Saturday, August 7, 2010

The "Notorious Dr. August" meets Brahms

"Life is eternal," writes Dr. August, "but lives are short." Novelist Christopher Bram sent Augustus Fitzwilliam Boyd into the world in "The Notorious Dr. August," written in 2000. "Perhaps," writes Boyd, blind narrator who is an improvisational pianist inspired by spirits, "the music is the true story and my words merely a way of beating time."

In a passage of quality imagination, Dr. August hears Brahms play:

"I attended the Kurhaus concert that evening, alone, [...] it had been announced that Brahms himself would perform. I had forgotten all about Brahms. There was no orchestra in the pavilion that evening, only the composer at the piano—short, square, and babyfaced—-and a quartet of string players. They performed his Piano Quintet in F Minor, spacious and dramatic. Brahms disliked concertizing, and his arpeggios were a bit rusty, but it was of no matter. I can be quite nasty about other musicians, yet I did not sneer that evening. His quintet was all of a piece, the instruments equal, their playing unmarred by showy displays. They wove a single skein of changing colors, emotional, thoughtful, intimate, the short musical phrases combining into long, elaborate sentences. [...]

He swayed like a bear at the keyboard, tensing into each transition, making endless faces. He was notorious for being critical of his own compositions. I sat close enough that I could actually hear him grumble and groan as he played. The other musicians swarmed and blended around him, intensely alert to Brahms and each other, a coven of musical conspirators.

They came to the slow movement, "Andante, un poco adagio," and I recognized the wander of notes: It was the passage I'd heard during my walk with Isaac, when Brahms blew smoke bubbles and I thought my world was solid. I sank back into my own troubles again, yet the music continued to move me, not just the music but the situation of its making. Five people made it together, a family of friends, a sonorous little utopia. [...]

There were the racing rhythms of the finale, a descent into a home not quite a home, and the piece ended. Brahms and his friends took their bows and applauded each other, the string players thanking the composer with a grasshopperish tapping of bows against music stands. The audience hurried off to cafés and restaurants. I remained in my chair, stranded under stars and mountains, thinking about music, thinking about life. Art seemed a beautiful consolation, but could it set right all that had gone wrong in my life?

I needed to think at a piano. A keyboard would concentrate my thoughts."

Dr. August thinks through the performance; improvising on the same piano that Brahms had just played. "If my emotions were too deep for tears," writes August "they were not too deep for a piano."

Brahms discovers him playing. "'We are wondering,' said the bearded friend, 'if you find your lost chord.'"

When you get the chance, look through this book. It will reward your efforts.

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