The Erotic Études Opus VI

Étude XVI - Johannes

Étude XVI - Johannes

Klara and I had a row. I was indifferent to her petulance, and I grew determined that I would follow Joseph's recommendation to go to his concert in Kiel, where he would play my Second Violin and Klavier sonata with the young man, Brahms.

She was pregnant, she was angry, and she was in a mood to blame. And I was miserable. The invitation was a blessing in every way, and I was sure I could put it right with her, in time, but she despised it when I chased pianists. Despised it. And took it as a horrible insult to her talent, that I would wish for someone else to touch my piece but her. This was always so. And it made me seethe. I am not her property! This I detested about her, the proprietary nature of her lusts, her artistic pride, her sense of place, that she would dictate to the composer who should play him.

I prepared - in stealth. Perhaps she would not heed. She usually let me be, if she knew it would help me compose. If she thought I was straying, or spent excessive time socializing, she would track me like a hound does a rabbit, as though I was her composing slave, until she had me in her jaws, relentlessly quarrelling with me and interrogating me until I either fell to pieces, weeping, or locked myself in my study. I lived and breathed for her concert tours… when I could be peacefully alone with the children.

After endless argument, she insisted she accompany me, and we lit off in a carriage, I with growing misgivings, until we arrived at the concert and were seated in the Parkett, in very prominent seats. People murmured at die Wieck and her little tag-along composer showing up at this undistinguished event.

Truth to tell, he was not a brilliant pianist. Serviceable, yes. It is a hard Sonata. I wrote it in part, in pique, to test Klara's virtuosity against the even greater virtuosity of Joseph at the violin. For no one surpassed him. It is virtually impossible for any but the most sensitive and dedicated virtuoso, to play, since the duet is enwrapped in an intimacy that violin and klavier must share. If they do not do this, if they are not simpatico, as Felix and I were, the piece is a war. It is a test of a duo.

Joseph insisted that we dine together, and in deference to his fine intuition, I invited the young Brahms to visit with us in Düsseldorf. We could use a guest pianist for the D minor when Klara was confined again, in any case, and it was my choice to recommend. He was good enough to perform in solo, and he had his love of my compositions in his favor. And he was also, though shy and awkward, beautiful to my eyes. He arrived, promptly, without the protective custody of Joseph, who had to go on to Hamburg.

I did not expect that he would bring his compositions, however, and when he drew them out and placed them on the klavier I grew intrigued. Klara clapped her hands in pleasure at him, since she was sour at me for producing so few compositions for klavier only in recent years, and was showing me her displeasure by her delight in him.

I do not absorb the quality of things all that quickly, when played by an amateur or a youth. I tried instead to listen to the intent within it, and there was much. Much, such as I had found in Ludwig, in Gade, in Bennett, and even moreso in Felix. As I watched him play, I felt a familiar excitement build, and as I sat and drank and smoked with him, I felt the return of a sense of camaraderie I had lost many years before, when Felix died -- a warmth that pervaded me. I sat awake long that night when he stayed with us, sitting up in my dressing gown, smoking, and examining his scores.

Whilst sitting up my study, she came, to my slight shock. She had not done this for ages. She offered me her cheek to kiss, which I dutifully kissed. I loved her, still, after all, if only because she had some lingering respect for my work, for she had done innumerable kindnesses for me when well disposed. And she had given birth to my children, my beloved children. She took my hand and attempted to loose from it his first Sonata, so that she could play it. "Leave it be," I grumbled.

"Robert, do not be tedious. Give it to me. I wish to play it." She stood with her hand out, gown rustling, the scent of gardenia she had just applied to her hair, as a means to soften my attitude to her. To become less cold and withdrawn. And the very act of manipulation, in so doing, made me grow colder.

"Not at this time of night. Leave it be. He will know, he will waken and know we are discussing him, and fiddling with his work. It will unnerve him. Let me study it and go on. I will come to you later if you have a lust on you."

"You impossible man! That is all you think of? Do you not think I have finer sensibilities than this - do you not realize that finally a young man of undiscovered genius has crossed our threshold and represents the hope of the future for all of us? His popularity could restore your own if you played it correctly." She grew flushed and angry, confirming my suspicions.

I regarded her tiredly. The old theme. "He is very young, very slender and very blond too. Do not overlook the most important attributes of a composer, Klara."

She nearly - but not quite - slapped me then, but her hand came up. Her hand - larger than my own when she grew to adulthood. I was a petulant, lethargic and sharp-tongued wife to her moody and punishing husband. All was reversed here, and this, I should have anticipated. She cared nothing for the children, and did not nurture them in any way -- that was for the women we hired to nurse them, those who possessed normal female sentiments. I should have known that was the price of her genius. Her manliness. If these children had any mother, it was these other nurturers -- and when I was not closeted in my private hell, it was me.

"You are base!" she hissed. I picked up the bottle, wordlessly, and drained the last of my champagne into the glass. And raised it to my lips, deliberately, and drank.

Then I spoke. "Yes well, then, best pack me off to an early exile in Paris or Prague, so you may have a new and promising composer, whose work you can perform with greater success rather than my tired experiments with Joseph. Or better, perhaps you could convince Wasiliewski I am far too mad to perform my own symphony next to Beethoven's, as well as an extra programme, and have the position of conductor for yourself. That, you might enjoy."

Since it was inevitable, the slap, when it came, though stinging, was no surprise. I only hoped that little Ludwig did not lurk at this late hour in the library to react to her. He would not understand that I was simply drawing the poison out of her before it grew so great it could not be contained. I sighed, and a stray tear escaped my eye.

"Do not be so - impossible!" she hissed. "Now - give me the score, damn you. I will have it perfect by the time he wakes."

"No you will not, and if you tear it I will tell him you did it in a fit of temper." I raised my own hand now, defending myself against whatever onslaught she intended. She usually was bluffing this level of violence, but she was harder to predict of late, and this Brahms had excited her nearly as much as he excited me. I sympathized with her in this, at least.

By morning, after a night of weary watching, and another bottle of champagne, as well as several more cigars, I had completed my review of his two sonatas, and had made a sheaf of careful notes in my own cryptographic script which, so far, I did not believe Klara had deciphered. I made a rapid copy, and locked it securely in my cabinet. I did not have the energy to copy out one of his sonatas, nor did I have his permission, so I locked them in as well, and lay down for an hour, securing my study with another key I kept in my shoe. I knew she watched. I knew she waited.

She pretended to sleep when I entered the bed, and as usual I went to her and brushed her cheek softly with my lips with a short prayer for peace and the whispered word, 'Geliebte…' and her breathing changed. And so… awake. I tried to kiss her mouth but she turned roughly from me.

"You are drunk. You stink of cigars."

"You never minded THAT when I was thirty," I sighed, and shortly, sank into a restless sleep, insensible.

I woke, as usual, as dawn rose. An hour of sleep was a great deal of time for me when working, and an ideal rest. I would have two or three of these rests in the course of a work day, as well as dinner breaks, and when distressed, I would waste half a night in sterile rumination in the library, an empty paper and an impotent, uninspired pen in hand. It was at these times I sat and drank champagne, and smoked, until a bare gnawing of Knillität would alleviate my despair.

Often times the children would come to me and I would write something new for Mariechen, since she grew bored easily with what was yesterday's, and never tired of impressing Papa with her ability to read my impossible script. I had long conceived of writing sonatas for each of the girls, and the melodies of these conceptions tickled the back of my brain whenever the trio would come in, shy of their grumbling scion. And despite my welcoming and softness, they listened to their mother and would be shooed off by her imperious declaration, "Don't disturb your father! He is easily distracted! He will not get his work done and we will starve and then where will we be? cast out in the street, at the mercy of the kindness of strangers,"

Do not disturb your father, he will be distracted.

Not by the children, I wasn't distracted! I adored them, but no amount of entreaty would keep them by my side. All I could hold them with were little snippets of music that I would jot off to keep Mariechen in place, staring, and Elise, imitating my curved and dotted hand, in the margin. It amused me, greatly. What must they think I am composing, in this obscure and rapid hand? Mariechen knew -- I could tell by her wise nod. She leaned over my knee and lisped into my ear, "Beauty unencumbered, Papa… Beauty." And I kissed her, holding her close. God would bless her for that, I knew. For she knew.

I went quietly to my study, and as I did, I saw my guest waiting pensively in the entryway. He turned as he saw me, and looked away, seeing I was in dressing gown and slippers.

"Herr Schumann I apologize, I did not know anyone would be up so early, " he murmured.

"I am always up at dawn, it is the curse of my mind. Come, Johanna has certainly made the coffee, she is accustomed to my habits. Let us sit together. Smoke?" I offered him a cigar which he refused. I abstained, mostly because Johanna detested the clouds in the kitchen. I led him to the morning room, and yes, the coffee and brötchen were laid out with a few slabs of cheese, and Johanna had already fled to the laundry. She did not like encountering me at breakfast, in the sour mood I usually exhibit. This morning was no exception.

I sat heavily. The weariness of the night's work, and the acid taste of Klara's rejection of me yet again, lay over me like a storm cloud ready to burst. I ached, and my back nagged me. I am falling apart. I am not three and forty… and I am falling apart. I broke to pieces a brötchen and dipped it in honey, and let it soak on my tongue as I poured a coffee. The youth sat, quiet, pensive, seemingly reluctant to do anything, to disturb my composerly thoughts. His awe of me drained me and made me tired.

"Herr Brahms… " I began, in as soft and welcoming a voice as I could. "Have something to eat. You are welcome here. I am just a man, and not a wealthy one at that. There is no need to cringe."

The boy blinked at me, uncomprehending. This would be worse than Joseph, worse than Hiller -- worse even, than Nicola. Where had my small fame brought me, that youths would cringe in my presence? I despised this, and it was not my doing that this would be so. It was the abominable mystique of Miss Wieck. It could not be me.

"Herr… Herr… Schumann…. " he stammered. "I… I just… wanted       you       to     know…. How eagerlyIwishedtomakeyouracquaintanceandplaymySonatasforyouasunschooled-andunwroughtastheyare…"

"What? What what what?" I was mystified by his utterance, which jumbled out of his mouth like a mashed arpeggio on the klavier played by my son Ludwig in one of his rages.

"My…" he blushed deeply, his face as red as a cherry.

"Shhh… my dear Herr Brahms." I wanted so much to touch his dear head, to reassure him, a gesture sure to be misconstrued. I sat, inert, and gripped my coffee mug. "I am not so old that I do not remember what it is like to sit in the presence of someone more accomplished, having played what comes oozing raw out of my soul. Do not be concerned that I will smite you with commentary."

To my shock, tears stood in the boy's eyes. This was too much. Too, too much. Did Klara say something to him? If so, I would slap her, despite my oath never to strike a female. Had she done so, she was unworthy of such an oath.

"I… I, I am so… petrified, I cannot speak."

"There is no need!" I looked at him severely, hoping to shock him out of whatever delusion had caught him. "Have some coffee, I am a normal man, this is a normal house, we are in a normal home in Düsseldorf. For God's sake man."

My commentary was not helping. My glare did not make him tremble less. And to my miserable shock he fell on his knees, his blond head abashed, against my aching knee. Oh god… not this. What is wrong with him? Is he mad? If so I would need Dr. Königswinter to take him in hand, and he was away at Bad Godesberg. I was astonished, and speechless.

Then, he looked up, tears standing in his eyes. Beseeching me. I stared at him, and my face must have been white. My coffee trembled in my hand, and a trickle of honey dripped from my finger where it had lodged, and dotted my trouser leg inches from his clutching hand. I dared not breathe.

I whispered to him then, "The children will be in shortly. They will not understand, it will make them wail."

My words shook him sane, at last, and he scrambled to his feet, blushing wildly, and staggering back into a chair.

And as I had prophesied, Ludwig glissandoed across the floor in his socks at triple forte, shouting "Papaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!" and launched himself into my arms like a cannonball, and I caught him as I always did, even if it threw me back into the seat and caused my back to spasm. My beloved, the namesake of my beloved. He crooned musically into my collar and snuffled for food at my hand like a hungry hound. I set him aright, and spooned some honey onto a brötchen. He opened his mouth to be fed rather than take it from me. I frowned, and shyly, he smiled, and reached out a timid hand.

Klara would have slapped him.

Beyond this tableau, I looked up from the distraction of my noisily eating son, to find the now withdrawn pianist smiling weakly, his embarrassment fled in the emotional moments of my domesticity. He whispered, "You are a kind man."

"He is my Papa! He is the best man in the world!" Ludwig shrieked, and pounded both fists upon my chest as though I were a kettle drum. I coughed briefly, and patted his back, and murmured something to him in his warbling language, and he warbled back in exact pitch.

"I believe you, Ludwig," Brahms politely said, his eyes shining strangely. I never forgot that look.

•   •   •   •


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The Erotic Etudes Index

[ I ]   [ II ]   [ III ]   [ IV ]   [ V ]   [ VI ]   [ VII ]   [ VIII ]   [ IX ]
[ X ]   [ XI ]   [ XII ]   [ XIII ]   [ XIV ]   [ XV ]   [ XVI ]   [ XVII ]   [ XVIII ]

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