The Consorts

by GRETCHEN FINLETTER

IN FICTION and in many biographies, musicians are pictured as tempestuous characters, great lovers, careless of their appearance, late for their engagements, lost in a dreamworld of creation, with no head for finance, out of contact with everyday life, speaking all languages with a heavy accent, and living in studios with moss-green walls, or garrets, or the palazzo of some Contessa.

That is as may be. I cannot speak for other times. I also know the story of Chopin and George Sand; of Liszt and the Countess d’Agoult. They belonged in he nineteenth century, the romantic century. But I have suspected that biographers have colored their stories, that there are holes which if filled in would make Chopin or Liszt not so unlike an artist of today.

There is a picture which has been printed in many magazines in black and white and in color, to advertise a perfume. I have a sneaking fondness for this picture — it is so very romantic — but I do not believe it. It shows a young woman at the piano and a violinist beside her. A climax has come in the music which has so moved the violinist that he stops his playing and passionately kisses the pianist as her hands still rest on the keys. This is, I believe, an impossible situation.

It is fair to assume that they are playing a sonata, let us say the Brahms D Minor, because only great music could inspire such feelings. In a sonata the pianist and the violinist are equals — one does not accompany the other. Therefore they have the same rights. Now to play a sonata well, the two musicians must have played it several times together, gone over certain passages, agreed on the tempo. Therefore it is probable that this violinist and pianist have not played it before because they are struck dumb at some moment by the music — it is a surprise to them. If they had practiced it they would be concentrating on giving a good performance this time, getting the crescendo right, increasing the fortissimo.

In the Brahms D Minor the great climax comes in the third movement. They have therefore already played two movements together. This means that one is in a high state of irritation at the other because one artist always does play a little better, or let us say a little differently from another. In the picture the violinist looks shabby — he suggests a professor or perhaps a teacher. He is, I think, the professional, and the lady is the amateur. At the climax the violinist wants to take his bow and hit her over the head with it because she is not in time and can’t keep up. At that moment he hates her.

I have never known a musician to be late for a professional engagement. He is in the greenroom nervously pacing up and down a good forty minutes before the concert begins. He may dress in an individual style but it is carefully thought out. He is well aware of the hundreds of eyes that are studying his cutaway or dress suit. His attire is not careless.

The artists who tour America, who gave concerts in Europe before the war, can remember in a moment what are the seating capacities of the various halls and opera houses from Munich to San Francisco. They know the gross, they understand the per cent. Managers may grow nostalgic for the dreamy artist who does not understand about money but they seldom have the pleasure of dealing with one.

My father once asked Rachmaninoff what he was really looking at when he gazed at the gallery with that tiger stare which so fascinated and frightened audiences.

“Counting the standees in the balcony,” said Rachmaninoff. “The manager told me they were not allowed, but there were forty-three.”

If artists live in studios, they also live in apartments, suburban houses, bungalows. There is a hotel in New York on the West Side which is one of the ugliest hotels in the world. It has a gargantuan lobby in picked metal, its corridors stretch endlessly, the rooms have golden chandeliers full of bright electric bulbs. Here live some of our greatest musicians. The manager loves music. He knows about late suppers and later breakfasts. He keeps the rooms for the tenor who is touring in South America. He has a bouquet of red roses waiting for him with “Welcome Home” written on it. There are no pastel colors on the walls, no candlelight, but the most beautiful music played today is played in that hotel.

What is the special quality that differentiates the musician from the sculptor, the painter, the writer? To me it lies in the fact that he so loves his art that he pursues it not only as a profession but also for relaxation. He makes his career in music and then he has not had enough of it; he makes his gayety and good times with music also. Heifetz and Casals will play in a Mozart quartet — for fun. Melchior will sing a big role in the opera, but will sing German Lieder for the general joy of a group of friends — and himself. Watch a musician staying at a house where there is no piano. He may not want to play the piano but it ought to be there. He feels lonely and insecure without it.

A trait that musicians share is their love of good food. No one ever had a poor meal in a musician’s home. The artists who travel so much and so far learn very quickly which are the good restaurants in the different cities. After a performance they eat with zest and they eat well. They are relaxed and the moment comes for the stories to be exchanged. In their travels musicians hear the good jokes from all over the world and it is a sort of unwritten law that when they return to base they will exchange with brother artists the latest anecdotes.

Paul Kochanski was one of the greatest of raconteurs. Acting out the characters, using four languages, mimicking the voices, interpolating with his violin, he would keep a roomful of people crying with laughter. His eye and ear missed nothing. In the presence of Spalding and Heifetz and Zimbalist he would imitate their individual way of playing the same passage and taking a curtain call, a satire which they were the first to recognize and laugh over.

And later in the evening, with Artur Rubinstein, Paul played the Cesar Franck sonata in a way which brought other tears to the eyes of the little audience crowded onto chairs and sitting on the floor, moved beyond words at this perfect example of the creative something that the great interpretive musicians bring to music. Paul and Artur played César Franck, but in the poetry of their playing was the essence of themselves.

2

As FAR back as I can remember, my sisters and I heard music in our home. We had our favorites among the musicians, but not because of their particular artistic merit. Our praise and admiration went to those who remembered our names individually and did not speak of us as “the little daughters,” to those who brought us presents, and above all to those who were funny. This was to us the supreme test of musical worth. We sat with the men over their cigars, slightly concealed by a portière, so that we could watch the expressive face of Ossip Gabrilówitsch as he told my father an anecdote, and then tried to hide our shrieks of amusement in the general masculine roar. We peered at Alma Gluck from behind a screen, not just because she was so beautiful, but because she was the only woman we knew who could tell a story as well as a man.

There was another side to knowing the artists, which we did not always enjoy, in fact which we frequently protested against. My father would invite to the house some musician whom he had met in Europe or who was to perform with the orchestra, and he did not always know the artist well. The violinist would come with his wife, the singer with her husband, and we would be left to entertain the consort. My father could never be clear to us as to what the consort was like. The words “charming” or “original” were used frequently but often, we felt, inaccurately.

One day my father announced quite suddenly that Monsieur Aragonnes, leading French clarinet player of the Colonne Orchestra, was coming to lunch with his wife and that they were bringing their child. Now here my father made that unforgivable error of not realizing that ages are different. Everyone between five and sixteen was a child to him and they should all get on harmoniously together. Though we pointed out again and again the vast gap that existed between, say, eleven and thirteen, he could not grasp it and continued to invite what were to us incongruous specimens of childhood.

We gathered in the living room before lunch and waited in utter cynicism for Monsieur and Madame Aragonnes and the “child.” My father had no idea of its sex.

“What difference does it make!” he exclaimed.

First Monsieur entered, smiling happily at seeing my father again. Then came Madame, dressed in a black suit with a white satin blouse, black hat with an aigrette, face beautifully made up, gleaming teeth and snapping black eyes. Following them came the child. He was a youth of about seventeen with the shadowy feather of a mustache on his upper lip, an adolescent complexion, and possessing faultless and to us revolting manners.

“Chère Madame,” said Monsieur Aragonnes after he had presented his wife to my mother, “ voilà notre jeune fils, notre petit garçon, Pépé.”

So, Monsieur made the same mistake as my father by referring to his aged son as a little boy. Perhaps we had a bond with him there. We looked at him hopefully. Not a gleam in his eye — Pépé liked it!

“Madame,” and Pépé bowed low over my mother’s hand as he kissed it. “Mademoiselle —” He went to each of us and shook our hands. At the final “Mademoiselle” his voice took on a different color. Could he be patronizing us because he thought he was so sophisticated?

At luncheon Pépé entered into the conversation as an equal. He discussed the performance of Istar by Vincent d’lndy. Had my father played the latest work of Ducasse? Très intéressant. We listened to him with hatred. He was supposed to be our friend. We didn’t want him in that role but we wanted — a little recognition. How affected he was to speak French so well. And his English — like an Englishman. What a show-off.

After lunch my father retired to his music room with Monsieur, his clarinet, a roll of music, and Madame, who was to accompany her husband. My mother went upstairs. We were left with Pépé.

Now here we were faced with several choices. To try to humiliate Pépé and make him come down off his high horse; to try to impress him how much better Americans were than Frenchmen; to start talking an invented language to each other and tell him it was Hungarian; to inform him falsely of the customs of our country, or to give him one more chance. We could avail ourselves of none of these possibilities. Pépé took charge of the conversation.

Did we go to school? No, French boys went to the lycée, much more difficult, like an American college. His hair had fallen out on one side of his head during the last examinations. What instruments did we play? Of course everyone played the piano, but he was majoring in the viola and played the flute for relaxation. Have we been often to Paris? That was unfortunate, as it was the most beautiful city in the world; did we know it was called the city of light? For sport he preferred fencing and mountain climbing, he had made the ascent of Mont Blanc only last summer.

We closed in on him.

“Pépé, have you seen Buffalo Bill yet? You don’t know what we are talking about! Which do you think is funnier, Foxy Grandpa or the Katzenjammer Kids? You’ve never tasted a Banana Split? You’ve never seen a minstrel show? You don’t know what the loop-the-loop is? In a minute you’ll tell us you have never heard of Uncle Tom! ”

We looked at each other in exaggerated surprise. We looked at Pépé with ostentatious pity.

“Why, you must have spent your whole life in Paris!”

Pépé’s face turned pink. At this moment the clarinet in the next room let off an unearthly wail which ended in a kind of shriek. All our eyes met. Pépé’s face turned red. He walked over to the door and slammed it.

“Je déteste Fauré et plus que ça je déteste la clarinette!”

We looked at him with surprised admiration. How bold to bang the door on your father. And then Pépé’s eyes abruptly filled with real tears. We were in consternation.

Polly ran out of the room and brought down her alligator John D. Crockefeller and let Pépé hold it. We examined the thinner side of Pépé’s head and told him we thought French schools were brutal. We confessed we hated practicing the piano. We extended condolences to him for being called such a silly name as Pépé. We told him we thought his mother looked nice and he said she was difficult in the early morning. We advised him to give up kissing hands. We wound up the gramophone.

Monsieur and Madame Aragonnes entered the room with my father.

“Ah, la jeunesse, la jeunesse!” cried Monsieur as Madame smoothed the thicker side of Pépé’s head. We tried to encourage Pépé by our looks.

“You see,” said my father after they had gone, “how foolish you are to object when a nice French boy comes to lunch.”

We didn’t even attempt to explain that he was not nice until we had made him so by our Old World courtesy.

3

WE WERE excited when we were told Brünnhilde was coming to the house. Brünnhilde who had been ringed by fire, awakened by Siegfried, was coming to a meal. My father said she might sing on spring tour with the orchestra if certain details could be ironed out.

She arrived without her shield and spear, but with her husband. She was large; that we knew for we had seen her in the opera, but it was a different kind of largeness in Tyrolean tweeds. We thought of her as a goddess, above all earthly needs, but now this daughter of Wotan was eating a big lunch with amazing gusto, telling about her Kinder in Dresden, informing my mother that bet uns politics is the man’s business, der liebe Gott intended women for better things, assuring my father that Pol Plançon, the great French bass, flatted when he sang, and was finished.

My father protested that this was not true.

Ach, I could tell you a thing or two about the Opera. There should be many changes there. Take Sembrich—” js '

“I’ll take her anywhere!” cried my father. “I adore her.”

Brünnhilde’s eyes flashed. For a moment she looked again like a real Valkyrie. We waited breathless for a glorious note to be hurled across the table.

“ If Sembrich had a private car for her tour, I too must have a private car!”

“Schätzchen, do not excite yourself,” begged her husband, who had been listening with a nervous smile. He turned to my father. “She is only a child. She must save her strength for her exhausting roles. She must not concern herself with business arrangements. Leave them to me.”

“If Sembrich had a private car —” repeated Brünnhilde.

“Eat another Kitchen,” urged her husband. “Echte Wiener Torte” He turned to my mother. “I congratulate you.”

“I didn’t bake it!” exclaimed my mother, still seething over the description of God’s intentions for women.

Brünnhilde ate another slice of cake and said she had no appetite.

“Damrosch, let us be frank. Let us have no misunderstandings. I admire you, I like you. We are friends — yes?”

“Yes,” said my father.

“This is between us. The Bruno, my husband, is a businessman, so he cannot understand the strain that a dramatic soprano who sings twenty-seven roles works under. The good Mrs. Damrosch is a wife, a mother, the noblest of all careers, but. she cannot realize what it is to conduct a great orchestra. You and I — we are artists. We know what that means!”

“What does it mean?” asked my father.

“It means,” announced Brünnhilde in a loud voice, “that if Sembrich had a private car, I too will have a private car!”

My father remained unperturbed. “Tell me,” he said, “why have you never sung Eva?”

“Never sung Eva! Tell him, Bruno, in Vienna, at Stockholm, at the Hamburg Municipal Theater — the ovations!”

“Then why not in New York?”

“Because they do not know what makes a good Meistersinger in New York! They have never heard a real Eva.”

“How would it be,” suggested my father, “if on the tour we gave some excerpts from the second act? ”

Brunnhilde’s face was suddenly illuminated by a brilliant smile.

“Ah, that is a great idea! Damrosch, I do not care what anyone else says, you are a genius! Come let me show you. Where is the piano?”

“You have eaten a large lunch,” reminded Bruno.

“I ate nothing. Where is the piano?”

Bruno, my mother, and the rest of us sat on in the dining room. Bruno looked at my mother a little wanly.

“She is like a child,” he repeated, without much conviction.

At that moment we did not care what she was, we knew it had no importance. Whatever she asked for she should be given. For with the first great chords of music, we heard her voice. Our home had become a garden in old Nuremberg, bathed in moonlight, and Eva was stealing out from the shadows toward Hans Sachs. We listened, spellbound.

Watching the consorts, I used to wonder what their contribution was. The men in this role I did not think fared so well. Their queens bore a different name, made a great deal of money all over the world, often felt victimized, and needed their husbands to straighten out their difficulties and above all to reassure them. This historically is the role of woman. It is not an easy part for a man to play. Sometimes a great singer was married to a gambler and was feverishly trying to put aside enough to pay his debts. He was the love of her life and he was unfaithful to her. But the Daemon that possesses the artist world never has allowed her to give up her career and stay with him.

This Daemon, this thing in the artist, is the chemistry of his make-up. Women have always liked to feel that they can inspire, that they can cause the great notes to be written. As I observed the variety of consorts who came to our home I found I did not believe this. One wife might make the right atmosphere, produce the protected quiet, but another did just the opposite. She was loud-mouthed and selfcentered. A woman married to an artist, who built up his ego and produced a sympathetic circle of admirers and patrons, undoubtedly made life pleasanter for her husband. But there was the opposite picture of the artist’s wife who made enemies and had taken to drink. And her husband was the bigger musician.

He was big — because he was big; because somehow the Daemon had entered his being and ruled him, beside which his wife, his children, the right atmosphere, the beautiful background, were as nothing. He served something else which was much stronger, which demanded creation from him. The rest could help or hinder — a little.

Women must feel necessary; they seem happiest when they feel used. The artist’s wife and the wife of the brakeman have that in common. The artist is more prominent, so his wife’s role is subjected to a brighter light of observation, but both wives are, I believe, giving the identical contribution, the companion who stands between, who reassures, who is there.

I used to feel sorry for some of the wives who were touring with their husbands. They were so very far from home and so homesick for their children. Sooner or later they would bring out their snapshots to show my mother. Then with a little urging they would show us further pictures of their homes in Switzerland or France — the pretty homes they would not see for many months.

4

THE day that Paderewski came to lunch we had excuses to leave school early. My mother had taken great trouble in ordering the food. We had at this time a German chef called Karl, who preferred cooking for occasions. At six in the morning he was already hard at work. Karl wanted to show Paderewski the kind of performance he could give.

My sisters and I knew we should get a wonderful lunch, but let it be said to our credit we were more excited at the prospect of watching Paderewski eat. We had met him, we had heard him play, but we had never seen him eat. Madame Paderewska had asked that there be no other guests, so we knew that no matter where we were placed at table we should have an uninterrupted view of the hands of Paderewski lifting the fork of Paderewski to the mouth of Paderewski through four long courses.

What was the quality that made him so frightening when he entered the room? He was so individuallooking in his frock coat, low white collar, and white tie, his great head of reddish hair, his long arms, his beautiful hands; but it was his eyes that were so extraordinary. They had the remote look and the hidden fire of a wild animal; they looked as though they had seen things that no one had ever seen before. They suggested that Paderewski had not come from Poland, but was from a distant planet where the race was even older, wiser. And he had such dignity that one would not have dared say or do anything that could disturb him. He spoke in a soft voice but the quality of the tone could silence a room in a second. Paderewski had great wit and could cap anyone, but it was a little like a god disguising himself for a moment as a mortal before he withdrew again to Olympus. ,

Madame Paderewska seemed surrounded by an aura of melancholy. I do not know if it was anxiety for her famous husband, or her temperament, but her quality was depressing. She meant to be cordial but it was a very gloomy kind of good cheer. If Paderewski threw back his head and laughed I felt that Madame Paderewska’s main concern was a fear that he might strain his neck muscles. She watched him with such a troubled look. She did not speak English well and when the conversation became rapid she may have felt excluded.

The first course came on the table and we saw that Karl had outdone himself. We waited, careful not to start eating until the Paderewskis ate. He was talking to my father. We waited a little longer; then Madame Paderewska spoke.

“Madame Damrosch, pliz, may Ignace have a poached egg?”

“ What!”exclaimed my father.

“Ignace for luncheon only eats an egg.”

“But this is a simple dish,” said my father falsely, “I know he will enjoy it.”

“Pliz, an egg,” repeated Madame Paderewska firmly. “Nossing else.”

My mother commanded the egg. We heard the dumb-waiter bell buzz and the order being hissed down to Karl. We were all of us distractedly picturing the scene below. Karl’s spirit would be broken. Could he pull himself together enough to poach the egg? Would it come up — just an egg — or might he make the supreme effort and put it on a little piece of toast and trim it up with parsley?

Paderewski had withdrawn to his mountaintop. I wondered what that far-away look in his eyes meant. I became convinced he wanted to eat everything we were eating. He was off there on that mountain because he was mad.

In the middle of the second course the dumbwaiter creaked again and the eggs arrived, two of them, on toast with fixings. Lunch became lively, Paderewski’s eyes lighted, and wherever he had been, he left it and joined the party again.

Later we watched the Paderewskis through the window as they left. He was wearing a round fur cap on top of his waving hair. Madame Paderewska hung on to his arm and people turned to stare as they walked slowly up the street. My mother and father went down to the kitchen to face Karl.

5

ISADORA DUNCAN had no consort. She came unheralded to New York, this strange little Californian genius who was to change the conception of the Dance for many years. My father went to see her in an old loft downtown; she was too poor to have a proper studio. She danced in front of some gray curtains which had been tacked up as a background. My father was struck dumb by the simple figure in a Greek kirtle who moved so joyously to the music of Schubert. It was a Tanagra figure come alive again. He recognized her wonderful art, took the gamble, and engaged her at his own risk to dance with the orchestra. This was a bold move on his part, for great orchestras were not supposed to perform with dancers. But Isadora made a furor and the public, accustomed to the artificial ballet on the toes, went wild with delight at this new old form.

I was very young when I saw her but I remember that I cried — my first tears shed at the startling quality of beauty. I must have been studying mythology, for it seemed to me that Isadora was Daphne dancing in some ancient glade, and that behind the trees lurked Apollo, but that she, the nymph, did not know or care it he was there. Let her later be transformed to a laurel, but now she wanted only to dance alone to the music of Gluck, a wild and happy creature, for she was free.

I went to every performance of Isadora that my parents allowed me and of course decided that I could dance that way too. It was so simple; that was its essence. Secretly I went to Bloomingdale’s big department store and bought cheesecloth for a costume. It was very cheap, eleven cents a yard, and I wanted to be sure I had enough, so I bought a bolt, enough to outfit a hundred Greeks in kirtles. When it arrived I found it was of double width and I did not know how to cut it out. I made a hole for my head, sewed up the sides, chopped off the bottom, and tied the corded belt of my wrapper around my waist. The part over my shoulders was so wide that it dropped down over my hands every time I made a whirl with my arms but I did not dare ask the advice of Minnie or my sisters, for I knew that they would laugh at me.

I performed in Alice’s room when she was out because it gave me more space and because she had a mirror on her bureau which could be tilted, so that when I floated out of her closet door, for a brief second I could see myself in entirety from bare Greek feet to flower-covered Greek head.

I was completely happy — not that I felt I was beginning a career which would shortly lead me to Carnegie Hall; I had no such ambition, for I was too humble and some inner voice told me I was a gawk. I wanted to recapture for myself the thrill of joy I had felt in watching Isadora, and in this I succeeded. Alice’s room became a Delphic grove, and thanks to the fact that the mirror could only reflect bits of me, I was a dryad and my humming voice an orchestra.

Isadora Duncan as an artist had genius, but as a person she was a goose. It must have been a Godgiven instinct which was infallible when she created the form of her dances; there was a rightness about all of them. But when she talked she was almost idiotic. She had theories about everything and my father had to listen to all of them.

He would watch her across the footlights, enraptured, and then she would come to the house and he and my mother would become rapidly unenraptured, almost frantic. Isadora admired my father and was grateful to him forgiving her her start, and I think felt that in return she should liberate him. She was very concerned over “freedom,”and thought everyone should strive for it. But it was difficult in our house to free my father. There was my mother and there were his daughters always sitting around. There never seemed to be the right moment to break his chains.

She called my father “Walter” and my mother “Mrs. Damrosch” and still my father remained tied. She urged my father to come to her chilly loft after a performance to really talk about fundamentals but my father said he was hot from conducting and wanted to get home and take a bath. So Isadora had to come to our home to explain to my father in her curiously flat little voice how one should live if one really wanted to live.

She would appear in a velvet cloak and Victorian bonnet, the costume that she affected during the daytime, and my mother, who greatly admired her dancing, would praise her latest performance to the skies. Isadora would thank my mother graciously and then ask if a lamp or two could be turned out because she could express herself better in a dim light.

Whether my mother was there or not, I sat happily with my father and Isadora. It never crossed my mind that such a true adorer of her art as myself could be anything but gratifying to her. I do not think that my father noticed one way or the other. He was too used to seeing his daughters about. But now in retrospect I can imagine that to have your great conclusions on Life, intended for a kindred spirit but listened to so eagerly by a twelve-year-old in a plaid skirt and red sweater on which was embroidered an H for Harvard, must have been to Isadora a ghastly comeuppance.

Because I helped the conversation along. Whenever there was a pause, a silent, significant pause in the dim light, I filled it in. A silence, I knew very well, meant that no one could think of anything to say and was embarrassing, so I added my observations to cover up the gaps.

I remember that one afternoon Isadora started to tell my father about Venice; that she was returning to that glorious city because she wanted again to find herself. She would be alone . . . perhaps. . . . There was a pause.

“Oh, I’d like to see Venice,” I piped up. “Can’t we all go next summer, Parp?”

There was a slightly longer pause.

“My child,” said Isadora fondly, “you will go to Venice some day — with someone. I see you have that capacity. But I want you to remember what I am telling you. When you go, love beautifully. That is all that ever matters.”

This was strong meat. I chewed it over. I couldn’t gel it out of my head. Isadora saw me, so to speak, as potential Venetian material. I floated off in a cloud.

But later I found Jenny dusting the piano with one of my Greek costumes. I came back to earth with a bang.