Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 18

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, from Harrison Harty's Schweinwald Journal in the summer of 1880, we read about his roommate Gutknaben, his new friends, fellow-students Gustav Mahler, Hans Rott and Ethel Smyth, the visits of Brahms and Liszt and how, after Liszt's oddly disconcerting recital with its oddly disconcerting avant-garde music, Gutknaben's body was found at the statue of Simon Sechter. The journal breaks off abruptly. We return to the stage of the modern-day Schweinwald Festspielhaus following the finale of Act One of The Barber of Seville which, in this production, included the surprise appearance of three apparently lost characters being pursued by three equally lost, futuristically clad Special Forces agents from the International Music Police.

= = = = = = =


Aided by the militiamen’s hasty retreat in the face of unexpected gunfire – so much, I thought, for Seville’s finest – we managed to avoid being taken prisoner by the advancing IMP agents who were otherwise momentarily immobilized by the giant slip-and-slide created after the anvil crushed a whole wagonload of pumpkins. Everyone was frantic, bustling about, hastily reconfiguring themselves for the curtain call when I unceremoniously collided with Count Almaviva, sung so effortlessly by the young Spanish tenor, Tito Nelmondo y Burla. Unflappably gracious despite still being so highly ramped, he seemed genuinely concerned about our situation, making sure we were okay, more out of curiosity rather than anger we’d just destroyed his performance (judging from the continuing cheers and applause still resounding through the curtains, clearly that was no longer the case).

Jostled on all sides by the pandemonium, I managed to congratulate him, wishing our conversation had been under better circumstances, bowing in mock politeness given my unexpectedly casual appearance under the situation.

“May I say how thoroughly we enjoyed what little bit of your performance we had the privilege of catching.

“This is my lovely ward, Donna del’Lago,” (LauraLynn leaned forward, curtsying shyly), “my trusted valet, Musetto,” (D’Arcy bowed deferentially), “and I am Dr. Baroldo,” I concluded as Nelmondo nodded, laughing heartily.

Shouts of bravo – even “Encore!” – cut through the applause which now turned rhythmic, the ultimate form of vociferous approval, as I explained to him our flight from three very nasty Valkyries “whose boss,” I added, “would without a doubt make the Queen of the Night look like a den mother,” peering over his shoulder toward the stagehands desperately trying to mop up the mashed remains of several dozen pumpkins while sweeping the uncooperative agents toward the opposite side of the stage.

Glowering at us, the harried stage manager shooed everyone else on stage, mumbling prayerfully “Please, God, no more surprises” after he called out for everyone to take their positions for bows.

Nelmondo grabbed a nearby militiaman and whispered to him, pointing at us.

“What,” I thought, “he’s ordering our arrest?”

“Follow him,” Nelmondo told us, “he’ll take you to an undisclosed location,” pushing the soldier toward us with a wink before wheeling around and heading out onto the stage for his bow.

The hapless Gottlieb, semaphoring like a windmill, couldn’t urge the curtain to close any faster than it already was.

Not a moment too soon! The agents broke loose from the stagehands, after threatening them with old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat, then stalked furiously across the stage of the Festspielhaus, their rifles poised.

The curtain opened immediately for another bow, catching the three agents center-stage, greeted by wild cheers and comical jeers. Holding up their rifles, they pumped their arms to the applause’s rhythm.

Intercepting them for another bow, Nelmondo, seeing us disappear into the crowd, then raised his saber toward the wings.

On his dramatic signal, soldiers rushed onto the stage with full-throated bravado, their bayonets fixed and pointed despite Gottlieb’s protests, engaging the invaders in mock combat to continuing cheers from the crowd.

Our soldier, meanwhile, continued pushing us toward one of the backstage exits as Almaviva led his spirited surprise attack.

D’Arcy said we knew what we had to do – (we did? really?) – deciding it was time to split up: in a matter of seconds, they would be back on our trail.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Snapping her phone shut indignantly, Yoda Leahy-Hu had not appreciated the news she’d just received from IMP dispatcher Aida Lott, especially since she was under extreme pressure to close this case quickly. She tried to avoid that sense she was not at her best, this particular assignment unfortunately going nowhere rapidly. After being stuck in a construction trailer interrogating her prime suspect’s accomplice in the cramped confines of a restroom, she realized not only was it pointless, young Pierce was essentially useless.

As she walked across the parking lot, seeing no point in hurrying, Director Leahy-Hu had been awaiting good news but it seemed her prey was more dastardly than she’d assumed possible. And worse, no local officers were available because they were too busy chasing some hulking moron in harem pants.

She’d just gotten word her three best “angels” – well, two of them: Gelida-Manina and Menveaux plus the new guy, Leise – had managed to corner their prey on the stage of the Festspielhaus. (How, Director Leahy-Hu wondered, could three people ever manage to ‘corner’ something on possibly the largest stage in Europe?)

“But they’d run into what you might call ‘complications,’ it being in the midst of a performance and all,” Lott said, not sure her tone of voice sounded concerned or amused.

Leahy-Hu had visions of the over-zealous new-comer, Milton Leise, inadvertently killing dozens of opera stars, extras, techies and stagehands in a spray of bullets while trying to capture the professor’s tote-bag.

“‘By any force necessary’ did not mean put the opera’s cast, crew and audience at risk, is that clear?”

Just then, in the background, she heard a burst of machine-gun fire but was told the casualties were limited, confined to an anvil, a wagon and a sizable number of pumpkins.

Unfortunately, it turned out, Agent Lott rapidly processing the agents’ frantic reports, they’ve been foiled in their attempted apprehension of the fleeing Dr. Kerr, Mr. D’Arcy and an unknown female companion by unexpected support from a bunch of supernumeraries who blocked their exit and thus allowed the fugitives to escape.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Our soldier and guide introduced himself as a regular spear-carrier at Schweinwald whose name sounded a little like Wyatt Zittipiano, cautioning us to be extra quiet to avoid attracting any undue attention. We hurried down some winding hallways until we no longer heard the hubbub of the backstage area behind us.

He explained how Señor Nelmondo preferred the peace and quiet back here, off the beaten and usually busy path. At the moment, it was completely deserted but that could quickly change.

This was as much a maze as the basement hallways had been: how did anyone find their way around? When Zittipiano stopped, I barely missed getting severely rattled by his saber.

Surprisingly, our way was all but blocked by a tiny and totally mild-mannered woman dressed in an usher's uniform.

“What,” she growled, “is your purpose back here?” Despite her size, it was clear there was no getting past her.

I began, “we’re waiting for Señor Nelmondo at his dressing room to…”

“What,” she raised a hand, cutting me off, “is your favorite color?”

“Damn it, I always hated trick questions.”

“Ms. Abbot,” Zittipiano interrupted, pointing behind us, “haven’t you heard about the three intruders backstage they’re having trouble ejecting?”

Without any further word, her eyes lit up and she was off.

Peering around the corner, his saber drawn in case of further surprises, our soldier, explaining we’d passed the test, beckoned us to follow him quickly down one empty corridor after another.

“Getting past Senior Usher Nandi Abbot, they say, is no small feat.” He chuckled at how he’d outsmarted her.

“You can consider yourselves lucky,” Zittipiano continued, “because that was probably the most ruthless usher in all of Bavaria.” She was usually stationed backstage to keep adoring fans away from singers.

“Don't let Nandi’s seeming pleasantness fool you,” he added with a smile, “there's a reason she’s called 'Killer' Abbott.”

Reaching the dressing room, Wyatt opened the door after a cautious knock.

“Señor Nelmondo will arrive shortly,” he said, closing the door on us. “Meanwhile, you must let no one in.”

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

After watching the militiaman lead Kerr and LauraLynn down the one hallway, D’Arcy knew his role was playing the decoy, drawing the agents after him, whether or not they’d eventually catch him. All he had to do was hang around backstage just long enough so they’d see him run.

They did.

Not sure where this hallway was going, he figured the further it led away from Dr. Kerr, the better. He’d completely lost track where he was: he just needed to 'escape.'

Running toward him were three Schweinwald agents, one of them Officer Sordino, each with their pistols drawn and ready.

There was no time to explain but they could come in handy.

“Quick, Sordino,” he yelled back, “they’re after me,” then added, “stop them!”

Sordino led the charge, rounding the corner.

D’Arcy heard a crunch, some cursing behind him, no doubt his security officers colliding head-on with the three IMP agents.

At least that would give him a few more seconds' lead, right?

How much further can he go before he can run no more?

Another turn – left? right?

He went left.

Then suddenly everything went blank for D'Arcy. Did he hit a wall?

Perhaps he was having a heart attack.

Maybe his lungs gave out and collapsed.

Or did he just trip?

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

The chalet, as the composer and his late partner referred to it – this always amused their friends since the oldest part of the sprawling building dated back to a 14th Century monastery – anyway, the chalet was a lonely place in the mountains near Garmisch-Partenkirchen and not always easy to get to. Though he kept a housekeeper, butler, and cook, plus a summer-time gardener, a mere fraction of the former staff, as soon as dinner was served they retired to the village below. It made the evenings quiet and, for the most part, pleasant with just the old man and his nephew unless there were occasional friends stopping by or, recently, too many journalists. (What with him turning 99 soon, it seemed everybody wanted an interview: "Where were they all, sixty years ago?")

He turned his attention back to Mozart or at least tried to, but realized his mind wasn't in it, the dramatic situation in the opera reminding him of Robertson Sullivan's murder. Now he began to wonder if perhaps one of his favorite piano concertos – like the G Major, K.453, with Cassadesus – might not have been a better choice: funny how things can change. But he didn’t want to delay his nephew's leaving a minute longer by asking him to find another CD.

As the Statue was asking Giovanni would he dine instead with him, the nephew called out from the kitchen, "if you want, I could make some fresh tea before I leave?"

"Please," he answered, "but make it strong."

"Strong, this late?" he asked.

"Yes, I think so. It’ll be okay."

He found himself nodding to the statue and decided it was time he should turn off the CD player, fumbling with the remote before the demons dragged Giovanni off to hell.

The full moon glowed across the valley, sharply highlighting the tiniest details on the nearby peaks outside his window, mountains with their awe-inspiring grandeur that isolated him from the greater world. It was fifty years ago this month that he and his partner had decided to move into this place.

Technically, Wilcox Schlegel was his partner Sebastian's nephew but he was all the family the old man had left, now.

"Here it is, piping hot." Will noticed that the music had stopped.

"I think over at my desk," he said, pointing toward the corner, "I feel like doing some work tonight."

Will raised an eyebrow – it was unusual the maestro worked after dinner – carefully placing the cup by his notebook. He knew there was another deadline looming that had been bothering him.

Before Will could come over to help, the old man got up from his chair and stretched a bit, then shuffled over to his work desk, looking out the broad windows. He preferred working here, now, to his desk by the grand piano. Besides, the phone was here – in case.

"I’ve been having some… well, ideas, for lack of any better word," he explained as he settled into his chair. Will adjusted the pillow across the back, carefully moving the teacup closer. "I just need to jot a few things down for tomorrow morning. I’ll probably forget them, if I don’t."

Trying not to eye up the phone – "yes, not too far away" – he opened his notebook at the marker and picked up one of the ball-point pens he preferred writing with.

"I’m going into town to meet a few friends after a concert," Will started to explain, tidying up the desk. "They texted me they weren’t going to stay for the second half."

"Some nasty new music?" the old man said with a twinkling smile. The tea, he found, was just right.

"Actually," he chuckled, "they enjoyed the new piece on the first half – that recent percussion concerto by Jennifer Higdon – he said they just didn’t need to hear yet another Miraculous Mandarin."

"Ah, I’d heard Jennifer’s concerto on the radio last month – wonderful piece," the old man said, nodding his approval. "But when I first heard the Mandarin, it was still quiet new."

"Yes, it’s so overplayed, now, it’s practically a crowd-pleaser," Will complained, laughing.

"They could always do another Beethoven symphony..."

It was an odd feeling, like something unexpected was going to happen – not to him, not like a health problem – but he caught himself wondering what Sullivan would want him to do.

"Well, if you’re going to meet them, you had better get going," not exactly shoving him out the door.

Will grabbed his keys and a coat, then headed for the elevator, promising to look in on him later. "I’ll only be gone a few hours and I have my cell."

Once he heard the elevator begin its descent to the garage below, the old man puttered around at his desk, moving his sketchbook out of the way to bring the phone closer.

"Ah, finally, I thought the boy'd never leave," the old man sighed, sipping his tea as Will drove away.

It was a comfort having him live upstairs if he needed him, he thought, but sometimes he got underfoot. He flipped through his notebook, wishing he actually had some new ideas.

"This is no kind of life for someone Will’s age," he sighed, "stuck out here alone, isolated from friends, spending all his time being an old man’s personal secretary and houseboy."

Glancing at the drum table, he wondered about Robertson's strange little gift. What did he expect would happen now?

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Torvald Kegelstatt was told to meet the IMP’s Chief of Special Forces in three minutes outside the Festspielhaus’ freight entrance, still trying to collect himself and figure out what was going on, though all he’d managed so far was that there’d been some explosion which left the back wall severely damaged. Nervously looking around – someone told him it involved this huge hulking creature – he reached his post barely in time to see a small figure in black rags disappearing toward the woods. Thinking he should alert security, Torvald realized in his hurry he must’ve forgotten to bring his phone with him but it was too late now because he saw the Chief approaching, a tall young man with dark hair being followed by some wizened old fellow in a tawdry-looking khaki-colored raincoat.

Kegelstatt apologized profusely for nothing in particular yet seemingly everything in general as he proceeded to offer his eager assistance, telling the young man a room was set aside as he’d requested.

Cameron kept nodding deferentially to the short and rumpled figure beside him until Leahy-Hu spoke up and thanked him.

“Ah, you’re the Chief? Sorry,” Kegelstatt blushed. “Surely I had been misinformed.” He leaned over, offering his deferential hand.

“Just take us there immediately, young man – and my name isn’t Shirley.”

“Yes, sir,” Kegelstatt said, cursing his inexperience and trying not to cringe at whatever gaffe he may have committed, not intentionally insulting the old foreigner. “This way, sir,” he added condescendingly. Though still new on the job, he’d already discovered artists and old folks were the most temperamental people around.

Young Torvald turned on his heels and briskly led the way through a series of twisting hallways and staircases that left Leahy-Hu, barely keeping up, sputtering on the verge of breathlessness.

“Is there a problem, sir?” Kegelstatt asked after clearing another dozen steps.

Gasping for breath, Leahy-Hu was muttering incoherently.

She leaned against the wall, gesticulating wildly behind them, then pointed forward.

“Perhaps what she’s trying to say,” Cameron offered, glancing down at her, “might be ‘where the hell are we?’”

“As I understood it, sir,” young Torvald said, trying not to sound superior, “you required a secure yet remote space which I assumed meant you’d prefer to be neither disturbed nor distracted?”

“That… may be…, young man” Leahy-Hu rasped out between great, heaving breaths, “but is this place… really… handicap-accessible compliant?”

“Ah, then we could’ve taken the elevator over there,” he pointed out. “I always prefer to take the stairs.”

She was amazed she managed not to kick him in the shins.

“We’re almost there, sir,” Kegelstatt blithely continued, resuming their seemingly endless trek, “the room’s just around the next corner. Though I guess we could rest awhile, if you’re in no hurry.”

“He must be pushing fifty,” Torvald thought with the arrogance of youth, “and probably a smoker, considering that voice.”

They stopped at a simple door, unadorned except for the number 498, which Kegelstatt tried unlocking with his master key. “It’s simply furnished and rarely used,” he explained, coaxing open the lock.

Once inside, he pointed out the private restroom and a desk phone then excused himself with his deepest apologies.

Leahy-Hu’s phone began chirping its distinctive ring-tone – Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” – though she barely had a chance to catch her breath before answering when Manina started her quick, detailed report.

“Good news and bad news,” Agent Manina began. “We’ve captured Acting Director D’Arcy in a hallway leading away from backstage but he says Professor Kerr and the woman had been behind him. When he turned around and saw us, he says he has no idea what might have become of them.”

Leahy-Hu tried sounding ominous, panting between breaths, “On a scale of one-to-ten… as good news goes… that’s a four?… I’m assuming you’re telling me… that Professor Kerr has somehow… eluded you?”

Agent Manina gave Leahy-Hu a quick but detailed summary of the events leading up to Acting Director D’Arcy’s capture. “If it hadn’t been for the Seville guards getting in our way…”

“Wait,” she said, her steely eyes sharply focusing on nothing in particular, “he has support from… a civilian militia?”

“So, a third person has joined our elusive fugitive,” she thought, “and now he’s managed to acquire mercenaries, as well.” Perhaps she’d underestimated the power of her adversary, if not his intelligence.

“One of the ushers,” Manina continued matter-of-factly, “mentioned a guard escorting two people to one of the dressing rooms…”

“Ah, perhaps they’re bringing the professor up to my new interrogation room,” she said, finally gaining her breath. “Excellent.”

“I was thinking,” Manina replied, “perhaps the guard is helping them escape?”

Leahy-Hu ordered IMP Dispatcher Lott, knowing her proximity to Schweinwald Dispatcher Agitato, to have the Festspielhaus’ perimeter locked down so Kerr and his mysterious lady-friend couldn’t escape (if they hadn’t already).

“And tell Schäufel,” she added, “it's a matter of international music security. We cannot risk having him at large.”

Turning her attention back to Agent Manina, Leahy-Hu began giving her directions, starting from the back of the building, but got so thoroughly confused after the tenth turn, she gave up.

“Never mind, Agent Manina. Bring Mr. D’Arcy up to my dressing room. You’d better hone in on my GPS. I have the distinct impression this place was designed by M.C. Escher.”

This gave Leahy-Hu an idea how best to deal with Cameron Pierce.

She placed him inside the next room.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

“The black swan dies at midnight,” a voice mumbled outside the door.

“Agent Manina, how often have I told you,” Leahy-Hu sighed, opening carefully, “the password’s ‘the black swan flies at midnight’?”

A blindfolded and humbled D’Arcy was then unceremoniously pushed into the room.

“So good to see you, Mr. D’Arcy.”

While they handcuffed D’Arcy to the chair, Leahy-Hu whispered something barely audible, referring to some guy named Paul Meary which made the agent look up, nod, then reach into a pocket.

Manina then went next door and motioned Cameron out into the hallway where she patted him down for weapons, telling him to wait patiently until Director Leahy-Hu was ready for him.

With that, she excused herself, given the urgency of catching the professor – and keeping an eye on Mr. Meary.

Once Manina left him alone, Cameron looked around, then sheepishly sneaked off till he somehow found himself hanging out backstage. There, he saw security officers hurrying past, too preoccupied to notice him. Rita Pagliaccio was attempting to do another interview, the broadcast’s intermission feature, while singers and stage-crew milled about expectantly.

He skirted past them, eventually discovering a door opening onto the lobby and from there, out onto the plaza.

“Piece of cake,” he thought, which reminded him how hungry he was.

Near the fountain, a rotund man was selling what looked like hot-dogs piled high with sweet peppers and onions, and fortunately they cost just the amount of cash he had left.

Glad he’d worn his jacket on such a cool night, he laughed: someone nearby complained how warm it was.

After someone poked him in the back, Cameron tried not to react, assuming his luck ran out, once again. How long would it’ve taken before the IMPs caught up with him?

The first time they had arrested him, they brutally confiscated the crumpet he’d just retrieved from the vending machine and here he was, ready to chow down on this delicious-looking hot-dog.

But instead, it’s a young hoodlum in shirt-sleeves who demanded his hot-dog.

“While you’re at it, the jacket, too.”

It wasn’t that the guy was that much bigger than he was – in fact, he was a pretty good match – but Cameron had no interest in creating a scene or attracting attention. He couldn’t very well go running up to tell the security guards since they were probably looking for him.

Perhaps he minded losing the hot-dog more since he had other jackets but now his wallet was gone, too.

And there the guy went, dashing across the plaza toward the hotel.

The vendor had seen everything and was ready to signal the officers when Cameron shook his head and frowned. His pockets now empty, he shrugged his shoulders and walked slowly away.

Feeling badly for the poor young tourist, the vendor dished up another, “on the house,” piling it even higher.

Agent Lott reported to Leahy-Hu that they had movement on “Paul Meary” – the traditional code-name given to any suspect the IMP was tracking after having planted a GPS unit in their clothing.

“Good,” Leahy-Hu said. “Manina, Menveaux and Leise – make sure whatever you do, don't lose his trail, is that understood?”

With that she snapped her phone shut with a laugh so ominous, it sent grave-chilling shivers down D’Arcy’s spine.

"Now he'll lead us to the professor – and his little tote-bag, too!"

= = = = = = =
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.
© 2014

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 17 (Part 2)

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, we began reading the journal LauraLynn's great-grandfather Harrison Harty kept when he began his summer studies at the legendary Schweinwald Academy in 1880 and met some of his teachers, hearing the news that Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt would soon be visiting the school.

= = = = = = =
Chapter 17 (Part 2)

(being the conclusion of the first installment of Master Harrison Harty's Schweinwald Journal, Summer of 1880)

Despite our being roommates, Gutknaben and myself, we rarely see each other between the times breakfast has concluded and 'lights-out,' having none of our classes in common and spending our evenings practicing. He prefers to study in the library when he is not composing and generally seems to enjoy his solitude. What little night-time conversation we do share we conduct with some awkwardness in a mixture of German and English so I can't say we've come to know each other very well. I, regardless of hours spent locked up in my practice room deep in the dungeon, as we call it – though I suspect it once was, in fact, an actual torture chamber – would prefer the regular company of friends to feeling quite so lonely but then I am here to learn.

Yet several more days have gone by since making my last entry as I've had no time for my journal to the point I wonder whether it's worth trying to maintain it. I wish not to write in it when I'm feeling particularly desolate as if it were my only friend. Who would possibly want to read it years from now – even months – the hopeless mewlings of a lonely boy? Writing about this makes it more real, only that much more tangible.

There is, however, one good thing to mention and that's the weather, after what feels like weeks of rain. The sun has finally made an appearance after too long an absence. Gutknaben tells me that Londoners should be accustomed to this but I, I mention reluctantly, am not from London. I wondered, to be a good German, if one ought to grow webs between ones toes and perhaps fins though he assured me even for Germany this rain has been excessive. London rain – but more particularly its fog – is legendary on the Continent, a primary part of our national image, making it like some distant, exotic land populated by vaguely visible people. But for his part he wondered, if not London, where else was there for one to live in England?

He himself had been born in Dessau, a Saxon town near Leipzig which is where he eventually went to study once his parents realized home was too small for talent like his. Similarly, I might have moved to Belfast had I been as talented, had it been within my family's means. Though Gutknaben's father was a prominent merchant, illness had befallen him recently leaving the family fortune in considerable doubt. Both families suffered straightening circumstances: neither family, one could say, was rich. Even if, I noted, our school uniforms might be great social levelers, the only way to tell one's class – who was wealthy and who was not, other than by dress alone – was in the way we carried ourselves or spoke to each other, the result of either breeding or presumption.

Despite the respective differences in our ages and in our particular backgrounds, not to mention the disparity in our talents – he made me feel I was a rank beginner all over again – there might have been enough left over to constitute some common ground for us to become somehow good friends. He was certainly well-liked by the others who may be excused for regarding him as something of a mascot, but whatever his future held for him, he resolutely kept to himself.

The summer session at Castle Schweinwald was intended solely for young composers, a concentrated period of application free from distractions, accepting a mixture of students from conservatory graduates to near-beginners like myself. It was definitely a rarefied, fully-charged atmosphere especially for the younger students where talent itself was the great factor. Regardless of a student's age or background, his – now, apparently, also her – standing among the students was principally determined by the compositions he (or she) produced and the potential they exhibited. For decades, its highly regarded reputation evolved as a preeminent finishing school among the music conservatories of German-speaking Europe if only because such a concentrated program, while controversial, proved thoroughly stimulating. The fact that it allowed women to study openly was another factor if not one free of heated contentions.

Yet, on the whole, the school had, during its regular academic year, begun losing some of that professional reputation's sheen or at least such were the rumours some of us occasionally overheard. The reasons for it were predictably numerous as any student could imagine but the biggest one was undoubtedly 'location.' The older students felt, when discussing this quietly during our evening meals, it was the lack of city life: for two months, perhaps one could manage surviving without a near-by tavern...!

Two of the more advanced students I had met upon my arrival, both of them finishing degrees in Vienna, found this "restricted life" tantamount to exile on some distant desert island. Even the academy's sanctioned pub, "The Cave", located in the wine cellar, was not enough to overcome such objections. Mahler, just turning 20 and hailing from some small town in Bohemia, chafed at this as much as Rott. Even Ethel Smyth, following studies in Leipzig, found the atmosphere "disappointingly quaint."

Recently finished with his studies in Vienna, Mahler still had very little to show for it in his portfolio, while Rott was writing this vast symphony which seemed almost totally unperformable. Of course, Ethel had a suitcase bulging with every kind of manuscript – string quartets, sonatas, even an operatic scene!

It seemed inappropriate to call her Smyth, this young lady from Marlybone, given our male camaraderie with last names only. I wasn't even sure how to pronounce the 'y' – long or short? She bristled when Mahler called her "Smeithe," in his best English approximation, and screamed when Rott pronounced it "Schmüt." When I thought he'd called her "Schmooth," she nearly slapped my face before she stormed out into the hallway and refused even to speak to me for two days following that. But when I remembered my own misery after my fellow students made fun of my name back at home, concerned that our playful games would escalate to return spite for spite, I then informed her, after apologizing in a short text set to mock-serious music, I'd call her only Ethel.

And just in time, it seemed, because it was then announced we should be receiving a famous guest from Vienna or rather by way of Bad Ischl, his vacation destination that summer. Ethel, who'd met him in Leipzig before while living with the Herzogenbergs, promised she would give us an introduction. She explained Herzogenberg was her composition teacher after she left the Gewandhaus, living with him and his wife, Lisl, who happened to be an old friend of the great Johannes Brahms.

We were told, officially, that Brahms' visit was a purely personal one, not to offer lessons or give masterclasses or be pestered by impertinent young composers seeking his stamp of approval. He was here solely as an observer, hearing much about the school where his own childhood teacher once studied. Bad Ischl proved so miserable and damp, Brahms, finding creative work impossible, sought refuge in a change of scenery and was, fortunately, in a good mood, arriving on a sunny day.

When everyone showed up to greet him, Ethel stood near the front right behind the overly effusive Professor Böhm who stumbled hopelessly through his welcome speech, Brahms otherwise enjoying his cigar. But when he recognized Ethel standing there, his smile suddenly clouded over and Professor Fabbro quickly whisked him away.

Our eminent guest did not join us for dinner, as it happened, given another arrival nearly coinciding with his own: the great Liszt's train pulled into Ottobeuren a mere half hour later. Instead, Brahms dined privately with his friends the Hammerschlags and Professor Fabbro in relative seclusion at the faculty's club. There, according to Gutknaben who worked as a waiter in the club, they feasted copiously and drank most convivially, often whispering in a curiously clandestine fashion before breaking out with laughter.

Liszt's timing no doubt coincidental, the great pianist and Brahms' long-time rival was en route from Munich to Rome when he agreed to perform a recital long promised to Dean Bezsmyertnikov. They could hardly tell him it was not the best of times especially as Brahms' visit was technically unofficial.

One must go back over sixty years to find some common denominator between these two noble giants of contemporary music which had gone in so many directions since the Age of Beethoven. While Brahms represented the sanctity of the past, keeping the flame alive, Liszt was the glimpse into the future.

We students at dinner vibrated with possibilities, the excitement so entirely palpable, facing the presence of a musical duel. It would be interesting to see, tonight, where sides would be drawn.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

With considerable bewilderment, I have just come from hearing the great Franz Liszt play his recital in the Great Hall and my very first thought was he has completely lost his mind! What little of his music I had occasion to hear at home was difficult enough for me to comprehend. But I have to admit, compared to some pieces he played tonight, everything he's composed before sounded like Mozart. That this would even be considered "music" is something I must contest. Opening with some Beethoven I'd never heard – one of his later sonatas – there were original fantasies, song-transcriptions and improvisations, most of which were admittedly bewildering enough, even the Beethoven, quite frankly. He then offered a piece, a work-in-progress, which he had entitled "Unstern" (I had no idea what that meant).

This was just the first of several short works he then performed lacking all manner of discernible melody or harmony – for that matter, any sense of standard chords or even tonal centers. He explained, as he rhapsodized in apparent ecstasy over several particular examples, how he happened upon some new ideas. If he had at that time taken such an overdose of laudanum as to suffer the direst of consequences, it might perhaps explain the unexpected outcome but failed to excuse it.

He had not, he admitted, written any of these down as yet and one hoped he would destroy them rather than foist them through his publisher onto an otherwise unsuspecting public. But still, there were those around me, who, as I looked about, seemed entirely intrigued and fascinated by them. Dean Bezsmyertnikov had a rather frightening grin on his usually pallid face, enjoying the general consternation almost as much. Mahler, like several others, frowned in concentration, a puzzle within his grasp.

Hammerschlag couldn't help making a noisy point of walking out in protest, that this was "the death of music." Fabbro muttered Liszt made a mockery of his machine, whatever that meant. Brahms, meanwhile, had fallen asleep almost immediately, softly snoring in complete contentment. No one doubted what he really thought.

There were more boos and catcalls at the end of the program than there were cheers and shouts of bravo, most of it directed amongst the audience than specifically at Liszt himself. The tumult woke Brahms with a snort, amazed that anything Liszt played could have resulted in such a furor. Fabbro escorted him out of the hall, whispering something in his ear which, someone later said, made Brahms smile. Hammerschlag, meanwhile, returned to observe the fracas, keeping note of those cheering.

By the time we four friends, arguing heatedly, arrived at the reception, the library was already all but empty, a handful of people here and there with Liszt nowhere in sight. Professor Böhm was standing in a corner confiding something serious to Gutknaben who turned and without ceremony hurried away.

The rest is quickly told, how we four went to the Cave to continue our discussion over a few beers, Rott and Ethel leaving Mahler and I to close the place down. Hurrying back to our rooms in the East Tower in the darkness, I stumbled over something at Sechter's statue.

It was Gottlieb Gutknaben, lying there motionless – we started shouting for help – Maestro Knussbaum was the first to arrive. Others appeared, declaring it a horrible accident – "the poor boy is dead."

I think it was Dean Bezsmyertnikov who had called it an accident, making it official in lieu of any doctor, though I noticed Böhm frowned at Knussbaum's shaking his head in disagreement. Some assistants carried away my roommate's body – where, I had no idea – and Knussbaum stayed behind to comfort us.

"This, I'm afraid, was not an accident," he said – hardly comforting words – pointing to the base of the statue. "Something was open, here, when I arrived, but now it's closed – see?"

There was nothing to see, I said, beyond a bit of blood, probably where poor Gutknaben hit his head. The stain, however, was several feet above the floor, Knussbaum pointed out.

"Gutknaben was a short lad, wasn't he? Shorter than the pedestal, here. Can someone fall, hitting his head there?"

Mahler and I ran our hands across the face of the pedestal looking for anything that might open a panel.

"Could this be a hidden entrance to one of those secret passageways?"

"But what was it you saw that was open," Mahler asked Knussbaum. "A drawer, a doorway or... a shadow?"

Rott mumbled something and grabbed my arm, pointing into the surrounding shadows, saying he saw Brahms there, lurking about.

There was no one there, of course, but Knussbaum shook his head.

It would be hard to tell were there signs of any scuffle between someone most enthusiastic about Liszt's newest works and Gutknaben who, I assumed by his quiet nature, would not be. Of course, between the darkness and everybody else who eventually showed up, there would be few clues left undisturbed.

Pushing his fingers against the statue's pedestal, Knussbaum mumbled something about Beethoven, then looked up into Sechter's stony face. Quietly he turned, receding into the shadows, his finger to his lips.

Mahler, running a hand across his beard in a pensive gesture, said, "No doubt, there is dirty work afoot."

"But why," I asked, "would anyone kill a harmless prodigy like Gutknaben?"

Perhaps there is more to his death that I should proceed cautiously, holding a mirror to Brahms and Mahler

= = = = = = =
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.
© 2014

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Lost Chord: Act II, Chapter 17 (Part 1)

In the previous installment, Dr. Kerr, LauraLynn and D'Arcy discover their escape has led them into the midst of the Schweinwald Festival's opening night gala performance of The Barber of Seville during the first act finale which catches everyone by surprise, not least Dr. Kerr, LauraLynn and D'Arcy. The three pursuing IMP agents prepare to follow them onto the stage as mayhem ensues. The audience loved it!

*** ***** ******** ***** ***
*** ***** ******** ***** ***


Being the first installment of Master Harrison Harty's Journal, Summer of 1880

We began arriving at Schweinwald from across Europe – well, mostly Germany and Austria, two from Great Britain (including one Londoner) in addition to one rather unexpected American (all students of Schweinwald graduates) but none, as one expected, from France, and those few who originated from Italy would, naturally, not last long under the rigorous training we all dreaded (the 'Lax Latins,' as my Uncle William called them, for obvious reasons). Like me, we were all young lads seeking advanced levels of study offered at the Academy of Schweinwald Castle where every summer experts of wide renown gathered from across the continent in order to engage the musical arts in such thoroughly concentrated circumstances as to make their students better composers.

Tearing myself away from the arms of my beloved mother may have been perhaps the most challenging thing I had to do to start this journey into the heart of The Continent, a place so infinitely farther than our occasional summer holiday to Belfast which itself always seemed to take forever. Gazing at the globe sitting in a dusty corner of Father’s study, I inched my fingers across its surface, scarcely able to find Belfast, at first, Munich barely three inches away.

I was told no member of my family had ever gone farther from home than London, in fact trips the comparatively short distance to Belfast were rare enough from little Hillsborough. County Down had seemed all the world in this corner of Ireland with England obviously so utterly far away. That didn’t stop us from naturally thinking of ourselves as thoroughly English, our Yorkshire ancestors settling here after Kinsale, my father always one to look at the Greater Scheme of Things. It was assumed I needed, before my Continental trip, a proper holiday, some slight encounter with our magical capital, away from home but still surrounded by people speaking my own language, though I soon discovered our London cousins with whom I stayed regarded us as hopeless provincials – and worse, Irish.

The city I soon discovered was vast and noisy, crowded and filthy and I immediately hated every bit of it, especially as my arrogant cousins lived quite far from anything of note. Leaving London, I was as glad to put the Morgans behind me as they were to see my back. True, I missed the familiarity of language, if not family, once across the Channel and quickly headed toward Paris. The train itself, a bubble of English air, eventually burst in Munich. It surprised me as I reached the coach taking us to Ottobeuren to meet an English girl already there who brusquely dismissed me when I wondered ought girls be studying composition. I had hoped to practice my German on her but she said my Irish accent made me utterly incomprehensible.

In Ottobeuren, I met a few more students who had already arrived from Austria and Budapest earlier in the day, with only just enough time to jump on another, more decrepit carriage that bounced along a winding country road past an ancient farmhouse before we reached an even more ancient-looking castle. If Father saw fit to give me a Harty Farewell upon seeing me onto the boat bound for London, I realized, arriving in Schweinwald, how I longed for a hearty welcome.

I’d been christened with the horribly alliterative name of Harold Harrison Harty, the eldest son of one John Jasper Harty, whose younger brother, William Michael Harty, was but ten years my senior, the outer sons, separated by four intervening daughters, of Cuthbert Clevenger Harty, one of the best musicians in Dromore. My father, lacking any talent, began his career as a simple tradesman, married young and later becoming a teacher after the economic troubles of the 1860s ruined many such family businesses. My uncle followed happily in his father’s footsteps as a church organist and soon found himself a comfortable position where despite the drawbacks of youth he proved both respected and popular. Barely six months old by that summer, his fourth and latest child they christened Herbert Hamilton Harty, called Hammie.

Though both first and middle names confirmed my nickname would be "Harry," my name, usually listed as "Harty, Harold Harrison," led the mindlessly cruel to call me instead "Old Harty Har Har." After years of being taunted as "Har-Har," I could not wait to leave home if for no other reason. I eventually chose to style myself as Harrison Harty, dropping the Harold altogether, which at least sounded more patrician except in the mouths of common Londoners who called me 'Arry 'Arty.

Not that I had much hope for any considerable improvement just because my new school was located in Germany: did smart students there struggle under the chafe of stupid bullies, too? The language aside, I hoped they were more serious if for no other reason than we were all musicians. Grandfather told us proudly what he knew of the old Schweinwald Academy, how highly it had once been regarded, his own teacher, the inestimable Gilbert Pook, studying there as a lad.

Whether the school was famous with a great reputation and learned professors who, perhaps, might have known Beethoven personally was not really what a hopeful young student wanted most to know. Whether the training was easy or the professors fair, who could say? More my concern: were the students friendly?

It’s possible you would assume, whoever reads this at some time hence, that the grandson and nephew of musicians should walk effortlessly on an easy path toward becoming a musician himself. My father, however, was the only one of his siblings to rebel at taking music lessons as a child. It was one thing for his sisters, this lady-like accessory that might help them find suitable and appreciative husbands, but for him watching his father play or conduct had no magic. He excused himself for having no observable talent despite Grandfather’s cajoling him how he hadn’t even tried to find it, but really, Aunt Tilda said, he simply felt too manly for it. He chafed under the custom of sitting through family musicales after dinner, useless habits he considered boring and pretentious. No one could justifiably accuse my father of being unaware of beauty for he was not necessarily rude or uncivilized. Beauty, he would point out, was visible in anything for the looking. But if culture meant books and concerts or paintings on a wall, then, yes, Father was most certifiably uncultured. Even as a boy with a rather rough-hewn exterior, he loved to spend an afternoon whittling away at wood, sometimes making toys for his sisters or just to pass the time.

He dreamt, he later told me, of wanting to build great buildings except there was little chance a boy like him could get the necessary training here in the Irish countryside. Had it not been for the famines of the 1840s, his family might have been able to afford it. But as luck (or fate) would intervene – this Greater Scheme of Things – he was apprenticed to a furniture-maker’s shop which by the tender age of 21 he had quite inadvertently inherited. Following his transition from craftsman to businessman, he earned a respectable reputation yet occasionally thought of building great buildings if only he’d had the chance or the time or good fortune. This was not so much a question of talent, he felt, as a matter of skill and sheer determination.

Once Little William came along and as a small child discovered magic in this music being made around him, the elder brother softened perhaps the slightest bit and offered no argument once his younger brother not only eagerly took to his lessons at the piano but quickly excelled in them. The boy became proficient enough to follow Grandfather onto the organ bench before his feet could reach the pedals; after various changes in his trousers’ length, he played the occasional service. That my grandfather, already an old man turning gray and noticeably arthritic, could make such beautiful music was wonderful enough but that Uncle William did so, too, mesmerized me as a child. The benefit to having an uncle who was like an older brother drew me even closer to the music.

My father’s biggest disappointment with this fascination of mine came from realizing I'd no interest following him into the shop until after the business failed and there was nothing left to inherit. Understandably, Father found nothing so rewarding compared to working with his hands, having worked with wood all his life. But when Uncle William held up his own delicate hands, fingers wiggling, the furniture-maker understood and realized the truth. My winning a scholarship to Schweinwald then only helped his understanding further.

It was not a particularly long talk as such talks often went when he sat me down and asked me what it was I dreamt about becoming, once I became a man. Was I perhaps old enough, he wondered, to be thinking such things, a time that seemed so far away? When he was told I'd composed the music Uncle William just played, his first thought, he said, was fear, which I remember disappointed me because I didn’t think it particularly scary. Was it so different, really, from architecture, seeing buildings in your mind, drawing them on flat pieces of paper before they were turned into something you could walk around and through? But things had happened in his life he could not easily explain, as luck (or fate) had had it. It was a simple thing to me, perhaps – a mystery to others – more magical than being able to play it, but creating this music out of nothing was, he found, something amazing. And yet it had been nothing, a little piece of drivel lacking form and substance, I’m embarrassed to admit. If I would succeed, he warned me, it took more than talent to make it happen, whatever 'it' was, but also a sense of will and strong determination on my part.

I did not like the sound of will and determination applied to something I had found such effortless fun, "studying diligently and with assiduity" (I remember Grandfather smiling at my confusion), but if it meant I could study regularly with Uncle William and eventually with Grandfather, I would do it. Grandfather told me, as I unwittingly found myself applying such diligent assiduousness, there was little more he could offer, that presently I would need to find a better teacher beyond Hillsborough. And with that came the suggestion of my going to Schweinwald, where his own teacher studied as a lad, an academy of high reputation for creating well-rounded students from across Europe. Mother, almost immediately, was duly concerned about it being so far away while Father duly wondered at the expense.

But surely, they both argued, wouldn't Belfast or Dublin be much closer or, at most, maybe Liverpool or even London? Certainly we could find a few good music schools closer than Bavaria? I was not, after all, some future Mozart – was I? – who needed such rarified training in such distant lands? In London, Father said, at least there were my mother’s cousins who lived in Hampstead I could stay with, though she quietly shook her head at this and patted his arm. He suggested we try one of their summer semesters, not a full academic year, enough to get me started and see if there’s enough talent to warrant a conservatory in London. Besides, Grandfather’d heard Brahms would be visiting there next summer which caused Mother to wrinkle her nose in distaste.

Father petitioned the Marquis of Down who fortunately considered himself an enthusiastic music lover, well acquainted with my grandfather’s playing, and eventually I went to the manor house and performed for him. By this time, I had considerably improved and he appeared genuinely impressed, though wondering if Germany was indeed necessary. But once Grandfather explained the details of the Schweinwald Academy to him, Sir Robert agreed to cover my expenses if, three months after returning, I presented a recital in the church.

After more diligent study and assiduous application, I filled out Schweinwald's forms, included a recommendation from the venerable Mr. Pook, took various tests about harmony and history and included a substantial portfolio with several piano pieces I had composed most recently for the occasion, plus numerous, very dry assignments in counterpoint. Within a space equivalent to numerous eternities, I received a tersely worded reply that – congratulations – I had been accepted and was expected to appear at Schweinwald on the 1st of July. And so it was, on that date – a dreary, rain-swept summer morning – when my carriage approached the legendary school I’d heard so much about from Grandfather and the agéd Mr. Pook, appearing through the shredded clouds and pine trees of the surrounding forest, a castle less grand than I imagined.

Uncomfortably dark and foreboding, befitting perhaps the serious nature of its purpose, Castle Schweinwald appeared older than it actuality was, jutting block-like from rocky out-croppings, tattered coloured banners flying from its towers, a medieval-looking fortress built two centuries since not nearly as ancient as that 10th Century monastery we'd passed earlier. Before it stretched a great stone-paved courtyard with a once grand fountain over which a large statue of Beethoven, looking infinitely sad and foreboding, certainly unwelcoming, loomed over the arriving students.

Mr. Pook was confident the school would not be very different now from the time he had attended it, though by now most of his teachers were either dead or retired. It was not difficult to imagine him as an expectant student walking this same path some fifty years since. The great Simon Sechter, then the headmaster, restructured the school’s summer program, to create an intensive course of immersion, students spending their days studying, practicing, rehearsing, composing, then studying some more.

It was grueling work and many disappeared before the end of term or chose not to return the following summer. Pook described it as a military camp, thumping his chest with pride. Undaunted, I breathed deeply, stepped down from my carriage, excited to begin: a career was mine, should I survive.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

It is now a fortnight since I arrived here that rainy day and the rain hasn't stopped this whole time, making me most glad my room is high in the East Tower where if nothing else I can be assured we will not drown should the stream below begin to flood. The weather is so chill and damp, some say the climate's changing in ways that exhibit no logical sense, that before long we shall all be buried under mountains of ice. My roommate, a fellow named Gottlieb Gutknaben, complains the students saying this purport to read the latest scientific writings but succeed only in frightening us all with their wild so-called theories. Of course, I mentioned nothing of this in my first letters home lest it cause my mother undo worry. A dutiful son, I have written several letters to assure my parents of my safe arrival, wishing them both well, and saying how much I miss them during these long, lonely hours. That may, in all honesty, be stretching it even just a bit, but every family likes to hear this. Finding time to write in this journal has proven the greater challenge as I have little time to myself. The excitement I feel is one thing; the hours requiring study, another.

Gutknaben, with whom I share these lodgings, may be younger than I but he studies at the advanced level, having been attending the Academy at Schweinwald during the regular academic year. He has only lately taken up composition aside from his piano lessons, the summer program likely to prove beneficial. It had long been considered a deficiency in his childhood, he insisted, to play from such an early age without, like most virtuosos of the day, composing anything on his own. Like everything else, my young friend fell into composition with considerable ease, he being already something of a prodigy, and accomplished in a very few months what had taken me years. He also spoke some English well enough, better than I spoke German, and this would prove a mutual benefit.

Our room was not large though far from Spartan, suiting our needs, with very little wasted space or undue embellishments. We had our beds and desks with commodious wardrobes for our clothes. The window, a slit in the wall, looked out upon the courtyard but failed to allow in much light. The hallway, befitting a tower, wound around, a long, dark descending spiral which must be constantly lit by candles. Made of great solid blocks of stone, any sound reverberated quite freely. At points, the hall would open into a warren of narrow staircases which seemed to lead in all directions making it very easy for anyone unfamiliar to find themselves irretrievably lost. It was rumoured, also, that the walls were riddled with secret passageways which I didn't doubt for an instant.

While the dormitories may have been built on a completely vertical axis, the classrooms and public areas were completely horizontal, from the library and various sitting rooms to the spacious Great Hall, on the west side, doubling as both dining room and concert space possessing a fine organ of numerous ranks. One could imagine the knights of some medieval version of Count Falkenstein, whose family built and owned the castle, feasting here upon roast venison and mead were it not so recent.

As we spent our first few days settling in and orienting ourselves, we soon discovered the logic of the layout: classrooms on the east side's main level; various offices, a floor above. The rooms set aside for our individual practice, small if private studios, burrowed deep into the ground beneath us. These various tours through the castle's expanse, meant to familiarize our situations, were conducted by a collection of docents who were faculty assistants and upper classmen continuing their studies on scholarships. Occasionally we would be met by and introduced to a member of the faculty or the Academy's administrative staff who would welcome us with flowery speeches and wish us the best. In all, it felt a friendlier place than it might physically appear, anticipation growing toward our first official convocation.

We learned – and were inevitably tested on – the history of the place along with its numerous landmarks and outstanding features, like the statue on the main landing of former headmaster Simon Sechter. Among the portraits of its famous alumni that lined the main hallways, I found no representation of Mr. Pook. There were also areas off-limits to students, specifically the upper West Side levels reserved for faculty and staff residences. And naturally they denied, with a smile, all knowledge of secret passageways.

On the second evening, following our dinner, the tables were moved away and we were treated to a concert, introduced by the current headmaster, Dudley Böhm, a venerable and stately gentleman. Warm and personable despite his advanced years, he introduced organist Reiner Knussbaum, a hoary mountain of an agéd man. He began by telling us how Professor Sechter prefaced each breakfast by improvising for the students a mighty fugue, then proceeded to play for us the last fugue Sechter ever wrote.

Following this he played a lengthy symphonic poem on the pipe organ in the modern manner of Franz Liszt which Professor Böhm composed entitled Die Schlacht which nearly shattered the rafters. Inspired by ancient events on this soil, it could easily be called The Battle of Light against the Darkness.

Dudley Böhm may have celebrated his 70th birthday a few weeks earlier, but some graciously declared he appeared hardly sixty, despite his silver-white hair and long beard if not his wrinkled brow. To us students, he was undoubtedly ancient, judging solely by his appearance but how ancient we could barely fathom. Unlike so many old people I'd met, Grandfather and Mr. Pook aside, Professor Böhm was thoroughly comfortable with students in a way possibly described as 'avuncular,' if one needed a word. Professor Knussbaum, who during the academic year was also the orchestra's conductor, we soon discovered more closely resembled us, already well advanced into his second childhood with a very fluid imagination. He had been a friend of Beethoven's when he was a lad, talking of him as a constant presence.

Other faculty members were less immediately engaging and, at times, absolutely intimidating, like the Dean of Students, Nikolai Kashcheyevich Bezsmyertnikov, a cold-blooded Russian with an icy stare also teaching seminars in criticism. Dauntingly granitic, he wore a sour expression during most of Böhm's tone-poem as if feasting upon a long-deceased rodent. Heinrich von Hammerschlag, justifiably dubbed "Der Pauker," was hardly any more encouraging as the theory teacher drumming into us the infrangible rules of harmony as if they were the Ten Commandments.

Of the female faculty members, Hammerschlag's wife Elisabeth was most thoroughly captivating, an ingratiating and quite possibly inspiring teacher who had been a once-famous concert pianist before marrying the indomitable Heinrich and, rumour had it, even a composer who had shown considerable promise before her husband required her to quit. Two nearly twin-like spinsters were the professors charged with teaching us solfège, Lotte Ramey whom nearly everyone called 'Doe,' and her younger cousin, Allegra Manon Troppo who habitually wore widow's weeds.

But news had swept throughout the room even before Professor Böhm's announcement that Johannes Brahms was soon to arrive and Franz Liszt, touring in the area, would offer us a recital! Such guests were not unusual at Schweinwald, despite its fairly isolated location, but were still regarded as momentous events.

Once the regular students returned and the summer session was fully engaged, our classes and private lessons began in earnest as the academy's beleaguered registrar, that same old fossil, Lotte 'Doe' Ramey, sorted us through a series of the latest, supposedly scientific placement tests into our various schedules and assigned professors. In my case, it seemed a balance of good news with bad, on the one hand composition with Böhm but getting Hammerschlag for theory (second level) and Professor Fabbro for counterpoint.

My first lesson with Professor Böhm was like sitting down to tea with the best friend of my grandfather despite their being unfamiliar with each other and lacking any possible connection. He asked me questions, heard my pieces, made a few apt suggestions and wanted to know what inspired me.

If Herr Böhm was interested in allowing my imagination considerable creative freedom, Emilio Fabbro's counterpoint class was its complete opposite, picking up as if in the midst of some highly didactic syllabus where we were to forget every fantasy regarding creative license and beauty to adhere to the strictest of applications.

We must hone our craft to the precision of a potter's wheel as we work with our raw materials so, underneath the surface patterns and glaze, every pot was technically identical.

= = = = = = = 
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.
© 2014

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 16

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, D'Arcy and Kerr run into LauraLynn in the scene shop and make their escape from the IMPs, reaching a bank of elevators that will take them to the backstage of the opera house. (Meanwhile, elsewhere in Bavaria, an old man prepares for his evening, listening to the conclusion of Mozart's Don Giovanni.) Instead of the elevator doors opening, the walls disappear and Kerr, surrounded by blinding white light, hears the start of the first act finale of Rossini's Barber of Seville. That's when LauraLynn suggests they turn around.

= = = = = = =


Slowly we turned.

Considering the intensely bright lights, I could barely make out the backs of a line of soldiers and in front of them the back of Cora DiLetto as Rosina, standing dumbfounded next to the even more stunned figure of Dr. Bartolo, immobile, frozen, as unresponsive as a statue.

He’d demanded the militia arrest this soldier, barging drunkenly into his house, bearing official orders to be billeted there. But instead, they inexplicably salute the interloper and bafflingly freeze at attention.

Collapsing into a chair, poor old Bartolo, speechless as well as motionless, now becomes an object of light-hearted amusement for the disguised count (intent on wooing Rosina) and his accomplice, Figaro.

In all, an entrancingly delicate, magical moment, except it didn’t make sense why they’d have their backs to us.

Unofficially suspended in momentary disbelief was Almaviva, his curly fake mustache quivering as if ready to drop off his face, distracted by the unexpected appearance of three characters where they shouldn’t be. And as far as he could remember, characters who shouldn’t be, period.

I thought it best not to wave.

Figaro, wondering what caused the Count’s surprise, glanced over his shoulder just as I realized beyond them were visible the dimly lit faces of an audience, themselves frozen like open-mouthed statues.

Once the backdrop, a panel of doorways, had been completely whisked away, anyone onstage must appear to the audience like the silhouettes of cut-out dolls propped up before a blank wall. In the center, however, there stood three unstatue-like party crashers huddled together, unsuspectingly beamed in from some distant street. One man was wearing a rumpled tuxedo; the woman, thoroughly frazzled, a dove-gray over-the-shoulder sheath dress also considerably disheveled, and some old guy far too casual for such an elegant occasion.

Across the vast auditorium of the Festspielhaus, incredulous opera-goers picked up their lorgnettes or peered quizzically into their opera-glasses: time-travelers from another dimension, a different opera, an episode of Dr. Who? Perhaps, some decided, these were some of those nosy neighbors Figaro mentioned, alarmed about the noise from Bartolo’s house?

We had, apparently, made our unexpected entrance though a kind of “hell-trap” – an appropriate term, especially given our immediate circumstances – an elevator specially designed to deliver large set pieces directly on stage. Once the walls were in place, its ceiling slid away while the floor continued rising until it reached stage-level. Facilitating Don Giovanni’s ill-fated exit or making Mephistopheles’ bold entrance more symbolic, tonight the elevator served an unexpected purpose: placing three strangers behind the front lines of Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

It was impossible, given these blinding lights, to make out who that was I saw offstage to my right, an old man pulling at his hair in gestures of extreme consternation. It looked like the ancient servant Ambrogio was helping prepare a cart that appeared to be… full of pumpkins?

While dozens of techies gathered in the wings, their curiosity greatly aroused, three shadowy figures joined their ranks virtually unnoticed: well-armed, futuristically dressed in black, surreptitiously taking up positions behind the cart.

If we ran in the opposite direction, were more agents, the killer or just house security awaiting us there?

Clearly, our options, already severely limited, were becoming bleaker by the beat in this video game come to life.

Checking their gear, rifles ready, three agents prepared for their operatic debut.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Fictitia should have figured a monster that size would have intense stamina, jogging through the woods at a steady pace. She only hoped she could keep up while maintaining a discreet distance. All she needed to do was find out where he was going, who he was, maybe snap another pic.

She heard the wolves howling in the distance while bats flitted overhead – as if things weren’t creepy enough, here. A city girl at heart, she rarely felt comfortable in the countryside.

“OMG, how cool is that? Freakin’ awesome,” she said, catching her breath, staring at the ruins looming before her: an authentic German castle back-lit by a full moon complete with bats.

Hearing a car driving up toward her, she hid herself behind a dense shrub planted near the front door.

Scarpia got out of his car, thinking everything appeared normal. A rendezvous? Then dialing Fictitia’s phone, he waited, hearing nothing.

The front door was unlatched.

“My dumpling – ready or not, here I…”

That’s when he was confronted by the photo she’d posted on Facebook which then knocked him to the floor.

The last thing Scarpia saw was a massive pair of hairy legs, one of them covered in diaphanous material.

He screamed just as everything went dark.

“Well, so much… for normal…”

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Agent Gelida-Manina reported to Dispatcher Aida Lott, once they had arrived backstage and ascertained the location of their elusive prey, that there was now a third person with D’Arcy and the professor.

“Is this person the bomber?” she asked. She mentioned someone threw a canister, then yelled “fire in the hole.”

It had been enough of a distraction – not knowing if they had another bomb – and helped facilitate their escape. But they were now in their sites: “Piece o’ cake,” she concluded.

Agent Lott then made a call to the Festspielhaus’ Manager of Operations, requesting a secure room for an interrogation. The arrangements having been completed, she initiated her command center’s emergency move.

Leahy-Hu then escorted Cameron to this otherwise undisclosed location where she would await the inevitable capture of Dr. Kerr.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Like three bewildered deer caught in the headlights, D’Arcy, LauraLynn and I stood mesmerized in the middle of the stage, having unwittingly stolen the show with our wanton lack of costume compliance. If we could sneak across to the far side of the stage without somehow disrupting the performance even further...

It seemed unlikely the IMP agents would open fire on us onstage, right there in front of the audience, not to mention risking some pretty high-priced singers as unfortunate collateral damage.

Listening to the gentle, virtually a cappella ensemble coming to a close, I realized what we needed to do: once the rapid-fire conclusion erupted, we’ll make a dash for the wings.

Oh, snap!

Figaro’s gesture immediately brought Bartolo out of his hypnotic stupor and Rossini’s famously farcical stretto had begun.

Now I understood why they called this a stretto, Italian for “stress,” Ambrogio’s unwieldy farm wagon nearly overflowing with pumpkins, the singers dashing around the stage suddenly energized by their collective confusion, and adding to the stress, three agents, rifles poised across their chests, marching onstage and heading right toward us.

Eyes forward, we started crab-walking sideways, heel-toe/heel-toe, edging our way nervously closer to the opposite side of the stage. Unfortunately, two lines of soldiers, stiff as tin, stood in our way.

Maestro Maéstro started waving frantically, the cue for all the soloists to rush from the front of the stage to fan out along the walkway circling the front of the pit. As the wagon lumbered onstage, the old man almost dropped his baton, gripping his chest with his left hand.

Wondering why the tempo suddenly picked up even more speed, Almaviva looked back as Ambrogio fixed the wagon’s location accompanied by three futuristically costumed warriors menacingly clad head-to-toe in Death-Star Black.

Had this been Stage Manager Gottlieb’s idea to liven up the production they had borrowed from the Metropolitan Opera, creating some Eurotrash mash-up with the Three Ladies from Mozart’s Magic Flute?

But there, pacing in the wings, was the equally beleaguered Herr Gottlieb, pulling out what little hair was left.

“My head’s in a furnace,” they sang, “clanking on a huge anvil!”

The finale’s furious clanging reduced them to madness, everything sung to tongue-tying, machine-gun-like patter racing up and down the scales. Ambrogio, ignoring the three IMP agents, started running around in ever-widening circles to alert everyone to some imminent disaster. Not sure he was referring to one the director had in mind or one that was already quickly unfolding, I looked up to see cables cautiously lowering a freaking huge anvil.

When Bertha the maid, near panic, climbed to her shattering high C and he sensed something swinging above them, Agent Leise saw an immense black object, assumed the worst and panicked. Shouting warnings to his comrades, he raised his rifle and leaped back, disabling their attacker with a well-placed bullet.

The anvil tore loose, swaying dangerously overhead like some vast wounded animal. After more shots all perfectly timed to the music, the anvil crashed, shattering the wagon and squashing all its pumpkins.

In the madcap rush at the end, LauraLynn, D’Arcy and I were swept off stage by the fleeing soldiers.

The three IMP agents slipped and fell in what would no doubt have made the world’s largest pumpkin pie.

The curtain descended; the audience, rising to its feet, cheered as one.

* * ** *** ***** END OF ACT ONE ***** *** ** * *

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.
© 2014

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 15

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, a strange creature emerges from a crack in the Festspielhaus wall following the explosion and runs across the back parking lot as Fictitia takes a quick photo and posts it on-line before deciding to follow after it. In the opera house, cast, audience and members of the Festival's security team react to the explosion and Scarpia notices Fictitia is on the move. Who caused this explosion? A terrorist, no doubt, and Leahy-Hu knows just who the terrorist is...

= = = = = = =


Once the noise with its incessant echoes subsided and we found we were not in fact standing among smoldering ruins, whatever that had been and whatever damage it may have done somewhere, V.C. D’Arcy and I distinctly heard the not well concealed conversation coming from the back of the scene shop. It was then we decided, whatever had happened in front of us, it was our only hope to escape, eventually finding the freight elevators that would take us to safety backstage.

That shadow against the wall, barely visible to our left, hadn’t moved, probably some set piece or misplaced prop, arms stretched and fingers splayed like someone trying to sneak past unseen. Then I noticed one of the arms began to slide slowly downward, in toward the body: a living person!

D’Arcy saw it, too, and pointed, stopping only momentarily as we crept slowly toward the front end of the shop. He knew LauraLynn but perhaps he too wasn’t sure this was her. Shrugging my shoulders, feeling a bit uncertain, I wondered if it was somebody we didn’t want to run into.

“Hello?” I whispered cautiously through cupped hands though it sounded like I’d shouted at the top of my lungs. It must be deafening in here when all this machinery was operating.

“Terry?” LauraLynn’s voice was practically a squeal of relief, despite being whispered, and D’Arcy was quick to shush her, mindful of our visitors hopefully still at the back of the shop.

“There’s no time, we have to get out of here,” D’Arcy whispered back to her as she hurried over.

From the various scenery and costume shops, everything funneled into this hallway leading directly to that bank of elevators, D’Arcy’s urgent instructions resonating in the eerie emptiness of this cathedral-like space.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see how clutter against the walls could afford us safety. But we all knew hiding was not as good an idea as simply getting the hell out of there, making a rapid dash while hoping the elevators were still operating after-hours.

A faint light glowed at the far end where D’Arcy was pointing, a distance that seemed like a mile away. We were going to run down this long, wide-open cattle-chute, completely exposed? One could only hope the agents chasing us were lousy shots like most bad guys were in the movies.

“But what if he’s waiting for me?” LauraLynn had reason not to escape, not wanting to confront her attacker.

“Unfortunately,” D’Arcy replied, “there are several well-armed agents back there. Your call.”

He explained about the sound-proof wall that hadn’t been completely closed, intended to seal the shop from the elevators, all state-of-the-art technology to control the noise level during rehearsals and performances.

“I should be able to close it before they can reach us. It moves almost completely silently. Here goes!”

I saw him swipe his ID-badge through some box in the shadows then realized how this immense wall halfway between us and the elevators had started to glide shut effortlessly and noiselessly, two panels made of thick plates of steel headed toward each other: miss this and we’re trapped – or crushed.

The space we were aiming for was getting narrower by the second.

D’Arcy pushed us out ahead of him.

“Hurry, we’ve only got a few seconds!”

So, off we ran.


* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

State-of-the-art night-vision goggles, of course, would have made tracking down their prey that much easier for the three IMP agents charged with capturing Acting Director D’Arcy and his friend, Leahy-Hu’s “dratted professor.” Whatever it was he stole, they agreed it must be very important: she’d been adamant about wanting him alive.

Unfortunately, the goggles the agents had been issued were not technically “state-of-the-art,” like most things dealt to the arts, old issue hand-me-downs culled from various world-wide security agencies’ technology clearing houses.

For Special Agents Kaye Gelida-Manina and Wanda Menveaux, both ten year veterans of the agency, this was status quo but Milton Leise, who’d only recently transferred in from Germany’s elite Bundesmusikalischeabwehrdienst, was always complaining about their outdated equipment and consequently always got stuck with the oldest stuff. “Seniority,” they said.

After that cell-phone rang and the bomb went off, they heard their dispatcher’s voice in their headsets. “You guys okay?”

“Yeah,” Gelida-Manina responded, “but you said they weren’t armed? What the hell…?”

“We’re checking on that. Apparently some device went off in the ductwork outside your area. Proceed with your mission.”

Agent Aida Lott had once been a member of their elite team, transferred after she could no longer fit into the tight black uniforms making them look like space-age storm troopers.

“Shit,” Agent Leise mumbled under his breath.

“Great, here we go again.” Agent Gelida-Manina cursed the day she got stuck with this new guy on her team. “Now what’s the problem?”

“I think I stepped in some shit. The batteries in these goggles are about shot. Can’t see a thing.”

Whatever it was, it was still tacky.

“Well, it’s not blood,” Agent Menveaux said, checking it with ultraviolet light.

“I didn’t say it was: I thought it was shit,” Leise retorted.

Gelida-Manina, pointing to a paint can knocked off a workbench during the explosion, suddenly heard voices in the distance.


“Not again, Leise.”

“No, look. Straight ahead – there!”

“Three of them?”

Indeed, three shadows dashed toward a wall that was rapidly closing shut.

“Stop! IMP!”

Like that ever worked before…

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

I’d heard the expression “mad dash” before, but this was freaking insane, already winded and, typically, bringing up the rear. As the wall closed in on me, it nearly caught my arm. Fortunately, I was able to get both arm and tote-bag completely through before I heard any nasty crunching sounds. I heard shots being fired, ricocheting off the outside of the wall, meaning our pursuers were getting more desperate. What were the chances this wall would be impervious to their advance?

My knees still quivered from the frightening realization, not only might I have left the artifact behind for them, I might also have lost an arm in the process as well. But there was no time to contemplate the adjustments life would’ve required: we still had to reach the elevators.

A small utility light cast a weak glow from over the elevators, comparably bright enough like being awash in moonlight. D’Arcy reached the elevator first and punched each “up” button in turn.

Pulling the statue out of the tote-bag, I quickly checked the artifact and saw it managed to survive intact.

“Aww, Terry, you broke the head off!” LauraLynn looked over my shoulder. “Maybe there’s some glue in my purse.”

“No, it was already missing it before. Do you recognize this thing?”

After taking a quick glance, LauraLynn had no idea what it was or why anyone found it so important. The evening was full of such confusion, she mentioned with a sigh. There was no logical explanation about Dr. Girdlestone and the journal, either, but yet it must have some significance.

“Whatever,” she said, “he must’ve killed Rob and Aunt Katie trying to get it, and he almost killed me. Plus I have no idea what might have happened to Heidi, either.”

Hearing shots meant “sound-proof” wasn't everything it was cracked up to be. The elevators clanked slowly back to life.

“Where’s this journal,” I asked her. “Do you have it with you?”

She was afraid of losing her purse, so I suggested putting the journal in my tote-bag with the statue.

“I was only going to give him a few pages I’d photocopied, hoping that was enough to keep him happy. Rob had promised to give it to him before… before he died.” She stopped a moment before adding, “at least, that’s what Girdlestone said. Who knows what Rob knew about it.”

I was going to tell her about the text messages I’d been getting from Rob’s cell-phone since I arrived, when there was a great crunch coming from the wall behind us.

Three black-clad agents burst through a crack, firing shots above our heads, hitting the only light we had left. One more time thrown into total darkness, I felt them getting closer.

D’Arcy pushed us toward the elevator that opened, threw something and yelled, “Fire in the hole!”

The agents scrambled.

Of the three elevator doors, D’Arcy wasn’t sure which specifically went where, but since they all went backstage, it didn’t matter which one we’d tumbled into, the door crawling to a close.

“From here,” D’Arcy explained, “then we’ll head out to the back parking lot and get my car.”

“What’s next?”

“Remember that composer I thought maybe Rob could have given that head?”

“Excuse me, what...? Oh, right, Mozart's head...”

“Well,” D'Arcy continued, “it's important we reach him as soon as possible.”

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

It was already well into the evening when the old man decided he should soon be getting ready for bed, sitting back to unwind for a while and take stock of things, a long day under his belt with a lot to show for the hard work he’d put into it. He felt it put him in a good place for tomorrow morning, picking up right where he’d left off rather than spending so much valuable time figuring out where he’d been. When he was younger, he called it “slaving over a hot piano,” though he composed less at the keyboard since he’d “gotten the hang of it,” joking with all those interviewers. Still, he had to keep himself focused or he’d never get this new composition done by the September deadline.

He tried not to think about feeling exhausted at the day’s end, worn down more by physical fatigue than mental, dwelling on aching joints or how his bladder was fit to burst. Careful with taking enough breaks, he discovered his joints bothered him less and the composing kept his mind sharp. Everybody seemed surprised he was still alive – none more than he himself – much less busily turning out new works, coming up on his 99th birthday in January and still going strong.

That’s when he started thinking about his friend, Robertson Sullivan, still dealing with the news of his recent murder. By most standards, Rob, barely in his 60s, was close to retirement. But had he died at that age, much the old man was famous for would never have been written. The arguments were old and tired – older and more tired than he was – about full lives and productive careers. Couldn’t Rob have been granted a few extra years like he’d been?

It was easy to feel a bit smug, realizing you were still “at it” when younger men were gone, not sure it was really with a sense of relief or not, but with so many friends’ recent deaths, especially those still bountifully creative, Rob’s death had affected him more deeply.

“What did you want to listen to tonight,” his nephew asked him, getting some more CDs down off the shelf.

“Oh, well – Mozart, I guess – always Mozart, if I can help it.” He felt the “divine clarity” was something always good for his soul and kept the technical demons at bay.

They decided on Don Giovanni considering it had been a few weeks since the last time he’d heard it.

“Just the last disc, please – pick it up before the Commendatore’s entrance?”

Once the old man started sipping cautiously at his Scotch, his nephew, after checking to make sure the volume was okay, announced he was planning on going out with some friends.

“So late? Almost 9:30.” What was late to an old man wasn't necessarily so late to a younger one.

This was an old joke between them, even if a bit stale, since the nephew was technically a younger man if not exactly a young one himself, already well into his mid-60s.

Suddenly, the nephew noticed a fleeting expression on the older man's face. "Are you okay? Should I stay home?"

"No, no, I'm fine – you go ahead," he said, "really, it's nothing," settling more comfortably into his favorite chair.

"Maybe there's a disturbance in The Force. Not expecting visitors, are you?"

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Not only did I think the door would never close in time, but since the elevator was so brightly lit, we’re like sitting ducks for agents even without night-goggles or heat-seeking weapons. We’d only budged off the ground when I realized that spray of bullets we’d heard would never hit us. D’Arcy’s bomb fake-out with a handy can of spray paint had bought us a few seconds of valuable time, yet it was too early for us to start celebrating our escape.

D'Arcy quickly scribbled something down on a scrap of paper, folding it. "Don't read this unless we get separated. I'm sorry I don't have his number."

"But how are we to...?"

“Well, he lives in a chalet outside Garmisch-Partenkirchen, up in the Alps. If something happens, call Drummoyne, he'd know.”

The elevator was extremely quiet but also unbelievably slow, increasing our anxiety. Taking the stairs would’ve been healthier and faster.

There were so many places I would rather have been, right now.

Rossini’s Barber an old favorite, LauraLynn wondered how the opera was going, where the performance might be, now. “Intermission?”

D’Arcy told her she’d be able to watch it on DVD tomorrow, since it was a live TV broadcast, unless of course security had evacuated the Festspielhaus after the bomb exploded.

It dawned on me what we’d just survived was the first installment of what could well be an on-going series, if Dhabbodhú was after the artifact and Girdlestone was after the journal. Having succeeded in escaping Leahy-Hu’s agents once, what else would we have to go through to catch Rob’s killer?

Besides, what happens if those three agents did take the stairs and would meet us when our elevator opened?

I heard the music, now: the first act finale was just beginning!

But rather than the door opening, the walls around us gradually disappeared, the music not only louder, but closer.

“Where are we?” After the darkness in the shop, this was blinding.

I could barely see, like staring into a wall of brilliant sunlight.

“Uhm, guys…?” LauraLynn sounded hesitant. “Turn around?”

= = = = = = =
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.
© 2014