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Stories to Go 1: Being with Beethoven

When I came to Vienna in 1975, it was quite a different city. Its population seemed much older than it is today, and it was shrouded in an almost visible pall of nostalgia. The currency was the Austrian schilling. The EU was a mere blip on the horizon. Here’s a story that tried to capture the atmosphere of the place. It was published in an American anthology of short stories that’s no longer in print….


 Before he actually came to Austria and visited the city, he had not believed in its existence.  To him it was not a real place but a literary device, invented by writers of spy thrillers and musical fantasies as a background for their plots.  He came to Vienna in search of Ludwig van, as though hoping that some of the composer’s immortality would rub off on him.  He found he was a century and a half too late; but still clung on, trembling a little in every passing breeze, like an autumn leaf caught in an abandoned spider’s web.  He looked frail and infirm, but in reality was a sprightly old man; an iconoclast in his old age, wandering around the town looking for adventure, finding it sometimes unexpectedly; in the Volksgarten for instance, where a knotted gardener advanced on him like a house-proud hostess with a threatening shout: ‘Hey you, don’t walk on the grass!’  His helpless shrug and hands splayed in expiation did not appease that zealous keeper of the green.  ‘I never could levitate,’ he said by way of added apology.  ‘Ich hab’s nie gelernt, frei zu schweben.’

Or it might be the ubiquitous little old lady (like him, a dying species, he dispassionately observed), who objected to his nocturnal ramblings, his insomniac prowling around deserted city streets when all self-respecting citizens were in bed.  And his reply: ‘Ah, but who with?’ was met by a stare of unamused indignance and a slammed window.

There were many compensations.   He enjoyed quiet moments in his favourite cafe, where the smell of roasting beans clung to the faded velvet curtains with the tenacity of tradition; the welcoming smile as the waiter brought unbidden a cup of hot chocolate and his newspaper.  He was known here, and therefore he had a station in society; retired as he was, a distinction he did not take lightly.  He still clearly remembered the first time the waiter had addressed him as Herr Doktor, a smile of flattering complicity, not the least subservient, on his lips.  The complimentary epithet bound him to the coffee house for ever.  He knew from now on he would never patronize another.  To his tired old heart, it was as though he had found a second home.

In his first years here, finding his feet in this strange city soon after retirement, he had wandered around like a homeless waif, clutching a fistful of Reisefuehrers, Polyglotts, Baedekers, Fodor’ses, Harvard Guides, Berlitz Books, city maps.  He sought traces of his favorite genius in the dozens, scores, of buildings where he had once lived, for however short a time.  He sniffed the air around these buildings as eagerly as a young puppy, hoping to find some lingering traces of Beethoven’s presence in the air.  He wandered through the Stadtpark in the summer where the strains that waltzed through the crowds were of Strauss rather than Beethoven, and could hardly hide his bitterness and anger, the wounded sense of sacrilege, when the magnificent opening bars of the Ninth Symphony were used to advertise the efficacy of a brand of detergent.

Still he lingered in the city, buying a ticket to a concert here, listening to a new rendering of the piano sonatas there, spreading his arms out wide to clasp the elusive bars of sound to him.  In the old Gasthaus with its sooty, wood-panelled walls, chequered tablecloths and white-tiled ceiling, he imagined the hairy, barrel-chested owner’s ancestor serving the great man a schnitzel, together with a limp, pickled salad and a carafe of the strong, dry red wine that the penurious composer always downed with great enjoyment.

But time did not stop and exchange rates continued to fluctuate.   The value of the schilling rose.  When it rose it seemed to him as threatening as an advancing tide, cutting off his retreat to safety; and when it fell, he walked with pleasure and impunity by the edge of the sea, collecting the treasures revealed by the retreating tide.  His pension was adequate, but he had to to be careful.

In the summer now there were hordes of tourists, many groups of young people.  They swarmed and chattered in clusters, following the paths he had traced years ago; all hoping, like him, to encounter a wisp of genius, however brief the encounter; to inhale a trace of an ancient ambience, however musty the air.  ‘Sit still,’ he wanted to tell them with his hard earned wisdom.  ‘Sit very quietly and listen hard, or you won’t hear it.’  But still they thronged and chattered, and still they came, walking by the old man with hardly a glance at him.  ‘He’s a bit ga-ga,’ they said to each other, for he sat and stared at the empty sky with a smile on his lips.  They thought he was mad and avoided him, because they couldn’t hear the strains of the music.

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