By JAMES GALLANT.
IN CHILDE HAROLD’S PILGRIMAGE, Lord Byron describes the Duchess of Richmond’s ball at Brussels in June 1815. The Duke of Wellington, commander of the allied monarchical armies of Europe, and the cream of his officers, attended.
There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium’s capital had gather’d then
Her Beauty and her Chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o’er fair women and brave men;
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes look’d love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage-bell.
That year Napoleon had escaped exile on Elba and cobbled together yet another army, and when it was learned during the ball that his army was advancing on Brussels, Wellington’s officers fled to their military posts. The next day at Quatre-Bras some died still wearing their dress uniforms. That battle was inconclusive, but Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo came a few days later.
According to Byron, the distant roar of Napoleon’s cannons broke up the party. In fact, it was a message to Wellington from Prussian commander Blücher that had that effect. Byron was also mistaken in suggesting the sudden call to arms interrupted dancing. It is clear from the diaries of my ancestor Matteo Galante, a virtuoso guitarist, that it was the concert performance by him that was interrupted.
I had never paid much attention to Galante’s diaries before inheriting them from my Aunt Margolia after her death. They had come down through generations of my family in Europe and America as sacred relics. Old things, just because they’re old, have a way of inspiring reverence they do not necessarily warrant. Matteo’s diaries are cases in point. They might have been more interesting than they are, undoubtedly, had he been a person of wider sympathies and interests, because he was moving in the same Viennese musical circles as Beethoven, Schubert, and Hummel; and the Napoleonic wars were exploding all around him.
His references to his musical contemporaries are generally slight and contemptuous. He puts down that songbird Schubert as a fat fairy (omosessualoi grosso). His response to Beethoven’s works was guitaristic: “crudely bombastic.” (He had the same view of the French Revolution. Events associated with it seem to have interested him only when they disturbed his performance schedules and itineraries.)
On the other hand, there are tediously prolonged diary entries on the debate then current among guitarists as to whether the guitar should have six strings or more, alternate left-hand fingerings of certain difficult passages in the guitar literature, and remedies for muscular strains and aches he had encountered in his eight-hour-a-day practice regimen. (“The guitar is a delightful mistress,” he writes, “but she requires a lot of attention”—molto considerazione.)
His account of performing at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball is a rare engaging entry in the diary. He had been invited to perform in Brussels by the Duchess on the recommendation of Viennese Princess Caroline de Kinsky. An abhorrence of travel is a leitmotif in the diaries, and the trip by coach from Vienna to Brussels back then took about a week. His main reason for agreeing to suffer the ordeal of reaching Brussels seems to have been that the generous payment promised by the Duchess would free him f0r months from his “idiotic students.”
There were delays en route to Brussels. A horse in full canter on an open stretch of highway dropped dead, nearly overturning the coach and breaking a wheel. Later, Matteo and other male passengers had to assist the drivers in hoisting the coach out of a mire.
By the time he reached the Duchess’s palace, the ball was already in progress on a lovely, mild June evening with roses in bloom, and a full moon overhead. The abrupt transition from motion to stasis, coupled with the fact that he had eaten scarcely anything that day, lent a phantasmal aspect to the long-necked, pale-faced Duchess who greeted him at the palace entrance and stared at his muddy pants.
He was to perform during an interlude in the dancing before supper, she informed him. There was time for him to wash, dress for the occasion, and warm up the guitar, before the Duchess led him onto a low stage in a drawing room fragrant with wine and roses. She introduced him. He announced he would play three of Giuliani’s Rossiniane (fantasias on themes from Rossini) and his own variations on “Folies d’Espagne.”
SEVERAL TIMES IN the diaries he refers to the importance of a soloist being able to “descend into the well,” as he puts it—achieve a state of concentration that eclipses awareness of an audience and prevents nervousness. That night, his longing for musical peace being intense after the ordeal of travel, such concentration was easy for him. The moment he began playing, the coordination of hands, music, feeling, and guitar was extraordinary. He found himself playing allegro passages faster than he would have ordinarily, knowing that he could. (“It was as if a nimble spirit had taken possession of my hands.”) He played with abandon, eyes closed. Not wanting this ecstasy disturbed by applause, he proceeded directly, without break, from the crescendo and éclat at the end of the first Rossiniane into the second, and similarly from the second to the third, and then directly into the six variations on “Folies d’Espagne”—his run-on performance a prolonged fantasia impromptu. Having come to the end, “like a person reluctant to abandon the sweet dream from which he must awake,” he remained seated with his eyes still closed, the guitar across his lap.
Applause was oddly delayed. He surmised that his brilliance had produced an awed silence.
At length, a single male voice rang out, “Bravo!”
Matteo opened his eyes.
The room was empty, except for a smiling elderly retainer leaning on a broom, an assortment of empty wine glasses on small tables, some overturned, and the furniture on which his audience had sat.
“That’s some guitar you play, sir!” the old fellow enthused.
Galante cleared his throat. “Where’d everybody go?”
“Well,” the janitor said, “what I hear is, the men’s gone off to fight Napoleon. The ladies is upstairs cryin’ and carryin’ on.”
Matteo wondered what portion of his transcendent performance the audience had missed. Their failure to enjoy the whole of it would have been tragic had his experience of it not been self-sufficing.
The sweeper went about his chores whistling the melody of the third Rossiniane.
Matteo leaned his guitar against the bench on which he had been sitting and stepped down from the stage. He made his way to the back of the room, feeling as if he were afloat on air. A delightful spicy, meaty fragrance wafted from an adjacent room on his left. He peered through the doorway at a long candlelit table covered with a white cloth, silver place-settings, and flower arrangements. An elaborate untouched buffet stood along one wall. He entered the room, selected a plate from a stack of china, heaped high lobster, and suckling pig in mustard sauce, and poured himself a goblet of red wine. Somewhere in the distance a woman was sobbing pianissimo.
Seated at the head of the table, he tucked a napkin into the neck of his performance shirt, and dug in with knife and fork. Napoleon? The last Matteo had heard, that French rascal was moldering on Elba.
James Gallant, an independent scholar, is the Fortnightly Review’s “Verisimilitudes” columnist, and author of Verisimilitudes: Essays and Approximations, published recently in our Odd Volumes series (and in which this fictional essay appears). He is also the author of Whatever Happened to Ohio?, and an earlier novel, The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House: A Novel of Atlanta, published by Glad Day Books.