The Music Lover
His Majesty's Theatre, Perth. © Tim South
Love... And tragedy. How often the two seem to go together.

When I travelled through Europe, I was not a young man, but I still had enough years left to see the countries, and pay attention to the people, and experience more of life than I had done in the many years before. I am old now, I've seen the world at war twice, I've seen my wife pass away, I've seen close friends pass away. Sometimes life is lived well, and sometimes it goes to waste, but only rarely does it end in peace and dignity. Whenever I dwell on that fact, or whenever the snows blanket the town outside, I remember Graz, I remember walking to the Concert Hall, along a street where every sound disappeared into the snow, like a living Christmas card.

The concert was a performance of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. As I moved with the other people in the hall to sit down, I noticed a woman, standing in the aisle, watching me. She was a large lady, well dressed, with a long nose holding spectacles, and a receding chin. I guessed that she was in her mid to late fifties, but I could have been wrong. Her eyes seemed to be searching for something, for recognition, perhaps, of me or from me. I returned her gaze, and she smiled. It turned out that she had the seat next to me.

"Guten abend!" she said.

"Er, good evening."

"Oh, you are English. But you do not mind German music?"

"Of course not. The music is timeless, and the war was long ago."

"You have a kind heart, sir. It is music of love, after all."

"Yes. Music of young love."

"Love... And tragedy. How often the two seem to go together. Do you come to the symphony often?"

"Well, I'm travelling. But my late wife and I did occasionally go to concerts in London. I was always fond of Brahms."

"Ah, another German," she said. "Surely you love Elgar too?"

"Oh, yes. And Puccini."

She gave me a lovely smile, and nodded.

"So! Your tastes in music are cosmopolitan. I too love music. But I love most to see music played. I listen, and listen, and then, as the music comes to an end, the conductor holds the silence, holds his hand so that the applause may not begin, to let the music's natural life end, then with a subtle gesture of assent, the audience is allowed to show its thanks. Such silence, where so many are holding their breath, transported by what has been heard, such a concentration of emotion focussed on one tiny moment! I close my eyes, and I feel it. Maybe it has some power, something we can't see or understand, that can make something special happen."

"Yes, I think I know what you mean," I said.

"And your wife, she loved music too, then?"

"Oh, yes! We had very similar beliefs about almost everything. We rarely argued. I was a very lucky man."

"I was lucky, too," she said. "My husband and I knew each other from when we were little. I could never understand people who became unhappy with each other. Jules loves coming to concerts too, but his work often calls him away. He frequently travels overseas, so I have to fill in my own time."

"And what does Jules do?"

"He works in the French Embassy. He is much loved and respected, and very important!"

"I've no doubt! And do you have children?"

"Yes," she said, "a son and a daughter. They both live away from us - Pierre is an artist, and he has found much success. He lives in Paris. And Anna has moved to England, to live with her husband. They are both scientists."

"Well it seems that fortune has smiled on your family!"

If she was about to reply, she was stopped, as the applause showed that the conductor had appeared on stage.

The first chords of the orchestra awoke, slowly breathing the music that so easily evokes the myth, the thrall of love and fate. As I listened, I closed my eyes and once again remembered the early years of my marriage. There was still something of the breathlessness of new-found love, and Genevieve and I were discovering music together. We had gone to spend the evening in London, to enjoy a dinner, then a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. The Prelude and Liebestod had been on the programme. The evening was lovely, and we had found Wagner's music so beautiful that we had to take the journey to see the concert again the next night. Even though it is a tragedy, it didn't matter - the music meant something different to us, something more, and never lost its power to evoke the happiness of that time. I kept my eyes closed, and listened, and remembered.

As the woman had described, the last notes of the Liebestod finally ended, the conductor held the silence, and then he allowed the applause to begin. I looked around to find that the seat beside me was empty. I had not sensed any movement, and assumed she had made her exit away from me.

After the concert, I approached one of the ushers.

"Excuse me, the lady who was sitting beside me, did you see her? Was she not feeling well?

The man looked at me for a few moments, then his face turned to comprehension.

"Ah, yes sir. We see her here from time to time. I can assure you that there is nothing to be concerned about. They tell me it is cold outside this evening, if you are looking for a taxi, they often gather at the front of the building after a concert."

"No, that won't be necessary," I said. "My hotel is only three streets from here."

"Ah, you are staying at the Sautter."


"Well sir, I hope you have enjoyed the concert. Keep warm!"

I walked slowly along the silent streets, kicking the snow, thinking, as I too often did, about Genevieve, and how much I missed her. Like the moment of silence in the concert, like too many moments of silence, there was nothing to distract my grieving. How I longed to turn, and see her on the other side of the street, smiling at me.

The next morning there was a soft knock on my hotel room door. I opened it to see a well dressed woman of perhaps a similar age to myself. Her hands seemed to be shaking slightly.

"Oh, sir, did you attend the symphony concert last night?"

"I did."

"Please, sir, I must ask you something which is of enormous importance to me. I know I am a stranger to you, but I beg of you, please. Just some few moments of your time, I assure you I have nothing to sell."

"Er, well... yes, very well, I suppose."

"Oh thank you sir, you have no idea what this means to me. My name is Sauvage, Jennifer Sauvage. The woman you were talking to last night was my Aunt Josephine."

"Indeed. Well, come in."

The woman entered my hotel room, and we sat down. She took a few moments, perhaps to calm herself, before she spoke.

"The usher that you spoke to at the concert hall told me you were staying here - he is a friend of mine, and he did not believe he was acting improperly to do so. I described you to the concierge, and he told me which room you were in. I wanted to ask you about your conversation with my Aunt. Did she seem happy? Did she tell you... if her life is all that she wishes it could be?"

Of course, there was not much that I was able to tell her. I recounted all that I had experienced, and she listened intently. Then, she seemed to turn it over in her mind, and after a moment, she spoke.

"Thank you, Mister Butler. You do not know how much it means to me to hear about her. You see, it was she who raised my younger brother and I after our parents died. She was as loving a parent as anyone could wish for, but she never seemed to find someone who she herself could marry. Now, this is not something a small girl would understand, but even children can sense sadness. It was only as I grew up and left to make my own way in the world, that some understanding of her unhappiness began to grow. Of course there was nothing that I could do.

"Against all odds, my Aunt met someone. She was now later in life, so she had relinquished all hope of having her own children. But it seemed that she had found something she had been looking for. His name was Bertrand, and he was a plumber. Or perhaps he was a postman, I can't remember. He confided to me that he was going to ask my Aunt to marry him. He knew how much she loved to hear music, and decided to propose to her after a concert. He hinted that perhaps I should tell her, so that she may not be too shocked. It seemed like an unromantic way to approach it, so I chose not to understand. Perhaps if he had known that I had said nothing, things may have turned out differently.

"The evening of the concert, my Aunt must have sensed something in the mien of Bertrand, and decided she had to go and arrange her make-up. She went looking for the dressing rooms, but she became confused, and ended up in a deep, forgotten part of the hall. There she found three little guest's dressing rooms, and she went into one, and locked the door. She attended to her make-up, but then found that the lock of the door had broken, and she could not get out.

"Bertrand waited for some time, but eventually he began to believe that my Aunt had known of his impending proposal, and had fled. I never heard from him again."

She took a deep breath to hold her tears, and stopped talking. After some moments I felt I had to break the silence.

"But I don't understand. Maybe you've made a mistake - as I've told you, she described a very different life to the one you're telling me."

"Oh, yes. Much later I found her diary. It was almost all make believe... Perhaps she described the life she wanted as if it had really happened. I only read it once, I could not read it again. Perhaps it gives her comfort to tell strangers her imagined life story. But I hope that in some way she really believes it."

"Well I'm sorry for your Aunt. She seems like a lovely lady. But surely this must have happened a long time ago... she still looks so young - was she very young when she raised you?"

"Oh no, perhaps I have not made myself clear, you see, the guest's rooms were well out of earshot from the rest of the hall. She was not discovered until six weeks later. Yet somehow... somehow, she is not entirely gone. She still listens to the music she loves. And I am comforted by people such as yourself, who have talked to her."

November, 2012

 the next chapter » 
 « contents