Thursday, January 15, 2015
The Lost Chord: Chapter 33 (Part 2)
(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)
In the previous installment, which begins with the first portion of Harrison Harty's journal to be written in code, the idea that the possible murder of Gottlieb Gutknaben could put Harty and his friends at risk. Questions abound as to who might have done this and why, not to mention why it was covered up, but investigations only lead them to further questions. Harty's lesson with Professor Böhm in which he describes how a composer's nerves are like piano wires which vibrate to an 'inner chord,' feeding our creativity. "Losing that, you can lose everything."
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Chapter 33 (conclusion: a continuation of an excerpt from Harrison Harty's Schweinwald Journal)
It was difficult applying Böhm's helpful words after I left his office – I did not feel "up to the task": if any chord vibrated inside of me, it was tuned to fear. I nearly jumped out of my chair when I'd seen Porlock's face pushing itself forward with an insinuating smile.
"Sorry to bother you, Herr Director, in the midst of a lesson," Dr. Porlock said while ignoring me completely, "but I wonder if you could join me in Dean Bezsmyertnikov's office?"
Nothing more had been said between them, setting my "Inner Chord" jangling. Böhm sighed and stood up, looking tired, and nodded an apology in my direction before he scooted me out, suggesting that I check with Frau Steindreher about finding an empty hour to reschedule my lesson, perhaps for tomorrow.
"Considering the time you were already tardy plus the time already spent," she said as she considered what was available, "it looks like Director Böhm has an unscheduled forty-seven minutes tomorrow afternoon." She wrote me in – in pencil, naturally – as my schedule was accommodating, then urged me not to be late.
"Honestly, Percival," Böhm mumbled as he straightened his tie under his beard, "what is the need for all this?" Porlock said nothing but strode on ahead, officious, stiff and ominously portentous.
As I headed toward the practice rooms to work on some counterpoint or at least write in my journal, I noticed two figures walking toward me, both of them immediately recognizable. Lost in conversation and shrouded by cigar smoke, the skinny, angular form of Professor Fabbro gesticulated with evident enthusiasm. The rotund and comparatively laconic figure of Dr. Johannes Brahms listened intently, his hands tightly clasped behind his back. Fabbro nodded almost imperceptibly as they passed, but Brahms remained completely oblivious.
"So, I'm working on this E-flat Major Piano Trio and completely stuck," Brahms was muttering half under his breath, "but you say these numbers of yours will help me get... unstuck?"
I lost Fabbro's whispered response as they moved further down the hall, wondering what foul-smelling bat-shit they were smoking.
It was a shame Liszt had left so precipitously after his recital, not even bothering to appear at the reception. Was it animosity at the little minds who booed those startling improvisations? Though I didn't like them at first – they made my skin crawl – I would have liked hearing them again. Or, since they were improvisations, after all, what more he would offer, following in the same vein as those. They were the complete opposite of anything in his usual populist vein. It would have been a good experience for a student to hear how he explained what he was thinking: how did he achieve those unusual sonorities; what was in his mind? Also interesting would have been to hear a debate with Dr. Brahms even if it became nothing but posturing.
Music was becoming so thoroughly polarized between the Modernists and the Traditionalists, there was little civil discourse between both factions, screaming and calling each other silly names in a most childish manner. Whatever constructive arguments flew amongst the students, rather than help the situation various members of the faculty worsened it. Fabbro had stood precariously on his chair and shouted imprecations at Liszt, how this "ignominious moment" marked music's death; Bezsmyertnikov whistled and stomped his approval of this "music of the future."
Later, then, today, Mahler, Rott and I sat waiting in Bezsmyertnikov's seminar, the only class he would offer this summer, which he called "Nuance and Mockery in the Critique of New Music." As this would be our first class meeting held since Liszt's recital, there was considerable anticipation in the room. It was even rumoured he extended an invitation to Brahms and Professor Fabbro to join him for today's discussion, so it was generally assumed his lateness was intentionally for dramatic effect. Rott had suggested we divide ourselves according to our own critical reactions, considering almost everyone committed themselves quite readily: those in favour sitting on the left; opposed, sitting on the right. It seemed anyone who might be uncommitted, hooted down as spineless moderates, should occupy the dangerous no-man's-land in between.
While this blustering swept back and forth, I wondered about these meetings, the ones Bezsmyertnikov was holding in his office: in addition to Porlock, were others involved than Knussbaum and Professor Böhm? Could they have been addressing this crisis for and against Liszt's recital and not discussing Gutknaben's death after all? It gave me my first opportunity to feel calmer about the day, considering how Knussbaum's paranoia ignited my own. I took out my journal and continued writing down some personal observations.
The increasingly rowdy students immediately became quiet when the door opened suddenly, all eyes turning in anticipation and curiosity but only to release an immediate and deep sigh of universal disappointment when it turned out to be merely Carmilla Varné, Bezsmyertnikov's erstwhile assistant, who apologized that the Dean was delayed. She explained he had been involved in a series of important meetings on a particularly egregious and contentious subject but chose to say nothing more as she strode about the room.
Carmilla no sooner paused beside me and looked at my journal than her long finger stabbed at the page.
"Herr Harty, please explain what exactly it is that you are writing?"
I said, "to discourage others copying my notes, I write in codes."
"Would not English be sufficient?" she scoffed.
When Bezsmyertnikov finally swept into the room, all eyes continued to wait, looking intently towards the door in eager anticipation even as the Dean stood at the podium and opened his notes. Looking up with a somewhat bemused expression, he called for our attention, coughing nervously one or two more times.
"I apologize for my delay," he said, "but it was unavoidable, unfortunately. Let us speak no more about it." This struck me as odd as nobody had spoken about it yet.
Bezsmyertnikov was, despite his clearly Russian physiognomy, a bit of a dandy, a dapper-looking gentleman compared to bearded Germans, with his pointed goatee, slicked-back hair and a penchant for French cigarettes. Like Carmilla's, the eloquent German he spoke was heavily accented in French, typical of most Russians on the Continent.
The unofficial joke about this seminar's subject – teaching composers to become critics – turned it into a thinly veiled "membership campaign," one designed to swell the ranks of critics with otherwise failed composers. A critic himself who once studied composition, Bezsmyertnikov trained primarily in Paris, most Russians being merely dilettantes until recently. But there was so little need for so many composers, he said, that even with all our advanced training it was not always possible everyone who studied would accomplish his dream.
He stressed at every class how very few of us would succeed – one, with any luck, among the near-great – though naturally each of us were convinced we would be that One. The usual comment was we must not make enemies amongst our colleagues: who might someday become an influential critic? It is always good to have such critics firmly on our side. Even if we failed to make our mark on music as composers, we might manage to influence its future.
These lectures never failed to bring me down a peg or two, directly following my confidence-boosting lessons with Böhm. Bezsmyertnikov struck me as the perpetual siren song of the Dark Side, imbuing ingrained failure with an unacceptable compromise, which I resolved to try my best to combat through prodigious application.
This lecture would not become a discussion about Liszt's strange new music nor about what he'd called its "ineluctable modality," fighting for the future of music by pitting one side against another. The professor, after taking a deep breath, perhaps remembering some distant pleasure, picked up where he'd left off before.
"I ended our last meeting," he reminisced, "talking about our poor Schumann, famous critic but composer struggling for recognition, likely otherwise forgotten but for his wife or his famous protege, Brahms.
"Herr Mahler, if you please," he said, "say you become a critic after no one will perform your compositions: you are forced to review performances of music other than your own. No doubt, you would have your own agenda regarding music and aesthetics, but how would you feel about that?"
He continued looking around the room again, not waiting for Mahler's response, and asked Herr Rott what he would do, reviewing a famous conductor who'd already refused to play his unplayable symphony. Rott, already sweating, squirmed in his seat and twisted his legs together, stammering unintelligibly before Bezsmyertnikov cut him off.
Looking at me, he scowled at length before asking a similar question, though with more edge to his voice. "Harty, someone gives you a bad review: would you resort... to murder?"
* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *
I remember nothing of what happened during the rest of the class after everyone desperately tried to hide their amusement. Of course, to my way of thinking, this was no idle joke. Bezsmyertnikov was letting each of us know he was 'on' to us and threatening us to be very careful. When the end of class finally arrived, he dismissed us with nothing beyond an airy wave of his hand, but reserved for the three of us a haughty yet malevolent glance. As we wandered out of the classroom, Ethel waited impatiently for us, barely able to contain her intense excitement. She looked as if she swallowed something and was about to erupt. We didn't want the explosion to happen within the hearing of Bezsmyertnikov, so we hurried her down the hall.
"Whatever is the matter," she kept muttering, "have you lost your minds," highly incensed by our brusque and ungentlemanly behaviour. We managed to get her further away before Bezsmyertnikov left the classroom. "Stop pushing me this instant," she cried until we had to stop or risk creating a possibly worse scene.
"Come," I said in a conspiratorial whisper, "we need to have privacy! Someone could easily overhear anything we say." We dodged into the first practice room that we could find empty.
What had so excited her, in fact, she began breathlessly to explain, was overhearing something she probably shouldn't have.
"There I was, standing in the hall, minding my own business, naturally."
Rott was about to make some sarcastic comment she would find annoying but I stopped him before he could.
"Then I heard their voices from around the corner where I stood. I was sure they couldn't see me."
When she paused as if for effect, I blurted out impatiently, "and...?"
Despite the noise from a near-by pianist, she crouched down and whispered, "It was Brahms talking quietly with Fabbro. Apparently there's a special dinner party at the Falkenstein's tonight, very private."
"And they immediately invited you," Rott complained. He desperately wanted to arrange a meeting with Brahms about his symphony.
To make a long story slightly shorter, given the limited time available, she reminded us she'd met Brahms in Leipzig while she was staying with his friends the Herzogenbergs, also her teachers, and it bothered her that the whole time she'd been at Schweinwald he's done nothing but completely ignore her. Regardless, he and Fabbro were talking about something very secretively, something "clandestine," but something Fabbro would "reveal" to Brahms which, for reasons of "personal security" had been "hidden in Falkenstein's basement."
That reminded me that I, too, had overheard both of them talking, probably only minutes before or after this, how Brahms, finding himself stuck, thought this would help him become unstuck.
"Something special in the basement," Mahler smiled, "like maybe a wine cellar?"
"Or water from the Fountain of Inspiration?"
Of the four of us, Rott was always the one most likely to come up with the least likely solution, an imagination completely unencumbered by the rigors of ingrained craftsmanship and training. His was a mind with only slight connections between fantasy and reality, something at times Mahler may have envied. We knew that Fabbro was the strictest disciplinarian on the Schweinwald faculty and such a fountain was entirely ludicrous. But considering the secrecy that was involved, it must be something momentous.
Since I could see no obvious connection between this and Gutknaben's murder, I had no idea why I went along with Ethel's sneaking over to the Falkensteins to spy on this dinner, but clearly something was going on beneath the Academy's placid surface implying, perhaps, in some odd way, it did. Was Gutknaben killed because he'd found out something inappropriate was going on and someone thought he should be eliminated? And wasn't it possible, I reminded her, we'd meet the same fate? Nonetheless, nothing would stop her and of course we three followed suit, standing by the front parlor's window, waiting. She had made her own arrangements and packed us a light supper. Before long, Brahms, Fabbro and the Hammerschlags got into the Director's fiacre and headed downhill in a stately manner.
We then hurried out a side door, walking quickly to the stable where the groom Hannes, apparently sweet on Ethel, waited with a rickety phaeton pulled by an old mare named Grimgerde. We were careful not to be seen – everyone else was at dinner – since we'd be breaking several significant regulations. Ethel immediately leaned over and yanked the reins out of Mahler's hands though he knew enough not to argue: her bounding over chairs, backs and all, made her an intimidating presence.
The wagon, such as it was, took off at a leisurely pace, trotting modestly down the path toward the village, our presumed goal should anyone catch us and wonder where we're going. However, it wasn't too long before we'd arrive at the Falkenstein's gate where we'd hide Grimgerde in the bushes. But something apparently spooked the horse because, no sooner under the trees, I realized the carriage was aptly named, considering Phaeton, Apollo's son, nearly crashed the Sun Chariot into the earth.
It was all I could do to keep Rott from falling out as we careened from side to side. We would soon pass Brahms in the stately fiacre, at this rate. It wouldn't surprise me that somehow HWIDNWTN knew what we were doing and we'd all fall to our demise.
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To be continued...
posted by Dick Strawser
The novel, The Lost Chord, is a classical music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.