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First Violin, The

CHAPTER VIII.

“Probe zum verlorenen Paradiese.”

Miss Hallam fulfilled her promise with regard to my singing lessons. She had a conversation with Fräulein Sartorius, to whom, unpopular as she was, I noticed people constantly and almost instinctively went when in need of precise information or a slight dose of common sense and clear-headedness.

Miss Hallam inquired who was the best master.

“For singing, the Herr Direktor,” replied Anna, very promptly. “And then he directs the best of the musical vereins—the clubs—societies, whatever you name them. At least he might try Miss Wedderburn’s voice.”

“Who is he?”

“The head of anything belonging to music in the town—königlicher musik-direktor. He conducts all the great concerts, and though he does not sing himself, yet he is one of the best teachers in the province. Lots of people come and stay here on purpose to learn from him.”

“And what are these vereins?”

“Every season there are six great concerts given, and a seventh for the benefit of the direktor. The orchestra and chorus together are called a verein—musik-verein. The chorus is chiefly composed of ladies and gentlemen—amateurs, you know—Dilettanten. The Herr Direktor is very particular about voices. You pay so much for admission, and receive a card for the season. Then you have all the good teaching—the Proben.”

“What is a Probe?” I demanded, hastily, remembering that Courvoisier had used the word.

“What you call a rehearsal.”

Ah! then he was musical. At last I had found it out. Perhaps he was one of the amateurs who sung at these concerts, and if so, I might see him again, and if so—But Anna went on:

“It is a very good thing for any one, particularly with such a teacher as von Francius.”

“You must join,” said Miss Hallam to me.

“There is a probe to-night to Rubinstein’s ‘Paradise Lost,’” said Anna. “I shall go, not to sing, but to listen. I can take Miss Wedderburn, if you like, and introduce her to Herr von Francius, whom I know.”

“Very nice! very much obliged to you. Certainly,” said Miss Hallam.

The probe was fixed for seven, and shortly after that time we set off for the Tonhalle, or concert-hall, in which it was held.

“We shall be much too early,” said she. “But the people are shamefully late. Most of them only come to klatsch, and flirt, or try to flirt, with the Herr Direktor.”

This threw upon my mind a new light as to the Herr Direktor, and I walked by her side much impressed. She told me that if I accepted I might even sing in the concert itself, as there had only been four proben so far, and there were still several before the haupt-probe.

“What is the haupt-probe?” I inquired.

“General rehearsal—when Herr von Francius is most unmerciful to his stupid pupils. I always attend that. I like to hear him make sport of them, and then the instrumentalists laugh at them. Von Francius never flatters.”

Inspired with nightmare-like ideas as to this terrible haupt-probe, I found myself, with Anna, turning into a low-fronted building inscribed “Städtische Tonhalle,” the concert-hall of the good town of Elberthal.

“This way,” said she. “It is in the rittersaal. We don’t go to the large saal till the haupt-probe.”

I followed her into a long, rather shabby-looking room, at one end of which was a low orchestra, about which were dotted the desks of the absent instrumentalists, and some stiff-looking Celli and Contrabassi kept watch from a wall. On the orchestra was already assembled a goodly number of young men and women, all in lively conversation, loud laughter, and apparently high good-humor with themselves and everything in the world.

A young man with a fuzz of hair standing off about a sad and depressed-looking countenance was stealing “in and out and round about,” and distributing sheets of score to the company. In the conductor’s place was a tall man in gray clothes, who leaned negligently against the rail, and held a conversation with a pretty young lady who seemed much pleased with his attention. It did not strike me at first that this was the terrible direktor of whom I had been hearing. He was young, had a slender, graceful figure, and an exceedingly handsome, though (I thought at first) an unpleasing face. There was something in his attitude and manner which at first I did not quite like. Anna walked up the room, and pausing before the estrade, said:

“Herr Direktor!”

He turned: his eyes fell upon her face, and left it instantly to look at mine. Gathering himself together into a more ceremonious attitude, he descended from his estrade, and stood beside us, a little to one side, looking at us with a leisurely calmness which made me feel, I knew not why, uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Anna took up her parable.

“May I introduce the young lady? Miss Wedderburn, Herr Musik-Direktor von Francius. Miss Wedderburn wishes to join the verein, if you think her voice will pass. Perhaps you will allow her to sing to-night?”

“Certainly, mein Fräulein,” said he to me, not to Anna. He had a long, rather Jewish-looking face, black hair, eyes, and mustache. The features were thin, fine, and pointed. The thing which most struck me then, at any rate, was a certain expression which, conquering all others, dominated them—at once a hardness and a hardihood which impressed me disagreeably then, though I afterward learned, in knowing the man, to know much more truly the real meaning of that unflinching gaze and iron look.

“Your voice is what, mein Fräulein?” he asked.

“Soprano.”

“Sopran? We will see. The soprani sit over there, if you will have the goodness.”

He pointed to the left of the orchestra, and called out to the melancholy-looking young man, “Herr Schonfeld, a chair for the young lady!”

Herr von Francius then ascended the orchestra himself, went to the piano, and, after a few directions, gave us the signal to begin. Till that day—I confess it with shame—I had never heard of the “Verlorenes Paradies.” It came upon me like a revelation. I sung my best, substituting do, re, mi, etc., for the German words. Once or twice, as Herr von Francius’s forefinger beat time, I thought I saw his head turn a little in our direction, but I scarcely heeded it. When the first chorus was over, he turned to me:

“You have not sung in a chorus before?”

“No.”

“So! I should like to hear you sing something sola.” He pushed toward me a pile of music, and while the others stood looking on and whispering among themselves, he went on, “Those are all sopran songs. Select one, if you please, and try it.”

Not at all aware that the incident was considered unprecedented, and was creating a sensation, I turned over the music, seeking something I knew, but could find nothing. All in German, and all strange. Suddenly I came upon one entitled “Blute nur, liebes Herz,” the sopran solo which I had heard as I sat with Courvoisier in the cathedral. It seemed almost like an old friend. I opened it, and found it had also English words. That decided me.

“I will try this,” said I, showing it to him.

He smiled. “’S ist gut!” Then he read the title off the song aloud, and there was a general titter, as if some very great joke were in agitation, and were much appreciated. Indeed I found that in general the jokes of the Herr Direktor, when he condescended to make any, were very keenly relished by at least the lady part of his pupils.

Not understanding the reason of the titter I took the music in my hand, and waiting for a moment until he gave me the signal, sung it after the best wise I could—not very brilliantly, I dare say, but with at least all my heart poured into it. I had one requisite at least of an artist nature—I could abstract myself upon occasion completely from my surroundings. I did so now. It was too beautiful, too grand. I remembered that afternoon at Köln—the golden sunshine streaming through the painted windows, the flood of melody poured forth by the invisible singer; above all, I remembered who had been by my side, and I felt as if again beside him—again influenced by the unusual beauty of his face and mien, and by his clear, strange, commanding eyes. It all came back to me—the strangest, happiest day of my life. I sung as I had never sung before—as I had not known I could sing.

When I stopped, the tittering had ceased; silence saluted me. The young ladies were all looking at me; some of them had put on their eye-glasses; others stared at me as if I were some strange animal from a menagerie. The young gentlemen were whispering among themselves and taking sidelong glances at me. I scarcely heeded anything of it. I fixed my eyes upon the judge who had been listening to my performance—upon von Francius. He was pulling his mustache and at first made no remark.

You have sung that song before, gnädiges Fräulein?”

“No. I have heard it once. I have not seen the music before.”

“So!” He bowed slightly, and turning once more to the others, said:

“We will begin the next chorus. ‘Chorus of the Damned,’ Now, meine Herrschaften, I would wish to impress upon you one thing, if I can, that is—Silence, meine Herren!” he called sharply toward the tenors, who were giggling inanely among themselves. “A chorus of damned souls,” he proceeded, composedly, “would not sing in the same unruffled manner as a young lady who warbles, ‘Spring is come—tra, la, la! Spring is come—lira, lira!’ in her mamma’s drawing-room. Try to imagine yourself struggling in the tortures of hell”—(a delighted giggle and a sort of “Oh, you dear, wicked man!” expression on the part of the young ladies; a nudging of each other on that of the young gentlemen), “and sing as if you were damned.”

Scarcely any one seemed to take the matter the least earnestly. The young ladies continued to giggle, and the young gentlemen to nudge each other. Little enough of expression, if plenty of noise, was there in that magnificent and truly difficult passage, the changing choruses of the condemned and the blessed ones—with its crowning “Weh!” thundering down from highest soprano to deepest bass.

“Lots of noise, and no meaning,” observed the conductor, leaning himself against the rail of the estrade, face to his audience, folding his arms and surveying them all one after the other with cold self-possession. It struck me that he despised them while he condescended to instruct them. The power of the man struck me again. I began to like him better. At least I venerated his thorough understanding of what was to me a splendid mystery. No softening appeared in the master’s eyes in answer to the rows of pretty appealing faces turned to him; no smile upon his contemptuous lips responded to the eyes—black, brown, gray, blue, yellow—all turned with such affecting devotion to his own. Composing himself to an insouciant attitude, he began in a cool, indifferent voice, which had, however, certain caustic tones in it which stung me at least to the quick:

“I never heard anything worse, even from you. My honored Fräulein, my gnädigen Herren, just try once to imagine what you are singing about! It is not an exercise—it is not a love song, either of which you would no doubt perform excellently. Conceive what is happening! Put yourself back into those mythical times. Believe, for this evening, in the story of the forfeited Paradise. There is strife between the Blessed and the Damned; the obedient and the disobedient. There are thick clouds in the heavens—smoke, fire, and sulphur—a clashing of swords in the serried ranks of the angels: can not you see Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, leading the heavenly host? Can not some of you sympathize a little with Satan and his struggle?”

Looking at him, I thought they must indeed be an unimaginative set! In that dark face before them was Mephistopheles at least—der Geist der stets verneint—if nothing more violent. His cool, scornful features were lighted up with some of the excitement which he could not drill into the assemblage before him. Had he been gifted with the requisite organ he would have acted and sung the chief character in “Faust” con amore.

Ach, um Gotteswillen!” he went on, shrugging his shoulders, “try to forget what you are! Try to forget that none of you ever had a wicked thought or an unholy aspiration—”

(“Don’t they see how he is laughing at them?” I wondered.)

“You, Chorus of the Condemned, try to conjure up every wicked thought you can, and let it come out in your voices—you who sing the strains of the blessed ones, think of what blessedness is. Surely each of you has his own idea! Some of you may agree with Lenore:

“‘Bei ihm, bei ihm ist Seligkeit,
Und ohne Wilhelm Holle!’

“If so, think of him; think of her—only sing it, whatever it is. Remember the strongest of feelings:

“‘Die Engel nennen es Himmelsfreude
Die Teufel nennen es Höllenqual,
Die Menschen nennen es—Liebe!’

“And sing it!”

He had not become loud or excited in voice or gesticulation, but his words, flung at them like so many scornful little bullets, the indifferent resignation of his attitude, had their effect upon the crew of giggling, simpering girls and awkward, self-conscious young men. Some idea seemed vouchsafed to them that perhaps their performance had not been quite all that it might have been; they began in a little more earnest, and the chorus went better.

For my own part, I was deeply moved. A vague excitement, a wild, and not altogether a holy one, had stolen over me. I understood now how the man might have influence. I bent to the power of his will, which reached me where I stood in the background, from his dark eyes, which turned for a moment to me now and then. It was that will of his which put me as it were suddenly into the spirit of the music, and revealed me depths in my own heart at which I had never even guessed. Excited, with cheeks burning and my heart hot within me, I followed his words and his gestures, and grew so impatient of the dull stupidity of the others that tears came to my eyes. How could that young woman, in the midst of a sublime chorus, deliberately pause, arrange the knot of her neck-tie, and then, after a smile and a side glance at the conductor, go on again with a more self-satisfied simper than ever upon her lips? What might not the thing be with a whole chorus of sympathetic singers? The very dullness which in face prevailed revealed to me great regions of possible splendor, almost too vast to think of.

At last it was over. I turned to the direktor, who was still near the piano, and asked timidly:

“Do you think I may join? Will my voice do?”

An odd expression crossed his face; he answered, dryly:

“You may join the verein, mein Fräulein—yes. Please come this way with me. Pardon, Fräulein Stockhausen—another time. I am sorry to say I have business at present.”

A black look from a pretty brunette, who had advanced with an engaging smile and an open score to ask him some question, greeted this very composed rebuff of her advance. The black look was directed at me—guiltless.

Without taking any notice of the other, he led Anna and me to a small inner room, where there was a desk and writing materials.

“Your name, if you will be good enough?”

“Wedderburn.”

“Your Vorname, though—your first name.”

“My Christian name—oh, May.”

“M—a—na! Perhaps you will be so good as to write it yourself, and the street and number of the house in which you live.”

I complied.

“Have you been here long?”

“Not quite a week.”

“Do you intend to make any stay?”

“Some months, probably.”

“Humph! If you wish to make any progress in music, you must stay much longer.”

“It—I—it depends upon other people how long I remain.”

He smiled slightly, and his smile was not unpleasant; it lighted up the darkness of his face in an agreeable manner.

“So I should suppose. I will call upon you to-morrow at four in the afternoon. I should like to have a little conversation with you about your voice. Adieu, meine Damen.”

With a slight bow which sufficiently dismissed us, he turned to the desk again, and we went away.

Our homeward walk was a somewhat silent one. Anna certainly asked me suddenly where I had learned to sing.

“I have not learned properly. I can’t help singing.”

“I did not know you had a voice like that,” said she again.

“Like what?”

“Herr von Francius will tell you all about it to-morrow,” said she, abruptly.

“What a strange man Herr von Francius is!” said I. “Is he clever?”

“Oh, very clever.”

“At first I did not like him. Now I think I do, though.”

She made no answer for a few minutes; then said:

“He is an excellent teacher.”


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