LIVES OF FAMOUS COMPOSERS
1. D. Scarlatti
I don’t know much about Domenico Scarlatti, though I know which sonatas I like (K 87 and 384). I prefer them on the piano, even if he wrote them for the harpsichord. They just sound better that way, on that instrument, though it’s an accident, and never mind what the purists say. I know his father, Alessandro, was also a composer, big in Italy at the time, and Domenico left the country partly to get out from under his influence. He spent some time in Portugal, I believe, though I could be wrong about this, then off to Spain, where he was employed by a high-ranking noblewoman, possibly the queen, and spent the rest of his life writing nothing but sonatas, 555 of them if “the complete works” played by Pieter-Jan Belder is to be believed, and just generally enjoying the life of the court, walking marble hallways, gazing at frescoes, enjoying incredible banquets I always picture like some huge still life painting, including pheasants and truffles and heaps of pomegranates, and growing so fat he had to sit sideways at the keyboard. It sounds like such an ideal life, and maybe that’s why I don’t want to look too deeply into it, or verify my facts, since it could mean the end of another delightful fantasy, and I have too few of those already.
When they argue, she remembers everything—how many times she made dinner last week (7), the total number of times he did laundry last month (2), the fact that they visited his mother three times as often (6) as they did her mother (2) last year. She remembers details, places, dates, sometimes even that it was six-thirty or eight o’clock. Sometimes, it’s as though she’s dedicated her whole life to compiling the exact number of times he’s done his share of the housework, which according to her isn’t high, and always follows the same pattern: she complains, they fight, he does what she asks for a little while, it dies off, she complains, they fight, and so on. Whenever he buys a new pair of shoes she says he’s spending too much money and he reminds her that a month ago she bought a jacket for four hundred dollars and she says, “Yeah, well in September you also bought a pair of two hundred dollar jeans,” and he says, “Well, you spend money on lots of clothes, too,” to which she responds, “Like what, I mean other than the jacket, what?” and he yammers and stammers and apart from the jacket he can’t actually remember anything specific, but he knows she does, he just can’t be bothered to remember each individual instance, his mind doesn’t work that way, and she says, “Sure, whatever,” knowing she’s won the argument: he’s lazy, he’s bad with money, he’s totally self-centered. And after each argument he storms downstairs into his office and wonders if maybe she’s right and in the middle of that he’ll suddenly remember the leather bag she bought for herself when they were actually out in Toronto celebrating his birthday, and he gnashes his teeth because it’s too late, he can’t run upstairs and throw that in her face, it would look too pathetic, which means in his own mind, down the basement, he’s won a grand worthless victory. God, he hates that. His brain is full of holes.
I know less about Palestrina than I know about anybody. In fact, I know only one thing: polyphony. Supposedly he invented it, or maybe just popularized it—different parts of the choir singing different things in different octaves all at the same time—and that it was viewed as a dangerous and radical departure by church authorities back in the 1400s or 1500s or whenever it happened because the main thing the Pope and cardinals wanted was for the words of each hymn to be clear, understood, lesson learned. Palestrina’s music mixed it all up, to the point where sometimes the only sound was this scintillating beauty, totally without meaning, echoing off the walls of cathedrals, blending, clashing, building to a crescendo that was nothing more than the experience of itself. There were many—don’t ask me who, since I’m kind of improvising here—who thought it was obscene, threatening. A hundred years later, of course, it was a different story. Palestrina had been rehabilitated. Polyphony was the way to do things, it was traditional church music, the time honored way of doing things as opposed to the crazy radical ugly things the current composers were doing.
Ever since he got a cell phone she calls him everywhere. She texts. She emails. During a meeting with the VP she calls to tell him to pick up bread crumbs from the store after work, but leave ten minutes earlier than normal so as to be home by five-twenty as usual, instead of using it as an excuse to get home late, which means visiting a bunch of other stores—liquor, books, snowboards—he always goes to. While he’s delivering a PowerPoint on strategy to divisional council she texts to remind him to make sure The King Street Bistro credited the overcharged amount back to the Visa before the bill comes due, September 17. She sends one email asking him to look at the calendar to see whether the kids’ swimming lessons don’t conflict with soccer practice, and if not please fill out the online form to enroll them, then two more emails wondering why he hasn’t yet responded to the first one. Then, just as he’s taking the last fifteen minutes to shut down from work, clear his head, prepare for the onslaught of home—dinner, dishes, lunches to pack, kids to bathe, stories to read—she phones, leaving a message (he doesn’t pick up), that he promised weeks ago to call Sleep Country and ask if it was really true that if you paid in cash you’d get a really good deal on a king size mattress. But the worst of it is when he’s driving, his phone ringing, it’s illegal to pick up while he’s in the car, but she keeps re-dialing and finally in a fury he answers it, and the first question out of her mouth is, “What’s that music you’re listening to in the background?” He wants to say Palestrina, that’s always the first impulse, answer the question, but her constant phone calls create such noise in him he can’t think straight and instead he says something like: “I’m driving. Is there any moment of any day where you don’t feel like giving me instructions of some kind? I mean, half the time you could just call King Street Bistro or Sleep Country or any of these other places as easily as you call me.” To which he receives The List: all the things she has to remember in a given day—far, far greater, he has to admit, than the paltry few responsibilities she gives him—and moreover she actually likes to talk to him, that’s why they got married, because she loves his company, and why does he have to be such an asshole all the time lately?
I cannot say enough about Debussy, none of it factual. What facts I’ve got you could fit into a teaspoon. One time in Budapest I bought a CD from a tiny music store I came across during a walk through the 13th district because I was young and free to walk wherever and whenever I wanted and like most young people who are into the arts and pretentious I needed to own a copy of “Claire de Lune.” I still have the CD, almost twenty years later, and it has no writing on the spine, which is infuriating when it comes to finding the CD among my collection, at least until I remember it has no writing, at which point it becomes easy. It’s how I like to think of Debussy now, an identifiable absence, identifiable because of absence, and also because the liner notes of that CD say he called his father a “vagabond,” which was, according to the author of the liner notes (no idea who), unfair or unjustified, I can’t remember which. He referred to his father as something his father was not. That’s good. Years later, I bought another CD, “Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli Plays Debussy,” in which there’s an actual picture of the composer sitting with some girl in a park on a blanket, like he’d been interrupted in the middle of a picnic, and the way he’s dressed, with the kind of hat I think they call a “straw boater,” and his weird goatee, and pin-striped suit, I think he looks like a vagabond himself, which makes the statement on his father even better. He’s staring at the photographer like he wants to punch him in the face. Or maybe it’s because the photo was taken late in life, and I seem to recall that Debussy died of some horrible disease, cancer of the ass or something like that, very painful, so maybe that’s why he’s sitting with such a straight spine, almost leaning forward, his eyes about to pop out of his head. “Please take the picture so I can stand up!” is what he seems to be saying. I think he died in 1918, and near the end I believe he composed his great Etudes in response to Chopin, which somehow manage to sound, at least to my ears, as if they’re simultaneously as carefully put together as a house of cards, but also dissolving, the notes not quite managing to complete themselves, and I wonder from the sound of this if Debussy lived to see the end of the First World War, the armistice and peace, or if he died while there seemed no end in sight, the armaments building up like a house of cards, the fields and meadows full of bodies dissolving.
When, once a month or so, they have sex it is, he has to admit, as if he was leaving his skin behind and becoming part of her—the most incredible feeling of all. But, more often than not, he just doesn’t feel like it. It is the work, the kids, the work, the constant stress and feeling of enslavement, never one solitary second to just sit and do what he wants except maybe as stolen time, fugitive moments taken on the sly, knowing he’ll get shit if he’s caught, and otherwise always doing something for someone else. Even at night, after nine, when they’re free, there’s always something, laundry to fold, financial stuff to take care of, a birthday party or sleepover to organize, or, best case scenario, she wants to do something together, which always means listening to her talk about her work, or watching her movies, her TV shows, stuff he doesn’t mind, necessarily, but which leaves him empty, like eating potato chips, the more you shove into your mouth the greater this feeling of nothingness in your stomach. And that’s on the good nights, when they aren’t exhausted and cranky and fighting, when she turns to him in bed and asks if it’s her body that doesn’t appeal to him, this feeling she has of being middle aged, breasts gone with breastfeeding, belly slack, and he can’t tell her that in fact her body looks as good to him as it ever did, that he loves watching her naked, that on the contrary what he doesn’t want to have sex with is not her body but her personality—he just really really doesn’t want to fuck her personality right now. And there’s a first! he thinks to himself. There was a time when he’d have fucked anything, anything at all, who cares about the personality, if the body was appealing. And so he’s finally come around to feeling what she felt all those years when he was such a prick she didn’t want to go anywhere near him, and he’d thought, Christ, it must be the beer gut, or maybe the hair loss, or, shit, I’m just old, worn out, a turn off, the rejection making them feel, both together, as if being there, as you are, was exactly the thing that numbered you among the missing.
He hated New York, or so I think I read, somewhere. Not many people hate that city, but maybe it was more hateable back in the day—the 1950s, 60s, 70s—when he went there. I don’t hate New York, or, rather, I don’t hate it until I actually arrive—and I’m always eager to go—but after two days I’m seething with a desperation to get out. That being said, I once watched a DVD about Messiaen, I think the title was Crystal Liturgy, close enough anyhow, in the music library attached to the Lincoln Centre whose precise name I can’t remember. Anyhow, I was typing on my laptop, taking notes (where are those notes now?), when one of the library attendants came over and commanded, “You can’t type on a laptop while you’re sitting in this section of the library.” I looked around. Across the hall were other people typing on laptops. I looked back at the attendant. “Why not?” I asked. “It’s the rules,” she hissed. There was no reason, I knew she had no reason, she knew she had no reason, which was probably why she was so hostile. I put my laptop away realizing I was starting to hate New York again. But of course there’s much more to Messiaen than hating New York—like his music for instance, which always reminds me of a kaleidoscope of sound. He used to go out into the fields and transcribe bird songs, a great activity for a composer—well, for anyone, really. He was deeply religious, a Roman Catholic, which is unheard of in ninety-nine percent of important artists in the 20th century, and I guess it’s a miracle that he could believe in something so artistically spent and still create something worthwhile, which goes a fair way to validating the mystery of God. He lived in an apartment with his wife—and I have a feeling I’m totally wrong about this, but I like it so much I’ve decided to keep believing it anyhow—where he had to go down a hallway to use a communal toilet, even when he was a big-time internationally recognized composer. His most famous work, Quartet for the End of Time, was written in Stalag VI (or maybe Stalag V, or VII), where he was a prisoner of war under Nazi guard. He got all kinds of favors the other prisoners didn’t get. Warmer room. More fuel for the stove. Relief on the work details. He and three other prisoners performed the piece—what was essentially its world premier—in the prison camp. According to Crystal Liturgy (the more I think about it the more certain I am of this title) the guy who played the clarinet, Henry Akoka, went on to escape from a bunch of camps, jumping on and off trains, even though he was warned by a sympathetic Nazi that it was better for him to stay in a soldier’s prison than risk escaping and being caught and identified as a Jew, because then he’d go to a much worse kind of camp. But he escaped anyhow and managed to live out the war under an assumed identity along with his sister and brother, all three of them somehow thriving in Vichy France, which goes a fair way to validating the mystery of a slightly different God.
Sometimes, for fun, they talk about what their lives would be like if they got a divorce. “The best,” she says, “would be if we each had the kids one week on and one week off, then you’d kind of get the best of both worlds. You’d be able to have a real family and be involved, but then the next week you’d be single and totally free to do whatever you want whenever you want.” He nods, snuggling in a little closer to her on the couch. “Totally. I’ve talked to a few guys I know who’ve gone through the whole divorce thing, and they say that once you get over the feeling of despair and betrayal, the whole sort of absolute bottomless depression of it all, after a few years of that, maybe five, things kind of smooth out and it’s actually pretty good.” She leans her head onto his shoulder and her voice goes off in a kind of whisper, “God, I could go to New York for a weekend and just pamper myself—buy some clothes, eat some nice meals without having to worry about where to put the stroller or remembering the diaper bag or getting a bunch of coats on and off or telling kids to get back into their seats and eat a meal.” She waits a minute. “What would you do?” He puts his arms around her and leans his head back and gazes at the ceiling. “You know, I’d just like an average Saturday. Get up when I want. Eat a leisurely breakfast. Maybe go out to a greasy spoon. Keep to myself. No conversation with anyone. Maybe see a matinee.” Those are nice, nights like that, drinking a bottle of wine, sharing their visions of how great life would be if they were divorced, all the things they want and can’t have and can’t allow each other, and letting that draw them closer together like two prisoners in a gulag.
My knowledge of Mozart is confined to the play, Amadeus, by Peter Schaffer. The only thing that’s important to me about this work—sad to say—is the giggling ninny that the lead actor, Tom Hulce, turns the great composer into. Nincompoop is another word that describes the performance. There’s a great scene (it’s been almost thirty years since I’ve seen the movie) where Mozart writes one of his great works on a billiard table, pausing in the midst of his notation to send a ball careening off the bumpers on each side and then back into his hand. His knowledge of angles was incredible. He giggles and pansies his way through some of the greatest music (or so it’s said, I’m not a huge fan) ever created, as if it had nothing at all to do with him, with who he was, how he behaved, his absolutely frivolous treatment of his own talent, until the very end, where, anticipating his early death, he writes his great Requiem (I actually do like that piece of music), and in the movie they show him being tossed into a pauper’s grave (or that’s how I remember it, anyhow), along with all the required thunder and lightning and dead of night leafless trees dripping rain, as if from now on, from this point forward, no one will ever be able to do any great art at all unless they look and act deadly serious (cue: Beethoven).
She watches Hulce’s performance—on a rare night when she’s willing to watch one of his movies—and says it’s unbelievable: “Mozart could not have written such powerful and incredible music if he’d been so idiotic,” she says. He looks at her face, which might as well be miles away, in another country really, stacking facts until there’s a row of them, like bricks, and after enough rows a wall, and after enough walls a whole reality in the shape of an exitless maze. He shrugs and says there’s no proof that consistency of character produces great art, much less training or knowledge or skill alone. Idiot savant is a word, or two words, that come to mind. “It seems to me,” he says, “that you’re like Salieri,” by which he means not the historical Salieri, but the character in the movie, who is unable to become an artist because he thinks he knows what an artist is, how art should be produced, the frame of mind necessary to achieve it, and this is precisely why he isn’t and can’t be one. In other words—well, he doesn’t say this, it’s too mean, but he thinks it—she has no imagination at all, much less any real experience with the inexplicable randomness of life, or, if she has, she’s pre-empted it with her prescriptions—and what is great art but that which always despite all odds surprises us, that blows away our expectations? “After all, the whole point of the movie,” he tells her, “is how Salieri sucks as a composer precisely because he can’t understand how such a ninny could produce such great work, because he’s locked in his stereotypes and conventions!” “And what about you?” she says. “You collect trivia. It doesn’t add up to anything!” She pokes her finger into his chest. “Instead of doing the research, going through it, the books and articles and stuff, and getting real knowledge so that you know what you’re talking about, you just remember or misremember a bunch of factoids, and then you build those up into silly little morality tales!” They sit there staring at each other—one of them is Salieri and the other is his mirror—and they both know this is all they’re really arguing about.
The guy with the big round horn rims sitting by a piano, the look in his eyes as if he’s long ago given up on trying to keep himself alive—that’s what I think whenever I see a picture of Shostakovich. We go through life with this illusion of control, that we can will things to work one way or another, even if only within a limited range. Not so Shostakovich, who abandoned himself completely to fate, whatever happened. His next phone call could be from Stalin saying his latest work was the greatest thing ever, or it could be from the secret police saying they were coming over to torture him to death on the living room rug. And yet, what is that look if not camouflage? Here is a man who could not make one move—not one move—for years and years, decades in fact, without the sense that he was being watched, scrutinized, judged on whether he should live or die, as if an entire life in its tiniest details could be set into a surveillance program and thus anticipated and controlled, like beads on an abacus. That, I think, would be enough to kill anyone, certainly me, make the light fade from my eyes, either driven to suicide or to exactly what I think I see in the photographs of Shostakovich from the 1930s onward. I mean, I’m talking about a guy who had tickets to foreign countries, including visits to America, and yet he always went back to the horror his life was, as if he’d either given up on having even the tiniest bit of freedom or he knew he’d never escape no matter how far he went. But that’s not quite right, not really. Because quite late in life, when it seemed as if Shostakovich was recycling his past pieces and influences into yet another configuration of stale state-approved trash, he composed his late quartets, by which I mean numbers 8 and up, and they were, they are, by many accounts, amazing. I haven’t listened to them, of course, since I don’t particularly care for Shostakovich, but that’s beside the point—that no matter how big the engines of surveillance, how many guys you have wandering around in trenchcoats and sunglasses (or whatever it was the KGB wore in those days), or how total the atmosphere of paranoia and fright, something always slips through, inexplicable, unaccounted for, astonishing—as if there was always another fact, one you never quite get to, that has the power to rearrange or explode all the others. This fact cannot be possessed, it never reveals itself, but you can listen for it nevertheless.
Once in a while, often enough, sixteen, seventeen times a year, they go for a walk with the kids, ambling along making sure no one steps off the sidewalk, no one runs in front of a car, no one wanders into a yard where the sign says “Beware of Dog,” and they see something astonishing—a final few leaves clinging to a November tree like tatters of gold foil; the bright red of apples against a network of leafless branches; a certain taste the wind sometimes carries like a memory of the sea—and it’s like they’ve been given candy, a bite to eat, something sweet, and once again he remembers their odd power of forgetting, almost like something willed, arguing like rabid animals one minute, and the next they can both, if both of them agree to, just let it go, have the fight evaporate as if it never happened, to just be together as if there was no history at all. These moments will come around, they can count on it, but each time it’s somehow singular, one of a kind, as if it had never happened before and never will again, which makes it totally amazing and totally useless—as if tasting it once means you lose its taste forever.
Tamas Dobozy is an associate professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. He lives in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. He has published three books of stories, the most recent of which, Siege 13 (Milkweed) won the 2012 Rogers Writers Trust of Canada Fiction Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He has published over fifty short stories in journals such as One Story, Fiction, Agni, and Granta, and won an O Henry Prize in 2011.