[TITLES: Ernesta titles: Ernesta title, Ernesta second title, Victrola]
BACKGROUND: Curtain backdrop]
¡Ay! That old bastard Leschetitzky, to whom I was sent to study in 1885, pushed me out disdainfully (after I’d rejected him) onto Clara Wieck, relic of the dead composer, Robert Schumann, at Frankfurt am Main, and mistress (I didn’t know at the time) of that fellow Brahms. I auditioned for her, a mazurka of Chopin. And (as was my wont) I let my body sway lavishly: I was a single dancer in a crystal ballroom, solitude and grace propelling my fingers across the keys.
“What is that you’re doing, Dummkopf?” She interrupted. “Stop it now; it annoys me.”
But I continued playing, now weeping the while. In truth, I could not stop. I was like a great forest of dancers shaking in the emptiness that follows the hurricane.
“Du scheißt mich an!” she cried. “Stop it! “Are you some kind of puta?” “Ach! Ach! Ach!”
[FADE IN MUSIC: Beethoven Op 111]
Well…. she was, herself, I thought, not a bad pianist, and she performed for me the last sonata of Beethoven. … superlative, the music. I was moved to weeping. But she took my tears for my love of her and left the bench to mount my lap.
“I knew you had a soul,” she said. “I knew I could inspire it.”
Saying which, she began to rub my costume. What could I do? I was sixteen, she perhaps forty—altogether ancient and unattractive, you’ll agree. But it is our duty to realize our talents. [FADE OUT MUSIC: Beethoven] And so, I yielded to her pleasure with enthusiasm, and at length.
“You must wear your costume on stage, at receptions,” Wieck instructed, directing my career. “The music can never be enough for the jaded husband in attendance, or the bored wife. You must distract them from the incomprehensible, let them pass the time avec plaisir.” She was here referring to my costume—a Flamenco dancers, something my mother had sent from home—I could not imagine why.
“It’s a handy prop,” Wieck explained. ”The vest with satin and gold ruffles—so heroic—and the revealing trousers, so feminine.”
So, onto the stage she thrust me, arranging concerts in little theaters in great cities, always in the shadow of her true lover, the bumptious Brahms. We were oddly twined, Brahms and me. He overwhelming the Grosser Musikvereinssaal in Vienna, while I, the dray-horse plodding through Malagueñas, Grana’nas, Media Grana’nas. [She adjusts Victrola. MUSIC: “Mexican Hat Dance” plays 10 seconds] And other tedious transcriptions of Spanish dance music for the Ladies’ Tea Society, or some such, located somewhere near the wharf. In his splendid dressing rooms, Brahms received the King and Queen. I, in my turn, attended the Ladies in Waiting, waiting for me, in my backstage hole in the wall.
“You are, after all, the beginner. There is a price to pay for advancement. Pay it, grin and be happy,” ordered Wieck. ¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Ay!
It was, I must say, a lovely, lucrative time. Lachrymose, the Germans for music, crying at each arabesque, every waltz, the ushers running the aisles with lace handkerchiefs for the ladies. They cried in the streets for a popular tune. And, God help us, when a fashionable composer died! Old Glück’s funeral—four months long! Multitudes of musicians in his memory. Accompanists to the country’s wistful, oblivious……….. dreaming……………..
And I also dreamed deeply on my concert stage, a fascinated spectator to imaginative scenes unfolding in my mind as I played, elaborated image upon image. And, over years, my visions joined by dream actors who never failed to amuse. I never asked, “Where am I?” So certain was I of my strengths. Old Beethoven in his time laughed at his audience, as by mere whim, he played to make them weep—or whimpering silent—or, who knows? —made them feint dead away. I, too, made my listeners quake, but I loved them (unlike him), and only wanted them to witness what I saw: those ecstatic things. And, naturally, they did see them, too, and honored me with applause, joyful noise, duly noted by the music journals. “Señora Ernesta Pleases.” ¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Ay!
I pleased them—I pleased myself! —in every European country. Yet Wieck kept me in Flamenco costume and touring everywhere but Spain (where they preferred German pianists in lugubrious lederhosen). All went well. I played a wider repertoire, dropping stale Spanish ditties for music of weight, of darker dreaming—yet always pleasing my audience, with novelties as the finale—my special piano made for me by mad Clement of New York. At my whim it would chirp like a bird, croak like a frog, boom like a thunderclap, howl like a dog in heat, shriek like a parrot, or emit rude sounds of the water closet. [She adjusts Victrola. MUSIC: Crazy piano plays for 5 seconds]
But then—it was somewhere eastward, I think, in the Ottoman Empire, something went wrong on stage, playing dream music The audience with me (I could hear them swaying, moaning in their seats) as I brought the music to its graceful end (or so I thought). I found myself not at the piano, but in the wings, in my street costume about to leave the theatre. What had happened?
“You walked out before finishing, Mademoiselle,” the stage manager told me, perplexed, the audience behind us restive, uncertain, the empty stage.
What had happened? I’d been playing Robert Schumann’s “The Poet Speaks,” [She adjusts Victrola. MUSIC: “The Poet Speaks” plays until ends.] [Over music]: It’s lovely grace, its sadness. I alone on the empty stage, in dreaming. as usual. The music done, I bowed, retired in modest dignity, a caress to the souls of each listener. But this night I had not awoken from the dream. (That must be the answer, I surmised. I’d remained in the music even leaving the stage and almost into the street.) Next night: Again, it happened. Am I mad?
I consulted Wieck. She looked at me, sadly, concerned. “This is what befell poor Robert,” her husband, the dead Schumann. “He, wandering away into his dreams, never returning.” (I’d heard Schumann had died in Bedlam.)
“It’s a conceit, affectation, indulgence to pretend music has pictures, has a story to tell. Robert knew, in truth, that music is only music, though that knowledge gained him nothing.”
For my part, I had no idea what she meant. Music, of course, had stories and pictures, to pull us away from quotidian quarrelsomeness, waking-life vexation.
“Music,” she continued, “Is a wild beast. She must be controlled, caged else she turn upon you destroying all.” Unbelieving, I shook my head not speaking.
“You need to see. I’ll show you,” she declared, and took me To Bayreuth, to vulgar Wagner’s operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen. The Ride of the Valkyries! [She adjusts Victrola. MUSIC: “Wagner” plays 5-10 seconds, loudly. Music
The horror of them! ¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Ay! Through their music I saw what Wagner saw: shades of the monumental: males and females towering above mountains, lumbering over the earth, lathering bloody ancient primitive ritual, never intended for modern life.
Weick insisted: “To loosen grasping grip on him, Robert recklessly wrote music without program, without picture, but picaresque withal, you see, and touching, too: ‘The Poet Speaks’ His first attempt. To break the curse—no pictures at all! Or so he thought. “It turned out to be the worse for him, losing his way to the music’s end without the markers, the maps. The pictures. And, at last, he lost—was lost, alack!”
Lest I, too, lose my way, she told me I must avoid all music with programs, with stories, damn pictures leading me blindeyed to unknowable dungeons of darkness in dream.
Fear and caution gathered me in, nourishing my performance with hungry diet of the safe and acceptable.
“You cannot afford,” said Wieck, “To disgrace yourself upon the stage. Not even once!”
So, it was back to the safety of Malagueñas, Grana’nas, Media Grana’na, And other tedious transcriptions of Spanish dance music. [She adjusts Victrola. MUSIC: “Mexican Hat Dance” plays 10 seconds]
Twice I attempted to break free, challenging the forbidden “The Poet Speaks.” The first time with mild success, but the second with terror, finding myself in the stalls, applauding wildly, while the audience stared at the empty stage. From then, I resolved to ply the narrow road without imagination. I was already forty and should have been at my zenith. But still I performed in flamenco costume, though certain sure I’d outgrown it long before. Humiliation shared residency with what triumph I achieved. Worse, my modest sensation and fame had competitors. Two especially (I do not mention names) attempted to crowd me from the stage. One toured with burros that wandered about diverting audience attention. Another boasted masked dancers in silent pantomime. Both, of course, imitated my costume, but elaborated upon it: one with smoldering torches, the other with incandescent lights.
They were nothing, no threat to me, not like the real threat of Enrique Granados. [MUSIC begins by itself: “Granados #5 plays] [Over the music]: He, a likeable man, A genuine Spaniard, wore no special costume when performing—instead in mufti—and playing his own compositions, originals, that left the sting of lemon on the tongue, and the red Sahara dust of the leveche on the tongue, and the yawning in coolness of the afternoon veranda. Tro-pi-cal he was, and boon to frigid European winter. [“Granados” fades out]
BACKGROUND: Curtain backdrop
He was my enemy, though I liked him well enough, and sympathized silently with his suffering, his hallucinations and terror of the performing stage. I offered my council, telling him: “Don’t worry. Just go out there. You’ll think of something.” And, against my true hope, he always did. I copied his improvisations, claiming them for my own. (I, by then, so frightened by imagination’s wildness that I could do little else but copy him.) He, in turn, loved me, questioning me about life and travel—things he feared greatly. Then (it was 1913 or 1914), his composition Goyescas found success internationally. The American president summoned him to concertize!
Impossibly nervous, he asked would I go with him, discretely, of course? He had certain nightmares while playing his piano…. He’d pay my way, I to stay with him for companionship, no personal intrigue; help him understand the New World. He’d pay my way.
- BACKGOUND: “Steamer”
He’d pay my way. It would be the retainer and the retained. But, why not? I could see very well the end of Germany, the sentimental music fueling visions of majestic ascendancy. Germany, Apex of Europe—her composers told her so. Why not go with the boy?
But his dreadful foreshadowing: “I play my music and dream of the ship torpedoed,” he confessed. “The seawater in my nose, choking me, filling my lungs. I know this to be hallucination but come with me. At least keep my mind from the bottom of the sea.”
Hallucinations they were, so much like my own, but, for him, not far off the mark: The warring powers with deadly sea weapons sinking ships. Our daily news.
Consulted I with Clara Wieck. She (by now one hundred years old if a day) was doyenne of composers, beloved of the powerful. She advised: “Go. There is nothing for you here.”
She arranged passage from France on the Mirabelle, a Spanish freighter. “My friends in government inform me that Spanish ships may pass our blockades unharmed. It is the English ships that must be capsized.”
At the dock Granados waited, nervous, pacing. “So glad to see you!” Clutching the hem of my mantón. “I thought you would never come. The most awful dream! I dreamed it last afternoon at the salon at which I played.”
“Ah,” I reassured him. “It was only a dream. Music does that to us all. “Mirabelle is a solid ship. A Spanish ship. We will feel at home.”
“The dream so vivid!” stammered he. “The ocean broke through the walls! I? Swept away! And you? Sitting in a lifeboat. You waved your fan at me. ‘Bon voyage!’ you smiled, paddling away.” He began to cry; I patted his shoulder.
The Mirabelle sounded her great horn. Granados refused to board. “I cannot travel on this ship,” declared he with finality.
I reasoned: “All our luggage—your beautiful piano—on board!”
“No, no. You sail.” His eyes lolling. “I’ll take the next ship. Which one? Ah! The Exeter sails Friday. I’ll take the Exeter, a good British ship.”
“No!” I cried, but he not listening.
[BACKGROUND: Steamer shipwreck, no sound. Repeat to end of this scene.]
[Puts on a black shawl or scarf, like an English judge putting on the black cap before delivering the death sentence]: I could have told him British ships would be torpedoed. But, no. I did not. A terrible sin of omission? Or was it the tact of a lady?
“Next Wednesday,” said he with wild grin. “We meet in New York. Next Wednesday!” Arrived in New York, the news report said the Exeter had been sunk Only a few miles from Le Havre. Survivors, there were none. [The sentence passed, she removes the black, taking her time, weighing he crime.]
[BACKGROUND: Curtain backdrop]
In short, Granados dead, I was offered his place, playing for the American president as I had suspected I might be. I had taken the precaution of registering in my own name all his original compositions, his wonderful piano! Its rosewood cover! And so, I became established unchallenged, respected: the greatest interpreter of the works of Enrique Granados (which I, at times of advantage, claimed as my own works).
For several years, at least my longevity in the public eye, enhanced via Old Leschetitzky, who, now arrived in New York, a sentimental place in his halting heart, coaxed me to play for the mechanical piano Granados’ music, to make piano rolls for the wide appreciation of music-loving but illiterate public. Thus, when nightmares on stage returned—visions of young Granados in the sea, grasping water to make a handhold, failing, drowning—I could tease tunes safely from the player piano with pumping pedestrian feet, staying trembling, haunted hands.
[MUSIC: plays by itself: “Arpeggios” [Voice over:] When I play for my public now I play for safety—no silly pictures in my head to discomfit me, only the plodding scales, chords, the arpeggios of the novice—at adventurous times, the exercises of Hannon, and Clementi—that in lesser hands might seem ridiculous, elementary became genius in my fingers. Genius will out!
And I am never reckless! My arms and torso I do not wave about Like a puta! No wilder musical dreams! ¡Ay! ¡Ay! Ay! And after my concerts I read the newspaper and it is always: “Señora Ernesta Pleases.”
She is a wild animal, this music. She must be controlled, caged, else she turns upon you, destroying all. Arrogant armies stamping feet across continents. Inspired, each one, by some affected anthem dribbling sentiment, some musical monstrosity, unreal righteousness. What better exemplar of menace and disgrace?
If I may present you a proverb of my own invention: “Music, “I will caution you. “Music will watch us drown.”
¡Ay! ¡Ay! Ay!
I applaud myself: