ERHARDT VON CSUMLAY was dressed in black, not because his wife had recently died, but because black is a serious color. He watched a smartly dressed crowd streaming into the auditorium of the University of California, and cursed Stravinsky. That fellow had got away with murder. Nothing admirable about him except that he had stuck to his guns. Full marks for tenacity, for belief in himself. But as for talent? What did those minked and sabled ladies know of music? Stravinsky was just a great name for a composer, exotic but not too difficult to pronounce. It looked good on a program. Like Picasso, there’s another one. Catchy. Easy to remember. Von Csumlay was exotic, all right, but too authentic to be popular, too true to itself.
The concert was about to begin. Dr. Von Csumlay did not deign to enter. Had Stravinsky appeared in person, his arms outstretched, and said, “Erhardt Von Csumlay, at last we meet, your passacaglia for strings, two trombones, and percussion has always been the greatest inspiration to me,” Erhardt would have turned away sourly and said, “I wish I could say the same for a single bar of your music, Herr Stravinsky.” But Stravinsky did not appear. At the time he was in Venice, conducting a new work of his at the festival.
As the first notes of the Sacre du Printemps were heard faintly from the interior of the hall, Dr. Von Csumlay turned away his head and winced. Then he walked off into the balmy night, searching the past for consolation. He remembered his youth in Hungary, how his grandfather had given him his first undersized violin and taught him the tunes of his native soil. His father had been a professor of music at Nyíregyháza. underpaid and deservedly so, Whereas his grandfather had been an out-and-out peasant, a simple jolly soul with an agreeable smell of toil about him, his father had tried to better himself by glorifying all that was German and academic.
Erhardt remembered him as a small man, prematurely bald, immaculately dressed as a bank manager, his dull eyes staring arrogantly behind a mean pair of pince-nez. He had seemed determined to prove that music was a reputable profession, fit for gentlemen, which had rules as inflexible as the rules of science. As Erhardt practiced the violin, for which he had talent, his father would stand by, counting like a human metronome, cane in hand ready to rap Erhardt’s fingers at every false note. There were no feelings to the man, just a conviction of what was right and what was wrong. Anything contemporary was automatically wrong.
The boy, who loved music, revolted both against the colorless professionalism of his father and against the gaumless spontaneity of his grandfather. At the end of World War I, a new spirit swept across the arts, a spirit chaotic, iconoclastic, and mechanical God was unseated from the celestial throne by the accumulated bitterness of the defeated, and the man-made machine set up in His place. Melody was displaced by rhythm, beauty by freakishness.
Young Erhardt. embraced the new creed with fervor, it Spelled liberation from all academic responsibilitie , from all the rigidity of which his father was so proud. Me grew his hair very long, wore the expression of revolt permanently on his face, and set up house in a Budapest garret with a very dirty Romanian lady twice his age, who believed he could do no wrong.
He caroused all night, talking black philosophy to his cronies while his mistress smoked knowingly from an immense cigarette holder, and during the day he wrote violent, formless, cruel music, occasionally making love as violent and as formless as his composition. Mis sonata for three drums was an immediate success and had the honor to be hissed at the annual meeting of the International Society for Contemporary Music. The news of this fiasco d’estime spread far and wide, and he was asked to lecture in America, which he did, marrying the Romanian lady for the sake of American morality. His symphonic poem, Test Bench, dedicated to the city of Cleveland, was hissed in that city, and the first performance of his opera for a single voice, accompanied by a double orchestra and a chorus of masked dancers, entitled Formula 21, caused a riot at the Metropolitan before the end of the first act. His appearance in Paris unleashed an equal furor. Here he divorced the Romanian lady for the Sake of Parisian morality, although they continued living together, and the world premiere of his concerto for musical saw and nine woodwinds caused a duel between two cabinet ministers, in the course of which one was seriously wounded.
GRADUALLY the world calmed down, and certain of the leaders in the musical world were stealthily reintroducing melody into their works again. Slowly, booing lost its interest for the intellectuals, and applause began to gain ground as a standard of appreciation. Erhardt found it more and more difficult to place his works, and the Romanian lady, with barometric instinct, left him and went to live with a young painter who was making a name for the subtlety of his compositions and the gentleness of his colors.
Erhardt was still a young man, and yet music critics, on those rare occasions on which they mentioned him, attached him so firmly to the very early twenties that he might as well have been dead. Listlessly he remembered the painful interview with his publisher in Vienna. The publisher had asked him to lunch, but changed the invitation to a quick drink, owing to the pressure of business. A bad sign.
“Believe me, it isn’t that you are without talent but that you have a deficient critical faculty,”the old man had said, glancing at his watch. “I am a publisher, not an artist. It is my job to keep my ear to the ground. When the war ended and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had disintegrated, we were all so bewildered that we went wild, and we followed the noisiest leaders, not the best. Cacophony was a valid expression of our desire to destroy, to plunge ourselves into mediocrity, to say to the pleasant, green, Schubertian world the words of the villain of the melodrama, ‘If I can’t have her, nobody shall.’ But all that has changed now, Herr Csumlay.”The publisher always left out the “Von” as though he knew it had been added gratuitously by Erhardt himself.
“What do you want me to do?” he had asked the publisher rather foolishly, and he wanted to kick himself now when he remembered it.
The publisher had laughed sourly and said, “Why ask me? You are the artist, not me. If you feel compelled to go on writing as you have been writing, then go to another house, that may be more tolerant toward outworn shock tactics. If, on the other hand, you decide, or are able, to write more maturely, then submit your stuff to us by all means. But let me tell you this, my young friend: the only music worth publishing, apart from salon pieces, is music produced by compulsion, by an inner urge, and even if the result is unpleasant, it is inevitable. Your music is never inevitable. We discern a desire to shock, and it repels us. Take my advice: if there is no force within you which tells you how to write, try salon music, simple tunes which spinsters can play and which may even reach the restaurants. After all. that is music too, and it invariably pays more than the serious sonatas. Think it over. Forgive me for leaving you, but I have an appointment.” And the publisher had left the furious, humiliated Erhardt to finish his beer alone.
Now, as Erhardt walked the unfit street, listening to the summer cicadas and taking in the flickering red halo over Los Angeles, where the neon signs drummed their nervous fingers on the tranquil sky, he thought about that inner urge. So much time had passed that he could now look the publisher square in the eye and dispassionately recollect the criticism leveled at him. After all, what is music? It is a part of nature, a translation of nature with other terms.
The great romantics would have turned the majestic panorama into a splendid, turgid tone poem, evoking by quite conventional means the warm mystery of an August night, with its voluptuous orgy of stars, scattered in profusion over the heavens. Emphasis on the cellos, with some muted brass for a timeless quality. Occasionally a single violin might dislodge itself from the symphonic soup and wander selfishly over the high register, evoking the emotions of the poet, alone with his world.
But what would the romantics have done with the neon-signed, the stuttering, multicolored manifestations of restlessness and fever over on the horizon? Had they the equipment to write about what man has done with nature? No, they were only at home with nature itself, with tempests, not with traffic. It would be unreal to be a romantic today.
And yet, had he not perhaps erred by expressing only the sleazy aspects of civilization? He had written only of smoky caverns, of metal structures, of cement and electric light. Outside, in the open, there still were trees, grass, water, the same phenomena which had sparked Beethoven in his boyscout hike in the hackneyed Sixth and Mendelssohn in his Cook’s tour in the Scottish and the Italian Symphonies. Ah, if only he had lived in the nineteenth century, he could have known real success! He was good-looking, better-looking than Liszt. His white hair and anguished brow, his blue eyes, tortured enough to be interesting, would have made the ladies swoon in those ample days of facile emotions and diabolical virtuosi. He could have written a splendid Hungarian Symphony, with each movement carefully named after a recognizable Magyar mood. In his mind, he could read the program notes. A slow opening movement, “Moonlight on the Puozta,” leads without break into the tumultuous “Hungarian Village Wedding,” and from these the work broadens into the glorious “Lullaby to a Transylvanian Baby,” ending with controlled abandon in a “Symphonic Czardas” of incredible technical accomplishment. And the violin works! Humoresque upon humoresque, elves’ dances without end.
But it was not to be. Here he was, in Los Angeles, in the middle of the twentieth century, faced with both town and country, and without an inner urge to call his own. Just then a police car drove up. It had been following him at snail’s pace for ten minutes.
“Where you heading, Mac?” asked the policeman at the wheel. Walking in Los Angeles is tantamount to loitering.
“I am going to a restaurant,” answered Erhardt, who knew better than to be annoyed.
“Mind telling me which one?”
“Antal Laszlo’s Rhapsody Room.”
“ Car broken down?”
“I don’t have a car.”
“You don’t have a car!”
The policeman’s face hardened, and he braked. This certainly was suspicious. “What’s your name?” he rapped.
“Professor Erhardt Von Csumlay.”
“Engaged in atomic work?”
“Music? D’you know Perry Como?”
“You’re a music professor, and you don’t know Perry Como?”
The policeman was more suspicious than ever. “Where d’you work?” he asked.
“Warner Brothers? You a movie composer?”
“I am a serious composer, engaged occasionally in writing music for motion pictures.”
“What’s your name again?”
“Erhardt Von Csumlay.”
“When I see a name on the screen I can’t pronounce, I’ll know you wrote the music.”
Erhardt tried to smile.
“What’s that restaurant again?”
“Antal Laszlo’s Rhapsody Room.”
“Know how to get there?”
“OK. Take it easy.”
The policeman drove slowly into the night.
Erhardt detested encounters with officials, but was never surprised or even outraged by them. Europeans had become used to persecution and endless delays on frontiers, and in the process they had learned to talk themselves out of trouble without blushing.
WHEN Erhardt had said that he worked for the Warner Brothers Film Company, it was not quite true. What had actually occurred was that round about 1930, when he was living in Paris, teaching, he had gone to a Montmartre cafe one night to drink away His sorrows, when he had heard Hungarian spoken at the next table. Listening carefully, he gathered that the party of two men and two women consisted of a film producer, Geza de Amrassy, and a film director, Lajos Dubay, and that the ladies had no permanent connection with the gentlemen. They were at the sentimental stage of inebriation, and gradually, as coherent conversation petered out, they began to sing the popular hits of their youth with clouded passion.
Erhardt wandered to the upright piano, temporarily abandoned by the resident pianist, and began to hammer out the old tunes, carrying the moribund voices of the four Hungarians on the drooping wings of the yellowed notes into their chosen Elysium, After a while, names and addresses were exchanged, and soon Erhardt found himself writing the music for a German-language film based on the life of Lajos Kossuth, the liberator of Hungary. It was a musical, and Kossuth sang Hungary to freedom in a somewhat frivolous fashion. Erhardt’s success was immediate. He even had an affair with one of the ladies at the table. More films followed. A musical about Elizabeth and Essex, and a gay piece about Rasputin entitled The Devil’s Monk.
It was inevitable that sooner or later the talented Geza de Amrassy would be summoned to Hollywood, where he was known as Gaylord de Race. It was also inevitable that, when faced with producing a Biblical outburst based on Judith and Holofernes, a subject for which he had no aptitude whatever, he would send for Erhardt simply in order to have someone to talk to. All of Erhardt’s facility for the ear-catching emotional trick was brought into play, and the high executives raved about his music for That Judith Woman, telling him confidentially that without the tunes the film would have been a dead loss.
Other movies followed without intermission, with subjects as diverse as jail breaks from Alcatraz and sexy follies in the court of Ivan the Terrible, erotic encounters in the Sahara and the escapades of a ninety-foot orangutan which threatened the known world. His life took on a new and successful rhythm. He built himself a house in a curious Mexican-Gothic style, constructed a pool, married a starlet, and worked in a room imitated from one he had seen in Pompeii, his desk surrounded by a shallow moat of water set with sparkling blue mosaic, which proved an attractive background for the goldfish. The front door, which came from a ruined Hebridean castle, was flanked by a bust of Franz Liszt on one side and one of himself on the other.
He used to sit at his desk, the waves of light from the miniature moat reflecting on his forehead, and write every kind of music to order. He dressed in what he liked to call his “creation robe,” fashioned in black velvet, with some Hussar motives worked on it in white cord. Occasionally he would stride over to a cream-colored piano and dreamily strum a few arpeggios. Lazily the borzois on the sheepskin rugs would lift an ear and then continue their picturesque activity of staring at nothing with the distinguished application of duchesses at a charity concert. He no longer thought in terms of music, but in terms of remuneration, cards, cocktails, and grandeur. His friendship with Gaylord de Race matured into a complicity. They would always play poker together, get drunk together, deceive their wives together, and the Marmon limousine of one was rarely seen without the Pierce-Arrow convertible of the other parked alongside it.
Mabel Von Csumlay had been a show girl. She was platinum blonde, button-nosed, and foolish. The borzois accepted her as one of them. Occasionally Erhardt would make love to her, calling her “my violin, the one on whom I play my most exquisite melodies of love,” and then see through his half-closed eyes her ecstatic face artlessly posed on its pink pillow, her mouth ajar to receive his kisses, her eyelids closed to contain her poverty-stricken heaven. Aside from these activities, in which he was an expert, more rational conversation was an impossibility. She was furniture, an inanimate object on which to hang jewelry as toys are hung on a Christmas tree.
LIFE continued comfortably enough until 1941, when without warning one November morning Gaylord de Race dropped dead at his desk during a casting conference. Erhardt had known de Race so well that he suddenly discovered that he knew practically nobody else. The chief of production called him in, and after some conventionally morose reflections about the great guy who had just passed to some greater studio, Erhardt was assigned to an anti-Nazi picture directed by a German expatriate who wore an Iron Cross from World War I on his shirt while at work.
Werner Black was much more particular in his methods than de Race had been. He worked with his nerves rather than with his head. Erhardt wrote his incidental music with the same abandon that he had always done. To suggest the menace of the approaching gauleiter, he orchestrated the Horst Wessel song in an acidulated manner, while the background to the clandestine gatherings of the French underground movement was but Frèrre Jacques scored for tin whistle and side drum.
When Plack heard the music, he grew mad with anger. “All has been done before!” he ranted. “Without inspiration, without imagination, without stomach!” To the production chief he added, “How can a Hungarian understand the inner strength of the Resistance heroes and the demoniac sadism of the Nazis? All he does is to take the most obvious elements and dramatize them in the most old-fashioned way.”
“Old-fashioncc!” is the word most calculated to frighten even the most old-fashioned executive, and so Lrhardt was removed from the picture and given a Western to do. He had never done one before, since de Race had concentrated almost exclusively on Easterns. His attempt was not successful. The director growled, “What the hell’s that waltz doing in there?” And it was enough. Erhardt was removed again, and soon his contract elapsed and was not renewed.
All the same, he was sufficiently important not to drop out of sight right away. His noble chords in the various Biblical epics still reverberated in the minds of those old enough to regret the passing of greater days. For a time he did quite well as a climax consultant. He was no longer considered as a composer of full-length scores, but individual producers with climax problems would send for him and say, for instance:
“Professor, we have a scene here which is the climax of the picture, both pictorially and emotionally. The battle of Rappahannock is reaching its closing stages, see? The hero. Brick Johnston, is wounded. His buddy, Red Gogarty, is dead; around him all is death and devastation. Here we superimpose the vision he has of Marilyn Fry, a Southern girl, his sweetheart, in her crinolines. What he sees and what we see is a vision of enduring sweetness, of undying loveliness, of hope and beauty. Do I make myself clear? All his life, he’s been a rough-talking, rugged guy with no belief in anything but his own guts and spunk, but now, faced with this vision — the picture’s in color, incidentally — he finds a personal faith, which leads him automatically to prayer. He prays, ‘Make me worthy of all this loveliness, and please, God, let Marilyn be there, waiting for me, just the way I see her now, when all this killing’s over. 1 want her so badly, and I want her to want me. Please.’ He prays that way because he’s a rugged guy like I said and because he don’t know any better. Now here’s the melody which we have for the battle scenes, and here’s the love tune. What we want is three minutes of real powerful emotional climax music blending the two themes in a triumphant, tragic, yet hopeful, inspirational surge which says to us, ‘Yes, life’s grim and tough at times, but there’s always tomorrow, and every cloud has a silver lining.’ Think you can do it?”
Erhardt would take the bits of paper home and compose some neurotic symphonic fudge in whatever key was indicated. The producers were always satisfied, since, although he was discredited as a writer of sustained scores — “Too old-fashioned,” “Typical Viennese schmaltz” — he had become an expert on effective climaxes, the only expert, as though he were a surgeon who specialized in only one rare disease, a consultant.
Naturally his life could no longer be conducted on the lavish scale to which he had been used. The house was sold, and Mabel had the first of a series of nervous breakdowns. Her only gift was to be kept, and she had never realized that there was an existence which had to be budgeted. Erhardt moved into a large apartment house, keeping only the cream-colored piano out of all the luxury. He did his work without regrets. Central Europeans are resilient. They have had to be so often.
One day, he was offered a picture all his own by a small independent company. It wasn’t much, an outer-space fantasy about an invasion of astral gnats, but to Erhardt this was like a return to dignity. He was older now, some of the old facility had gone, but he strained every nerve to make this score a thing of power, of urgency, which would mark his return into the tight ranks of the accepted. The theme of the gathering gnat army was eerie enough, and he polished it as though it were a priceless jewel, until every note contributed toward the general architecture of terror. The song of the young lovers, the last inhabitants to be left alive in a world laid waste by the insects, was a tremulous and touching andante cantabile, scored for a mass of strings. The producers were satisfied.
Unfortunately, when the film appeared, two other composers sued the company, the one claiming that the theme of the gathering gnats was stolen in toto from his music to a television series about cattle rustlers in Texas, while the other maintained that the song of the young lovers was nothing but a bald paraphrase of a popular number he had composed for a celebrated crooner several years back, entitled Love Me, Gattcho. The lawyer for the defense tried bravely to prove that Brahms had once used a theme very much like that of the gathering gnats in a string quartet and that Love Me, Gattcho was very reminiscent of a violin piece by Sarasate, played slowly, but both plaintiffs won their cases, and Erhardt was finally and irrevocably finished, through.
He THOUGHT back on all that with a little bitterness now. He had not consciously stolen those melodies, but he was over sixty and had heard so much music in his time. Watch enough television and some of the fragments, even of the advertising jingles, are bound to become embedded in the subconscious. Perhaps a composer should live in isolation, never listen to a note of anyone else’s music.
It was that damned cop again.
“If you want the Rhapsody Room, you should have taken a right two blocks back.”
Why can’t he mind his own business?
“Thank you very much.”
“Take it easy now?”
Erhardt retraced his steps. What had he done with his life? He had never been able to choose between high art and commerce. There was no level on which he could even judge himself. Certainly, if by inner compulsion the old publisher had meant the willingness to starve in an attic for the sake of an avant-garde sonata, then he had none. Life is to be enjoyed, and to pretend that any piece of music is worth the sacrifice of its enjoyment is ludicrous. Basically, Beethoven was a fool. A few more schottisches and a few less symphonies, and he could have lived more comfortably. even have gone to the expense of an ear trumpet perhaps. Was he here to enjoy the glory? Did he get the royalties from his record sales?
And yet, why did Mabel jump from a sixteenthstory window? What had made her do such a rash thing? It was too late to guess now. He had hardly known her. since there wasn’t really much to know. Perhaps there was? Could it have been a deficiency in his character which had frustrated her desire to give more of herself to the man of her choice? Was her incredible dumbness but a mask for a great timidity? He shuddered at the thought, and then, as he had clone all his life, he gave himself the benefit of the doubt. Right from the beginning she had been latently hysterical, a child of her times. Women from the new world were different. They had none of the intellectual hocus-pocus which his first wife, the lady from Bucharest, had used in order to give love its savage flavor. But then while the Romanian was fine as a muse for advanced chamber music, she would have been hell in Hollywood. How Gaylord de Race would have hated her! He laughed aloud.
What are women, after all? Transitory cornforts. But why had he no children, as his father had, yes, even his stupid father, and his grandfather, and so on, ad infinitum, back to Adam? Why did thousands of centuries of untroubled procreation have to end with him? He lived for love. He wasn’t a recluse or a deviate, but for some reason there was no family, no responsibility.
Erhardt thought deeply as he walked, and found no answer. Then it occurred to him that perhaps he had never really matured, that that was the reason he had always seized whatever was available, like a baby, and played with it cruelly and dropped it to see if it would break. He had loved women, but had always foreseen with displeasure that difficult moment when an affair was over, and it had spoiled his pleasure even before he had attempted to enjoy it. He had invariably thought, and said, more or less wittily, that life was imperfect and therefore it must be lived to the full. Champagne must flow to drown the sorrows. But how superficial his sorrows were! Now poor Mabel had jumped from the sixteenth floor, and he really felt no great emotion, because he wasn’t trained to. He hadn’t known her. Site had never penetrated.
By rights, he felt, he ought to be crying, and yet there was no trace of a tear. His face was white and very handsome, and all he could do was to sigh mechanically.
Perhaps he had no soul? Too much talent, and no soul. Certainly his early music was not beautiful. but surely it had something? it had inspired audiences to fury, and that was a valid mark in its favor. It could never be accused of being cold or lifeless. His later works had their value too, and they had not been entirely unsuccessful. They had afforded him a splendid house, a pool, some borzois, and a nomination for an Oscar. Incredible what people do with money. Who, in his right mind, wants borzois? All they do is sit around and eat enormous quantities of meat. He smiled. He was giving himself the benefit of the doubt again and sticking to his happier memories.
“Thought you’d never get here, Professor.”
Now that infernal policeman was parked right in front of Antal Laszlo’s Rhapsody Room and grinning in an atrociously friendly way. Probably there was a seasonal dip in the crime wave. Since there was a scarcity of juvenile delinquents, he had to pick on an old man who wished to remember what fresh air was like.
“Food good in there?”
“Excellent. I always come here.”
“Take it easy.”
Erhardt entered the restaurant, and the look on the face of the hat-check girl was far from reassuring. He kissed her hand gallantly and passed among the diners, furtively finding his way to a wooden door in the body of the hall, through which he passed. He was now in a small and cheerless room. With nervous fingers he searched for a key in his pocket, found it, and opened a locker.
just then Antal Laszlo entered in the uniform of a Hungarian landowner of the last century. He was the proprietor of the establishment, and the nearest he had ever been to Hungary was Pittsburgh. For the purposes of trade he had learned the Hungarian words for “Welcome,” “This way please,” and “Come again,”but for the moment he was too angry to speak anything but English.
“This is the last break I’m giving you. Csumlay, and I mean it. If you’re late again, you’re fired. I’d fire you here and now if I didn’t know you’d just suffered a great personal tragedy. I’m a kindhearted man, but there’s limits, and boy, you’ve just about reached them.”
Erhardt stammered an apology in servile tones and changed clumsily into gypsy costume. Taking his violin, he re-entered the restaurant and mounted the podium. The other musicians looked at him without expression. He wiped the perspiration from his brow and glanced over at the hatcheck girl, who was now smiling. Attractive she was, with her long legs in net stockings, her low décolleté, and her cheeky uhlan shako in royal purple. He gazed at her with nostalgia. Perhaps she was the woman for this phase in his career, one who could be thrilled by the hysterical trilling of a gypsy violin? He smiled back, sadly, with distinction. She settled like a cat before the fire, to listen, her pretty face resting on her hands.
The csimbalom cascaded down its full register, and the Hungarian medley was on. Closing his eves rapturously, and investing his face with the bittersweet expression demanded of it by tradition, Erhardt began to play.
A far cry this, from the experiments with the International Society for Contemporary Music, or indeed from the gala premières at Grauman’s Chinese, but the hat-check girl was listening, and he was playing beneath her balcony. The diners went on talking doggedly throughout his recital, even raising their voices in order to keep their conversation alive above the folklore, but Erhardt didn’t really care. Suddenly the orchestra slopped. This was the cue for him to embark on Schön Rosmarin as a solo. Yes, perhaps his early music was trash, perhaps his moving-picture scores were an arrant prostitution of a talent meant for finer things, but here he was, throwing his all into the interpretation of a salon piece by another composer. in a restaurant in winch the goulash was inedible. He had not surrendered. Perhaps he had even found his level. Nobody could accuse him of quitting. The diners could go on talking if they wished, it’s a free country, but nobody could prevent him from earning his living by music. What he was doing was perhaps not all he had hoped for, but it was something, it was something.
He opened one eye as he played. The hatcheck girl was listening with her brows knitted in concentration, her hands joined as though in prayer.
Something? It was more than something. It was art. Valid art. “But all the same,” he thought, “curse Stravinsky.”