the biggest expense for the “Schlossoper” was the tent covering the courtyard. The production of Spohr’s Faust was such a success, they had to add two performances, much to everybody’s delight.
Falkenstein had chosen this opera carefully because it was really the first “Gothic horror opera” (since everybody else did Freischütz), considering when Johann Wilhelm had founded his conservatory, he’d asked Ludwig Spohr, regarded by most music-lovers as the foremost living composer of his time, to be the Schweinwald Academy’s first director.
After several seasons, the festival became such a success, they started talking about centralizing everything in a new building, a Festspielhaus built where once the old Falkenstein Farm had proudly stood.
It was the brilliantly designed Festspielhaus that finally put Schweinwald on the map – or rather the map of critical awareness – realizing generations of Falkenstein dreams about creating something of long-lasting cultural grandeur, and with its opening, Schweinwald went from being a pleasant provincial summer festival to something that commanded international attention. When officials argued about the expense, Falkenstein pointed out how much more expensive it was to renovate the castle: “at that price, one might as well build a brand new one!”
Unfortunately, turning Schloss Schweinwald into backdrops for Hans Heiling and Der Vampyr had taken its toll on Falkenstein’s health, a severe heart attack hospitalizing him two weeks before the building’s completion. Years of dreaming, planning and scraping along, keeping his vision alive, ended with a final tour in his wheelchair.
Karl August Falkenstein, the last of his line, died in his sleep days before his festival’s new home opened, its new production of Spohr’s Faust directed again by Cousin Berthe von Krapfenwald who in the interim became a more experienced, now famous director of opera, despite being an infamously inefficient administrator. No one else was surprised Falkenstein had appointed his brother-in-law, Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist, his successor, an established composer turned proficient assistant, but Cousin Berthe still resented being passed over by the older generation.
It was bad enough, Berthe complained vociferously, that they’d expanded the season, then brought in Prosenius Schwertbaum as guest director for the festival’s major production of Schoenberg’s monumental Moses und Aron, Falkenstein, ever the businessman, fully aware of the bargain hiring Schwertbaum’s brother Siegfried to sing the role of Aron, despite the brothers' constant arguing about interpretations. The significance of the opera’s being incomplete was lost on no one – how, like Moses, Falkenstein had not lived to see the Promised Land.
But this new phase of the festival’s continuing history also proved to be a success in the long run, renewing the plans to realize the original vision of re-opening the Academy. Now, they talked of a Falkenstein Curse, Zeitgeist having died months before the new Academy Building could be unveiled.
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To be continued...
posted by Dick Strawser
The novel, The Lost Chord, is a music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.