A Lesson For Carl

        by Andrew Crumey

                     Published in So, What Kept You? ed. Margaret Wilkinson (Flambard, 2006)


Ten years old, walking with his father to the street in Vienna where they were to find his new piano teacher: the best in the city. No one else would do for young Carl, such a prodigy, with his miraculous young fingers curling in the pockets of his coat as the two of them, man and boy, made their way down the cobbled lane. They walked quietly; Carl was too nervous for conversation. So too, perhaps, was his father Wenzel; since both of them had heard so much about the man they were to visit.

Their silence was interrupted by the clatter of horse's hooves behind them; Carl's father gently pushed him away from the edge of the road as a wagon passed, spattering mud from a puddle at them as it took its cargo of old furniture along the narrow residential street and then around a bend, out of sight.

"Be sure to play your best today, Carl" his father said.

"I will," Carl promised. Already, at that moment, his whole life was mapped out ahead of him, though he didn't know it. Fifty six years later, on his death bed, people would still want to know only one thing. What was he really like, this man they were about to visit?

There, on a corner, stood old Krumpholz, smiling when he saw his two friends approach. "Are we late?" Wenzel Czerny asked anxiously. He was a man who loved good discipline in life as much as in music. He considered punctuality a matter of honour, and lack of it a disgrace. "Never fear," Krumpholz reassured him. "I got here early. But now we should go and see Ludwig." He glanced down at Carl. "Did you bring your scores?"

A look of terror flashed across Carl's face; the unbounded fear of a child who thinks he might have forgotten something vital, finding himself at the mercy of his elders.

"He doesn't need them," Carl's father interjected. "He will play from memory."

"Very good," said Krumpholz, pointing the way and then starting to walk with his two companions. "Ludwig always prefers his pupils to play from memory. He learns a piece in no more time than it takes him to play through it at sight. Though I have to admit," he lowered his voice, and his face, addressing Carl with a twinkle in his eye, "Beethoven is somewhat apt to make mistakes."

"He plays false notes?" Carl's father said incredulously. "Even before an audience?"

"Certainly," said Krumpholz, softly taking hold of Carl's arm, and then of the boy's hand when the lad freed it from the pocket where it had tightened with the same dread that afflicted his stomach. With his leathery thumb, Krumpholz coaxed the boy's fingers until they unfolded and surrendered to his comforting, grandfatherly grasp.

"You see, Carl," Krumpholz added. "Even a virtuoso can play in error, and all is forgiven. I heard Ludwig play one of his own concertos, and there were many passages that lacked the polish a good student would apply. No, to hear the real musician in Beethoven, you need to listen to him improvise. Then, my boy, you will be taken to another world - one you will never forget, as long as you live.

As he lay dying, old and venerated, Carl would recall the accuracy of this prophecy.

"Now, here we are," said Krumpholz. "This is the street where he lodges."

It was called der tiefe Graben - the Deep Ditch. It was a name that would stick in Carl's mind, with its suggestions of dirt, of the grave. Things you can spend a lifetime trying to avoid, perhaps through the liberating qualities of music. Yet in all the concerts that lay ahead of him, in the great career on which, at ten years old, he was already embarking, Carl would never escape the deep ditch where it all began.

Krumpholz was leading them across the road, then through the open doorway of a tall apartment building. "I hope you don't mind if we take our time," he said, indicating the stairwell. "Beethoven unfortunately lodges on the sixth floor. Not a problem for you, young Carl, if he takes you as his student. But I do wish he'd find lodgings in a place where an old man like me could visit him more easily!"

Slowly they began to ascend. It was Krumpholz who had first told Carl's father about Beethoven, Vienna's new musical genius. Krumpholz played violin in one of the city's theatres; he knew all the local figures, and had made Beethoven's acquaintance almost as soon as the young virtuoso arrived from Bonn. That was a decade ago - around the time when Carl Czerny was born. And his father Wenzel, seeing the swaddled baby helplessly burbling, had resolved that he too, this child blessed with the infinite potential of life's beginning, would make his own equal mark in the world. What had happened in those ten years? In Beethoven's case, some concerts and publications, and the making of a name. Anyone who knew about musical life in Vienna was familiar with Beethoven's work. To admirers like Krumpholz, he was a miracle; the true successor to Mozart and Haydn. To others, his compositions were merely a random outpouring of fragmentary themes, lacking in discipline.

And what about Carl? The last ten years had made not his name, but something infinitely greater: his soul, his entire being. The previous decade, the 1790s, had been his whole lifetime, and Carl's father had watched the boy's development with the patient satisfaction of a gardener seeing the spreading limbs of a tree. Already Carl could play Beethoven's sonatas from memory. What else might he be capable of, in another ten years?

Above all, Herr Czerny knew the importance of starting early. Beethoven was twelve when he gave his first concert. It was, Krumpholz once suggested, perhaps a little late: hence those mistakes Beethoven was apt to make in concert. And contrary to what Krumpholz claimed, Herr Czerny knew there are always those among the impassive faces of an audience who do not forgive; there are those who remember, take note, and arm themselves with the latent ammunition that will eventually overturn a career. Ten years from now, where would Beethoven be? Forgotten, perhaps, and replaced by a new generation of surer hands, more dexterous fingers, quicker minds. Young Carl, his father felt sure, would be at the vanguard of that generation.

Having slowly ascended the gloomy staircase, they had now reached Beethoven's door, its green paint cracked and peeling. Krumpholz knocked, and a moment later a man opened it. Was this the master? Carl's immediate impression was of someone too scruffy, too humble in appearance. But no, this was not Beethoven. "Come in," the shabby servant said curtly, allowing them inside. They were shown into a room which was like an inanimate version of the servant; equally untidy and neglected, and just as inhospitable. There were several men standing waiting, but Carl dared not stare at them, and instead found his gaze traversing the papered walls, stained in places with damp, lacking any picture or mirror. The striped, faded wallpaper was torn and in need of replacing.

Then there were the trunks and boxes carelessly arranged beside the far wall, as if the lodger had only just arrived, or expected to leave soon in a hurry. And the piles of paper - Carl saw printed music and manuscript pages, many of them strewn where only the soles of visitors' feet could have anything to do with them. If he ran out of sheets of paper, it seemed Beethoven would resort to any other surface. Even a dirty tablecloth, Carl noticed, bore a scribbled memorandum. He saw broken quills, spilled inkwells; and as Carl took in more and more of the scene, its squalor only deepened. Was he to come here as a pupil? Would his father leave him undefended in this place on whose floor the occupant had thought fit to toss a soiled shirt and a discarded coat? There were few furnishings in the room - the shortage of chairs explained why everyone was standing, though after ascending so many stairs they all could probably have done with a rest. One item alone lent a redeeming air of civilisation to the proceedings. In the very centre of the room there was a piano; the instrument on which Carl would shortly be tested. He stared at its open keyboard, a sight as unsettling to him right now as a tooth-puller's pliers.

"The best there is," Krumpholz whispered to him, momentarily breaking away from the round of adult greetings and introductions which their arrival had prompted. "A Walther - lovely piano. I do hope he's had it tuned. Ludwig isn't always kind to his instruments, you know."

Carl was too young to fathom the delicate financial equation that had placed such an item of luxury in a setting of virtual poverty. A less magnificent piano would have equalled more chairs, a polished table, and other costly surfaces in which the assembled company, if they had wished, could have seen reflected the bourgeois tastes that gave them all a living. But they were here for only one reason: the same reason that the piano was here. They were musicians, scraping a living in a world that valued them only as a soothing background to genteel conversation. Here at least, in Beethoven's lodgings, their art was treated with respect.

Krumpholz was tactfully offering Carl's father, whom he had drawn aside, a hushed synopsis of all the social information with which Wenzel Czerny had so swiftly been bombarded over several handshakes.

"That's Ludwig's brother," Krumpholz explained in a whisper loud enough for Carl to hear. "He takes care of Ludwig's business arrangements - and does so very competently, I believe. You see, genius is all very well - but there has to be a commercial brain as well. And that man - yes, the portly one - no, not him; I mean the one who's really fat. That's Schuppanzigh, the violinist. He and Ludwig admire one another artistically; but to be perfectly honest, I don't think they really get on. And that one there, Sussmayr, he was Mozart's pupil. Yes, that's right - it was he who completed the Requiem. So you see what an audience has been assembled for your son!"

Overheard by Carl, whom all the men ignored, these words were hardly reassuring. Like any child, he had to remain silent until the moment came when they would want to listen to him.

Then at last, something happened. "Here he is," someone said. And Carl saw a new figure enter the room; someone straight out of the book he had been reading that morning. It was Robinson Crusoe.

The newcomer was stocky, strong looking, with the snub nose of a fighter. His complexion was darkened by the sun, his chin was unshaved, and the thick black stubble made him look like a savage. He had come from the dangerous wilderness of Carl's imagination, and now he was standing close in front of the boy, towering over him, placing a hand on his shoulder by way of greeting.

"Say hello to Herr Beethoven," Carl's father instructed. Carl tried to form a greeting, but found his throat dry. The nervous crackle that emerged drew laughter from the adults.

"Ssh!" Beethoven raised a finger, silencing them. The back of his hand was hairy; his whole body must have a pelt like a bear's, Carl imagined. The locks on Beethoven's head, black as coal, were thick and uncombed. Most strange of all, though, was the detail Carl would still recall vividly many years later. There was something sticking out of Beethoven's ears. Wads of cotton, steeped in yellowish fluid. Was it perhaps a joke designed to make Carl laugh? Or was it a way of avoiding sounds the composer didn't wish to hear? Whatever the reason, nobody else appeared to notice these silly cotton ears. Nobody knew, in fact, that the thirty-year-old composer had recently begun to experience problems with his hearing.

Carl saw kindness on the face of this swarthy Crusoe, as if the lonely man recognised in his young visitor a new companion, a pet, who would share his island domain. But Beethoven's face grew harder, more determined, as his gaze rose from son to father. "Let's not waste time," he said in an accent which, to Carl, sounded foreign and mildly ridiculous. "Show us what the boy can do."

Beethoven went and stood with the others while Carl sat himself at the keyboard. Then Carl launched into the piece he had prepared: a Mozart concerto. As he began playing, his nervousness left him; everyone else in the room quickly disappeared. The stained walls, the soiled clothing, the discarded pages - all were magically washed away by the waves of music that came from beneath Carl's fingers. The instrument was perfect; the finest he had ever touched. It stood on a tropical beach, and behind him was Robinson Crusoe, picking the remains of a freshly caught fish from his teeth.

The wild man softly drew up a chair beside Carl as the boy embarked on a series of delicate arpeggios. There was no orchestra in this island paradise; instead, Carl's companion began to touch the keyboard with his own shaggy hand, his fingers blunt as chisels, yet infinitely delicate. Beethoven was filling out the harmonies of the concerto with his left hand, while Carl continued the solo part.

All the burden of his father's ambitions were lifted from Carl's shoulders as he moved effortlessly through the concerto, swimming aloft while Beethoven continued to accompany him, tugging gently with notes and chords that kept Carl anchored to a steady beat. When it ended, there was silence. Carl felt his bodily weight return; and with it, he experienced the swift restoration of all his anxieties.

Beethoven stood up and addressed himself to Carl's father. "He plays well, but I want to hear him in a solo piece. Make him give us a sonata."

Carl looked up at his father, who nodded in confirmation of their prearranged plan. Then a moment later, Carl struck the opening chords of a work that had only just been published. It was Beethoven's own Pathetique sonata. Carl felt a murmur of surprise and approval from the onlookers, then silence again as they let him perform the first movement from beginning to end. This time there was no desert island, no Robinson Crusoe. Instead, Carl was on stage before hundreds of people, a grown man, showing everyone exactly how the piece should be played. All great art is a vision of the future; and Carl was being granted such a vision now; an ineffable foretaste of his destiny. Ten years from now, Beethoven would be the most famous composer in the world, and Carl Czerny his most famous pupil. Another twenty years, and Beethoven would be dead, while Carl would be revered. The decades rush on - until Carl himself lies dying, 66 years old, his mind clearing for a moment as he looks from his bed towards the light of the window, a grey drizzle, the memory of his first visit to the master who gave his life its greatest meaning. When the boy finished playing, Beethoven spoke once more in that rustic accent of his, brought from his native Bonn. Addressing Carl's father, he said, "I shall take him as my pupil."

Carl had passed the test. He saw his father beaming broadly, and he felt profoundly relieved. His mother, too, would be smiling when they told her, equally grateful to have been spared the calamity of failure.

"Well done," Krumpholz was saying, shaking Carl's father by the hand. The other men joined in: all congratulated Herr Czerny on the triumph of having produced such a son.

Beethoven interrupted, concerned only with practicalities. "Be sure that when he comes to me next week he has CPE Bach's book on keyboard playing. We'll start with the positioning of the hand." Carl's father promised that they would buy the book at once. "And another thing," Beethoven added. "Don't make him practise too much. Let him be a child. He'll grow up soon enough." He looked at Carl, speaking properly to him for the first time. "You're lucky to have such a kind father," Beethoven told him.

"Yes, sir," said Carl, wondering what sort of childhood Beethoven must have had.

"Now we must leave," his father instructed. "Come along, Carl, we need to go to Sterner's book shop."

Carl saw that the music-making in Beethoven's lodgings was set to continue. Schuppanzigh had started tuning a violin, and Beethoven was seating himself at the piano. Carl longed to stay and listen, but his father drew him by the hand, outside onto the cold stairwell, where the servant closed the door on them without a word.

"What did you think of Herr Beethoven?" Carl's father asked him as they began to descend the stairs.

"He's too hairy, and I don't know why he has to stick things in his ears."

Wenzel Czerny laughed. "I agree he's an eccentric character. But they say he's the best teacher in Vienna. You did well, Carl. One day perhaps we'll look back on this moment, and see it as the most important in shaping your career. Doesn't the future look bright?"

Above them, the music was beginning. Carl could clearly hear the violin; the piano was softer, with only a few booming notes drifting down the stairwell. While Carl had played, the future had indeed seemed bright. Now, hearing fading music from behind a closed door, he was less sure. His life, he suspected, would be an endless, arduous climb; and at every moment he would fear falling to his doom.

They came out onto the street, where fine rain had begun to fall from the grey sky above. A coal wagon was trundling past, and the grown-up world was going about its business. His father was eager to get to the bookshop to put in an order for Bach's manual - Carl's homework for the next year or so. And suddenly, from above the clouds, it was not rain Carl felt dropping onto his face, but notes of music. They were Beethoven's: little black notes melting on his face, moistening his coat, gradually puddling on the ground, slowly drenching the street.

That's what he saw at the window now. Not the fine drizzle he had thought, but those notes of music that fell on him as a boy. He felt the urge to say something; but as with his greeting to Beethoven more than half a century earlier, old Carl Czerny found his throat to be dry and voiceless. He couldn't call the maid, or his wife. Nor could he move the arms and fingers that had been taught by the master, and had premiered his works. Carl Czerny was about to die alone.

He had not lived up to his father's aspirations. Carl never outgrew his famous teacher, but was instead supplanted by his own pupils - people like Franz Liszt. They say he was too disciplined, too polite, too shy. His destiny was already fully scored, when Robinson Crusoe patted him on the head.

The notes were tumbling out of an infinite sky; they were dripping through the ceiling, onto the bed where Carl lay dying, and he opened his mouth to taste the black notes falling on his tongue. It was what he had spent his whole life trying to avoid: falling, stumbling, playing a note that was false. Yet there they were, millions of them, carelessly cascading over the entire world. Krumpholz had been right, all those years ago. Beethoven was forgiven. It was Carl Czerny who was damned for his accuracy, his modest fidelity. Rising into the sky, he thought for a moment of how he might have done it all differently. But Beethoven's first lesson to him was also his most accurate. Don't practise too much. Let the child be a child.


©Andrew Crumey