"I wish I could steal his way of playing my Etudes."
— F. Chopin, speaking of Franz Liszt.
Herr Sterblich looked around the room. At one side, in front of a group
of paintings, was a grand piano of dark mahogany. Against the other
walls there were mirrors, tables and much other finery. Filling the rest
of the room, in the center, were about 40 chairs, grouped into two
sections with a narrow aisle between them leading to the double doors of
the room. In spite of its luxury it was a room that seemed to breath
intimacy. Sterblich had been to the palace once before, one New Year,
but that had been in the great hall on the first level. There had been
champagne and cookies, and a wonderful orchestra. But the room in which
Sterblich now stood was in the innermost area of the palace, a room that
was usually known only to the most intimate of visitors. Sterblich knew
that there was not one person in the room, the Mayor of Vienna perhaps
excepted, whose annual income did not exceed by ten-fold what he would
make in his life. If Sterblich's mentor and the head of his law firm had
not been ill, he would never have gotten an invitation to this function.
As such Herr Hoffman had taken pity on his poor state, and passed the
invitation to him as a way of thanks for many dull hours spent going
through a seemingly limitless volume of paperwork.
At one point Baron Hahn, among other things one of Vienna's great
impresarios, walked into the room and up to the piano. "Distinguished
guests, we know what a monumental evening this is to be. And how lucky
we are to be here to listen to the great Franz Liszt do us the honor of
a salon. I have just come from the maestro's rooms here in the palace.
He has asked me to apologize for his lateness — that he had lost track
of time in reading his Bible. If you will all take a seat, he will be here
with us momentarily."
With some bit of difficulty allowing for the benefits of rank and privilege,
everyone found a seat. Sterblich took a chair in the last row all but one,
which he figured was as good of a seat a person of his status could get
without seeming too overly presumptuous. Nevertheless it was a good seat,
along the central aisle, with a direct view of the keyboard.
Being February, it was rather chilly in the room in spite of the number
of people. The air was filled with candle smoke and the acrid smell of
pipe tobacco. There were quite a few people in the small gathering that
he knew, or at least recognized. Most recognizable perhaps, inasmuch as
he loved being the center of attention, was Mayor Höhe — an insufferable
man who Sterblich had the good fortune of talking with only once. There
was also the Baroness von Eskeles and her soldier husband. The Baroness
was a gorgeous yet vain woman who nevertheless contributed greatly to
the music of the city. Somehow Sterblich knew that this salon had been
at least in part her doing. Her husband Georg was perhaps a little on
the dim-witted side, handsome and in fact very likeable. He recognized
also the Countess Kuznetsoff and her husband Alexei, who while not
among the wealthiest in Vienna were great supporters of music and
charity. He had met the pair at several musical affairs. Sterblich had
always considered the Countess to be the most beautiful woman in
Vienna, and there was no doubt that he was very much in love with her
— a secret love that only his heart was privy to. Suddenly, the Countess
looked in his direction. Embarrassed to be caught staring at her he
gave her a polite nod, and was overjoyed to see her smile at him in
return and give him a little wave.
Sterblich did not know the couple sitting immediately in front of him.
The man was perhaps just past middle age, his wife a good deal younger.
She spoke to her husband in a subdued voice. "They say that Liszt has
sold his soul to the Devil." The gentleman gave her a disapproving look.
"Nonsense" he said to her curtly. "The man is deeply religious." The
woman thought it over a few seconds. "Then how can he play as if
possessed?" The gentleman gave her another disapproving look, but
After a good while there was a series of knocks on the door, four of
them, slow and loud, three knocks followed after a second with another.
Then the doors opened and maestro Liszt walked into the room. He was
smiling, and Sterblich knew that the maestro was silently laughing at
his joke of the four knocks — an illusion to Beethoven. Liszt was tall
and extremely thin. He was wearing a long black coat and black trousers,
a vest to match the coat, and a black shirt with a high simplistic collar
that had an almost Puritan look to it.
Liszt sat down at the piano and adjusted the stool. He pulled the sides
of his coat behind him. Then the pleasant air of his arrival changed to
one of high seriousness. Looking up at the ceiling as if seeking inspiration
from the divine, he brought his hands down on the keyboard.
He began with a piano transcription of a song known to practically every
Viennese — Schubert's "Die Erlkonig." The audience nodded their heads
knowingly, approvingly; the song was played with the great virtuosity
that was expected of one with Liszt's reputation. Following this came
another Schubert song, the sad "Gute Nacht." At that point Sterblich
noticed that a change had began to come over the audience. The smiles
were gone. Instead, they were replaced by deep concentration.
Then there came Chopin, the Etudes. Liszt's powers on the piano almost
made the technical difficulties disappear, leaving only great emotion.
Then Liszt began one of the nocturnes. He played the piece quickly,
devoid of the great sentimentality that pianists always seemed to give
to Chopin and yet still filled with great poetic nuance. Sterblick had
always loved the chromatic runs in the piece. And he had never heard
them played so perfectly, or so quickly. The melody angled up at the
end, Sterblich's favorite part of the piece, Liszt taking the right hand
notes up, up, up almost into the stars and freedom — but not quite yet,
such was not to be had, the notes returned to the Earth and beautiful
quiet acceptance. Afterward Liszt paused, and went into yet another of
the nocturnes, the C minor. The maestro played the opening melody with
an almost hard and fatal sound, but hushed, and cold. Given that Chopin
had only been buried a few years before it was impossible for Sterblich
not to feel that Chopin's pale ghost had now entered the room, conjured
by the magician Liszt. The piece built up into its magnificent climax,
part sorrow and part courage. By the time Liszt came to the final
measures of the work Sterblich felt as if he too would soon enter into
the land of ghosts.
Sterblich's eyes opened a bit. Looking around the room, he saw the
smiles on the faces of the listeners were now replaced. Pleasure had been
turned to tears, joy turned to grief. And in fact Sterblich himself had
spent most of the piece with a hand covering his face, trying to control
the tears that pleaded to be let loose.
There was a longer pause following. Once more Liszt made sure his
coat was pulled behind him and looked up at the ceiling. And then
he launched into it. A series of open octave chords beginning in the
treble and descending into and coming to rest in the bass, the notes
then layered over with a soft sequence of rising sixths. "Oh my god"
Sterblich said to himself. He knew the work. It was Liszt's fantasie
sonata after Dante. Several years before at another salon he had
heard some young pianist play it — or try to play it. But in the
hands of its true author every phrase, even every note seemed to
convey the deepest significance. The maestro Liszt, like Dante
following Virgil, led the piano in a mad rush up to a precipice,
down into a dark, rock-strewn ravine, up into the clouds to gaze
upon the redemptrix Beatrice, through fields of thorns and woods
set fire by human folly. It was a vision of the Earth in all of its
pain, doubt, darkness, love, and mercy.
The fantasie went into its final, falling sequence of chords. On the
last, Liszt held the pedal and his hands on the keys, letting the notes
slowly diminish as if by will of the piano itself. Then he slid his fingers
slowly back across the keys, almost a caress, and lifted them up into
the air. Then, rising up off of his stool, Liszt faced the audience and
gave two slow, formal bows. Then he walked down the aisle and
through the double doors.
No one in the room appeared surprised by Liszt's speechless exit, or by
the fact that he had not stayed in the room for introductions. In fact
most seemed to be unaware that he had even left the room at all. Every
face that Sterblich looked upon seemed stunned. A few, men and women
alike, were openly weeping. Mayor Höhe stared at the piano, mouth wide
open, mesmerized, as if the instrument was even then still pouring out
its wonderful harmonies. One man had gotten up out of his chair and was
turning this way and that, in circles, as if he could not make up his
mind which direction to go, or whether to even take any steps at all.
He noticed again the Baroness von Eskeles. She held a handkerchief
pressed against the lower part of her face and was staring out ahead of
her as if on another world. Her husband the Colonel sat with his legs
crossed and an arm pulled tightly across them, staring at his lap. Even
he seemed thoughtful. But for Sterblich it was of course the Countess
Kuznetsoff who drew his attention. She stood alongside her husband
with her elbows pressed tightly against her side, her fingers pointing
up into the air. "Are you all right?" Alexei asked her in German. She
nodded; and then, a second later, shook her head adamantly in the
negative. Eyes wide open, her gaze seemed to fall almost indiscriminately
on various points around the room, as if lost. Her husband put his arm
around her gently. The countess turned and pressed her forehead up
against his, brushing the tears from her cheeks. A few words passed
between them in Russian, and then in German. "You give me wings!"
she said. With care, Alexei escorted her to the doors and out of the
room. No one observing the exchange seemed at all surprised by the
Countess's display of emotion. Instead they simply nooded their heads
in sympathy, as if they quite understood.
Sterblich finally rose from his chair, one of the last to do so. The room
had almost emptied out. He pulled his glasses off, wiped the moisture
on them with his handkerchief. He ran a hand over the ornately carved
back of his chair. Somewhere in the back of his mind there were thoughts
flowing — leave the palace, get his horse from the valet, ride down the
dark road to his rooms, perhaps a late-night meal of some soup. But it
was impossible for him to really concentrate on such. It was music that
formed the dominant chord in his brain. He ran his fingertips over the
delicate carvings on the back of the chair, bumpy, silky, cool to the
touch. The music echoed, and the world paled.
Dedicated to V. Lisitsa.
You have brought my soul back
from the Land of the Dead.