(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.
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Chapter 17 (Part 2)
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
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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.