Or, An Afternoon with Brahms, Liszt and George Sand
By Judith Shadford
It’s such a weird story I really haven’t told many people…even in bars like this. Almost nobody’s drunk enough to believe me and the ones who nod and say, “Yeah, dude”, I know they’ve never even heard of Johannes Brahms or Franz Liszt, much less George Sand. Ms. George Sand.
So here it is. Basically untold. And you know what? Tomorrow morning, if you remember, you’ll chalk it up to way too many Wild Turkeys, just like all the rest.
Three years ago, I shipped my Camaro to Germany for a summer driving through Europe. Yes, that Camaro. That 2009 Bumblebee-inspired bright yellow Camaro.
Since I get summers off from good ol’ Maple Valley High, and since my Gram’s inheritance money had arrived, I called it the Gram Tour.
Oh, you get it! Great. Maybe there’s hope.
Anyhow, I wanted to go places I’ve never been, drive the autobahn, maybe even make it to the spires of the Hagia Sophia. So I collected Bumblebee from the docks in Bremerhaven, spent the day going over her to make sure she was in top form, then about 4:30 next morning I headed south for a swing through Bonn and the Rhine Valley.
I worked my way to the E37 and settled into sixth gear like an old leather glove. Punched up my first CD: the Rachmaninoff Second. Oh yeah, forgot to mention that, next to Bumble, I love full-throated symphonic music. Even had extra insulation installed so that those lovely growling mufflers didn’t interfere with my sound system. I know, strange.
Anyhow, the Rachmaninoff. I think of it as a symphony for surfers—each wave more powerful than the one before until it throws you up onto the beach panting with exhaustion.
It was full-on morning before Rachmaninoff and I were finished. The Bumble needed fuel, so I dodged into Bonn, got gas and decided to pay my respects to Robert and Clara Schuman in the Alter Friedhof—the Old Cemetery. Great place in the middle of town, imposing headstones, trees that were saplings in the 1700s. Schoepenhauer’s there, and Beethoven’s mother. Who knew, right?
By the time I slid back onto the autobahn, a few thousand more cars were on the road, heavy trucks, then an Army convoy. NATO playing games somewhere. Wisps of ground fog oozed up through the Rhine valley like we were getting ready for a production of Macbeth. I dropped back to eighty and held it there, letting the Bimmer hotshots pass. Light lay over the eastern hills…like lemon, so clean, dry on your tongue. Stunning. Except that, directly in front of me I was rapidly approaching a monster load of hay. My foot flew to the brakes and I nearly plowed Bumble under the pavement. God, they should keep those things off the road! Then I had to wait for a string of twitchy Germans to pass so I could get around the travelling Millais. However, the Brahms First Piano Concerto swung into position—the Emanuel Ax, Heitink recording. So I was cool.
Now that was a guy for you, Brahms. I saw a photograph of him when he was young that stopped me cold. Splendid forehead, deep level eyes and a mouth, both proper and voluptuous…before the white hair and beard…back when the concerto premiered and he was 25. Young, and best friends with Robert and Clara Schuman. Especially Clara, especially after Robert died. But apparently he and Clara never got it together. Poured his whole passion into music. And she, this gorgeous delicate-boned, dark-eyed beauty. Honorable to the end, they were. But listen to that first concerto! Listen to those mighty discords. Turn it up and let both the passion and the silence grip you.
I finally got around the hay wagon and leaned back into a fog-free stretch. Oh yes, this is what it’s all about. Poor old Brahms: honor and ten-miles-an-hour all his life. If only he could have heard, just for fifteen minutes…at, say 80mph.
I glimpsed a couple riders going hell-for-leather across a meadow, then pitched into another fog bank. Damn! I fought the Bumble down to 45 and prayed for a brisk wind. But, because I was crawling, I saw a little sign that said something about a town called Fliegende Neiderung. Sounded like Wagner on a really bad acid trip. Still, I was hungry, and maybe they had a ratskeller. So I took the clearly marked exit and found myself winding my way up through hairpin turn after hairpin turn—like I’d been beamed onto the Alps. Totally glad I had my Bumble, hugging those curves. Over a southwest shoulder of this…knob, I worked my way down onto a gravel road, through an orchard, and finally, into a valley sliced by a hard-packed dirt road with grass growing in the center strip.
I took a deep breath and headed for a cluster of houses, past another hay wagon, this time pulled by oxen. I turned onto a cobblestone street just wide enough for my car and there I was, smack in the middle of The Original Picturesque Village. Half-timbered houses, a stone church with a spire like a needle and, in the middle of the town square, a stone well! And people…in costume. I looked around for a ticket booth, because, I swear, I’d landed in some kind of German Williamsburg. But there was a ratskeller, so I pulled up on the curb and got out of Bumble just as one of these costumed guys, head bent, shoulders hunched, came blundering out and bumped into me.
“Sorry, Mein Herr. Guten Tag.”
He squinted at me, muttered what I guess was a colloquial apology and then saw my car. Honestly, I thought he was going to collapse.
“Guess you don’t see cars like that too often, eh? It’s from the States. It’s a Camaro.”
He looked at me then, and I saw he wasn’t some old geezer gussied up for the tourists. He was younger than me. I. Whatever. He was young. Bright eyes, smooth skin, great hair.
He walked around the car and ran his hand along that melting slope of creamy yellow. It really is irresistible. I do it myself. He smiled at me, shy, and said “Elijah’s wagen, ja?”
“Oh yes. You got it in one. Camaro Bumblebee. Three-hundred and sixty-five horses instead of two.”
“Wohin?” He walked to the front of the car, bent and fingered the inset headlights. As he did, a roll of paper fell out of his jacket pocket.
I picked it up. It was music. Handwritten. Hold on. Wait. This wasn’t a tune for the oompah boys. I read music pretty well and this was a two-piano score. I smoothed it out on the hood. This stuff was beginning to look familiar—very familiar. Identical to the music still swirling in my head.
Meanwhile, Klaus was peering inside. I had a strong feeling that, village idiot or not, Klaus had not only never seen an American sports car, he’d never seen a car.
I looked at him again. I squinted this time. Then I looked around the square for power lines, TV antennas, tourist buses, neon lights in the ratskeller window, or, or, anything.
The only vehicle was a cart pulled by a pony that seemed to be delivering milk. Delivering milk! God, what happened to me? Where was I? Dead in a ditch with a load of hay on top of my Bumblebee?
Klaus stood next to me. “You don’t look so good.”
I shook my head. “Where am I?”
“Fliegende Neiderung. I think you need a coffee. Ah! Dropping my page. So careless. Someday I shall lose a symphony…” He shook his head. “…if I could only write one. Everyone says I must, Clara, Joachim, that I owe it to Maestro Beethoven. It is too heavy a burden, ja?”
If I was in a ditch under a load of hay, I was having one powerful hallucination. There’s only one man I know of who would throw those three names into the same sentence, and only one man on earth wrote that piano concerto.
“My name is Mac Robertson.”
“Ah. Johannes Brahms, at your service, sir. Are you feeling better? Perhaps the sun on your shining wagon has made you dizzy. It is darker in here.”
So Johannes Brahms and I had coffee.
When we got back to the street, he asked, “Where does the engine hook up?”
“Engine?” I shrugged. “It’s under the hood.”
He shook his head. “It runs off the track?”
Oh God. A train engine.
“It doesn’t work like that, sir. See these wheels? They’re…uh…rubber. They run anywhere. Very smooth. This car goes by itself. Very fast.” There it was. My dream on a platter. “May I take you for a ride?”
I helped him in, fastening his seat belt, picking up the manuscript again and tucking it into the door pocket where he could see it.
I circled the stone well and headed out of town.
“Listen to this.” I pushed track five, the Beethoven Missa Solemnis. It will blow his mind.
He twisted around as far as he could turn. “Where are the musicians?” He was a little pale.
“In there.” I pointed to the black plastic panel and pushed Eject. The tray slipped out, flashing iridescence from six compact discs. “They spin and a powerful beam of light…reads invisible tracks of, uh, music…well, the musicians recorded, uh…. You can’t understand this, Maestro. It’s a little ahead of your time.”
“You are from America, ja?”
He nodded. “You are strange people.”
Maybe that was enough. We are strange.
I shoved the tray in and pushed track four—his concerto—and raised the volume. Now the chords, those sublime chords.
I glanced at him. He was staring straight ahead, his hands pushing the dash, gripping his ears, back to the dash. Finally, with a shudder he bent into his lap, both arms over his head.
“You are the devil!”
I turned down the sound and pulled off the road. He gradually unfolded, white and shaking. I have no idea whether he could even hear that it was his music.
“Maestro, that is your first piano concerto.”
“Impossible. I have not written a concerto. Where is the melody? Where is the song of the heart? No. Nonsense.” He shook his head. “Americans.”
I turned around at the entrance to a farm and we headed back to town. A chill crept out of my gut and into my head: what if I’ve changed history and hijacked Johannes Brahms into the 21st century? Worse, what if he’s hijacked me into the 19th century?
But Fliegende Neiderung was where we’d left it, and instead of fulfilling the dream of a lifetime, I’d scared the beejesus out of Johannes Brahms.
“Maestro, I am so sorry I frightened you. I had no intention… You cannot know how much I adore your music, how I’ve dreamed of meeting you.”
He got out and stood, stiffly, to be sure. “Thank you, Mac Robertson. I am not sure why Americans need to travel as though they were escaping hell or returning to it. Nor do I understand those sounds that come from your…engine. But I think you have tried to be kind.” He took my hand, bowed over it, clicked his heels ever so slightly and disappeared back into the ratskeller.
I sat in the car for a few minutes before heading out of town. Had Flying Valley claimed me forever or would the autobahn still be there, the other side of that knob? There was only one way to find out. I stepped on the gas, passed the farmyard where Johannes Brahms melted down and, hell and damnation! A pair of horses trotting happily down the middle of the road!
I slammed on the brakes and hit the horn. Predictably, the horses reared like they were slam-dunking and both riders landed in the dust about two feet from my front bumper.
I jumped out. “Look here, I’m terribly sorry if you’re hurt, but you can’t ride horses in the middle of the road…”
One of the riders, smaller, turned to look at me, then the car.
“And what, sir, do you think roads are for if not horses? That”—withering scorn—“has no business in a civilized country.” She got to her feet and dusted her breeches. “I suggest you go back to whatever furnace birthed that thing, and get yourself a mount that won’t do you or anyone else harm. Are you all right, Franz?”
Franz was not injured, though he took more care to adjust his coat and dust off his boots than I thought she appreciated. Their horses ran free.
“I really am sorry. I’d be glad to drop you somewhere.”
“I think, sir, you have done enough dropping for one day.” She looked at me like I’d crawled out of a garbage can, then pulled out a thin cigar and held it for Franz to light.
Wait. Wait, wait, wait. Maybe I wasn’t back yet. These people didn’t know what a motorcar was either. And she smoked a cigar. Franz…that nose…
“Do I know you?” Dumb line.
She tossed her head. “Do you? I haven’t had you at my parties. Do you know him, Franz?”
The man was blonde, a long lock of hair dragging across his forehead. He pursed his lips. “No, can’t say as I’ve seen him.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “You, sir, are Franz Liszt, the idol of all Europe, which would make you, Madame, George Sand.”
They straightened, glowing slightly from the acknowledgement that they had Reputations. It took very little to persuade them into the car.
Franz was in front with me; George sat in the middle of the back seat, perched on the edge, blowing smoke, fascinated by the dials and needles on the dash.
“Does this carriage go faster?” George asked.
I took a deep breath. “Are you ready?”
“I am always ready.”
I prayed that there were no potholes in the road and moved Bumble up through the rpms. The fields smeared into a golden blur punctuated by blinks of darkness that were trees.
“Marvelous!” This from Liszt.
“Splendid!” From herself. “Faster.”
In the mirror, I saw her let the speed push her against the leather seat.
“Sing, Franz! Sing!” she commanded.
He half-turned, “You’re mad.”
“No, she isn’t. That’s what I love, too. Here, let me show you.” I pushed track six and the Liebestod burst into its great dark flower.
“Ah!” she said. Franz shut his eyes, his head back. The music, not the car, impelled us as we sped across the countryside. At a certain point, I think Bumble could have disappeared and we would have hurtled forward on sound alone. Tears glistened on Liszt’s cheeks. Sand wept. I wept.
Tristan died and Isolde died and I pulled the car to a stop as silence claimed us. Finally Liszt made a motion as if he would get out, so I got out and unstrapped him. We stood together letting the music fall deep into our souls before we laid words on it.
When I moved, George Sand stepped into my arms and kissed me on the mouth. “If you stay, we will be lovers.”
Liszt kissed me on both cheeks. “I will hear this again before I die.”
“You will, Maestro. Your friend, Wagner, will take care of that.”
They walked away, arms around each other. I discovered that I was not far from the hill that had funneled me into this extraordinary valley, so I took a deep breath and retraced my route, back to the autobahn and the 21st century.
I’ve never looked at my Bumble the same after that and she’s never taken me on such a journey again.
That’s the story. I swear to you on my sainted Grandmother’s inheritance that it is absolutely true. And maybe, since you, too, understand what that music means, maybe, even tomorrow, you will still believe me.
Copyright Shadford 2012