These stories are dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman, with gratitude for his courage.
Note: A passacaglia is a form that popular in the late 1600’s through the first part of the 1700’s. The word originates from two Italian words which, when elided, mean “to walk along a sidewalk”. In a passacaglia, a “ground” is stated – low and long notes – and then is subsequently re-stated throughout the composition with variations.
The first thing I did was send a text to Ingrid [Call came. I’m in.]. She works in a kindergarten, so she can’t answer her phone during the day. At that time, we had been involved with each other for about a year. She was from the south of Austria, just over the Italian border, and I liked to tease her, “Who was walking back and forth over the mountains and across that border?” This is because she had the looks of an Italian – olive skin, fluffy, dark hair, and a big smile. “You have an opera singer’s mouth,” I’d say, and then we’d laugh because she has no ear. As a result, she had no interest in music. You would think that might be a problem – I’m a musician by profession – but she is a generous person. Between that and her beauty, it is no wonder she is good at her work; I think the students fall in love with her. I sure did.
I really wanted to tell someone else, too, so I tried to call Anna. She is the woman my father was involved with the year before he died. She lives in America, but we stay in touch by phone or email about once a week. I prefer the phone. Hearing her voice brings back my father to me. “Anna, it’s Fritz. I got the call, and I’m in. I rehearse this evening, but if you get this in the next couple of hours, try to call.”
The person I really wanted to tell was my father, but, as you now know, he died. If he was alive, I would have waited until we practiced together which we did once a week from the time I started playing at age four until the time when he died when I was eighteen. This is what it would have been like: we would meet like we always did, get out our violins, rosin up the bows. He’d say, “What are we going to do today?” I would say, “I don’t know. What do you want to do? Oh, by the way, the call came.” Then I would have looked at him looking at me, and we would both nod with just a bit of smile.
Anna called about an hour after I left the message. International calls have their limits, but she said the one thing I needed some live person to say, “This would have pleased your father.”
I had a rehearsal with my string quartet that night, and two others were going to join us to work on the Brahms Sextet. Werner, Erich, and Hans are the regulars, and Rainer and Stefan were joining us. We all play in the orchestra either as substitutes or regulars. When we were done tuning, I said, “I got the call.” Stefan said, “In?” I nodded yes. They all tapped their bows on their stands. I like them all, and our rehearsals are always energetic. I was happy that Stefan was the one who asked the question. My father’s name was Stefan.
I miss my father. One of the reasons I like staying in touch with Anna is that she loved him, maybe even loved him as much as I did. And I did – do – love him. I have wondered why my love for him is so uncomplicated, and I think it is because he was uncomplicated. He was old world. His father was a violinist in our orchestra; my father was a member of our orchestra his entire career, beginning in the second violins, working up to the firsts, and then to concertmaster. This music is not for us a matter of choice or self-expression as much as it is a responsibility. It is like this: once I saw a picture of a Hungarian baron whose responsibility it was to care for the crown of St. Stephen. Was it really the crown of St. Stephen? Who knows, but there he and his friends were in that photograph, holding a crown on a piece of velvet, a group of middle aged, middle European men, with responsible looks on their faces. That is how it is for us. I think that is why my father was such an excellent teacher of music. He believed that he possessed a treasure that must be carefully handed down to the next bearers of that treasure. He was so gentle with me, introducing aspects of music making to me bit by bit.
I remember the exact moment when I realized I was to continue the tradition. He and I were walking somewhere. I was twelve. The sun was at our backs so that our shadows were in front of us. I was shorter, but we had a similar gate and were both carrying our violin cases. I saw the man I was supposed to become, and I felt that manhood stirring in the very middle of my body. After that, everything I did had to be in line with that destiny, or I didn’t do it.
My father was uncomplicated and old world in other ways, too. He was devoted to his parents. He was faithful in the observances of the Church. He chose at an appropriate age a very appropriate woman to be his wife, and they had me. I don’t think he ever even dreamed of cheating on my mother. Oh, sure, he enjoyed looking at a lovely woman, but to be a husband and father were to him sacred responsibilities.
As I said earlier, Ingrid and I were pretty involved. We didn’t live together or even sleep together. She came from a devout, mountain family. They were so devout that they knelt and said the rosary before opening Christmas presents. One of the first things she told me when we started seeing each other is that she was a virgin and intended to stay that way until she was married. “I have a garden in me,” she said with her wide smile, “and I’m waiting for a guest who will walk through with respect.” How could I not love a woman like that? I too was a virgin, more out of lack of opportunity than intention, but, had I been pressed on the issue, I would have taken her stance. We were involved in our way. We talked to each other each day on the phone and sent texts -- a lot! We had dinner every Wednesday after she was done teaching. On the weekends, we usually met up after a performance. She would always come even though she had no particular love of music. “It’s your world,” she said, “and I want to know about it.” We went to church on Sundays.
The Saturday afternoon after the call came, she met me at the back stage entrance. We had planned to go out for coffee and torte.
Once we were there and served, I brought up to her something that had been on my mind since receiving the call.
“I think we should get married.”
“I thought you were going to say that today.”
“Why? When did you start thinking that?”
“When I saw you walk on stage today. You had a new swagger, like most of the other, older men have.”
I knew what she was saying. There we are with our little instruments, valuable but really small things. A child could give one stomp to it, and it would be useless. But we walk out with those instruments in our hands like we are the kings of the world. That is how we feel, too. Then we play the music like we are serving up the noblest of truths.
“Will you marry me, Ingrid?”
“Yes. I have known for a while now that I would marry you. Let’s call my Popi when we’re done. You should ask his permission.”
We called her Popi who gave his blessing.
“We should tell my mother tomorrow when we visit her.”
Ingrid and I call on my mother once or twice a month, always on Sunday afternoons.
“Mutti,” I always say, kissing her cheek. Ingrid will also kiss my mother, and then we sit in her front room with coffee and some cookies and talk about mundane things.
“Mutti, we have something to tell you today.” She didn’t reply, so I continued, “Ingrid and I are going to be married. Her Popi has given his blessing.”
“You ask her now that you are in the orchestra?”
“I wanted to wait until I knew I could support a family.”
“Support a family? What kind of support? Does she know that you are already married to that orchestra, that those men will mean more to you than she will?”
My mother, who left my father over this, had not left her bitterness. All through my youngest years, she was unhappy about his commitment to the orchestra. Then he became sick, prostate cancer. Unfortunately, their arguments were audible to me, and I heard. She said he had not been a husband, and now he was not a man, and she wanted to be free to find another. The whole thing was so incomprehensible to my father. He thought that certainly she knew that she, too, would bear the burden of the tradition we were entrusted with. But, he once said to me, “The Church teaches that in a marriage there is respect.” And, so, he let my mother go, out of respect for her wishes.
We made plans for a mid-June wedding. It was a good time for Ingrid’s family to travel up from the mountains, and the orchestra’s season would be over.
The months between the announcement of our engagement and the wedding were busy with work and wedding plans and plans Ingrid and I were making to find a place to live and set up a household.
The inside of myself was also busy in a way that it had never been before. I had always known what I was doing and why I was doing it. “Single-minded” is a term people applied to me.
My mother’s response to our engagement announcement put me on a much slipperier surface that I had ever been on before. I thought I knew where I was going and why, but now I doubted myself. Once that doubt took hold in my mind, it wouldn’t stop. No one knew this. I didn’t tell Ingrid for two reasons. One, I didn’t want to upset her. Two, I couldn’t put into words, even for myself, what was going on inside of me. The word slippery really says it all. It was like this: Think about what it’s like walking on a sidewalk in winter. You know your feet are on the ground; you know how to walk, where you’re walking and why. But the ice under your feet challenges your confidence. Your legs wobble; you almost fall. The longer you walk on that icy sidewalk, the more rigid and unnatural the process becomes. It is exhausting and frustrating.
I would wake up in the middle of the night fearful that I was going to ruin Ingrid’s life. I would wonder if I could be a father, a husband. I wondered what it even meant to be a man. Maybe all the notions that I took for granted – loving and providing for a woman, setting an example for children, passing on to them our tradition of music – maybe they were useless, impotent ideals.
In May, I had a trip to New York City planned. I had been there before with the orchestra (when I was still only a substitute), but this time I was going on my own to perform with Anna, who I mentioned earlier.
My father was a part of a cultural exchange organization that had sponsored two harpsichord recitals given by Anna in Austria while he was still alive. After he died, she stayed involved with this organization. They were hosting a benefit in New York that would include a concert with a focused Austrian theme: Anna would perform on my grandmother’s harpsichord, an old instrument made by a significant builder in Austria which my father had willed Anna at the time of his death. She would also be performing on an organ recently built by an American builder but in the style of a Salzburg chamber organ. I would join her on some Biber Sonatas and also do his Passacaglia for solo violin. Biber was actually Bohemian, but he spent a good portion of his career in Salzburg. I was excited for the artistic challenge, the adventure of traveling on my own, and also the opportunity to perform with Anna. She and my father only performed together once at her church a few months before he died, but I remember him telling me that they did a Biber Sonata.
It was great to see Anna again. Like I said earlier, we were in touch about once a week, and whenever the orchestra came to New York, she would travel to hear us. She was a link to my father, and she is also an older woman who I can lean on from time to time for advice or encouragement.
She was happy about my engagement and approved of Ingrid – what she knew of her from pictures and my descriptions – and she approved of me getting married and that implies she thought I could be a good husband.
We had two rehearsals the day before the benefit and another brief rehearsal scheduled the afternoon of the benefit. The first was just Anna and I, but the second included the builder of the chamber organ. He was there to check tuning and listen to the instrument as it had never been performed on before. His name was Nic, and he was friendly and open like I had so often experienced in Americans.
“Actually,” he said (he talked quite a bit), “I was raised in Quebec, but I guess that’s still North America, the New World, right?”
I nodded. I wasn’t always sure how to deal with the forthrightness and familiarity of Americans.
Anna was working on her harpsichord, so I sat with Nic in the hall and talked about his work.
“My father was a builder. Really, I thought I’d never end up in this business – tried to do everything I could NOT to end up in it – but here I am and loving it. The organ sounds pretty good. What do you think?”
“I like it. I’ve never performed with a chamber organ, and it is nice to be working with Anna.”
“She told me about your father. I’m sorry. He was a violinist, too, wasn’t he? Did you fight becoming one?”
“This is all I ever thought I would do.”
Nic was momentarily at a loss for words. “Well, Anna tells me you are getting married next month. Congratulations.” I wondered how so much personal information was exchanged between Anna and Nic, since they had just met that week. I had to remember the difference in culture.
“Yes, I’m getting married.”
“You don’t seem that excited. Is there a ‘reason’ you have to be married?”
“No!” I knew I sounded defensive. This openness among Americans did loosen me up.
Once again, Nic was speechless, but this time the look on his face changed.
“You know, a friend and her neighbor are coming soon. We asked Anna to join us for a light supper. You are welcome to come along. I promised Henrietta, my friend, that I’d help them home, but I have some time off tomorrow before the afternoon rehearsal. Maybe you’d like to go out for some coffee?”
I was glad he didn’t say “go out for a drink”. “Can I let you know a little later?”
After the rehearsal, a woman whose age I could not determine came into the hall with a very small, somewhat older woman who walked with a cane. The first woman, who I later learned was Henrietta, looked both worldly and innocent. She dressed like a European and didn’t say much, and when she did, I had to listen closely because she spoke so softly. The woman she was with was her neighbor, a former ballet star. She had traveled a lot in her dancing days and was familiar with many of the halls I had played in with our orchestra and knew quite a few conductors. The conversation ranged over many topics. I was happy for a change of scenery and a distraction from my angst.
As we parted, Nic said, “Coffee tomorrow at 2:00? There’s a place on the corner just west of the hall. We can meet there.”
I said yes, wondering why I was going to spend time with this total stranger who seemed interested in discussing my upcoming wedding.
I arrived right at 2:00, and Nic was already there. We bought some coffee served in large paper cups, and he bought an apple that he began eating without the benefit of a knife. He asked me about the orchestra and Ingrid and details about the wedding. I wondered why he was so interested in these things and about me, someone he had just met.
“I’m interested in everything,” he said, “And you seem a little lonely. I had some time off today anyway, and it is nice to get to know someone new.”
I didn’t have anything to say, so I drank some more of my coffee.
“So, why don’t you sound enthusiastic about your upcoming wedding?”
I looked him in the eye and decided to give him honest answer.
“Listen, my mother left my father because of his devotion to the orchestra. She is still very bitter about it. When we announced our engagement, she once again brought this up, even though she has been without my father and their marriage for over a decade. Much as I don’t like to admit it, her bitterness has infected my mind. I’m terrified that I’m doing the wrong thing, that being a musician and a husband are incompatible. I’m don’t know if how I imagine my life as a man is really what a man should be. My father was old world; many of the men in the orchestra are also that way. But this is the 21st century. I go around like this in my mind all the time.”
Nic didn’t say anything for so long that I began to apologize.
“No,” he began, “It makes sense to me that you would have this anxiety.”
“What do you think I should do?” I couldn’t believe I was asking a near stranger this.
“What do I think? I think you should do what is true to your core.” He finished this sentence and looked me directly in the eye. “You need to be the man you are.”
There was a short rehearsal, and then I had time to eat something and change for the concert. The time difference made phone calls difficult, so I sent Ingrid a text, “Good to be here. I love the music Anna and I are doing, and the acoustics in the hall are great for the solo piece at the end. Next time I come to New York, I think you should come, too. Take care of your beautiful self, Ingrid, and I’ll be back in Austria soon.”
The audience was attentive, and I really like performing with Anna. Anna is a very grown up person, and I don’t just mean her age. She is at ease in her self, and this is apparent in her playing. She doesn’t steal the show, and she doesn’t apologize. Her solo pieces were enjoyable, and the Biber Sonatas we did, accompanied with harpsichord and Nic’s new organ, went well.
We decided to take the risk of putting the Passacaglia for unaccompanied violin at the end of the concert. It is an awfully quiet, somber way to end, but Anna said that people would like leaving with something to think about.
As I stood in the middle of the stage with my violin, checking the tuning, I remembered that this is the piece I played for Ingrid’s family when I first met them. I chose this for them because it is unaccompanied. I also chose it because it is a work that Biber intended to go with his Mystery Sonatas – works that were inspired by the rosary, and I knew this would be meaningful to her parents. The autograph for this score is in Salzburg, and I saw it once. The title page has an illustration of a boy being lead by his guardian angel.
I began. The room had enough reverberation for the sound to grab onto the air and enough clarity that each note enunciated itself. I felt my whole self was grabbing onto the air, and my ear and mind and head shaping each note in the clarity of hall. The image of my father and I walking when I was twelve came to mind and then changed. My shadow grew taller and matched his height. The stirring deep in the core of my body became a throb. Then his shadow was gone, and mine continued, violin in hand, walking forward.