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An Involuntary Insurgent by James Huneker

 

    Whereas it is far away from bloodshed, battle-cry and
    sword-thrust that the lives of most of us flow on, and the
    men's tears are silent to-day, and invisible, and almost
    spiritual....—MAETERLINCK.

Racah hated music. Even his father quoted with approval Théophile Gautier's witticism about it being the most costly of noises. Racah, as a boy, shouted under the windows of neighbors in whose rooms string-music was heard of hot summer evenings. On every occasion his nature testified to its lively abhorrence of tone, and once he was violently thrust forth from a church by an excited sexton. Racah had whistled derisively at the feebly executed voluntary of the organist. An old friend of the family declared that the boy should be trained as a music critic—he hated music so intensely. Racah's father would arch his meagre eyebrows and crisply say, “My son shall become a priest.” “But even a priest must chaunt the mass; eh, what?”

The boy's sister had a piano and tried to play despite his violent mockery. One afternoon, when the sun drove the town to its siesta, he wandered into the room where stood the instrument. Moved by an automatic impulse, the lad placed one finger on a treble key. He shuddered as it tinkled under the pressure; then he struck the major third and held both keys down, trembling, while drops of water formed under his eyes. He hated the sound he made, but could not resist listening to it. Waves of disgust rolled hotly over his heart, and he almost choked from the large, bitter-tasting ball that rose in his throat. He then struck the triad of C major in a clumsy way—a quarter of an hour later his family found him in a syncope at the foot of the piano, and sent for a doctor. Racah's eyes were open, but only the whites showed. The pulse was strangely intermittent, the heart muffled, and the doctor set it down to nervous prostration brought on by strenuous attendance at church. It was Holy Week and Racah a pious boy.

He soon recovered, avoided the instrument, and kept his peace.... About this time he began going out immediately after supper, remaining away until midnight. This, coupled with a relaxation of religious zeal, drove his pious father into a frenzy of disappointment. But being wise in old age, he did not pester his son, especially as the pale, melancholy lad bore on his face no signs of dissipation. These disappearances lasted for over a year. Racah was chided by his mother, a large, chicken-minded woman, who liked gossip and chocolate. He never answered her, and on Sundays locked himself in his room. Once his sister listened at the door and told her father that she heard her brother counting aloud and clicking on the table with some soft, dull-edged tool, a tiny mallet, perhaps.

The father's curiosity mounted to an unhealthy pitch. He hated to break into his nightly custom of playing cards at the Inn of The Quarrelling Yellow Cats, but his duty lay as plain before him as the moles on his wrist; so he waited until Racah went out, and seizing a stout stick and clapping his hat on his head, followed his son in lagging and deceitful pursuit. The boy walked slowly, his head thrown back in reverie. Several times he halted as if the burden of his thoughts clogged his very motion. Anxiously eying him, his father sneaked after. The eccentric movements of his son filled him with a certain anguish. He was a god-fearing man; erratic behavior meant to him the obsession of the devil.

His son, his Racah, was tempted by the evil one! What could he do to save him from the fiery pit? Urged by these burdensome notions, he cried aloud, “Racah, my son, return to thy home!” But he spoke to space. No one was within hearing. The street was dark; then the sound of music fell upon his ears, and again he looked about him. Racah had disappeared. The only light came from a window hard by. With the music it oozed out between two half-closed shutters, and toward it the depressed one went. He peeped in and saw his son playing at a piano, and by his side sat a queer old man beating time. His name was Spinoza; he was a Portuguese pianist, and wore a tall, battered silk hat which he never removed, even in bed—so the town said.

Racah's father played no dominoes that night. When he returned to his house his wife thought that he was drunk. He told his story in agitated accents, and went to bed a mystified man. He understood nothing, and while his wife calmly slept he tortured himself with questions. How came Racah the priest to be metamorphosed into Racah the pianist? Then the father plucked at the counterpane like a dying fiddler....

The boy showed no embarrassment when interrogated by his parents the next day. He said he did not desire to be a priest, that a pianist could make more money, and though he hated music, there were harder ways of earning one's bread. The callousness which he displayed in saying all this deeply pained his pious father. His son's secret nature was an enigma to him. In vain he endeavored to pierce the meaning of the youth's eyes, but their gaze was enigmatic and veiled. Racah had ever exhibited a certain aloofness of character, and as he grew older this trait became intensified; the riddle of his life had forced itself upon him, and he vainly wrestled with it. Music drew him as iron filings to the magnet, or as the tentacles of an octopus carry to its parrot-shaped beak its victim. It was monstrous, he abhorred it, but could no more resist it than the hasheesh eater his drug.

So in the fury of despair, and with a certain self-contempt, he strove desperately to master the technical problems of his art. He found an abettor in the person of the Portuguese pianist, to whom he laid bare his soul. He studied every night, and since he need no longer conceal his secret, he began practising at home....

Racah made his début when he was twenty-one years old. The friend of the family nearly burst a blood-vessel at the concert, so enthusiastic was he over the son of his old crony. Racah's father stayed home and refused comfort. His son was a pianist and not a priest. “He has disgraced himself and God will not reply to his call for aid,” and he placed his hands over his thin eyebrows and wept. Racah's mother spoke: “Take on courage; the boy plays badly—there is yet hope.”

The good man, elated by the idea, went forth to play dominoes with his old crony at the inn where the two yellow cats quarrel on the dingy sign over the door....

Racah sat at his piano. His usually smooth, high forehead, with its mop of heavy black curls, was corrugated with little puckering lines. His mouth was drawn at the corners, and from time to time he sighed; great groans, too, burst forth from him. But he played, played furiously, and he smote the keyboard as if he hated it. He was playing the B minor Sonata of Chopin, with its melting second movement—so moving that it could melt the heart of the right sort of a stone. Yet this lovely cantilena extorted anger from the young pianist. It was true that he played badly, but not so badly as his mother imagined. His very hatred of music reverberated in his playing and produced an odd, inverted, temperamental spark. The transposition of an emotion into a lower or higher key may change its external expression; its intensity is not thereby altered. Racah hated the piano, hated Chopin, hated music; yet potentially Racah was a great pianist....

The years fugued by. Racah gradually became known as an artist of strange power. He had studied with Liszt, although he was not a favorite of the master nor in his cenacle of worshipping pupils. Racah was too grim, too much in earnest for the worldly frivolous crew that flitted over the black keys at Weimar. Occasionally aroused by the power and intensity of the young man's playing, Liszt would smile satirically and say: “Thou art well named 'Raca,'“ and then all the Jews in the class would laugh at the word-play. But it gave Racah little concern whether they admired or loathed him. He was terribly set upon playing the piano and little guessed the secret of his inner struggle—the secret of the sad spirit that travailed against itself. Oddly enough his progress was rapid. He soon outpointed in brilliancy and deftness the most talented of the group of Liszt's young people, and once, after playing the Mephisto Walzer with abounding devilry, Liszt cried, “Bravo, child,” and then muttered, “And how he hates it all!”

Hypnotized as if by another's will, Racah studied so earnestly that he became a public pianist. He had success, but not with the great public. The critics called him cold, objective, a pianist made, not born. But musicians and those with cultured musical palates discerned a certain acid quality in his playing. His gloomy visage, the reflex of a disordered soul, caused Baudelaire to declare that he had added one more shiver to his extensive psychical collection. In Paris the Countess X.—charming, titled soubrette—said, “Have you heard Racah play the piano? He is a damned soul out for a holiday.”

In twenty-four hours this mot spread the length of the Boulevard, and all Paris went to see the new pianist....

Success did not brighten the glance of Racah. He became gloomier as he grew older, and a prominent alienist in Paris warned him to travel or else—and he pointed to his forehead, shrugging his very Gallic shoulders. Racah immediately went to the far East....

After a year's wandering up and down strange and curious countries, he came to the chief city of a barbarous province ruled by a man famous for his ferocities and charming culture. A careful education in Paris, grafted upon a nature cruel to the core, produced the most delicately depraved disposition imaginable. This Rajah was given to the paradoxical. He adored Chopin and loved to roast alive tiny birds on dainty golden grills. He would weep after reading de Musset, and a moment later watch with infinite satisfaction the spectacle of two wretched women dancing on heated copper plates. When he heard of Racah's presence in his kingdom he summoned the pianist.

Racah obeyed the Rajah's order. To his surprise he found him a man of pleasing mien and address. He was dressed in clothes of English cut, and possessed a concert piano. Racah bowed to him on entering the great Hall of the Statues.

“Do you play Chopin?”

“No,” was the curt reply. The potentate glanced at the pianist, and then dropped his heavy eyelids. Racah had the air of a man bored to death.

“I entreat you”—the Rajah had winning accents—“play me something of Chopin. I adore Chopin.”

“Your Highness, I abominate Chopin; I abominate music. I have taken a vow never to play again anything of that vile Polish composer. But I may play for you instead a Brahms sonata. The great one in F minor—”

“Stop a moment! You distinctly refuse to play me a Chopin valse or mazurka?”

“O Villainy!” Racah was thoroughly aroused; “I swear by the beard of your silly prophet that I will not play Chopin, nor touch your piano!”

The Rajah listened with a sweet forbearing smile. Then he clapped his hands twice—thrice. A slave entered. To him the Rajah spoke quietly, with an amused expression, and the man bowed his head. Touching the pianist on the shoulder he said:

“Come with me.” Racah followed. The Rajah burst into loud laughter, and going to the piano played the D flat Valse of Chopin in a facile amateurish fashion.

Footsteps were heard; the Rajah stopped and looked up. There was bright frank expectancy in his gaze as he listened.

Then a curtain was thrust aside. Racah staggered in, supported by the attendant. He was white, helpless, fainting, and in his eyes were the shadows of infinite regret.

“Do play some Chopin,” exclaimed the Rajah, gaily, as he ran his fingers over the keyboard.

The pianist groaned as the slave plucked at his arms and held them aloft. The Rajah critically viewed the hands from which the fingertips were missing, and then, noting the remorseful anguish in the gaze of the other, he cried:

“Do you know, I really believe you love music despite yourself!”

 
 
 

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