The café in the village square was once a well-known haunt of agitators who, in my youth, scribbled polemics on the backs of menus. They were mopped up pretty much after the General came to power. You still see a few of them floating around: humming melodies in the rose garden for loose change. The more daring ones still give music lessons if there’s a safe-house, properly sound-proofed, on the coastal road.
The young man who hurried towards me under the café’s cracked and blackened roof reminded me of friends from my student days at the Conservatory. His cuffs were filthy and his uncombed hair was full of twigs. He’d been sleeping in the forest.
Musicians had been outlawed by General Koch after the spectacular collapse of his Artistic Utility Programme. This guy was taking risks and I shifted in my chair. His long spatulate fingers gave him away; their span must have increased by a whole octave, which could only be achieved by practising cello.
When the bartender went below stairs to check the pumps, I delved into my overcoat and produced a rolled-up tube which the young man grabbed. It unfurled into a manuscript - the handwritten transcript of Cosmic Arboretum. He scanned the opening bars and the clarinet notation: silvery notes slipping down the scale in a steady chromatic progression. ‘Is it accurate?’ he queried. ‘You knew Schwarz... you performed it. Got to be note-perfect for our impromptu performance.’ Sure I knew Schwarz, and the memory of him made the pain in my hands and face flare up. The skin would never heal. All it took was the weakest ray of sunlight to fall across the back of the chair where my hand dangled and the skin would pucker and swell into tiny blisters.
We sipped chicory coffee, and he echoed words from the outlawed musical dictionary: ‘Texturally clear, Cosmic Arboretum remains timeless rather than contemporary music...the meaning behind the dissonant last chord...’ I added my ghost whisper to his. Old instruments dangled from the ceiling: accordions, bent trombones, a stringless Spanish guitar.
Turning to light his Russian cigarette, I absent-mindedly flashed him my right profile. He winced, and offered apologies. ‘Why?’ I retorted. ‘Did you do this?’
He gathered up the manuscript and paid for another round of coffees, topping them up with Dr Zwack’s famous liqueur from a black bomb-shaped bottle.
‘We could hum those opening bars together.’
I watched him flinch, and the skin around his eyes tighten and flicker.
‘You’re not exactly risk-averse yourself. Waiter, our tab...’
Towards the end of the third movement there were some odd annotations in the margin. Rather than allegro or fortissimo it stated ‘open your head.’ How was one to interpret Schwarz’s drolleries? But ‘open your head’ you must, in order to get inside the music. When he explained the bassoon part to me he sketched a woman’s profile with skylights above her ears.
‘It’s open to interpretation,’ I said. ‘Each recital should bring something new to his instructions.’
He nodded, then pulled down his hat and headed to the bike stand.
That year in the hopeful past, the winter was so harsh that we students at the Conservatory had to wrap our hands in bandages to protect them from frostbite. Ivan the pianist smeared Vaseline on his fingers and turned up late for rehearsals, unshaven. We were told to compose triumphal music to celebrate General Koch’s victories: his recent triumphs on the North Western frontier.
We looked up to our tutor, Bruno Schwarz, as the once outspoken critic of the General’s regime. We knew his early piano concertos: brittle keyboard arpeggios like a beetle scuttling across the keys, arbitrary and robotic, striking hard, crystalline notes.
During his long imprisonment he’d written a great orchestral work - Cosmic Arboretum. The opening bars were scrawled on an old cigarette packet he’d found in the basement of the house on Andrea Platz. Number 91 – the House of Terror –is near the end of the long boulevard with its pollarded trees and green shuttered windows. Morris Minors would arrive in the dead of night and detainees with sack cloths over their heads were bustled out of the back seat and up the stone steps.
The General’s cold-blooded secret police, the Iguanas, in mirror shades and dinner-jackets, preferred water torture. In the basement they amplified the sound of a dripping tap and ran it into each cell through a loudspeaker. The drip drip of boredom and fear, tension and monotony, is evoked by Schwarz’s scoring for the glockenspiel. Schwarz said that after his experience at Number 91 he could never enjoy the city’s fountains or swimming baths ever again.
The music critics were confounded by Schwarz’s modernism. They wondered during a private recital (the piece’s only full orchestral workout) how he managed to generate so much emotion through abstract mathematical principles. Capel’s dictionary, now outlawed, has the following description:
‘Best remembered for its plangent oboe theme and stringent economy of expression, Cosmic Arboretum belongs to Schwarz’s difficult “geometric period” where the listener is likened to a sphere rising up through layers of sumptuous orchestration.’
But the principal members of The Alhambra Orchestra knew the real reasons for his abstract ‘geometric’ flights. How could a man of Schwarz’s integrity be brow-beaten into writing propaganda for a corrupt regime? He struggled to find a way of expressing an inner critique beneath the surface celebration of General Koch’s campaign.
The General’s search for an enemy to deflect attention from corrupt government led to his aggressive annexation of neighbouring states. The music’s whimsicality and light, tripping motifs reflect this journey though barren heath and unwholesome marsh, where soldiers were dazzled by will-o-the-wisps. Schwarz’s reliance on brass, particularly trombone – suggestive both of fighter planes circling the forest and base buffoonery – slipped past the censors.
The great swellings in the second movement represent large climactic forces bursting the banks of the Danube Delta, but were also a tribute to the dead of the December Massacre -- that unfortunate bunch of artisans, students and demobbed soldiers who had gathered in the birch forests for one last push on the General’s palace, only to be torn apart by aircraft fire. Luckily, General Koch believed that he himself was the force of nature being portrayed, especially since, under duress, Schwarz had agreed from 91 Andrea-Platz to join the General’s Artistic Utility Programme.
During his imprisonment, the Conservatory barely functioned. We lived on sour-tasting winter greens and potato croquettes, sitting in our overcoats on hard wooden benches in a mist of white breath and dust. Santiago, a talented woodwind student, had been lured from his home in the North by the promise of three square meals a day and now he was bellyaching, ‘Dad used to catch rabbit once a week and cook it with cream and wild mushrooms… They’ve given us nothing but bloody military marches…’
‘Be resolute, Comrade,’ mimicked Ivan from under his green Conservatory cap.
One afternoon while daydreaming through a theory session, a messenger knocked at the classroom door with Schwarz’s composition written on cigarette cartons. We were instructed to make a fair copy.
I read the musical score while Ivan smoked cigarettes rolled in purple paper. We were still young men. We made ourselves sick on tobacco and chocolate and then sprawled on his rug. The imagined music in our heads seemed otherworldly. We stretched out, tense, like men awaiting lethal injections, and the music worked on us. The first few faltering notes of indecision twisted my stomach. Then the cello and bass were suddenly removed, and the earth’s axis disappeared.
The four leading members of the Alhambra orchestra gathered that November afternoon in the village square for one last run through. We were a ramshackle bunch still going through that student-dressing-gown phase of existence, given over to dangerous experimental philosophies and thoughts of suicide. We were scheduled to play a stripped-down version as a quartet: the music scored for oboe, cello, clarinet and piano.
We were celebrating the General’s Birthday with this new symphony commissioned to evoke his munificence and nobility. The town had run out of bunting (there had been so many victory celebrations) and the soldiers improvised with odd coloured socks strung between lime trees. Ivan’s hands were still bandaged and his black jacket was too tight. Santiago broke the reed of his oboe and went scurrying back to the Conservatory. I cleaned my clarinet and wondered if Schwarz would show up.
Ivan and I watched while another statue of the General mounted on horseback was lowered in its harness onto the pedestal. The textured bronze foamed up around the horse’s legs like cappuccino froth. The sculpture was badly executed (that’s Artistic Utility for you - there’s not only a novel in each one of us but a sculpture, a landscape-painting and an aborted pot). The classical torso had been pinched from a much better piece and the turnip-shaped head grafted on. The General’s moustache glistened like a sleek black rat doused in car oil.
‘The piece is astounding...’ Ivan slapped the score... ‘He restricts his tonal palette to inversions on the D-minor chord.’ The bronze hooves of the rearing stallion clattered against the skyline and flashed in the dying sun.
Security set up benches for the crowd and hung knotted red rope between the stanchions surrounding the rostrum. A man in dark glasses fixed pleated skirts beneath the podium: he attached the material with strips of Velcro. Santiago turned up with a new reed and ran across the cobbles to our table. He threw his hands in the air, ‘Do you think Schwarz was serious this morning?’
‘He’s lost it,’ said Ivan, ‘but this melody - I can’t get it out of my head. It’s the finest thing he’s ever written.’ Santiago sighed, ‘Pity we’ve got to play it as a four-piece but, our hands are tied -- I needed three signed chits just for a new oboe reed!’
The café proprietor hovered nearby with rolled-up sleeves: ‘Listen sonny, you mustn’t eat our calves’ brains. Our eggs are alright, but make sure you boil them till they’re rock hard… Shouldn’t be telling you this, but I’m a music-lover.’ An Iguana moved towards him, and he shrank. ‘I’m a patriot,’ he protested, ‘one of the old school.’
‘Then keep your mouth shut.’
And then threading his way through the tables was the elegant figure of Schwarz. He was accompanied by two plain clothes policemen. He lugged his cello over his shoulder like a rifle - his weapon against the state that had suppressed his music.
‘We’ll manage.’ He shook our hands, and the blaze of his smile made me forget the ersatz coffee and months of boredom at the Conservatory. He unpacked his beautiful varnished instrument from its case, and asked Ivan for a top E.
Under the striped café awning, we practised the opening. I was impressed but worried by the music. The rabble-rousing address by the General would be followed by this dreamy symphony of suspended sevenths and soporific chords. And then the dissonant last chord, although only played by a quartet, would seem to reverberate forever. I watched the spotlight bouncing off the trees, churning tunnels of light into the night. Schwarz uncharacteristically ordered a wheat beer and schnapps (we never ate or drank before a performance). His hand trembled as he drained the tumbler. Around us the crowds gathered in their waistcoats and finery, hundreds of glowing cigars and torches.
We took our places below the rostrum, under our chairs mineral water and Good Luck cards. Above us, in the spotlight’s glare, the General tiptoed up the steps, tight leather boots squeaking. Having been despised for his peasant origins, he swore by small feet as a sign of delicacy.
Below him, hats, children clamped on shoulders, women’s hair braided like bread, tilted-back faces. Below them, us, instruments poised, in the scooped-out pit.
He waited for the expected cheer, and got it.
Swelling cheers. Blue and yellow socks strained from treetops. Children clutched flags.
‘My enemies accuse me of having no ethical roots. My policies are romanticized calls to murder, they say.’ He leaned forward. ‘Well let them say what they like! Look what they’ve done in Africa, India, the Middle East! Can anything we’ve done compare with that?’
‘Noooo!’ yelled the crowd.
‘Let’s look at hard facts! Exports up, imports down! Less criminals, more schools, greater quality of life, longer daylight! In order to safeguard our freedom, we must be ready to sacrifice it!’
The crowd cheered
The quartet struck up. Schwarz held the cello away from his body like a dangerous dancing partner and moved into the scherzo. The chromatic scale slipped from my lips and we were swept headlong in the musical current. We passed the textual instruction ‘to open your head’ and the mob unscrewed their faces. Some turned away from the stage and stared up at the pines and the night sky.
We were all exulting in the open, gazing between boughs at a flock of white birds that flapped above the bunting startled by the noise. The music lurched and surged down the mountain side, weaving between the jagged firs. On the hillside was the cemetery. Ilex sprouted from the crumbling walls. We heard clattering and clanging bells as the descending goat-herd scrabbled over gravestones towards the square.
I stared at General Koch who had stopped shouting and was fingering his medals -- for a moment I sensed the buried child inside stripped of his epaulettes.
The military fired a volley into the night-sky but was ignored, lost in the music’s flood. People were dancing and when we reached the ambiguous final chord no one noticed Schwarz stand up, seize his empty cello case and slip through the cordon of policemen. He calmly parted the skirts of the rostrum.
‘Where’s he gone?’ shouted Ivan, ‘How long do we hold it?’
‘As long as it takes,’ I said.
Without the sonorous low register of the cello, the music slid into uncharted territory; the oboe was like birdsong, and almost vertiginous, as if the ground beneath us had slipped away.
We were blinded by a blue-white flash, heat scorched our hands and faces. There were screams and one of the General’s boots flew through the air, but I blew all the harder, improvising from a charred copy of the score. Little fires danced on the rostrum and ran up and down the red velvet skirting.
A second low bang followed, knocking people off their feet. General Koch toppled over the railings. Part of a stanchion shot through the air and collided with my arm as I tossed my clarinet aside, trying to cover my face.
The bombs had only partly detonated. The General survived. Schwarz’s body was never recovered. His music was immediately outlawed and the Conservatory shut down.
I drain my chicory coffee and watch the youth hurrying under the limes with the transcript. One day he will assemble a new orchestra. They’ll practise on moonless nights in the green heart of the forest perfecting their technique. And when they’re ready ....