An Unfinished Score Elise Blackwell. Unbridled Books. $24.95. 272 pp. April 2010.
The technique of integrating classical music into works of literature has a long and distinguished history. Perhaps more than any other art form, classical music speaks to certain ways of constructing theme, voice, and structure in a novel, and many authors have been canny in teasing out these connections in innovative ways. With An Unfinished Score, author Elise Blackwell becomes the latest in this distinguished group of authors. With this, her fourth novel, Blackwell has climbed into the ranks of our most consistent and interesting emerging American novelists, and we hope that this second chapter from her forthcoming book inspires readers to know more of her work.
— Editors of The Quarterly Conversation
When Suzanne does rise she has only shaky legs for support. As on most mornings, Adele is up but Petra is not. Through the blunt headache and the whiskey aftertaste that survives toothpaste and mouthwash, she fixes Adele’s favorite breakfast of oatmeal with walnuts and too much brown sugar. She sits with her as she eats, a few quiet moments before Adele withdraws to dress for school.
Petra shuffles into the kitchen wearing flannel pajama pants and a tank top. She stands at the coffee maker, back to Suzanne, jumping up and down with her hands in the air, blond braid shimmying on her back like a fat, happy snake. Even in the morning Petra jangles. She pours herself coffee and spins around, revealing the kind of good looks that Suzanne grew up wanting: tall blondness, skin like a white peach, cheekbones giving structural elegance to small features. When Petra plays her violin, she bows long stretches with her eyes closed, and her lashes are so long and thick that they make fringed fans visible across the room despite their pale color. When the eyes fly open, always without warning, Suzanne is startled, every time, by their sea blue, by Petra’s old-fashioned Swedish beauty. Yet when Petra stands to her full height, bends at the waist and not the knees to return her violin to its case, her look is thoroughly modern.
Sometimes when Suzanne looks at Petra, she wonders why she doesn’t hate her on sight, as many women do. It helps that Petra thinks she looks common. Though perfectly posed when holding her violin, without her instrument she is no more coordinated than a cloth doll, and Suzanne loves her for her awkwardness. Many men look at Petra as if at cased jewelry, with appreciation for a beautiful thing they have no use for. When a man approaches the two of them at an after-concert reception, he speaks first to Suzanne, turns to Petra, and then, in a shift once surprising that now feels inevitable, refocuses his attention on Suzanne until she excuses herself to go home to her husband. There’s something about Petra’s blatant good looks that reveals Suzanne’s more obscured beauty. But the real reason Suzanne doesn’t hate or envy Petra is simple: Petra is her best friend.
“Hey,” Petra says, “I thought today was supposed to mark your return to composition. Why aren’t you composing?”
“Why aren’t you?”
“I have a kid.”
“Whose breakfast I just made.” Suzanne hears something in her voice under the humor, feels the hangover pressing into her forehead.
Petra blows on her coffee, then looks up. “What’s going on with you?”
“I’m sorry,” Suzanne says carefully. “I’m just annoyed with you for being right. Not composing is just one more thing to feel guilty about.”
Petra hugs her loosely, mug still in hand, and kisses her temple. “It’s the only thing you have to feel guilty about. Thanks for getting Adele in gear.”
Biographical histories of music include few nods to female composers, and it’s something Petra and Suzanne have talked about since they met at the Curtis Institute. There are often chapters on Nadia Boulanger and her tragic sister Lili. And music historians like to praise the Italian nun Isabella Leonarda or weigh in on whether or not Cécile Chaminade’s salon compositions—hugely popular in their day but mostly derided since—constitute a real contribution to music. Yet for the most part histories of the great composers are the stories of men’s lives, the women cast as helpmates, muses, hindrances, nursemaids, business managers, performers, or lovers.
Petra always argues that this treatment stems from the same prejudice that led the music world to claim that women could never be great trumpet players due to the size of their lungs—a belief overcome only by hard evidence: anonymous auditions played behind opaque screens. But Suzanne knows, and Petra has admitted, that women have written far less music than men and, when they have composed, it has often been with less dedication.
Petra flops a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t pull a Minna Keel on me.”
It was Petra who told Suzanne the story of Minna Keel, who gave up composition—at the age of twenty and for forty-six years—to work in her mother’s business, marry, raise a prominent son, become politically active over the Spanish Civil War, and work for years as a secretary in the dullest of offices. There was family pressure guiding her choice—her series of choices—and perhaps a lack of encouragement, though she had male teachers who supported her. Ultimately it was a man who convinced her to compose again: a musical examiner who’d come to test one of the third graders she gave piano lessons, after her retirement from office work. Her sixties is when she really began to write.
It was a story that sometimes depressed Suzanne and sometimes gave her hope. It’s not too late for her to write music, not even close—that’s the moral she wants to take away. The loss of Lili Boulanger’s music is the responsibility of her time and place, of her own traitorous body, of bad luck or fate. But what about the loss of forty-six years of Minna Keel? Whose fault is that?
“Ben did a number on you, you know.”
“I know your theory about that, but Ben always tells me to compose if I want to compose.”
“Yeah, but he says other things, too. Just because what you were composing was different than his stuff doesn’t mean his stuff is better.”
“It was,” Suzanne says, “And who’s to say that anything Minna Keel would have written earlier would have been any good? Maybe she started at exactly the right time for her. Maybe she just waited until she knew what she wanted to make.”
“Excuses, excuses!” Petra adds, “You look like shit today.”
“Exactly how I feel.”
“Maybe that’ll be your creative fuel. You can compose because you feel like shit.”
You can compose because you are riddled by grief and about to break.
“Yes, a lot of people will want to listen to that.”
“That doesn’t stop anyone else. It doesn’t stop the complexity composers or the fucking sound poets.” She pauses for a better example. “It doesn’t stop Ben.”
Yet it did stop someone. It stopped Alex. He told Suzanne that he didn’t write music because there was nothing left to write and no one left to write it for. It was a pose, of course, but he at least half meant it. It was one of the reasons he didn’t compose.
“Actually,” said Suzanne, “I might sit down at the piano with a pen sooner than you think.”
“But not now because I need to change my strings before practice. Please, please, please, I need you to drive Adele to school for me. Sugar on top. Cherry. Hot fudge. Whipped cream. The works. Know I should have done it last night, but big surprise, I didn’t.”
Adele’s school is across town, but Suzanne knows they are lucky to have it anywhere. Suzanne has heard Petra field the stupid questions. “A musician with a deaf child? How ironic!” But at Adele’s school they say mostly wise things. They say, “How beautiful Adele is. She’s the best math student we’ve ever had.”
Once when Suzanne picked Adele up from school, a teacher waved her over and asked her how Adele responds to Petra’s playing, whether she ever touches the instruments at home or asks about reading a written score. Hard questions but good ones, and after that Suzanne watched Adele carefully, though she never mentioned the conversation to Petra because she did not want to cause her pain.
When they pull to the curb in front of the school, Adele climbs over the seat and nuzzles Suzanne’s neck with her small face. Suzanne kisses both of her cheeks—surprised yet again by their softness, their cool smoothness—and nods, grateful for the affection. She watches Adele’s thin form move down the sidewalk, up the stairs, and into the school’s foyer. She watches until the heavy front door falls shut behind the little girl she sometimes imagines carries the spark of her own, though of course she knows that her child would be two years older now. Almost exactly, she thinks, making the calculations again, though she’s already locked them in memory.
She drives back to her posh town’s shabbiest neighborhood, to the house she and Ben could afford because they pooled their money with Petra, to the house they could afford because so many of their neighbors are black or speak Spanish, to the house they could afford because it needed—still needs—so much work. The one-way street, which runs only the few blocks from the hospital to the small freeway, is at its prettiest in spring. The wildly prolific callery pear blossoms lace a canopy over the road and infuse the air with a pungent sweetness. Their petals drop confetti-like over the cans and candy wrappers littering the curbs.
Suzanne idles while the next-door neighbor—a man who has avoided speaking to them since he returned their lawn mower broken—backs out of the shared driveway. She returns the car to its parking space against the wire fence that separates their neighborhood from married-student duplexes. Left foot, right foot, breathe. She cranks up the window, arrives at the back door with the keys in her hand, suspecting that every little thing will be hard from now on, that every move will hurt in the marrow of her arms and legs, that she will be undone by a simple doorknob and shatter.
Petra does not answer her shout. In the kitchen Suzanne finds a note: “Will restring in the practice room. See you there later.” Predictable unpredictability. Suzanne knows that Petra takes advantage of her, that she could have driven Adele to school herself, but she doesn’t mind.
At the desk in the bedroom she shares with Ben, the computer screen fills with headlines. “Two hundred seventy-one people killed in plane crash,” she reads. “Human error among possible causes.”
She opens her email, knowing there will be no new message from Alex and cursing herself for those few times—the last two months ago—when out of anger or panic of discovery she deleted every note from him or to him. She will have only the most recent of their correspondence. Most of their four years is gone. She doesn’t know what happens to deleted emails, whether they exist anywhere or leave some trace, the electronic equivalent of ashes from a love letter set on fire. She wonders why she does not know this crucial fact of modern life.
The phone. She sees her cell phone on the floor, where she left it charging yesterday, knowing Alex would not call because he was flying home, because his wife was picking him up at the airport as she always did. “It’s nice of her, don’t you think?” he said casually, more than once, and Suzanne had murmured yes. Because Princeton was nearly an hour’s drive from the Philadelphia or Newark airports, Suzanne usually flew into Newark and rode the train home, calling for a ride from the station only if the small connector wasn’t running or she had more than the single carry-on bag she usually traveled with.
She grabs the phone, yanks it free of the charger, presses its power button with a too-strong thumb, her breathing rapid, uneven. There are no messages at all, and she shudders a long exhalation, wondering whether Alex was unable to place a last call or whether he did place a final call but not to her. She feels bloodless, her head drained, her fingers tingling.
She turns back to her email, scans the dozen new messages, most of them spam in some form. In the list she sees a name that registers though she cannot place it. Steven Levertov has confirmed her as a Facebook friend. The name clicks. She and the other members of the quartet signed up for Facebook and LinkedIn because Anthony insisted, sending them links to articles on how to self-promote without seeming to self-promote, telling them it was part of their job to be “out there.”
“If you want to hide in your house and play, that’s fine, but you’ve chosen to perform for a living, and this is now part of that.”
Yet she’d made the friend request to Levertov not for herself but for Ben, who made an ugly face the one time she suggested that he might try using social media himself. Levertov is one of the few composers in the United States who has had work performed by multiple full symphonies here and abroad. Though Ben doesn’t think much of Levertov’s self-conscious cleverness, others do, and his work has been buried in time capsules and fired into space. “I guess one way to stand the test of time,” Ben said when he heard that a Levertov composition was being shuttled to the space station, “is simply to have your scores physically survive. To be outlasted by paper.”
She closes her email and searches for Alex’s name, finding several notices of his death and two lengthy obituaries praising his accomplishments. The writer in Chicago mourns the promise, now broken, of even more. “This tragic loss to the music world,” Suzanne reads aloud, but her voice narrows into something porous. Like the other obituary, it quotes Alex as saying, “Music is a universal gift that unites people, repairs ruptures, and heals our pain.” Reading it again, she registers the strangeness of the words: they sound like something Alex would sneer at, not like something he ever said. Perhaps it was a comment he made when very young, or—more likely—some journalist recorded a moment of sarcasm as literal.
She scrolls down to the bottom of the story, which mentions a future public memorial and private funeral arrangements. With a shock that feels like abandonment, she recognizes that she cannot attend the funeral. His wife and son belong there; she does not. Only the most private and hidden forms of grief are open to her, and this is her own fault. Human error.
She reaches for the object she always reaches for—out of habit and love and discipline and commitment and self-loathing and simply because it is, more than anything else in the world, more than anything else her mind holds, what she does and who she is. She begins the only piece that seems possible: her part in Harold in Italy.
It was what she played in her last St. Louis performance, in one of those end-of-season concerts that allow a local principal to show off. Suzanne had already resigned her position after holding it for only three years, admitting that her perfect job was a burden if her husband was miserable and she would never have enough time for a child. But at the end of that night she wanted to stay, to play before large audiences forever, to live within a five-hour drive of the man she already loved. Vibrating with Harold, she grinned before the entire hall, miserable.
She remembers every day of the week of rehearsals, Alex’s stern instructions to the orchestra. Clarity, clarity, clarity. The timbres are separate. Stop that damn blending. But for her there was no scolding, only the one time when he added direction to her copy of Berlioz’s score. Doloroso, he wrote over the beginning of the andante, saying, “Play it like your heart is being squeezed of its blood, so great is your pain. Play it like you are mourning for the beautiful life you might have led but were denied.”
His accent fluctuated between a thud that fell with his words and a faint whisper underneath them, depending on whom he’d been talking to, how much he had been drinking, and—she learned—what effect he wanted to have. When he spoke to her that day his inflections were at their oddest, as though he and not his parents had fled small-town Bavarian poverty.
After those words, there were no instructions for her, only the watching like burning and then nodding, recognition. He saw her. Early on she wondered whether he thought she played perfectly because he already loved her or whether he loved her because she played perfectly. “There may be better violists in the world,” he said later, “but no one plays Harold as beautifully as you do.”
The applause approached wildness and the stage shook with it when Alex, again staring at her, both of them already consumed, turned his open hand for her to stand as St. Louis bid her farewell. Because she wanted to halt time but could not, she experienced the coiled happiness and remorse as though the moment had already passed, as though she was looking back on an earlier self.
Now she plays the thirty bars of the theme without error, but she is quaking and bails out before striking the 6/8 of the allegro.
Even Ben, who finds Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique gaudy, admires Harold. He likes the story of Paganini commissioning a viola concerto and then being disappointed in the piece because his Stradivarius would not be a technical superstar but a quiet, melancholic voice. Then, after its triumphant premiere, Paganini allowed Berlioz to believe he’d paid him for the composition when really the money had been merely funneled through him—a ruse that allowed the composer’s friends to keep him fed.
Yet Ben loves the music as well as the story, comprehending that the flamboyant, large-handed Romantic struck an ore of the sublime despite himself. So many musicians accomplish what they do in spite of themselves; it is dangerous to read the biography of a composer you love. More dangerous still to marry one.
In love Berlioz was passionate, misguided, faithful only in his way. Love inspired his music and often drove him feral. The Fantastique swelled from his obsession with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. Over this object of his desire he wept in public and scrawled pages describing his immense anguish. Once Liszt, Mendelssohn, and Chopin searched the suburbs of Paris for their love-struck friend, convinced that he might kill himself over a woman he had never met and to whom he wrote frightening letters, bitterly jealous of her stage lovers as well as of the men who actually saw her chambers. In the final movement of his symphony, he represented her as a whore at the witches’ Sabbath.
“And so it was,” Alex once told her, taking the pedagogical tone he sometimes used with her, perhaps intentionally calling attention to the difference in their ages, “that sexual obsession resulted in one of Romantic music’s innovations: the wedding of music and story.” In the flawed, brilliant, highly autobiographical Fantastique, the hero thinks of his beloved always in association with a musical theme. Without words, the music tells a story.
After six years of bizarre courtship, occasionally broken by brief fixations on other women, Berlioz convinced Harriet Smithson to marry him. She proved shrewish and hard-drinking. They bickered for more than two decades until her death freed him to marry the mistress he’d taken almost immediately after his wedding, at about the time he composed Harold in Italy: a singer of no real talent.
About two and half years after the St. Louis performance—two and a half years into the four years of her affair with Alex—Suzanne offered herself to a recital series at Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre because Alex would be in Paris. He told her she was too good for the series—Chopin butchers all of them—but when she told him the date, his voice lifted, as close as he ever came to happy.
The church was domed but built to a more human scale than a cathedral. It still smelled of wet stone, as it must have in the twelfth century, when its presence tempted French peasants fresh from the countryside to choose faith amid squalor. She played well to several dozen people, a small audience but one appreciative of the music and a place to sit for two hours on a frozen January night.
The next day she and Alex walked the city, mile after shivering mile, and finally stood in front of Sacré-Coeur, all of Paris spread yellow-gray below them. “Is this why we fought the tourists to come up here?” she asked. He shook his head, and they ambled down through Montmartre, a walk that seemed aimless until they entered the cemetery squashed into the bottom of the hill. As they walked its narrow pedestrian avenues, Suzanne read aloud the names of the families interred in the idiosyncratic mausoleums, some of which looked shiny-new though they were centuries old. She was reciting one such name when Alex hushed her, pointing to a simple black crypt, an oversized coffin sitting on the pale dirt. Suzanne stepped toward it and saw the beaked face of Hector Berlioz etched into the dark marble, his name, the dates of his birth and death.
“This is why we came out to Montmartre,” Alex said.
That night he surprised her again, producing tickets to a concert at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées. As she sat in the art deco cylinder she could feel its history, imagine the rioting audience at the 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring.
That night’s program was less scandalous and more appreciatively received: a Russian pianist with horrible hair who so delighted the French concertgoers with Schumann, Chopin, and an unusually human Prokofiev that they stamped their feet until he played four encores. Even Alex, who believed the encore destroyed a program’s integrity, clapped loudly, stamped his foot, laughed with Suzanne. “They’re going to have to turn up the houselights,” she said, “before the French ruin this poor guy’s wrists.” But she knew the pianist didn’t mind; what musician doesn’t want to be adored? “Promise me we’ll come back to Paris together,” Alex said, his tone stern and a little alarmed. “I promise,” she said, but it was a lie. It was made a lie by a plane crash in the American Midwest.
Again Suzanne raises her viola, tucks its familiar hard cradle under her chin. She swipes the bow across the strings. Without planning to, she begins again the theme from Harold. The sound is sweet—always it has been sweet. The vibrating strings feel abnormally thick, as though they have been submerged, bloated by water. Despite their thick feel under her callused fingerprints, and though she grips her bow harder than usual, the run-through is clean. Her right tricep is sore when she finishes.
She will never perform the piece again. Perhaps she will play it, probably she will, if not for a long time, but she will never again play it when she is not alone. Its performance belongs to the past, when her lover breathed air in and out of his lungs, told her ear that he loved her as if it were a secret between him and it. This is the present and not the past, when she was certain that she and Alex would return to the Théatre des Champs-Elysées after again paying homage to Berlioz in a Montmartre cemetery.
She pictures Hector Berlioz alone, seeking refuge from the Italian heat in the cool chambers of Saint Peter’s, his volume of Byron heavy on his lap. Suzanne has never been to Saint Peter’s, but she imagines it as Notre Dame, as Saint Paul’s, as the Cathedral de San Juan and the one in Seville—all the cathedrals Alex ever pulled her into. Alex shared Berlioz’s love of them, though less for their cool sanctuary than for the ambition they represent—that human desire for height and beauty and something better. When they entered a cathedral he would stand at its center, put his hands to his hips, nod satisfaction, as if to say, This is good enough.
Once Alex drove Suzanne through the neighborhood where he’d grown up, past the cheap house where his father had hit him with too many fists to count and more than once with a full bottle of beer. Down the street from the house swelled a large church, made huge by the stinginess of its surroundings. “You could see it from every street. It was like a cathedral to us, and it saved me.” But Suzanne knew that the building had not saved him. Alex had escaped his childhood with his brilliance intact through music and through pure will. He built his own invisible cathedral and rose from the ground.
Suzanne was born to parents afraid of height. She remembers her mother, pinned against the panel between two elevator banks, unable to take one step toward the glass walls of the Empire State Building’s observation floor while Suzanne walked its circumference, looking to the ground for her father, who had been unable even to enter the building, who has been unable to do many things in his life.
Yet Suzanne sighted in Alex something beyond her own absence of fear—a passion for altitude, a desire to ascend from the filth and stupidity that hulked over his childhood. He had a friend who took him up in a small plane. It scared her when he told her, and she understood why he had been so alarmed when she’d told him about a high school boyfriend who’d taken her on fast motorcycle rides.
“I don’t even want to think about your having died before I met you,” he said.
Flirting more than anything, not really thinking, she said, “But you wouldn’t have known what you were missing.”
He turned toward her, staring hard, voice angry. “Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that.”
When he told her about the friend with the small plane, she said, “That’s the kind that goes down. But it’s back-page and not front-page news because only four people die at a time.”
“I’m not afraid of dying in that sort of plane crash,” he explained. “It’s not like being hit by a bus. How awful that would be, everything just smashed and over before you knew what hit you. Going down in a small plane would be visceral. Falling and thinking, This really isn’t happening, except it is. This is a great thrill, and now I am dying. Look how high we are, how far we have to fall.”
Suzanne despised the image, but she understood and told him so.
“But I would hate to die in a big plane,” he said. “No view. Dying knowing that the last thing you’d see in life is some Tom Cruise movie or a fat woman in a pink track suit.”
It was a full-sized jet, the one he’d gone down in.
After dialing the 800 numbers advertised for family members, Suzanne spends the hour she is on hold cleaning the house with one arm, a crick in her neck. The phone is uncomfortable in the hollow of her chin. Unlike her viola, it is small and easily dropped. Its hardness feels cheap.
Using lemon oil, she polishes the single piece of furniture she has from her mother: a heavy cypress buffet, plain except for its three drawers engraved with intricate leaves. She spends a long time in the depression of each leaf and accesses her clearest memories of the woman who hid birthday presents in the drawers. Avoiding the overwhelming new grief by returning to the old, Suzanne clicks through the mental pictures like a slideshow. Her mother, about a year after the Empire State Building visit, hair disheveled, fending off Suzanne’s father with a skillet as they back out the porch door for the last time. Her mother through a fogged passenger-side window, standing in the front yard of a tract house she desperately wants to sell so she can pay the rent on their apartment and continue Suzanne’s private lessons. Her mother, beauty evaporated by difficulty and illness, dying at home like Suzanne promised. But there are as many images of her mother not there: concert-hall seats filled by people who aren’t her mother. The vacant front-row seat at Suzanne’s graduation recital at the Curtis Institute, the empty seats in Charleston, the seated strangers at all her performances in St. Louis. Her mother didn’t live to see her succeed, though it was a future she always believed in, even when Suzanne did not.
A young woman’s voice comes though the line, startling Suzanne from her crooked housework.
“What was the movie on the plane, on the plane that dropped like a stone from the sky?” Suzanne’s words tumble into one another as she rushes them. “Do you know who the actor was?”
“You’re horrible,” the high voice answers. “People died. Their wives and children are trying to find out information, and you’re playing pranks.”
Suzanne thinks of Alex unwrapping his tray of food, struggling with the cellophane to extract the disposable fork, fumbling with the paper salt packet that might make the portions edible. “Wait,” she says, trying to suppress the crazed tone she hears. “This is more important. Was there a meal or a snack box? Was there a choice?”
“You’re either a bad journalist or a bad person,” the young woman on the other end of the line says, her voice lifting and tight. “You’re a sick woman. You need help.”
She hangs up before Suzanne can explain that it isn’t a prank, that it matters to her what her lover saw and tasted in the last minutes of his life. She hangs up before Suzanne can tell her that, yes, she is a bad person, that she is not Alex’s wife, but that she mattered to him and needs to know. She wants to say that Alex should have gone down in his friend’s plane, toward a screen of greenery, holding a perfectly crisp apple missing one sweet bite, every foot of lost altitude a measure of how far he had risen.
Elise Blackwell is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, and Grub and have appeared on numerous “best of the year” lists. This excerpt is from her fourth novel, An Unfinished Score, available from Unbridled Books in April 2010.
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Elise Blackwell