Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Les Larmes de Jacqueline

[Author's note: the following is a fictional account of the circumstances in which a piece of music was created. The actual occasion and circumstances of its creation were most likely quite different from those depicted. (For example, one of the composer's three daughters was named "Jacqueline.") Thus while the background facts are believed to be accurate, the narrative is invented. Copyright, Allan S. Haley 2010, 2013. All rights reserved.]

Afterward, when all the bustle and intensity had died down, she remembered the first time she had heard the sounds of a cello percolate up through the floorboards. It was a sound she recognized instantly, but had not heard for a number of years. Following some preliminaries, as though the cellist were testing the acoustic environment and probing how the instrument responded to it, there was a pause, and then -- with modest and quietly unassuming tones, there came the opening notes of the Prelude of Bach’s D-minor suite for solo cello. This was a piece she had heard many times as the evening dusk darkened outside the window of her small bedchamber at home. The suite had been a favorite of her father’s. She never tired of tracing in her head Bach's intricate counterpoint, which he achieved by drawing on the ear’s ability to retain a memory of one line of notes even as it took in a second group in a different register. The effect was magical, as though there were two identical instruments playing in quick alternation, with the hand-offs from the one to the other occurring seamlessly, and the logic of the contrasting motifs forming an inseparable whole in the space of the mind.

She put down her sewing, leaned back, closed her eyes and concentrated on the music. What an unexpected dividend to follow the noisy shouts, grunts and thumps as the movers had filled up the empty suite on the first floor! She had not dared to linger on the stairs, to avoid appearing over-inquisitive. All she had been able to determine was that the suite had been rented by an older gentleman, and that he had brought along a piano, which had caused the movers some difficulty. She had looked forward to hearing the sounds of a piano again, but was completely surprised when the first music she heard came from a solo cello.

As the days lengthened into late spring, and the trees began to bud outside the windows, she marveled that the piano was not used for music in the same way as was the cello. It seemed that the gentleman preferred to play the cello after supper for his own pleasure, while during the daylight hours, he would play the piano, but not in performance, or in preparation for any performance. The playing came in fits and starts, and she could hear snatches of a baritone voice interspersed between the bits of melody and accompanying chords.

It was only when, between her daily tasks, she listened more carefully that she was able to make sense of what she was hearing: it was a work in process, a vocal piece being composed, evidently to some lively, bouncy tunes! The piano would try something tentative, then would come a variant, then a return to what it had played before, and finally an abrupt pause as (she imagined) the music was being written down, with brief staccato notes and chords to confirm what had been written. Then the piece would start again, and proceed to the point where it had stopped before, only this time the piano would again make a few tentative tries, until the desired continuation was found. There followed chords and harmony, more starts and stops, and another long pause while notes must have been written down, punctuated by more confirmations. Then the voice would join in, exulting in the bouncy rhythms and declaiming a text whose words she could not discern. On other days, the music (and the tunes) would be completely different, expressing a sublime form of resignation that was ineffably poignant.

She had never heard anything like this before. In her family home, growing up, music had been a vehicle for performance and serious expression. To be sure, one would practice a piece to be able to play it better, and frequently would start over from the beginning, or perhaps repeat a passage several times to get it in the fingers. But the music in question had already been fully written down, and it was a question only of making one’s way through it in a satisfactory manner. This was different -- the music was in the very process of being born as it was being played! She was fascinated by what led to what, and by what was rejected along the way; yet at no time during the times she was able to listen did she ever hear the complete work performed from start to finish.

In the evening, after supper, she was lulled to sleep by the soft tones of the cello. The player’s repertoire was extensive; she could identify the Bach suites, and a few songs by Schubert and Schumann, which she herself had played with her father. These were unaccompanied -- yet no less beautiful for that. She could not have wished for a better improvement in the conditions of her work where, after their father had died, she came to help her brother as a maid at the private hotel which he owned in the suburbs of Paris.

As the months passed into June, and the days grew warmer, she caught glimpses of several regular visitors to the first-floor apartment, who came and went. There were a number of gentlemen who always arrived alone, some as old as the composer (for so she had determined he must be), and some younger.  Every weekend he received a visit from a stately, well-dressed woman whom she quickly perceived was his wife, but who evidently stayed during the week in Paris itself. Sometimes, on the weekends, they had company to dinner -- younger couples, who from the affectionate farewells they exchanged in the vestibule she determined were the couple's grown children and their spouses. The gentleman himself was small and stooped over, with bushy whiskers and sideburns. His pince-nez glasses dangled precariously at the end of a black silk ribbon; he walked with a cane, slowly and painfully. His wife was more substantial than he, while being always elegantly coiffed and appareled. Both of them were cordial to her as she went about her duties at the hotel.

One very hot Thursday afternoon she came in from hanging out laundry, and headed for the stairs, to go her small bedchamber on the third floor. As she started up the staircase, however, she heard a distinct groan from behind the door of the gentleman's first-floor suite. It stopped her in her tracks, and she listened closely. It had been a groan, all right, as it was followed by another and longer moan. Concerned, she went to the door and gave it a light tap. There was no response from within. As she started to move away, however, she heard a sharp cry of pain, followed by another deep groan. This time she tried the door, and found it open.

The door swung into the large salon of the suite, which was gloomy with most of the drapes drawn, and stifling in the heat. It took her eyes a moment to adjust, but then she noticed the figure of the gentleman, stretched out in a chair with one bare foot elevated on a pair of cushions resting on a small stool. His eyes were closed, his hand was on his forehead, and it was clear that he was in agony.

“M’sieur,” she said; “M’sieur --” as she advanced anxiously towards him, glancing around, but finding no one else in the room. Startled, he opened one eye, but then settled back as he recognized her. Pointing to his inflamed toes, he managed to say, “It’s the gout --” before being wracked again with a cry of pain.

She knew at once what had to be done. Her uncle had suffered from the same malady, and she had watched her mother minister to him in their home. Assuring the sufferer that she she would be right back, she went out the door and rushed to the hotel pantry, where she cut a lemon in half, squeezed it into a glass of water, and took it to the groaning man. Once he grasped what it was, he took the glass gratefully, drank a long swallow, and then another shorter one. Relief came quickly, within a few minutes. He sat up a little, and gradually finished the whole glass. “Thank you,” he breathed, “bless you for that. My servant went for some things in the village, and the attack was very sudden. Once it began, I could not get up to get anything for myself.”

She stayed with him to see that he was better, and offered to get another glassful of lemon water, but he said it was enough, and the pain had stopped. He tried to apologize for the trouble he had caused her, but she would not let him. She said that her thanks would be when she could hear some Bach again on the cello.

“Ah,” he said, looking at her with new interest, “so my playing in the evening does not disturb?” Hastening to reassure him, she blurted out that her father had played the cello, too, and that much of what he had played she was only too glad to hear again, after being so long away from home without any music. She was taken by surprise when he asked suddenly, “Do you play?” “Not the cello,” she responded quickly, and then added: “I used to accompany my father, on the piano.”

His eyes lit up at her response. “Ah, a pianist! My wife is not a musician, and I have not had anyone to accompany me since my youngest daughter, Pepita, moved out when she married her husband, Philippe. Now she visits, as you see, but she does not have the time after supper to stay and play afterward. She has to hurry home and see to her husband -- as is only right, of course. And during the day I compose; I take the cello out of its case only in the evening, when it is cooler, but then she is never around to play. I play the old pieces nonetheless, and imagine I hear her playing with me. It’s almost as good --” he began, but then broke off suddenly, and fixed her with with his eyes behind their small oval lenses. “But would you like to play piano with me?”

She stammered; she had not expected this. She protested that it had been years since she had played the piano seriously. She had learned the instrument well enough to accompany her father, but after his death, she had come to Paris to help her brother. She had never acquired a piano of her own -- and now  her single room was far too small for her even to entertain the thought. “But I have this splendid instrument,” he exclaimed as he gestured toward it. “Take a look -- it is a full-size Pleyel, with a wonderful tone. You have surely heard it as you worked, if you heard my music.”

By the time she left to go to her own room, after being assured he was no longer in pain, they had agreed that she would return after supper on the very next Thursday, and they would play some music. So she did,  and that is how Jacqueline Bonnart, a trained musician who was helping her brother with his small apartment hotel in Saint-Germain outside Paris, came to know the composer Jacques Offenbach in that long-ago, hot, dry June of 1880.

When she sat down to the piano that Thursday, she found after a few minutes that her fingers had not forgotten the music, and that Monsieur Offenbach was delighted at last to have someone to accompany  his cello. The room soon rang with pieces for cello and piano that she had played many times with her father, and he with his daughter Pepita. He invited her back again and again that month, but always when he was by himself. Despite her status as a servant in the hotel, however, they met as equals when they made music together, and became the best of friends. On the first Sunday in July, after dinner, Offenbach gratefully welcomed her for music, and introduced her to his wife -- who expressed her delight to meet, at last, the hotel owner's sister, who provided such welcome accompaniment to her husband's music. As she proclaimed over coffee, "You have provided my Jacques with the inspiration our daughter Pepita used to give him, and which he has missed since she was married."

No sooner had she met Mme Offenbach, however, than she learned that Madame and her daughters were leaving the next day for their annual visit to a spa in Germany, and would be gone for the entire summer. “Unfortunately, Jacques cannot accompany us,” she said. “He does not like to travel anymore, because of his gout -- and besides, he came to the hotel for some quiet time, to work on his opera. N’est-ce pas, Jacques?”

When he nodded, murmuring “Oui, Herminie,” she went on. “He has promised the theater that he will have it finished by the fall -- and so I am afraid it will fall to you in our absence, Mademoiselle, to see to it that he keeps at his task.”

Seeing Jacqueline's look of concern, she hastened to add: “Not that you will have to do anything extra, of course, beyond what you are doing already. If Jacques has any problem, it is that he aggravates his gout by working at the piano, and in the same position, for far too long each day. So all that you really need to do is to see that he takes up his cello regularly, and plays -- for relaxation. Do you think you could do that, Mademoiselle?” “Madame, you do not have to ask,” she replied. “I will be only too glad for the opportunity -- as M. Offenbach wishes.”

She began looking in on him tentatively, when she knocked on his door the following evening. But he bade her come in at once, and they quickly settled in for an hour and a half of music, before he professed himself tired. She fixed him some tea and fresh fruit, and then left to go to her own room.

The intermittent visits and music sessions continued over the next week. Then she asked him if she might come during the afternoon on the following Wednesday, Bastille Day, when she would not have to work, and when the hotel would be otherwise empty. He readily agreed, and said: “Then we shall have time for a good deal of music together.” “But I would also like to hear you play the cello alone, without accompanying you on the piano. When I have been able to hear your cello on its own, it has always been through the walls and floor. I would greatly like to hear it as it sounds in this room.” “Very well, Mademoiselle Bonnart, you shall. Wednesday it is, then -- shall we say around half past one?”

It was a wonderful afternoon. Everyone else she knew was out at the parade and festivities in the center of the city, and the hotel’s corridors were empty when she approached his door. She could hear that he was composing, and listened for a while before knocking, when the music had stopped. When he came to the door, she offered to return later, but he would have none of it. “I need to leave off from working on it for a while,” he said. “That Antonia -- her music is proving the most difficult of all for me to write.” Not knowing whom he meant, she asked: “Why should music for this Antonia be more difficult for you? Is she not a very good singer?”

“Oh no,” he laughed. “Antonia is a character in my opera, not a particular singer -- indeed, they cannot choose a cast until I finish the music. In the opera, Antonia has a beautiful soprano voice, but she has been warned by her doctor that if she continues to sing, she will bring about her own death. And that is just the problem -- I have all this beautiful music for her to express; it is inside me, I know it, just waiting to be put down on paper. But the very beauty of what she sings will be her undoing -- just, as I fear, it will be my own. And so I am having trouble putting the music for her that is in my mind into final form.”

“What do you mean, you fear the music you write for this Antonia will be your own undoing as well? And who ever heard of music being the cause of someone’s death? Music is life itself -- the very opposite of death.”

“Of course, I agree with you, Mademoiselle Jacqueline -- may I call you that? I feel, after all the music we have shared, as though you were one of my own daughters. For me to share with you what I am now going to tell you will confirm that relationship in my own mind. So you must allow me to address you by your first name.” She wondered what he could tell her, but said she had no objection. So he continued:

“Mlle Jacqueline, know then that I am keenly aware that I am not much longer for this world. No, do not act surprised; I want you to know the truth. In addition to my gout, about which you know already, my doctor tells me that the air of Paris, when there are no breezes or rain to clear away the smoke from the factories and the trains, is the worst possible thing for my lungs. But I cannot travel, do you see? The very motion of the carriage brings on the worst of my gout -- I know from considerable experience. And so that is why we keep the windows shut in this apartment, even through the hottest days of the summer. I am sorry to make you suffer the heat as well, but it is the air which I cannot long endure.

“Yet I must stay here to finish my opera, which the Opéra Comique has agreed to perform early next year. This will be my first grand opera, my chance to leave a true legacy of note. For a long while I thought I could entertain my adopted country by offering them light-hearted spoofs and opera buffa, but I found to my sorrow that when Germany invaded France ten years ago, the French still considered me a German, while the Germans considered me a traitor. I had to leave my adopted country, and only some years ago was I able to return. So now I must prove myself a true citizen of this country, once and for all. My opera is written on a German text I knew, by a great poet of that country, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and which my old friend Jules Barbier has translated into French, as a play for the stage. Now I am turning his drama into a special piece for the audience of the Opéra Comique.

“The summer air of Paris, as you must know, is the worst of all, and until the gout prevented my traveling for the first time, I have managed to escape it every year. I now cannot go outdoors -- a fate just as well for my music, which I compose here at the piano. Even though the windows are shut, I feel my lungs getting short of breath -- the air in this room, after all, has to come from somewhere outside. And thus I know that I have only so many more days before I shall breathe my last of this infernal air. I must finish my opera before then. But just as my poor Antonia knows that for her to sing my music will be her undoing, so I am keenly aware that the closer I come to finishing my opera, the closer I will be to my own last day.”

She had at first nothing to say in reply, except a murmured “No, no, no . . .” as she waved her hand in protest. His self-rendered verdict left her without any ground for a response. But then her instinct took over, and she said, “You must not talk like that, Monsieur. You must give birth to the music that is inside you, and let its success in turn be the vehicle to lift your spirit to still greater accomplishments. If the music is burning to get out, then it cannot fail to be the means to a success that will crown your career.”

“Thank you for your confidence; it does mean a good deal to me,” he replied. “But let us now speak to each other through the marvelous medium which we share. Let us play Beethoven’s beautiful fourth sonata for cello -- you will see, it will work wonders for me.”

The sonata, which they had not played before this day, was sublime, beginning from its first tentative, descending notes.  She marveled how Beethoven was able to use the instrument to express such profound emotions while working out logically the full extent of his inspiration -- conceived while he was deaf! But for her partner, it soon became clear that the sonata -- in that confined room -- was his devout homage to an incomparable predecessor. Offenbach's performance that day took her outside of time and space, into dimensions she had never before experienced, and her own playing soared in tandem with his.

After the Beethoven, they played two more sonatas, and then some shorter pieces. There were some arrangements of familiar Schubert songs, which she had loved to play with her father. All went beautifully as the afternoon deepened around them. She felt that in some way she had connected with him on a new and more intimate level, and when she closed her eyes, it was almost as though she could feel her father in the room with her.

Then he suggested -- for the first time since they had begun playing together -- that they play Schubert’s Ave Maria, and her heart skipped a beat. The piece had been her father’s favorite -- but he had been a devout Catholic, and she knew from hearing them talk to each other that the Offenbachs were equally devout Jews. She had not even imagined that he would acknowledge the piece’s existence, let alone offer to play it. But she said nothing, and opened the music to the beginning two pages.

She closed her eyes, drawing on the memory of playing with her father, and put herself back into the drawing room with him, in their family home. She began the delicate, silvery arpeggios in B-flat, and her concentration heightened as she anticipated the first note of the cello.

When it came, it took her breath away. A long sustained B-flat in the tenor register, the sound appeared to begin out of nowhere, even though she sensed that his bow had begun to move exactly with the downbeat. It grew gently in intensity and strength, building in a perfect arc toward the first turn back, for just an instant, to the open A just below, in order to pass through the B-flat again for a leap to the purest third that she could remember, which joined the piano’s timbre in making the sweetest and most poignant of all harmonies. Instantly, tears began to well in her eyes, and she choked down a lump in her throat.

Afterward, when the closing arpeggios had dwindled into silence, and the last, long B-flat of the cello had faded away into nothingness, she could not remember how she had managed to get through the piece. She was overwhelmed with tears. They flooded from an inexhaustible well at the bottom of her eyes, streamed down her cheeks, and gently cascaded onto the lap of her muslin gown. It was a long time before she could even look up at him, and she tried to smile as she wiped away her tears. He looked at her for just an instant, then put the cello aside and came to lean close to her. At the same time he pulled out a handkerchief and offered it to her, while gently patting her shoulder with his other hand. The pince-nez spectacles dangled precariously on the end of his nose.

“My dear, dear Mlle Jacqueline,” he soothed. “Whatever is the matter, that you should shed such tears? I have no wish, you may be assured, to be the occasion of furnishing you any cause for grief whatsoever. If I have done so inadvertently, please accept my deepest apology, and do not let your heart be so troubled. The very sight of your tears is anguish to my soul.”

This modest gesture on his part sufficed to break the dam. Huge sobs heaved up in her bosom, and the cascade of tears now poured forth without restraint. She put her hands to her face, and then daubed ineffectively with his handkerchief as she struggled to regain control. “The Ave Maria --” she stammered. “Schubert -- it was my father’s favorite piece. And a friend of my father’s, who played with him in the orchestra at Lille, agreed to play the piece at his funeral. I had not heard the piece since then -- forgive me, it is I who must apologize.” And she began to sob again.

“Not in the slightest, not in the slightest,” he responded, this time putting his arm around her shoulder, and bringing her head to his chest. “At least now I can understand. And believe me, I do understand.” He drew away from her, and waited while she brought herself under control. Then in a soft, gentle voice, he said:

“My own dear father -- you see his portrait, there, above the piano -- was a cantor in the synagogue at Cologne, and I accompanied him to each Sabbath service. I, too, associate with his blessed memory the music I heard him sing, just as you associate the Ave Maria with your own father. Of course, it is not the same music. Here, let me play for you the ancient melody of our people, with which I shall forever associate the memory of my father's blessed voice.”

He returned to his chair, and took up the cello. After pausing for a moment, he positioned his bow, closed his eyes, and began to play.

The first note resonated in the room like nothing she had ever heard from his cello before. It was a declamation -- a statement to the world, that was independent of any audience. There was the briefest pause, as though to gather strength, and then the same note sounded quickly a second and a third time, before sinking to a minor second, then down a major third, only to retrace its steps a moment later. The cello seemed to speak each note directly to her, climaxing in a series of strong strokes that pierced her to the heart.

The music opened before her a bottomless abyss, into which her mind feared to look. But the music’s inner strength kept her back from the edge -- she realized, after a minute when the music grew softer and gentler, that it was not a declamation, but a vigorous plaint, based on a characteristic Hebrew intonation, with its distinctive minor accents. The lyricism returned, and in Offenbach’s hands the cello began to mimic the human voice, with its tremors, catches, and stops and starts for breath. The notes poured out, in a suffusion of pure emotion, and she closed her eyes in order to appreciate the music itself, disembodied from the movements and expressions of the player who was drawing forth such sounds as she had never before heard.

By the time the final, deep notes of the cello had faded away, the glow of the evening twilight behind the cracks in the curtains had taken the place of the last dull rays of the afternoon sun, and the room was utterly silent. She could dimly make out his face in the dusk. “Oh, Monsieur,” she said quietly, “thank you -- thank you so much for sharing that beautiful music with me. I have never heard before anything so -- so human, and yet so sublime at the same time.”

After a moment’s silence, he responded: “That was the Kol nidre, a chant which my father sang on the holiest day of every Jewish year -- at the start of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It was a chant into which he poured his very soul, and I think that when he realized at the end of one service that he would not live until the next Yom Kippur, it broke his heart, and he died sooner than he otherwise might have.

“The words ask God’s forgiveness for making promises which one cannot keep, and in the music is a heartfelt prayer to be released from impossible obligations. For in making our vows during the preceding year, we Jews could not help but exaggerate a bit in our enthusiasm, and would go to any extreme to impress our God. On the Day of Atonement, we are humbled before God by our own manifest inadequacy to live up to that which we had promised. We ask God’s forgiveness, and his merciful release from that which weighs so heavily upon us.”

“Thank you so much for playing it for me,” she replied. “As I heard my father’s cello during the Schubert, so the magic of your cello enabled me to believe I was hearing your father’s voice.” And then she burst into tears again.

No consolation he attempted could dry her tears, and she determined that she would have to return to her own room. She shrugged off his attempts to take her by the shoulders again, and insisted that when she saw him again, it would not be in such a weakened state. As she left his apartment, she murmured again her heartfelt thanks for the music he had shared, and tried to reassure him that her grief was for the sheer beauty of the sounds he had made, and not for any permanent wound opened in her heart.

Their next session was the following Saturday evening, and she bravely carried through as though nothing had happened the previous Wednesday. There was no allusion to either of their fathers, or to the Kol nidre, or to the Ave Maria. Instead, Offenbach brought out a vocal score of his La Belle Hélène, and reduced her to helpless laughter as he played with her the jaunty melodies on the cello and at the same time sang the comic lyrics. The "Chorus of the Greek Kings" was the funniest of all, as Offenbach assumed, one after another, the comic personalities of the Greek heros he was lampooning, from the “bouillant Achille” (“ebullient Achilles”) to “le roi barbu” (“the bearded king”) -- “Aga, Aga-mem-non”. She could scarcely remain on the piano bench by the grand finale, and this time her tears were tears of joy and delight.

They continued meeting for music through the hot summer evenings, until with September there came a noticeable break in the weather. Although they retained the formalities of speech between them, the words they exchanged grew less and less, and it was in the music they played that all pretense of distance and detachment dissolved. Offenbach was a complete romantic, and the cello was his ideal  instrument for expressing the depth of his emotions. She found that she could not remain critical or detached beyond the first measure or so of what they played together. She gave up trying, and dissolved into the unity of their ensemble. Indeed, it was as though the tones which the music evoked from each of them, spontaneously unbidden, expressed their innermost feelings on a plane where they could meet without the necessity of any verbal interaction. The tears came to her unconsciously now, and provided relief from the sheer intensity of their music-making.

From time to time, Offenbach would share with her some of the music he was writing for his opera, but it was clear that he was still working out many details with the librettist. As she came to his apartment toward the end of September, he led her to the piano and said: “You must play this duet with me, which I have just retouched from one of my earlier operettas and copied out in, I hope, a hand that you can read. I am thinking of including it in my Italian act, with Hoffman in a gondola, drifting with his love through the canals of Venice. See if it conveys to you the sounds and murmurs of the warm summer night of this scene, and then listen to the lovers’ entwined voices as they join in a serenade.” She could not contain her delight with the Barcarolle, and they played through it a second time. “Oh, I can almost see, hear and feel Venice,” she said when they were finished. “Lovely night, indeed -- and what truly lovely music. You must include it in the opera."

Then she told him that she needed to return to Lille, to visit her mother while the hotel was in its low season. He told her not to worry, that he would be moving back to his flat in Paris to join his wife toward the end of the next week. He promised to send for her to make music with him there, when she could come. She thanked him again for the music he had shared with her, and this time they embraced briefly as she said good-bye.

She was gone for nine days, and returned on the first Tuesday in October. As she made her way toward the stairs, she was not surprised to see the door to M. Offenbach's suite open, and workmen still moving things out. She climbed to her room on the third floor.

All was as she had left it, and she did not think of the Offenbachs again until she had cleaned the supper dishes and put everything away. Instead of any music, she continued to hear the sounds of furniture being moved, and doors opening and closing as people came and went through the evening. Then, completely unexpected, she heard a brief knock on her door.

She opened it tentatively, to find a young, dark-haired man whom she had never seen before. “Yes, may I help you?” she asked.

“Are you Mademoiselle Bonnart?” the young man asked. Seeing her nod, he went on: “I am Auguste-Jacques Offenbach, my father’s only son, and I am very pleased to meet you, as I have heard from my mother how you made music with my father. I learned only now from the portier that you had returned from Lille.”

He looked down at his feet, and then his face grew even more serious, if possible. She had difficulty seeing the resemblance to the kind and easily smiling face of the father. “I very much regret to have to inform you,” he began slowly, “that my father passed away early yesterday morning, a few days after he returned to his apartment in Paris. He --- he” -- and his voice broke, at the same time that his attempt at formality crumbled. “Well, he had greater and greater difficulty breathing, and then he simply drew his last. The doctor said that the gout had finally reached his heart. We were unable to see to the moving of the furniture before this, and I came also to check for any papers and manuscripts he might have left behind. We are receiving friends at the family apartment in the boulevard des Capucines, next Thursday beginning at four in the afternoon, and my mother especially would like you to come.”

She was stunned. Then she blurted out the first words that came to her: “But what about his opera? Did he manage to finish it? I know how hard he was working on it when I left, and how much it meant to him.” Lifting her hands to her face, she sobbed heavily, her tears again spilling forth onto her gown.

Auguste became uncomfortable, as he could not console her, and he had been surrounded by weeping women all day. “Ah yes, the Tales of Hoffman,” he said quickly. “How my father wanted to see it performed -- and alas, he has been denied that boon. But please do not worry on that account, I assure you. I am a composer myself, and have been going through his manuscripts, as I mentioned. While he did not complete a full score beyond the first act, he has left behind a complete piano score, with indications of the orchestration he wanted to use in the final two acts. I have secured the agreement of his old friend, the composer M. Guiraud, to complete the orchestration. The Opéra Comique had already scheduled the rehearsals, and they will start next month.”

She looked into his eyes, and her evident gratitude for that news gave him reassurance. Suddenly he raised his hand, and said: “But I almost forgot -- in my father’s manuscripts, I found a piece addressed to you.” He pressed a small package he was holding into her hands. “My father made it clear that this was to be given to you. I do not know what it signifies -- but it looks as though it is a piece that he wrote for piano and cello, and wanted to dedicate -- in his fashion -- to you.”

She took the package, numb, and watched dully as Auguste backed away, said good-bye, and left. She put the package on a table, and then, still not taking anything in, sat down on the bed without lighting a candle. The darkness gathered in, and long after she could no longer tell what time it was, she stretched out on the bed to sleep.

It was several days before she could bring herself to unwrap the package. She could see that it was as Auguste had said -- a piece for cello and piano. The title of the piece, however, made her break out again in huge, wracking sobs, and she put it away again without looking at it further.

It was not until the gathering at their flat in Paris when she saw Auguste-Jacques again, along with Herminie Offenbach and her three daughters, in their black crepe and shawls. Auguste was the composed one, and spoke a moving eulogy of his father, that reduced everyone to tears. Afterward, Auguste was the one who came up to her and spoke. “I would like very much,” he began -- “no, I would consider it a special honor -- if you would be willing to play with me the piece my father left for you. I have inherited his cello, you see, and we could play here, in the apartment.”

It was two months later before she could offer to meet him to play the piece. She had looked at it many times in the interim, and had known that she would be unable to perform it without breaking down. At the same time, however, she was yearning to hear how it would sound as Offenbach had intended. In the end, Auguste agreed that his sister Pepita would meet them at the apartment, and would take over the performance if Mlle Bonnart could not manage it.

And so it was, as the snow lightly fell in Paris on the afternoon of the third Sunday of Advent, 1880, that there received a first full performance (with Pepita at the piano, as Jacqueline was unable to continue beyond the first few measures, no matter how she tried) of the following piece for cello and piano by Jacques Offenbach (later published as Op. 76, No. 2), entitled “Les Larmes de Jacqueline”, or in English, “The Tears of Jacqueline”:

Musical Notes behind the Story:

Here is another version of “Les Larmes de Jacqueline”, for cello and chamber orchestra, which I actually heard first, and which was the inspiration for this story. I like it even better than the version for cello and piano alone (for one thing, it observes Offenbach's repeat, which the above version does not).  In this link, however, the performance is mistakenly attributed to the great cellist Jacqueline du Pré (by an obvious false association with the piece's title), rather than to its true performer (and arranger), Werner Thomas-Mifune:

And here are the other pieces described in the story.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata No. 4 for Piano and Cello, op. 102, No. 1 (1817), played by Mischa Maisky, cello, and Marta Argerich, piano:

Johann Sebastian Bach, Prelude to the Cello Suite No. 2, in D Minor:

Franz Schubert, Ave Maria (cello and piano version):

The beautiful duet "Belle nuit" from Act II of The Tales of Hoffman, here in an intimate performance by soprano Anna Netrebko and mezzosoprano Elīna Garanča:

The traditional Kol nidre, as chanted in the synagogue:

Most modern versions of the Kol nidre for cello use the secular arrangement made by Max Bruch and first performed two years after Offenbach's death, in 1883:

* * *

I hope that my little story has served to recall to you the incredible powers of music -- to move the heart and the soul, in ways that could never be programmed or anticipated, and which to that same degree are the defining characteristic of our humanity, i.e., the imago Dei.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Thoughts on the Nature of Time

  1. Evidently, Kurt Gödel showed in 1949 (in his essay contributed to Schilpp’s volume on Einstein) that the truth of General Relativity Theory (GRT) implied that time (as traditionally isolated and understood) was not an essential physical parameter of the universe.
  2. He did so by showing that there were solutions to the equations of GRT which implied the existence of universes in which “time travel” was possible. But if it is possible to travel in time as we understand it, then the “past” and the “future” exist simultaneously along with the “present”, and so “time” itself is not an inherent parameter of the universe.
  3. So my question: What if “time” were something that is inherent with the “observer”? What if, in short, we (the participants/observers) have “time” built-in to ourselves as a means of being able to participate in/observe the physical universe?
  4. The perception of “time” would then come as a feature (or a bug?) of the instrument that does the perceiving/participating.
  5. Let us see if we can construct an analogy. If a Flatlander (a 2-dimensional being occupying a portion of a plane) were to observe a three-dimensional sphere as it passed through his area of the plane, he would see at first just a point, then a line which increased in length up to the diameter d of the sphere, and which then shrank back to just a single point, and disappeared.
  6. The Flatlander’s manner of observing the sphere would not be inaccurate, but would be limited (and characterized) by the nature of his existence as a two-dimensional observer.
  7. Thus, what if our perception of “three-dimensional reality” is just an illusion created by our own limitations as human participants/observers? Reality would be infinitely more complex than we could perceive -- and the illusion of time would come along with our ability to perceive/take part in that reality. (In the same way, a Flatlander would have to invent “time” in order to be able to connect his successive two-dimensional perceptions of a three-dimensional sphere into the comprehension of them as a single object.)
  8. Yes, we are (see ourselves as) born from our mothers, growing old, and then dying and decaying back to dust. But what if those were only changing physical embodiments of what is in reality one thing -- just as a Flatlander would perceive the changing physical embodiments of a three-dimensional sphere passing through his area of the two-dimensional plane? (This may explain why we have no “memory” of how it was before we were born.)
  9. “Time travel” is then indeed possible, but not in the sense that is ordinarily understood. That is, it would do no good for us (three-dimensional beings) to learn how to travel in time, any more than it would enable a Flatlander to understand reality by physically transporting him back to the point when the sphere began to appear in his plane. Our own inherent (three-dimensional) time-perceptions would prevent us from understanding or comprehending what we would see if we could travel in time.
  10. It is the very act of entering into/participating in this physical universe that limits our ability to perceive the true nature of reality, or to grasp the significance in context of our “entrance” onto the stage. We become thereby “time-bound”, as it were, and able to perceive/participate in reality only insofar as we manufacture time in order to make sense of what we can grasp of the reality in which we participate.