Lawrence Brazier writes from Vienna
The acquiring of enthusiasms, the philosopher would have it, is dictated by the complex difficulty of life; which means that one is apt to need a certain amount of diversion to make one’s journey across the world bearable.
Molly, the woman (one’s wife), for example, has a great deal of passion for her garden.
“Seeds,” she maintains, “are spiritual, if you understand the planting of them.”
Our move to Vienna had Molly planting her foreign fields and yours truly twiddling thumbs – until Bach entered our lives.
I suppose it should have been Strauss who captured our imagination. A light Viennese whirl, chaps leading and girls leaning backward in abandon to the ubiquitous waltz. But Vienna gave us Bach, though it could have been any other city in which music hangs in the air. There is majesty in Bach’s music: passages of tonal pageantry evoking visions of purpose and grace; processions of kings and queens moving slowly, regally, as if beneath their robes you would find rows of little wheels attached to their feet to account for the smoothness (or should one say legato) of their motion.
It all began in St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna’s inner city where I first heard the thrilling sounds that were to transform a part of our inner worlds.
“Oh, yes, right on,” I exclaimed, listening to the riotous sounds that echoed and clanged up to dusty ceilings long after the last stop had been pulled, key thumped or pedal prodded – the organ drowning itself in a magnificent swirl of antique heavy metal.
“No delicate string picking there,” I muttered, as the organist thumped a final, two-fisted crescendo that seemed to lift him bodily from his stool. The poor chap was evidently exhausted at the end. His head hung and his shoulders sagged. I waited at the door, eager to ask the name of the piece.
“Bach,” was all he managed to croak, when confronted in the blinding sunlight. Then he was gone, threading his way through a mass of tourists, leaving me a little vexed.
But even so, I rushed home and told Molly. She said: “Gosh,” and “well, that’s funny – listen – daaa di dum, da di dum di dum di dum di, di dum di dum da trala di dum – that’s Bach, too. I heard it only five minutes ago on the radio. Lovely, isn’t it? I mean, allowing for my technique.”
“Gorgeous,” I said.
And there we were, we had a special song, so to speak, and not the slightest idea of the title. “It’s cryptic”, Molly said. “It’s special and we are an esoteric group of two.”
I realized, of course, that she would be different when children bestowed their presence upon us after the seeds had been planted. But for the time being we were truly happy in the most youthful of ways, and I was not the sort to spoil Molly’s delight in silly things.
The British are generally appallingly ignorant of classical music. Having produced an Elgar, they probably feel that honour has been satisfied and that’s that. Not that we were any better. But we had made a start and felt quite pleased with ourselves – if only we knew a title or two.
The answer was simple. I would take myself off to a shop that sold phonograph records, hum a few notes, and hope that the shop person would recognize the piece. After all, it is a man’s job to make bounteous the fruits, don’t you think?
“Right, Moll,” I said with great determination. “I’m off to clear up the conundrum.”
“Golly,” said Molly.
I joined the flow of the teeming masses, trundling quite airily up the Kaerntnerstrasse with a nice little up-tempo foot-tapper on my mind – da di dum, da di, da di, etc.
I felt quite sorry for the tourists that their quest was not the same as mine. Expatriates always seem to feel so superior to visitors. A rather worldly attitude, now that I come to think of it. True to tell, though, what makes a great city delightful is the same the world over – odd corners of green, the sudden quietness of a side street away from the main boulevards, the traffic’s roar remotely removed. Trees planted in a patch of earth surrounded by concrete in a quiet square, birches with tiny leaves that flutter in a breeze so that you almost expected them to rattle.
“Are you sure it’s Bach?” asked the lady in the record store.
“Oh yes,” said the second lady, grandly. “I recognize it all right. But do, um
sing it again.”
So I did. “Laaaa diiii da, da di da di da di da di, diiiiididdly di di.”
“Yes, it’s coming clearer now,” said the first lady.
I felt a throb of hope, thinking of Molly, caring.
“But I’m sure we haven’t got it, “the grand lady said. She must have felt she was letting the side down. For after all, one can usually rely on the Viennese to know a thing or two about music.
“Why not try the shop round the corner, up the Graben and left into the Dorotheergasse,” said the first lady, kindly.
They waved as I left. There had been a certain rapport, right enough. One would suppose the occasion was a rare one for them. I’m sure that if we meet again there will be warm smiles and a fond memory.
It was a dusty little shop, given utterly to the storing of manuscripts. The chap there was wild-eyed and wore a beard. One saw (and politely ignored) the egg on his tie. His trousers were grey in the worst possible sense, and his jacket, of course, was of corduroy. I took to him immediately. I liked the slovenly way he wore his dingy halo. I sensed I was nearing my target. The quest was reaching the point where answers were probably just around the corner; up a ladder, as a matter of fact.
This man was more than a sales assistant. It was most agreeable to be offered a cigarette when he lit one himself. I wasn’t past the first di dum before he was climbing his ladder, peering at manuscripts, blowing away dust, hanging cockily by one hand from a rung.
“Easy,” he said. “Know it well.” He descended with an eager joy, flaunting the manuscript as a trophy.
“Oh well done,” said yours truly, quite caught up in his fervour.
“There, you can see for yourself,” he said, running a finger over the notes. I was bound to agree for I read not a jot or a dot of music.
“From a series of fugues and canons called contrapunti that make up The Art Of The Fugue. Very well known, of course! I played it a lot when doing my organ studies,” he said modestly. A couple of centimetres of cigarette ash began to free-fall and cascaded on to his jacket as he spoke. It was even money that he was a poet in his spare time.
I could hardly wait to get home and tell Molly – especially since I was bringing a recording for us both to listen to. And it was bliss. If any readers know The Art Of The Fugue they will understand. If not, we suggest they set out quickly to correct the situation. It was a beginning for Molly and me, a foretaste of a lifetime of musical joy.
Where once I walked our dog on a Sunday morning, and gravitated toward a tavern, my feet are often suddenly stayed. And there, rising above the Sabbath swish of buckets of water being thrown over automobiles, the congregation is singing so heavily and hollow that it was off-putting at first. But there is also an organ, and as quickly as I can attach the dog’s leash to a railing by the graveyard, I’m inside the church, listening to those magical sounds.
Outside, of course, the dog will sniff unhappily and patter to and fro to the extent of its leash, trying a whine or two before lying down gloomily and crossing its paws to sulk.
“Nice of you to come, see you next Sunday,” the minister will say as we left.
“Yes, it was nice,” I would answer, looking over his shoulder to the organist gathering up his music in a shaft of sunlight piercing the stained glass.
After arriving home after one of these outings, Molly might raise a quizzical eyebrow. I was a changed man, just as she was a changed woman. But other-worldliness in men does tend to agitate wives. My gentle smile reassured her that no dalliance had taken place. Then she asked about the health and whereabouts of the dog.
© Lawrence Brazier, Ehrenschachen, 2012
And it was bliss.