Music to My Ears

Steve Lazarowitz

 

I was but a boy when I first heard his music, though old enough to appreciate the magic in it. I remember precious little of the occasion, except the almost painful perfection of sound, that wound round me like some giant constrictor, holding me spellbound. I would have done anything, paid any price to hear just one additional minute of that illustrious flute. My life has been defined by that search.

I often wonder if it was chance or fate that had placed me in the audience that day. My parents did not remember the performance, a fact I find almost unbelievable. Perhaps they were not blessed with my ear for music.

As far as I can tell, I was six years old. The almost mystical harmony haunted me for years. From that moment on, there was nothing I wanted more than to create such sounds. Often I tried to recapture the melody, but memory betrayed me. Only the emotion remained.

My life was not the only thing that was drastically altered that year. It was 1871 and London had become a battlefield. The first printing of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man pummeled the very existence of man’s belief in the almighty. All during my childhood, and in fact, well into my adolescence, the conflict between the creationists and evolutionists raged. I remember herds of well dressed clergymen and somewhat shabbier scientists, gathering to debate the doctrine, though I had no particular thoughts on the matter myself. I cared only for my music.

Though my parents had hoped I would forget my frivolous goal and take up something practical, I was relentless in my pursuit. Soon, they gave up trying to change my mind and even, upon occasion, encouraged me.

My grammar school had quite an extensive music program and I took full advantage of it. Any time there was musical opportunity, I was first in line. Eventually, I composed the score for, and was lead flute in, the school’s year end production of the Shakespeare play Twelfth Night. At fifteen, I received a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. There I added the piano and viola to my repertoire, though neither provoked the emotion that so overwhelmed me, whenever I recalled the flutist from my past. 

I had real talent for composition, though nothing I wrote was ever good enough to suit me. Worse yet, since I could not actually remember the melody that so obsessed me, it was impossible to compete with it. Part of me, some would say my wiser self, realized it was entirely possible that I had so exaggerated the event in my mind that, were it repeated today, it would not measure up to my recollections. If only I could have allowed myself to be convinced of that fact.

After I graduated, I earned a modest living as a piano instructor. I wrote and even sold several shorter pieces, which later popped up in the musical revues that had become almost a counterculture of the classical music scene at the time. I attended concerts whenever I could, always keeping my ears open, in case I should happen upon him. And the years passed.

I sold my first full length opera in 1883, just after my eighteenth birthday. It was performed several times in some of the smaller theaters that existed by the score not far from London’s south side. A theater group called The Queen’s Players brought my masterpiece to life. They were quite good, though of course were in no way affiliated with Queen Victoria. In fact, many such troupes had formed in the eighties, some quite vulgar. It seemed to me that much of society had evolved as a protest against the strict discipline of Victorian England. 

I worked with The Queen’s Players on and off for the next four years. Occasionally, I would write music to accompany some of their dramatic pieces. Other times, I played lead flute in the orchestra. Then, due to monetary problems, the group disbanded. 

It was now 1887. As a composer and musician I had proved my worth, though I was no closer to finding the flutist of which I still so often dreamed. I had banked a reasonable sum over the years, enough to take some time off. I don’t know why I procrastinated. I suppose, were it not for my fear, I would have left London immediately to commence the search I had contemplated since boyhood. Each time I planned my departure, a new employment opportunity became available. I continued to compose, perform or even teach, if that were the only position available. As my reputation grew, I was able to command higher salaries and soon entered the lowest echelons of the upper class.

I realized if I was to pursue my quest, I would have to leave Great Britain. There was a world of music out there I had yet to experience. In Italy, a man by the name of Guiseppe Verdi was authoring operas that pulled at the strings of the human heart. In Germany, Richard Wagner was already famous for his musically excellent mythological works. And of course, remarkable sounds also emanated from as far east as Russia, where a young composer named Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky was pushing at the very boundaries of music. 

The nineteenth century may have begun with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but had, during the latter years, been anything but stagnant. And somewhere out there, with the Schuberts and Rossinis, was a man who played a flute fit for royalty. A man I wanted desperately to find.

In 1888 London became a place of horror. A butcher that had come to be known as Jack the Ripper, brutally murdered and vivisected at least six prostitutes in as many months on London’s south side. All of Britain waited with baited breath while the police searched in vain, and I left London to begin a search of my own. I was curious, as the day of my departure drew near, if the authorities would ever discover the murderer’s identity, even as I wondered if my own search would eventually come to a satisfactory conclusion.

After transferring all my funds to a bank in Paris, I took a carriage to Dover . The ferry was ready to leave and I boarded just in time. My journey was off to a fine start. In all my years, I had never been to France, though it lay just across the Channel. In fact, with the exception of Saint Paul’s Cathedral and infrequent trips to the London museum, I had seen little in my life. This excursion was long overdue.

The small town of Calais was the ferry’s destination. During the short trip, darkness had begun to descend. By the time the coast of France came into view, the gas lamps had already been lit. I disembarked at the tail end of dusk, looking around as if I had been shuttled to the moon. I was almost disappointed.

The town of Calais was not terribly different from many of the larger villages north of London. I was going to stay the night and set out for Paris on the morrow, but was too excited to sleep. I paid an overpriced hansom cab to take me that night and settled back into the cabin’s comfortable interior to rest. For a time, I tried to look at the countryside, but darkness veiled it from my eyes. Eventually, lulled by the rhythmic pounding of hooves, I slept. I awoke some time later with a sore neck, but shortly after, while still shaking sleep from my eyes, we arrived at the City of Lights. This was more like it.

If you have never been there, it would be folly for me to attempt to describe it. Paris was as beautiful a city as one could hope for and after the narrow winding decrepit back streets of London, it was a welcome change.

The air was scented with wine, pipe smoke and the fine foods for which France was famous. Many of the people, due to our close proximity, spoke English, though it took me weeks to get used to their accents. Paris was a city that had almost a dual nature, divided as it was by the Seine. 

On this side of the river, new Paris, as some of the inhabitants had come to call it, was a spectacle of light and sound that was amazing to behold. Flowers in pots were common on the streets and the plentiful gas lamps turned the city into a shining wonderland after dusk. Across the Seine was an older section with narrow streets that almost reminded me of home, except for the pastel colors of the houses. No self-respecting Englishman would dare paint his house with anything but the drabbest of colors. That and the miserable foggy weather from which, for some reason, Paris had been spared, made all the difference.

There was a saying back home that the Champs Elysees never sleeps, and even at this late hour, it was alive with activity. At the end of the street, in a year’s time, the Eiffel Tower would be constructed, when Paris was to play host to the 1889 World’s Fair. Though news of the event was the city’s center of conversation, I was oblivious to most of it. Though I took the time to tour the Cathedral of Notre Dame, I spent most of my time attending concerts. 

It was there that I was first experienced the work of Georges Bizet, a brilliant French composer. His opera Carmen had already won much acclaim and I was happy to be able to finally see it. Though I was impressed by the performance, it did not satisfy the yearning in me for something more. I remember that night vividly, as I returned to the rooms I’d rented just off the Champs Elysees. I walked briskly passed the beggars and prostitutes so numerous that, were it not for the plentiful outdoor cafes, I could almost mistake it for London. I knew that night that my search would not end until I once again heard the magic of his flute.

The other experience of the year worth mentioning was my exposure to a new type of music called folk music. At a small cabaret called Moulin Rouge, where a younger and more creative set of musicians played, I heard my first sample of the new sound. I was fascinated by the ability of such simple melodies to draw forth from me such powerful emotion. 

I returned many times to that cabaret, where I ran across countless excellent musicians. Indeed the setting and the nature of the performers reminded me very much of my days with the Queen’s Players. I had thought, foolishly perhaps, that the man for which I searched would be a prominent figure by now. Yet here were entertainers every bit as talented as the finest the Royal Opera House had to offer. My flutist could have easily found employ in such a club, thus minimizing his reputation. I could have spent the remainder of my days very happily in Paris. If only I could have forgotten the fateful encounter of eighteen years before. Alas, it was not possible.

It was by chance one night, at the Moulin Rouge, a short time before the World’s Fair was to open, I overheard two people talking. It is not my habit to eavesdrop, but the mention of the word flute was enough to attract my attention. The couple spoke of a flutist that had, years ago, performed here in France. The musician had stunned them, as much for his talent, as for the fact that no one seemed to have heard of him. "A musician that talented should’ve been performing in Paris," she was saying. 

I stood and walked to their table, not caring whether or not they would be angry that I had listened. I stopped before them and the woman fell silent. As etiquette demanded, I addressed the man. "I apologize. I was sitting at the other table, when I heard mention of the flutist that had impressed you so favorably. Is it possible for you to describe him?"
The man looked me over for a second, obviously trying to determine my sanity. He glanced at the woman and she must have nodded, for he spoke. "He was a thin man, tall with long brown hair and deep green eyes. He wore a beard that was neatly trimmed, but sported no mustache. And his flute was made of silver."

I returned in my mind to that long ago concert. Only now, as I pictured the scene, did I recall the instrument. It was in fact, quite different from others of its ilk, but, at the age of six, I’d been unequipped to notice. I opened my eyes, after realizing I’d closed them. The image of him playing brought me to the brink of tears. 

The couple stared at me. I drew a breath and spoke. "I beseech you, Sir and Madam, do not judge me on my behavior. I am a student of the flute myself. Once, when I was young, I saw a performance by a man who fits that description. There is no wish I hold dearer than to find him and once again hear him play."

I paused, watching for some reaction. Finally the woman, apparently able to identify with my cause, spoke. "His name is Fransisco Clemente. He is from Spain, though he doesn’t look it. He did not stay long in France. The last I heard, he was somewhere in Austria."

Tears rolled down my cheeks. I thanked them profusely, but left quickly, embarrassed by my breakdown. I raced to my rooms, packing even before I stopped to wipe my eyes. Finally, I had a clue. Fransisco Clemente. I said the name aloud, savoring its sound as it rolled off my lips. I repeated it many times.

I spent an impatient sleepless night, waiting for the banks to open the next morning. I closed my account and had it transferred to Salzburg. Though Vienna was considered to be the musical capitol of Europe, I had always wanted to see the city where Mozart was born. I wasted no time. That very day, I left the bank with a letter of recommendation, enough cash for the journey and a receipt for the transfer of funds that would take almost a month to be completed. I could hardly wait to be out of there. 

A coach for that distance would have been beyond my means, but I was able to purchase passage aboard an eastbound locomotive. The train was bound for the German city, Munich. From there, the trip to Salzburg would be much more affordable. 

Under other circumstances, I would have been sad to leave Paris, for I had grown to love the city. However, now that I knew his name, I could almost, once again, hear his music in my heart. And there was nothing Paris had to offer to compete with that.

Traveling by train was an ordeal in those days. The seats were uncomfortable and the noise almost unbearable, but none of that mattered. I was already thinking ahead to my next move. 

The train reached its destination in less than a day, even with the stops. Thanks to the recent proliferation of German operas, I had more than a passing familiarity with the language. I was, of course, fluent in Italian as well. What little I saw of Munich was pleasant, but I didn’t tarry long enough to form a reliable impression. As soon as I could find one, I hired a coach to take me east, across the Austrian border to the city of Salzburg.

My first impression of Salzburg was negative. Though the streets were crowded, the Austrians did not seem to possess the gusto for life as did the French and it showed through in everything from the construction of their buildings to the preparation of their food.

Like Paris, the city was divided into two halves by the Salzach River. The older portion looked to me like the paintings of Italian cities I had seen hanging in the London Museum. The new city had smaller, almost quaint dwellings which I gradually grew to appreciate. It is little details that define a city like Salzburg, which, after the glare of Paris, I had, initially, failed to notice.

I wasted no time settling in. I found that I liked the new, less pretentious section of town better and so found accommodations there. The building was of yellow brick and stood four stories tall. Unlike my rooms on the Champs Elysees, this was more of a boarding house. All of the guests dined together daily at seven, and, if you were to miss it, you needed to inform Madame Holstag of the change.

Madame Holstag was a lovely older woman, who reminded me very much of my mother. It wasn’t until I saw her, that I realized how much I missed both my parents. She seemed to live in her housecoat until dinner time, when she dressed more formally. 

At first, I had mixed emotions about dining with strangers, though I must admit, by the end of the first meal, I was pleasantly surprised. There were only three other guests besides myself, all intelligent and interesting. 

The first was a Frenchman named Jean Charcot, the director of the Mental Hospital Salpêtrière, located just outside of Paris. He was en route from Vienna, where he had been visiting a student of his that had recently opened up a private practice treating nervous disorders, but had decided to tour Salzburg before returning home. Though I found his discourse technical at times, I enjoyed it regardless. 

The second guest was Colin McDern, a young Scottish gentleman, who was both a catholic priest and amateur naturalist. His passion was discussing the works of Darwin, especially his first effort On the Origin of Species. I found it rather odd that a priest could not only discourse so plainly on such a topic, but also agreed with the nature of the text. Dr. Charcot also seemed to be familiar with the work, though he was not as supportive.

The final ingredient in our nightly dinner was a woman of perhaps forty years, though handsome and graceful to be sure. Her name was Madame Kalif and she was a school teacher from Vienna, vacationing in Salzburg. She was a student of history and was fascinating in her own right, as much for her sharp mind, as for the addition of a feminine point of view to our conversations.

Night after night, we spoke, on everything from Darwin’s theory of natural selection to Charcot’s own theory on the origins of mental illness. Occasionally, we would discuss music and once, Madame Holstag asked if I would honor them with a sample of my work. I played for them that night, to the appreciation of all. When I was done, I felt the admiration of the others, a thing I did not expect. If only I could forget my mission and simply live my life.

However, each evening, after the meal, I would excuse myself and enter the night. I spent innumerable hours at various spots where music was performed. Some nights, I would attend symphonies, while others I would search out smaller arenas, where less popular performers plied their trade. I frequently questioned both employees and patrons at such establishments though none had ever heard of Fransisco Clemente. After three weeks, I was almost ready to admit defeat.

The next night, I was so quiet at dinner, that Madame Kalif was motivated to inquire as to my state of health. The men, of course, were too involved in their own intellectual discussions to notice my mood, but women have a sense of such things. Briefly, I told them the nature of my search, something I had avoided bringing up, lest they think poorly of me.

Charcot listened to my story intently. I was annoyed by that scrutiny, thinking that perhaps he was comparing me to one of his inmates. When I finally mentioned the flutist’s name, Madame Kalif drew a breath. Immediately I turned to her.

"I remember the man," she said softly, eyes distant, as if she too had been enchanted by his playing. "It was several years back, at a small countryside inn. I will never forget that performance."

I looked at her, marveling at my stroke of luck, but also wondering how, for the second time, fate had lead me to a vital clue. "Do you know what became of him?"

"If I recall correctly, he was traveling south. Just passing through. I don’t know why, but I think he might have been on his way to Italy. I seem to remember him saying so."

I questioned her at length about the evening, but she could remember nothing else of value. That night, for the first time since I reached Salzburg, I returned to my room after dinner and fell almost immediately into a deep sleep.

Though I had never developed the feelings for Salzburg that I had for Paris, leaving the city was still emotional for me. I said good-bye to Madame Holstag and her guests and made my way southwest.

In a way, I suppose, a trip to Italy was inevitable. It was there, during the renaissance that the rebirth of the world had begun. Much of today’s art and music owe much to the creativity of that Mediterranean country. It seemed like a fitting place for my eventual encounter with Fransisco Clemente.

After the initial melancholy of leaving behind the city of Mozart’s birth, I gradually became excited. I felt that the search I had waited my whole life to begin, was about to reach its conclusion. I knew this with certainty, though how, I could not guess. In the coach, I could hardly sit still. I had stopped only to transfer my rapidly dwindling funds to a bank in Milan. I was painfully aware of how much this excursion was costing, but a carriage was my fastest option and I was impatient. I tried to relax by staring out the window, but despite the beautiful scenery, my foot tapped impatiently on the wooden floor boards. After a time, I lowered the shades, shrouding the compartment in relative darkness. I closed my eyes and considered my life. It had all come down to this. What was there about the man and his music that had captivated me so utterly? I had no answer then and was not certain that I ever would. I knew only one thing. If I were to die now, without ever again hearing that pure essence of sound, my entire life would have been for nothing.

With that realization, my excitement was tempered by a finger of doubt, that as the hours dragged on, lead me into a deep gloom. Perhaps my intuition was based upon hopefulness alone. Or maybe it was all some ghastly cosmic joke and God was having a laugh at my expense. I shuddered to think it was so.

Time crawled as we made our way almost due south, so as to avoid the worst of the Alps. This detour, while necessary, lengthened the trip considerably. It was late afternoon on the third day that we reached Verona, a quaint Italian city that looked very much like Salzburg. This did not surprise me, as the city had been under Austrian rule until just over twenty years ago. After having spent time in Paris and Salzburg, Verona seemed almost like a large village. In spite of that, historical sights were numerous. Of course, such sights would continue to multiply as one approached Rome. 

Verona’s other claim to fame, which I only recalled upon seeing the statue of William Shakespeare, was the fact that it had been used as the setting for the play Romeo and Juliet. My fluent Italian came in handy here, as fewer people spoke English.

As I wandered about town, even as far as the Adige River, I decided to part with the carriage and resume my trip by rail. Verona was considered a minor commercial center. I was at first surprised to find the city so accessible until I realized it was almost a necessary stop, when traveling between Milan and Venice. By abandoning the carriage at this point, I could save a good amount of money and still make about the same time. I would have to spend the night in town, but that had been my plan anyway. 

I found a room not far from the Castel Vecchio, a fourteenth century construct that was remarkably preserved. I had learned to appreciate such sights during my travels, though there had been no shortage of them in London. Perhaps, if I ever returned, I would take advantage of my home city’s vast history.

That night I wandered the streets, too wound up to sleep. It was a quiet place compared to Salzburg, which had been quiet compared to Paris. If this kept up, by the time I reached Milan, it would be a city of mutes, who retired at sundown. I smiled at the thought.

I was wandering down a side street, between two buildings that might have been more at home in Rome, when I gradually became aware of music. As I continued, it grew louder. For a few moments, it sounded so like the flute for which I searched, I was stunned. It was not possible. I quickened my pace, almost to a run, but as I stepped out onto the main thoroughfare, the sound stopped.

I stood there, gasping for breath, beads of perspiration beginning to form on my forehead. It was still early and the moon had not yet risen. No breeze stirred the street, which had suddenly become so silent, it was almost surreal. I held my breath, not wanting to disturb the almost eerie stillness of the place. And then again for the second time that night, the sound of a flute reached me. 

I moved down the boulevard, only barely able to comprehend what was happening. It was as if I were drugged or dreaming. At last, I reached a small club that, yesterday would have been beneath my notice. I entered into its smoky interior, eyes searching wildly for the source of the sound.

Several people sat at wooden tables, others at the polished dark wood bar at the far end of the room, eyes intent on a figure on a stool. There was no stage, just an area against one of the walls from which the tables had been pulled back. It was no place for a master musician to perform. Oblivious to all but the flutist, I approached slowly, absently apologizing as I brushed past strangers. I held my breath, until I was close enough to finally identify him, despite inadequate lighting. The man on the stool was Fransisco Clemente. The music that night was astonishing, as if God had come to Earth to grace us with a symphony from heaven. It was even sweeter than I remembered.

I stood there, unmoving for more than an hour, while the artist played, hoping that he would continue forever. Finally, when he stood and bowed, the ovation he received was worthy of Mozart himself or perhaps even the Sirens of Homer’s Odyssey. I found myself wondering whether the music came from the performer, the instrument or a combination of both. There was about the sound an unearthly quality. I broke from my reverie, when I realized he was leaving. I hurried from the establishment in pursuit.

By the time I stepped out onto the cobblestone street, he was gone. I looked around, barely able to grasp the fact. I’d been only a few steps behind him. His sudden disappearance added to the almost mystical quality of the evening. I walked slowly, shaking my head at the irony of the situation. 

I had wanted, once again, to hear the magic of his flute, but now that I had, it was not enough. I wanted to be the one to call forth that music. I wanted to learn from him. I wandered further from the inn toward the edge of town, when again the air was filled by heavenly harmony. Abandoning caution altogether, I ran toward the source, continuing out of town into the surrounding woods. Though there was little light, I soon found him, sitting on a stone, playing.

I did not want to interrupt, but when I emerged from between the trees, he stopped. For a long moment, while I caught my breath, we looked each other over. I do not know what conclusions he arrived at from that scrutiny. My own ideas had been arrived at years ago.

It was a somewhat awkward situation. I didn’t know what to say. When I realized that he would not be the first to speak, I cleared my throat and introduced myself. "Hello. I’m William Jameson." I felt foolish as the words left my mouth, but, at the moment, could think of nothing else. I considered extending my hand, but didn’t. I just stood there dumbly. He nodded and smiled, but said nothing.

I wanted to tell him that I’d been looking for him, searching desperately for a lifetime. I could have told him how much his music meant to me or how I felt, enfolded by the strength of it, but could not. Instead, I mumbled something about being a flutist myself. At first, I thought he might laugh at me. Indeed, what right did I have to name myself such, next to an artist of his caliber. He sat silently for another few seconds and smiled. "Sit for a while then. Jameson, you say. Didn’t you write the opera Lost Time?"
My eyes widened in surprise at his mention of it. It had never occurred to me that he had heard my work. For a moment, I was scared to admit to it, not wishing to hear his critique. Then I nodded and held my breath.

He placed the instrument to his mouth and began to play. At first, I couldn’t place the melody, but as he continued, I came to recognize that sweet sound as my own music. I couldn’t hold back the tears, though I tried for most of the performance. When he was done, he spoke. "An exquisite piece." 

His words were almost beyond my comprehension. How could he compliment me? I nodded in acknowledgment, too emotional to speak. He lowered the flute and looked at me strangely, as if he had just now noticed my presence. "How is it you find yourself here? You’re a long way from London, William."

I would have bristled at the familiarity had it been anyone else, but Francisco Clemente could address me any way he chose. I forced myself to stillness and spoke, only the barest of tremors still present in my voice. "Once, a lifetime ago, I heard the sound of your flute and knew that I must one day hear it again. Though I have only recently began my search for you, I have dreamed about it every day of my life. You cannot know what your music has meant to me." I watched him, hoping that he could grasp what I was saying. When he didn’t speak, I continued. "If only I could play as you do."

He smiled and shook his head. "One should make such wishes with care. It is one matter to desire a thing. It is another entirely to pay for it."

I looked at him then. There was something about that way that he said it that put me on edge. It was as if he was the oldest man in the world, trying to explain death to the youngest. At the time, I didn’t understand. "Whatever the price is, let me pay. I want to learn from you. Teach me what you do." And I meant it. I would do anything to be able to extract such sound from the universe."

The look in his eyes was sad, as he studied me. I got the feeling it was not the first time he’d heard the request. When he spoke, he looked away, his voice distant. "I am not as other men. I hear music in everything. When the wind blows, it is a symphony, When the sun shines, an aria. The trees serenade me in their ancient tongue and the clouds move across the sky in a celestial ballet. Even at this distance, the Adige’s contralto can not entirely drown out the gentle tenor of the Alps." 

I stared, not wanting to believe him. Was it possible? "Then teach me. If you can hear it, why can’t I?"

He looked stunned then, as if he’d never considered the option. He turned to face me. "None of the others have asked. Perhaps you are the one." 

I was puzzled by his statement, though I didn’t question it. What others? The one what? I remained silent, watching his face, even as it grew more animated. "Perhaps it is something that can be taught. I’ve never tried."

"Then try now. I will follow you wherever you go. Do whatever I must. I have come this far and will not be thwarted." At that moment, I believed there was nothing beyond my ability. 

He regarded me uncertainly. "Perhaps it is as you say. Let us both sleep on it. Tomorrow, I may understand this new circumstance and you may come to reconsider your confidence."

I dropped my head, reflecting on his words. Was he implying that it might be impossible? I was about to ask, but when I again looked up, he was already lying on the ground, eyes closed. I considered my surroundings. This was a far cry from my normal accommodations. Nevertheless, if this is what was required, I would do it. After a moment’s hesitation, I lay down on a patch of brown grass and, after a long time, fell asleep.

The next morning we hiked back to town, so I could gather my belongings. As we walked we spoke about music. He was so well versed in the subject that he was able to name several contemporary composers of which I’d never heard. He was also an expert on the history of music and spoke not only of Mozart and Beethoven as if he had known them, but also Bach and Handel. I’d never met a man with such a depth of knowledge.

By noon, we’d reached a plan. We would leave town on foot and walk to Milan. By the time we arrived, my money would be there. He seemed at first reluctant to travel to the city, but at my insistence, finally agreed. That day, he continued to entertain me with detailed accounts of long dead composers. A natural storyteller, the world came alive when he spoke. I really was in sixteenth century Rome or eighteenth century Vienna. Whatever I asked, he answered, as if he were omniscient. He spoke with such certainty, that, as the day wore on, a suspicion began to grow within me. At last, as darkness approached, I stopped and regarded him. "Fransisco, how old are you?"

He smiled at me, sadly. "I don’t know. It is hard for me to remember. To give you an idea, at one point, I worked for Michelangelo as a hired craftsman. He often employed such help for his larger projects. Even back then, I was ancient."

The hair on the back of my neck prickled, as I listened to his confession. Could any human truly survive so many centuries? These were not the words of a madman. I believed them to be true. "What are you?"

"I wish I knew."

He did not say another word and I was so lost in my own thoughts it didn’t matter. By the time we stopped to camp it was late and I was tired, but try as I might, I slept precious little that night.

The next day, my lessons began in earnest. We stopped by a village to replenish our supplies, so small that it wasn’t on my map. Later that day, in the woods, I sat cross legged for an hour or perhaps a bit longer, straining to hear even the smallest note from the surrounding hills. With the exception of the robins, there was little that could be called music. 

I refused to be discouraged however, and continued practicing each day, sometimes for many hours. There were points when I almost thought I was on the verge of breakthrough. If I could just open up a little more. But then something would distract me and I would lose it. After more than I week, my spirits began to sink.

During that time, I also learned more about my companion. If I could only recall half of what he had to tell, I would be more knowledgeable than the most avid student of history. Alas, my attention was on my own efforts and much of what he told me is now lost. After a time, I began to despair ever learning.

Then one day, as we approached the outskirts of Milan, an idea began to form in my mind. Perhaps it wasn’t a talent, but the effects of the flute. I tried to think if he’d ever mentioned how he’d acquired it. I was reasonably certain he hadn’t. There was only one way for me to lay my suspicion to rest.

That night, while he slept, I rose silently and approached him. My intent was to borrow the instrument, test my theory and return it, before he awoke in the morning. I carefully slid it away from him. Then, guiltily, I turned and walked off into the surrounding hills, making as little noise as possible. I wandered far, so that when I played, the sound would not wake him. I felt terrible, but had to know.

At last, I estimated I had gone a sufficient distance. Just as a precaution, I continued for many minutes longer, until I was certain that the sounds of my efforts would not reach him. I paused to examine the instrument, turning it in my hands. It was lighter than I thought it would be and so completely devoid of markings that it might have been created rather than constructed. I placed it to my lips and blew across the opening. The single note that escaped into the night, was as beautiful as any I’d ever heard. 

I placed the flute in my lap and grew angry. All my life I had searched for this man. I had placed him on a pedestal so high, that he seemed almost a god to me. I thought about nothing else. I never courted a women, never visited family. My sole desire had been to hear that glorious haunting melody one final time. Now, I felt cheated. It wasn’t Fransisco Clemente that I had been after, but his flute. I wondered then if he was aware that the instrument had so magnified his talent or perhaps he’d had it so long, it had simply never occurred to him. I knew then, with growing disgust, that I would not return the instrument. He would pursue me, perhaps for the rest of his life, but I would never relinquish it. The silver flute was now mine.

I did not wait for day break, but took off into the wilderness, hoping to lose him long before the darkness faded. I thought I had done just that, when a far off cry of despair echoed through the hills and I knew he was awake. I tried to move faster, though off the road, it was harder to make time.

Each day, I continued my journey, not daring to play, for fear he would be close enough to hear me. It grew hotter as I made my way south. Even the nights were now uncomfortably warm. My food was running out, but I could think only of keeping my new treasure. At one point, I realized that the surrounding area was becoming more populated. 

That day, in the latter part of the afternoon, I saw a city on a hill. I continued onward, until I again found the road. As I walked toward the city, it wasn’t long before I saw an old man, traveling in the opposite direction. I spoke to him in Italian. "Excuse me. What place is that?"

"Milano," he replied, hurrying past. He continued to look at me, until he was certain that I wasn’t following.

I thought about his strange reaction, until I realized what a sight I must have been, after many days in the wild without a shave or bath, I must have smelled as bad as I looked. I moved quickly toward the city, anxious now for a room with a bed. As I went, I began to concoct a story to explain my appearance, so I would not be refused a room. Eventually, I decided that I would say that I had lost my way and have been wandering for many days, only by chance happening upon the city.

Milan was the second largest city in Italy and one of its major centers of art and music. While I had often thought about seeing the place, I was hardly in a position to enjoy it. However, it was impossible not to notice the detailed architecture and ancient structures, surpassed in both size and quantity only by Rome itself. Each place the eye fell represented some moment of history or artifact of beauty. There was about it the feeling of timelessness. Had I not known the year, I might have believed I had been transported to the twelfth century or perhaps even earlier. 

When I entered the crowded streets, I was the object of much scrutiny. I hurriedly made my way to an inn, explaining my desperate situation to the master. He took pity on me, after I paid him that is, and led me to a room. He had one of his servants draw me a bath and after I’d undressed and submerged myself, I relaxed for the first time in weeks. Or was it years?

I did not doubt that Fransisco was still looking for me. Were I him, I would search until the end of time, to retrieve such a prize. I almost smiled at the irony of it. I spent my life searching for him and now he might spend the rest of his, pursuing me. Certainly, I thought, there must be a God, for nothing that convoluted could occur by pure chance. Darwin must have been mistaken.

At last I climbed from the tub, several layers of dirt lighter, and retired to my room. I slept well that night on a bed with feather pillows, and vowed that I would never again sleep on the ground. In the morning, I would get my hair cut and have myself shaved clean, before finding the bank and collecting my money. After that, it wouldn’t matter. With this flute, I could make all the money I ever needed.

It was only the next day while I was taking in the sights, that I saw him, in a crowded plaza. Fransisco Clemente, in spite of his reluctance, had followed me to Milan. I ducked into the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the huge glass-roofed shopping arcade that had been constructed ten years earlier. I was hoping to hide myself in the vast crowds that continually swarmed the place. The absurdity of it was not lost on me. A month earlier, I would have done anything to find him.

After a time, I reemerged into the plaza. The musician was nowhere to be seen. I sighed relief, but was still nervous. He couldn’t be far. 

I never did find a barber. Instead, I went straight to the bank, withdrew what was left of my savings and left Milan, traveling south. I was certain he would follow, somehow drawn by the flute. Sooner or later, there would have to be a showdown. I voted for later. I made my way quickly from the city and continued well into the night.

I walked for days, again sleeping like an animal on the ground, my promise already broken. I hated him for that, though I suppose I had no right. After all, I was the one who had betrayed him. Or perhaps, by not telling me that his talent was linked to the flute, he had betrayed me. Either way, I maintained no illusions about my innocence. I simply had no choice. I had to have that flute.

For how long I fled, I do not know. Finally, perhaps days, perhaps weeks after I left Milan, he caught up with me.

He didn’t attack me, for which I was grateful. He just broke from the woods and stared. Neither of us spoke or moved for so long, that I almost began to think that we had never been alive and were just figures in a painting. Then he spoke, his voice so low, I had to concentrate to make out what he was saying.

"I had originally intended to kill you and take the flute, but I have since changed my mind. I have only been following to warn you."

I smiled, not believing him. "To warn me." I made sure to let sarcasm seep into my voice, though he chose to ignore it.

"Yes. Now that I have lived without it for this long, I think I can finally walk away. I suppose I should thank you."

I was beginning to believe him and grew afraid. "Thank me. For what?"

He sighed and took a step forward. I backed away and he stopped. "I no longer hear the Cosmic Medley. I am free. I know you don’t understand it yet, but someday you will. That is your punishment. As far as I see it, we’re even."

It was not the first time since I’d found him that I felt a tension grow within me that defied logic. Perhaps it was because I could not grasp the motive for his actions. What had I to fear, now that he had relinquished his claim on the flute? I wanted desperately to say something, even apologize, but words had deserted me. He turned and walked away, leaving me to my discomfit.

I sat and, for a long time, thought about the strange encounter. That night, just before I drifted off, I heard music in the distance. At first I thought it was some performer, but the sound was a little too perfect. Slowly, I rose, realization lighting my eyes. The stars were singing to me. I stopped to look at them and as I did, their harmony rose to a crescendo so beautiful that I was reduced to tears. Why would anyone walk away from such wonder? Could he be so tired of life, after so many centuries? Did giving up the instrument rob him of immortality? If it did, did it bestow the gift on me?

I stood there for a long time, reveling in, what had he called, the Cosmic Medley. Finally, I slept. The next day, the music was even clearer and more beautiful. There could be no price too high for such magic. At least, at the time I could imagine none.

I continued south, determined to find civilization once again. At least, I no longer had to hide. It was only a day or so later that I found a broad, paved road leading south. There was much traffic, both pedestrian and mounted. I stopped a fellow traveler, as unkempt as myself. "Where are you going?"

He looked at me puzzled as to why I should want to know, but replied anyway. "I am heading to Rome. I have family there." He waited to see my response.

"Rome," I said it with reverence, part of me knowing that I was destined to go there. "How far is it?"

He smiled. "Less than a day."

Behind him, a copse of trees sang a hymn in perfect harmony.

I moved quickly, easy outpacing the fellow I’d questioned. How much culture had Rome brought to the world? I looked forward to seeing it, almost as much as I looked forward to a night in a soft bed. No more sleeping on the ground. I almost cried at the thought.

The city couldn’t have been far. I was aware of, though not listening to the Medley, when suddenly, a terrible discordant sound interrupted it. I froze momentarily, not certain as to what it was. Then, when it did not repeat, I continued.

It wasn’t long before another noise, similar to the first, yet somehow different, accosted me. Again I stopped. For a long time I stood, listening. Then, it came again, but louder. Suddenly, I saw my future and sank to my knees.

Other denizens of the road turned to stare at me, some perhaps even wanting to come to my aid, but a look at the horror on my face sent them on their way. From the south, new sounds even more disturbing, washed over me, almost drowning me in their depths. At last I knew the true price for my new found ability. I was hearing the other, terrible side of the Medley. It wasn’t all sunshine and raindrops. I was hearing a new symphony composed of poverty, hopelessness, greed, jealousy, starvation and old age. Strains of sickness, weakness and despair woven throughout the hideous composition. At last I knew why he’d never become famous or played in a big city. Why he had been reluctant to go to Milan.

Sadly, I turned north again, not looking forward to another night on the ground. I knew then what my destiny would be. I would wander the wild areas of the earth, until loneliness drew me back. I would stay near small towns, where the disturbing sounds would be somewhat diminished, but, after several hours of contact, would be forced to flee. There would be no awards, no grand operas, no new symphonies. Nothing but endless wandering, driven first by my hunger for music and later by my need for companionship.

I lifted the flute and studied it. Fransisco had been right. It was not worth the price. I wondered then, how much of knowledge ever was? I wanted to leave it there by the side of the road, but could not. The Cosmic Medley was too sweet to abandon. Filled with despair, I wandered into the countryside, wondering for how long I could take the isolation.

That was more than a century ago. For a time, I lived the life I’d envisioned, dwelling in the hills and forests, occasionally visiting a small town, until I could no longer stand it. It was a lonely life. It is much harder now. Cities are far larger today and there are fewer wild places for me to roam. Some scientists say that, within fifty years, there will be no forests left. I pray it will not be so. 

Sometimes, when performing in a town, I notice that look in a stranger’s eyes and know my music has touched him, the same way that Fransisco’s had affected me so many years ago. Usually, I flee such encounters, for fear that the instrument that causes me such pain will be stolen. I think back now, to Fransisco’s reaction and understand what he felt. I pray every day for the strength to leave my legacy behind, but I only do so, for I am certain it can never happen.

Lately, it has grown worse. There are so many people in the world, so much suffering that no matter where I rest, I can hear the music of despair in the background. Though it disturbs me profoundly, it is still so perfect that I can not force myself away from it. Perhaps it is the price one pays for dreams.

I don’t know why I bothered to pen this tale, except perhaps as a warning to others, that they might somehow escape my fate. Or perhaps it has been so long since I’ve communicated with another soul, that I need to somehow prove my own humanity. In either case, beware obsession in all its forms, for you can never truly possess what you can’t release. It can only possess you.

There is only one way I can escape this tragedy or is it a farce? After I deliver this manuscript into the hands of a messenger, I intend to disappear into the Alps, so deeply I will leave behind the despair of humanity. And who knows, perhaps, once up there, I will find the strength to leap to my death and leave the music behind. I never dreamed I’d know the day, when silence would be music to my ears.

 
 
 


Author Bio

Steve Lazarowitz lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, his ten year old daughter and their many pets. His work has appeared in Jackhammer, Exodus, Little Read Writing Hood, Dreamforge, Dragonsclaw, Titan and Net Novels second anthology. His story "Brimstone and Nitro" will soon appear in Aphelion.


 

 
 
 
 
Music to My Ears Copyright © 1998. Steve Lazarowitz. All rights reserved. First published May 1998 in Little Read Writing Hood. Reprinted by permission of the author.
 
 
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This page last updated 10-15-98.

border by Victorian Elegance

MIDI courtesy of Classical MIDI Archives
Flute Sonata in E b minor by J. S. Bach
sequence by M. Weimer