••• The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Life Stories
The Maestro in Six Movements
The Maestro looked at the green gardens of Harrogate and saw that they were good. “This will be my home” he said aloud in German, “after all my troubles I have found somewhere I can lay my head.” The year was 1858, and the former anarchist and composer and now jobbing music teacher had found somewhere to live, at least for the time being.
He was not called the Maestro then, he gained that title a few years later when he began conducting the Harrogate Symphony Orchestra. Now he was “John Laws”, a name he had chosen for himself on the boat over to England ten years earlier whilst lying in his cabin and trying to take his mind off his seasickness and his nervousness. However it was as Johann Niedermeier he had been christened in the beautiful church of St. Kunibert in Cologne, a city to which he would never return.
Before moving up to the wild north, he had lived in various parts of London, teaching music and mixing with various emigres from Germany including Karl Marx, whose house he visited on several occasions. He had even twice lent the great German philosopher money, before he stopped making a habit of that sort of thing. Johann was richer than most of his friends as he had wealthy parents who still sent money over to their errant son, but he realised that if he was to make his home in England he would have to stop lending his money but rather save and become respectable.
The Maestro walked the streets of the genteel spa town and liked what he saw. True its inhabitants were the sort of people he and his friends had fulminated against in the various taverns and inns they had congregated in when students in Germany; fey aristocrats and the pompous, ignorant bourgeoisie. But he had heard it was a cultured town, and at least those people he despised would be likely to want music lessons and be able to pay well for them.
The Maestro had never actually planted a bomb himself, but several of his friends and acquaintances had been involved with the planning and executing of a bombing campaign in Cologne. Nobody had been killed during this campaign of terror, but there had been several serious injuries and large parts of the populace became very frightened and the regional government had begun a crackdown. The Maestro had fled his city and country and followed the usual path to Paris with his violin, money and clothes in a case. He had not enjoyed France and because of his excellent English (the result of having an English grandmother), and his love of the music of Henry Purcell he soon travelled to London where his hero had also lived.
He felt happier and happier as he walked round Harrogate; a piece of music was playing round in his head. At first he thought it was something he had written himself before realising it was from a Bach violin concerto. No matter, he had plenty of time to write music as well as to perform it. Perhaps Harrogate did not have the excitement and busyness of London but that was not necessarily a bad thing; at least here he could make a mark, before moving on to something better.
|Harrogate & Knaresborough Advertiser, 1869, July 27th.
“Music Concert at the Royal Hall”
On Tuesday at the Royal Hall the Harrogate Music School gave their summer concert, something that has become an annual event attended by many of the great and good of our town. Under the guidance of their teacher Herr Johann Laws the pupils, both young and old gave a creditable performance of the works of modern and older composers including Bach, Purcell, Gounod and Mendelsohn. As always Herr Laws’ pupils demonstrated both flair, and meticulous precision in their readings of such great works, which is surely a tribute to the high standards and musicality demanded by their teacher…..
The Maestro was late. It was not his fault, his fiancée Annie had still been dressing when he had arrived at her house, and so he had had to spend half an hour talking with her father the Rev. Albert Workman, widowed minister of the town’s largest Methodist chapel. He rather liked and admired his prospective father-in-law and normally would have enjoyed a talk and drink with him, but now he was anxious to get Annie out of the house and to the concert.
It was not that The Maestro abhorred lateness as his countrymen were reputed to do; although manners were manners, but this was a concert by the Harrogate Symphony Orchestra conducted by his friend and musical rival Arthur Hulme, somebody he was anxious not to snub or offend.
When The Maestro had entered the town fifteen years ago almost to the day, it was Hulme who was the musical king of the town; his musical school was the most highly regarded, he conducted the town’s orchestra and any musical events were organised by him. A Londoner who had unsubstantiated links to royalty he had dominated the town for so long it had taken him a few years to realise that he had a serious rival. He had dealt with The Maestro at first by patronising him and then gradually politeness mixed with barely noticeable asperity, and now they were friends. But The Maestro knew that his friend was sensitive with the insecurity of someone on the way out, and he did not wish to add to his unease.
He and Annie hurried over to the Pump Rooms where the concert was being held. They walked in and found their seats just as Hulme made his way onto the stage and the two men smiled at each other wryly. At least he knows I am here, thought The Maestro as he sat down next to Annie. He could smell her perfume; she always smelt of something exotic and slightly alien, and again he wondered how someone so beautiful and self-contained could have agreed to be his wife, and whilst she had never actually stated she loved him, he assumed that she must do.
They had met when her father had sent Annie to The Maestro to have lessons on the ‘cello. She was a quiet but attractive woman who had taken over housekeeping duties for her father, after the death of her mother when she was in her mid-teens. She was a good ‘cellist, who injected a great deal of passion into her playing, too much the Maestro thought, as it interfered with the rhythm and the precision of the pieces she played. It was over his exotic past, however that they connected; Annie seemed fascinated by where he had lived; and most of their courtship was spent his telling her about Germany, Paris and London, which she listened to with excitement as if to a favourite novel, of which she had many.
He soon stopped thinking about the woman beside him as the orchestra started to play. It was not a great concert; the playing was lax and far too slow for Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony which began the programme. If Beethoven was to be exciting he had to be played far faster than this, and crisper. It was not awful, just amateurish. The Maestro considered what he would have to do if he ever took over the orchestra; more rehearsals for a start and a smaller orchestra. And the repertoire, that would need changing, although the audience seemed to be enjoying it. There was some whispering at the back of course, as there always ways, but the natives of Harrogate were enjoying their culture.
He would not discuss his feelings with Annie; she was lovely but he knew that she talked and was friends with Hulme’s daughters. He did not want any criticism that could be traced back to him to reach the ears of Hulme. Unknowingly he tapped his leg as if urging the orchestra to play at a more appropriate speed or just to end the concert more quickly.
He remembered a plan to blow up a similar concert hall in Cologne. A visiting conductor, and the rich and powerful in the city would be there. Bombs planted under the seats back and front; screams, dismembered bodies and fire so that the hall would have burnt down with the majority of the town’s culture-loving elite with it. What had happened to that idea? Why hadn’t it happened? Perhaps it was just an idealistic dream that had not seriously been meant.
That night he dreamt of the Theatre in flames, Annie was in front of him, her hair on fire but she was laughing at him contemptuously, her eyes red and sparkling. She was naked and her breasts stood out dominating his vision. There was the smell of burning wood, hair and flesh and there was screaming. He woke up sweating, the smell of human flesh still present; he did not sleep for the rest of the night.
* * *
On Tuesday evening The Maestro had two visitors. As so often Mrs Hardy’s piano lesson had gone on longer than it was supposed to; it was the last lesson of the day and they chatted for quite some time afterwards. She was not naturally gifted, but worked hard and practiced regularly so that she had reached a higher standard than many of his more talented but lazier pupils.
They got on well and she was beautiful with light brown or perhaps blonde hair and perfect skin. She had the buxom figure he enjoyed in a woman, and equally importantly she made him laugh. They were both married of course, and thus nothing of a romantic nature would happen between them, but he looked forward to her lessons and when he and Annie made love in, what was so far, a vain attempt to produce a child, it was often Mrs Hardy he imagined; naked and happy.
She left, giving him a smile and Annie then appeared telling him about his two guests. They were middle aged men; dark and bearded and with strong Yorkshire accents without the gentility of Harrogate. Was it his imagination or did the smell of the mill still cling to them? They both shook his hand warmly before sitting down whilst the Maestro sat opposite them on the piano stool, still warm from Mrs Hardy’s bottom.
They were both Bradford businessmen and had come to make him an offer.
“We have been commissioned by the town council to ask you if you would consider becoming the conductor for the Bradford City Orchestra. We have a fine orchestra, you have probably heard of it and we pay well in consequence. We know how you have transformed the orchestra here in Harrogate but an ambitious man like you wants to better himself I am sure.”
The Maestro thanked them for the offer and promised them he would think about it and get back to them.
“We would be happy to take you round our city. Have you ever visited it? It is a city to be proud of and there are some lovely areas where you and your wife could live; it is not all industry, Shipley is a lovely town and close by.”
The Maestro had indeed visited Bradford a few years ago; and the anarchist that was still within him had noticed the squalid houses and the obvious poverty close to the rich villas of the businessmen who had turned the city, for better or for worse, what it was today. He wondered if he could bring music to the people; free concerts in the parks and large halls. There was definitely a job to be done for a musician with a conscience and a love of the people.
He told Annie of the offer. He did not expect her to be keen; true her father, with his second wife, was now living in Leeds where he was minister of a large chapel but she had many friends in Harrogate and seemed to love the town. But on the contrary she was enthusiastic.
“Oh it would be wonderful. You could do so much, your talent is hidden away here. I know you are getting bored. You have lived in London, don’t you miss the bustle of a large city? I do from when I lived in Birmingham, before mama died.”
He said nothing definite, as he was still undecided. But that night she made love to him with a strength and passion he had never known from her before, as if she were giving herself to an exciting and vibrant future.
By chance he met Mrs Hardy in the Valley Gardens the following morning and they sat on a bench together and talked. It was warm and she was holding a parasol; he could smell his companion’s perfume mixing with the heady odour of flowers. All about them smartly dressed gentlefolk walked and gossiped; many using sticks to keep themselves steady. Somewhere he could hear the faint sounds of a violin being played with a wildness that appealed to him and made him think that perhaps he could move.
“That is wonderful isn’t it?” she said after he told her about the offer, “although how will we manage without our teacher?”
“I am not sure I will take it” he told her. “I am in my late forties and I am happy here, and Annie has all her friends. And would I want my children to grow up in a large city like Bradford?” He was aware of how close she was to him and for a moment he had an urge to kiss her on her cheek; to feel her cool, pale skin against his lips. No doubt she would have screamed and run, leaving his career in ruins, but it would have been worth it.
He was never really sure why he did not accept the job. Annie was desperate for him to take it, and when he told her he had refused it, she went into something akin to mourning; barely talking beyond what was necessary for weeks afterwards. The Maestro felt himself to be callous at causing someone such pain particularly as he did not understand his motives. Was it really that he would have missed Mrs Hardy too much? If so that was silly because predictably she soon became pregnant and once her family started she stopped taking lessons. But there were her successors; intelligent, beautiful women looking for a hobby before their lives really started, and he loved them all, everyone.
* * *
The Maestro stood on the stage and gazed out at the audience; there were a few gaps but then perhaps there always had been; he was definitely getting sensitive. He was conscious that he was getting old and that there were a few young lions in the town who would do a far better job than he would, or thought that they could.
The one person missing was of course Annie, who would have been sat to one side in the front row. She had been there a year ago, the golden jubilee year; even a couple of months ago she was at the summer pupils’ concerts although she had started coughing by then, and had died soon afterwards, he was still not sure of what. One doctor had said “advanced consumption” another bronchitis. Whatever it was the death had been quick although painful.
He missed her dreadfully, although his feelings about her were also full of guilt; he was conscious he had not provided for her what she wanted; excitement and children. An exotic foreigner with gaunt looks he must have seemed exciting and full of boundless possibility for someone who had spent much of her life looking after her widowed father. And yet she had found herself married to a respectable music teacher who seemed happy to stay where he was and whose deepest feelings and passions he kept to himself.
In the end perhaps it was boredom that killed her. Attending the endless rounds of concerts and talking to her friends, none of whom, he gradually realised, she was that close to. She had even given up the ‘cello; just gradually stopped playing it. He wondered what had given her life meaning; she had attended the Wesleyan Methodist church regularly and prayed and read her Bible, but was she devout or was it habit? He had never asked her. In fact there was so much about her he did not know. For a moment he felt almost overwhelmed by sadness and regret.
On the verge of tears he turned and faced the orchestra; it was a smaller group than under his predecessor and he was proud that they were so well-drilled. He looked passed the strings to Marion on the oboe; he been quite cross with her in the last rehearsal; clearly she had not been practicing, probably spending time with her latest beau. It was a shame, particularly as there were no other good oboists queuing up to join his orchestra, and she had talent. You could not expect miracles; but the orchestra was infinitely more professional and he did not tolerate laxity.
He motioned to the orchestra and they started into Purcell’s Chaconne in G minor; playing it with a lightness to emphasise its origins as a dance. He still loved Purcell and also Johann Sebastian Bach, and those two composers tended to dominate his concerts. He realised that whoever took over would react against this, but hopefully his audiences would get the joy and harmony from these two great Baroque composers. At least he had brought the town that.
He had noticed that Mr Hemming was there sat near the front; he had arrived in the town from Leeds a couple of years earlier and was slowly becoming involved in the town’s musical activities. He taught privately; perhaps only to people who were worthy of his greatness thought the Maestro bitterly. However he had always been polite to The Maestro and they had had a couple of convivial evenings talking of music and of Germany where Mr Hemming had spent two years as a young man. And he had been kind when Annie died, tactful and sympathetic.
At the end of the concert Mr Hemming, tall and blonde, came up to him and shook his hand fervently and congratulated him on the concert. He was very intense the Maestro thought; he wondered if he himself had been like that once, but he thought not; perhaps if Mr Hemming stopped playing so much Wagner he might relax a bit. Even as an anarchist so long ago, the Maestro had joked and laughed; the revolution would have taken place amongst good humour and happiness and even joy, despite the inevitable bloodshed.
* * *
The Maestro sat in a café, drinking coffee and looking moodily at an iced bun on the table in front of him. A young woman walked in with dark blue flowers in her hand and seemed to be heading straight for him. Was she going to present them to him? He was touched and tried to work out who she was but she did not seem familiar. He smiled at her, and then he realised that what were in her hands were not flowers but an umbrella which she was folding away, and she was walking towards that lady in grey sat near him. It must be raining he thought, but he paid for his tea, leaving his bun uneaten, and went for his usual stroll in the Valley Gardens.
In fact it was barely drizzling and he enjoyed the walk. He found a bench, and wiped it with his handkerchief before sitting down to watch the world go by. A man who knew him said “good afternoon doctor” and walked on. “Doctor”, another of his many titles and names; Herr Neidermeier, Herr Laws, Mr Laws, Professor, Maestro and now Doctor. He still did not know what his name was; John or Johann? Mostly the latter now, although it had been John in London, and that is what Annie had called him when feeling particularly affectionate.
And why had that girl given him flowers just now? He remembered the concerts; being handed bouquets, and his hand being shaken. The most important people in Harrogate queuing up to talk to him. He had loved that; the acceptance. Perhaps he had failed; he could have gone to Bradford or even back to London and made a name for himself but surely he had made people happy and he had taught them well.
He wept slightly, but he did not know why. He looked up at the hotels and houses that overlooked the gardens. He had created a generation that knew music, understood it. Proper music that would last forever; music that was good and full of humanity. Perhaps that was the best he could hope for; he had wanted to create a better world, always wanted that, would bombs have done it? Would helping the poor in the inner cities?
He walked along; he remembered the death of the Queen two years ago. He had been asked to organise the music for the service of remembrance at Christ Church, and it had proven to be the last major musical work he had been involved with. Predictably he had used Purcell’s funeral sentences, written to commemorate the death of another Queen two hundred years earlier. It had worked, the sorrow, was tangible, and although he was sure that his younger self would have laughed long and bitterly, he had wept afterwards at the death of something great and glorious.
Sometimes he wondered if he had written the music he had conducted. It was so much a part of him. At times when he was at home playing the piano; Bach’s Goldberg Variations which he knew so well, he thought of them as his own, and when he went to hear Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in York five years ago he had swelled with pride as if he were responsible for such music.
As he made his way along the path towards the walled garden he hummed “Come Away Fellow Sailors” from that opera, and then he started to sing it, his voice loud and triumphant with the German accent he had never lost. Passers-by stood and stared, but he did not care, did not even notice.
As he sang he rejoiced in the beauty of the music, of these gardens that were so glorious, the people who thronged on his every side, and the town that he called home.
© Andrew Lee-Hart June 2016
“I thought there was a rule against panhandling in the plaza,” a gruff customer grumbled one afternoon