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!

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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.

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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.

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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.
© 2014

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