THE SECRET OF THE OLD MUSIC


(Le Secret de l'ancienne-Musique)
by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam
From Contes Cruels
Translated by Hamish Miles
Scanned into the electronic domain by Larry Roberts - larrybob@gmail.com
For more by Villiers, see here.

[To M. RICHARD WAGNER]

It was the audition day at the National Academy of Music.

The heads of the institution had just decided on putting into rehearsal a work which they owed to a certain German composer (whose name, since forgotten, happily escapes us!); and this foreign master, if credence must be given to certain notes in the Revue des Deux Mondes, was nothing less than the promoter of a "new" music!

That day, accordingly, the executants from the Opera were assembled only with the object of getting some ideas about it, as they say, by deciphering the score of the presumptuous innovator.

The moment was a grave one.

The director appeared on the stage and handed the leader of the orchestra the voluminous score under dispute. The latter opened it, cast an eye over it, shuddered, and declared that the work appeared to him to be impossible to perform at the Academy of Music of Paris.

"Explain yourself," said the director.

"Gentlemen," said the leader, "France could never take it on herself to mutilate by a faulty execution the conception of a composer--to whatever nation he may belong. Well, among the orchestral parts specified by the writer, there figures a military instrument which has to-day fallen into total disuse, and no longer has any executant among us. This instrument, which delighted our fathers, enjoyed in its day the name of the Chinese Bells, [Chapeau-chinois in the original French] I conclude, therefore, that the complete disappearance of the Chinese Bells in France forces us to decline, though with the utmost regret, the honour of this interpretation."

This speech had plunged the body of listeners into that state which physiologists describe as "comatose." The Chinese Bells! !--The most venerable could barely remember having heard them in their childhood. But they would have found it hard, at the present day, to describe exactly so much as their shape.--Suddenly a voice uttered these unhoped-for words: "Excuse me, I think I know one." Every head was turned. The leader of the orchestra rose with a jump: "Who spoke?" "I--the cymbals!" answered the voice.

A moment later, the cymbals was on the stage, surrounded, flattered, and pressed with lively interrogations. "Yes," he continued, "I know an old professor of the Chinese Bells, a past-master in his art, and I know that he is still alive!"

One cry went up. The cymbals was looked on as a saviour! The leader of the orchestra embraced his devoted young zealot (for the cymbals was still young). The trombones, in the kindness of their hearts, encouraged him with smiles; a double-bass cast him an envious glance; the drum rubbed his hands, and grumbled: "He'll go far!"--In short, the cymbals enjoyed in that fleeting moment a taste of fame.

Forthwith a deputation, headed by the cymbals, set out towards Batignolles, into the recesses of which, far from the hubbub, the austere virtuoso was believed to have retired.

It arrived.

To inquire for the old gentleman, to climb his nine storeys, to ring with insinuating respect at his bell, and to wait on the landing, all out of breath, was for our ambassadors the work of an instant.

Suddenly, all heads were bared. A man of venerable aspect, his face framed in silver hair falling in long locks on to his shoulders, a head like Beranger's, a figure out of a romance, stood on the threshold, and seemed to invite the visitants to enter into his sanctuary.

It was he! They entered.

The casement window, with its frame of climbing plants, opened on to the sky, flushed at this moment with the splendours of the setting sun. Seats were few. For the delegates from the Opera, the professor's couch was the only substitute for these ottomans and hassocks which, alas, abound only too often in the homes of our modern musicians. In the corners could be seen the outlines of some sets of ancient Chinese Bells; here and there lay several albums, the titles of which attracted attention.--First of all, A First Love, a melody for the Chinese Bells solo, followed by Brilliant Variations on the Chorale of Luther, a concerto for three sets of Chinese Bells. Then, a septet for Chinese Bells, entitled The Calm. Then a youthful work, somewhat tinged with romanticism: Midnight Dances of the Moorish Maidens in the Fields of Granada, at the Height of the Inquisition, a great bolero for the Chinese Bells; and finally, the chief work of the master: The Eve of a Sunny Day, an overture for one hundred and fifty Chinese Bells.

The cymbals, deeply moved, stood as spokesman in the name of the national Academy of Music. "Ah, so they remember me now, do they?" said the aged master, with bitterness. "I ought... My country before all! Gentlemen, I shall go." The trombone insinuated that the part looked difficult of execution. "No matter," said the professor, reassuring them with a smile; and stretching out his hands, crippled by the difficulties of a thankless instrument, he said: "Till to-morrow, gentlemen! Eight o'clock, at the Opera."

Next day, there was a great to-do, in the corridors, in the galleries, in the box of the anxious prompter: the news had gone round. All the musicians, seated at their music-stands, were waiting, their weapons in their hands. The score of the New Music was now no longer any more than a matter of secondary interest. And suddenly the low door gave entrance to the man out of the past: eight o'clock was striking! At the sight of this representative of the Old Music, they all rose from their seats, offering him homage as being a kind of posterity of his. Under his arm, laid in a humble wrapping of serge, the patriarch carried the instrument of vanished times; it assumed, in this way, the proportions of a symbol. Threading between the stands, and finding his way without hesitation, he took his seat on the chair he used to occupy, to the left of the drum. Having settled a black linen cap on his head, and a green shade over his eyes, he unwrapped the Chinese Bells, and the overture began.

But with the first bars, and from the first glance at his score, the serenity of the old virtuoso seemed to be clouded. Soon an anguished perspiration beaded his brow. He leaned forward, as if to read better; his eyebrows were drawn together, his eyes glued to the manuscript; feverishly he turned it over and over; he seemed almost to stop breathing!

So the old man found something very extraordinarv to read, to be troubled so profoundly?

Indeed he did!--The German master, from some Teutonic malice, with Germanic harshness, with spiteful malignancy, had taken pleasure in making the Chinese Bells' part simply bristle with almost insurmountable difficulties! They trod on each other's heels, hurrying--ingenious--sudden! It was a challenge!--But judge for yourselves: the part was exclusively made up of nothing but silences. Now, even for people who are not expert in the business, what is there more difficult for the Chinese Bells to perform than a silence? And here was this aged artist, expected to execute a vast crescendo of silences!

He turned rigid at the sight; a feverish movement slipped from him! But from his instrument, not one sign betrayed the sentiments which stirred him. Not one little bell tinkled, Not one jingle! Not one tiny tingler moved. You could feel that he had it completely in his power. He was indeed a master, he too!

He played on. Without one stumble! With a mastery, a sureness, a brio that filled the whole orchestra with admiration, His execution, always restrained, but full of fine shades, had a style so chaste, so pure in effect, that sometimes it seemed--strangely enough!--as if one heard him!

Bravo! The cheers were about to break forth from every side, when, in the classical heart of the old virtuoso, a heaven-sent fury kindled into fire. With eyes aflame, and waving aloft with terrific din his avenging instrument, like a demon hovering over the orchestra, the worthy professor burst forth:

"Gentlemen, I give it up; I understand nothing of it all. Overtures are not written for a solo! I can't play; it is too difficult! I protest, in the name of M. Clapisson, I protest! There is no tune in all this. It's just a jumble! Art is dead! We are falling into an abyss!"

And, struck by the thunderbolt of his own transports, he stumbled.

In his fall, he cracked the big drum and disappeared therein like a vanishing apparition!

And alas! in being thus swallowed up in the cavernous flanks of the monster, he carried off with him for ever the secret of the charms of the Old Music.