An Emotional Acrobat by James Huneker
They were tears which he drummed.
Perhaps you think because I play upon an instrument of percussion I
admire that other percussive machine of wood and wire, the piano, or
consider the tympanum an inferior instrument?
You were never more mistaken, for I despise the piano as a shallow
compromise between the harp, tympani and those Eastern tinkling
instruments of crystal and glass, or dulcimers and cymbalum. It has no
character, no individuality of its own. It is deplorable in conjunction
with an orchestra, for its harsh, hard, unmalleable tone never blends
with other instruments. It is a selfish instrument and it makes selfish
artists of those who devote a lifetime to it.
Bah! I hate you and your pianos. Compare it to the tympani? Never,
never! It is false, insincere, and smirks and simpers if even a silly
school girl sits before it. It takes on the color of any composer's
ideas, and submits like a slave to the whims of any virtuoso. I am
disgusted. Here am I, an old kettle-drummeras you say in your
barbarous Englishpoor, unknown, forced to earn a beggarly living by
strumming dance tunes in a variety hall on a hated piano, and often
accompanying singers, acrobats, and all the riffraff of a vaudeville,
where a mist of vulgarity hangs like a dirty pearl cloud over all. I
don't look at my music any more. I know what is wanted. I have rhythmic
talent. I conduct myself, although there is a butter-faced leader
waving a silly stick at us while I sit in my den, half under the stage,
and thrum and think, and blink and thrum.
And what do you suppose I do with my morningsfor I have to
rehearse every afternoon with odious people who splash their draggled
lives with feeble, sick music? I stay in my attic room and play upon
my tympani, my beloved children. I have three of them, and I play all
sorts of scores, from the wonderful first measures of Beethoven's
Fifth, to Saint-Saëns' Arabian music. Ah! those men understand my
instrument. It is no instrument of percussion to them. It has a soul.
It is the heart of the orchestra. Its rhythmic throb is the pulse of
musical life. What are your strings, your scratching, rasping strings!
What signifies the blare of your brass, or the bilious bleating of your
wood-wind! I am the centre, the life giver. From me the circulation of
warm, musical blood emanates. I stand at the back of the orchestra as
high as the conductor. Ah! he knows it; he looks at me first. How about
the Fifth Symphony? You now sneer no longer. It is I who outline with
mystic taps the framework of the story. Wagner, great, glorious,
glowing Wagner!I kiss his memoryhe appreciated the tympani and
their noble mission in music....
Yes, I am an educated man, but music snared me away from a worldly
career. Music anda woman; but never mind that part of it. Do you know
Hunding's motif in Die Walküre? Ha! ha! I will give it to you.
Listen! Is it not beautiful? The stern, acrid warrior approaches. And
Wagner gave it to me, to the tympani. Am I crazy, am I arrogant, to
feel as I do about my darling dwarf children? Look at their beloved
bellies, so smooth, so elastic, so resonant! A tiny tap and I set
vibrating millions of delicate, ethereal sounds, the timbre of which to
my ears has color, form, substance, nuance, and thrills me even to my
old marrow. Is it not deliciousthat warm, velvety, dull percussion?
Is it not delicious, I say? How it shimmers and senses about me! You
have heard of drummed tears? I can make you weep, if I will, with a few
melancholy, muffled strokes. The drum is the epitome of life. Sound is
life. The cave-men bruised stones together and heard the first music.
I know your Herbert Spencer thinks differently, but bah! what does
he know about tympani? Chopin would have been a great tympanist if he
had not wasted his life foolishly at the piano. When he merely drummed
with his fingers on the table, Balzac said, he made music, so
exquisitely sensitive was his touch. Ah me! what a tympanist was lost
to the world. What shading, what delicacy, what sunlight and shadow he
would have made flit across my little darlings on their tripods! No
wonder I hate the piano; and yet, hideous mockery of fate! I play upon
an old grand to earn my bread and wine. I can't play with an
orchestrait is torture for me. They do not understand me; the big
noisy boors do not understand rhythm or nuance. They play so loud that
I cannot be heard, and I will never stoop to noisy banging. How I hate
these orchestral players! How they scratch and blow like pigs and
boasters! When I did play with them they made fun of my red hair and
delicate touch. The leader could not understand me, and kept on yelling
Forte, Forte. It was in the Fifth of Beethoven, and I became angry
and called out in my poor German (ah! I hate German, it hurts my
teeth): Nein, so klopft das Schicksal nicht an die Pforte. You
remember Beethoven's words!
Well, everybody laughed at me, and I got mad and covered up my
instruments and went home. Jackass! he wanted me to bang out that
wonderful intimation of fate as though it were the milkman knocking at
the door. I am a poet, and play upon the tympani; the conductor and the
orchestra are boors. But I do injustice to one of them. He was an
Alsatian, and spoke bad French. But he was an excellent bassoon player.
He often called on me and we played duets for bassoon and tympani, and
then read Amiel's journal aloud and wept. Oh! he had a sensitive soul,
that bassoon player. He died of the cholera, and now I am alone....
After my failure as an orchestral player I gave a concert in this
city, and played my concerto for seven drums and wood-wind orchestra.
The critics laughed me to distraction. Instead of listening to the
innumerable rhythms and marvellous variety of nuances I offered them,
they mocked my agile behavior and my curiously colored hair. Even my
confrères envied and reviled me. I have genius, so am hated and
despised. Oh, the pity of it all! They couldn't hear the tenderness,
the fairy-like sobbing made by my wrists, but listened with admiration
to the tinkling of a piano, with its hard, unchangeable tone. Oh, the
stupidity of it all!...
But time will have its revenge. I will not stir a finger either.
When I die the world of tone will realize that a great man has passed
away, after a wretched, neglected life. I have composed a symphony, and
for nothing but Tympani! Don't smile, because I have explored
the most fantastic regions of rhythm, hitherto undreamed. Tone, timbre,
intensity, rhythm, variety in color, all, all will be in it; and how
much more subtly expressed than by your modern orchestra, with its
blare, blow, bang and scratch. And what great thoughts I have
expressed! I have gone beyond Berlioz, Wagner and Richard Strauss. I
have discovered rhythms, Asiatic in origin, that will plunge you into
midnight woe; rhythms rescued from the Greeks of old, that will drive
you into panting dance; rhythms that will make drunkards of sober men,
warriors of cowards, harlots of angels. I can intoxicate, dazzle, burn,
madden you. Why? Because all music is rhythm. It is the skeleton, the
structure of life, love, the cosmos. God! how I will exult, even if my
skin crackles in hell-fire, when the children of the earth listen to my
Tympani Symphony, and go crazy with its tappings!...
I have led a shiftless, uneventful life, yet I envy no one, for I am
the genius of a new artbut stay a moment! An uneventful life, did I
say? Alas! my life has been one long, desperate effort to forget her,
to forget my love, my wife. My God! I can see her face now, when she
flashed across my sight at a provincial circus. It was in France. I was
a young man drum-mad, and went to the circus to beguile my time, for I
couldn't practise all day. Then I saw herMlle. Léontine, the Aërial
Virtuoso of the Century, the playbills called her. She was fair and
slim, and Heaven had smiled into her eyes.
I am a poet, you see. Her hair was the color of tender wheat and her
feet twinkled star-wise when she walked. She was my first, my only
love, my life, my wife. She loved me, she told me so soon after we
became acquainted, and I believed her; I believe her now, sometimes,
when I strike softly the skins of my dear little drum children. We soon
married. There were no impediments on my side; my parents were dead and
I had a little ready money. I gave it all to her. She took it and
They were so handy in case of hard luck, she said, and smiled. I
smiled, too, and kissed her.
I kissed her very often, and was so desperately in love with her
that I joined the circus and played the drums there; hush! don't tell
it to any oneand the side-drums at that. I would have even played the
piano for her, so frantically did I adore her. I was very proud of my
wife, my Léontine. She did a tremendous act on the trapeze. She swung
and made a flying leap across the tent and caught a bar, and every time
I gave a tap on the big drum just as she grasped the trapeze. Oh! it
would have made your blood shiver to see her slight figure hurtling
through space and landing safely with my rhythmic accompaniment. And
how people cheered, and what crowds flocked to view the spectacle! In
some towns the authorities made us use nets; then the crowds were not
nearly so large. People like risks. The human animal is happy if it
smells blood. Léontine noticed the decreased attendance when the safety
nets were used, and begged the manager to dispense with them.
He often did so, for he loved money as much as she loved fame. She
was perfectly fearless and laughed at my misgivings, so we usually did
the act without nets....
We had reached Rouen in our wanderings through the provinces, and I
mooned about the old town, sauntering through the cathedral, plunged in
a reverie, for I was happy, happy all the time. Léontine was so good,
so amiable, so true. She associated with none of the women of the
circus and with none of the men, except the manager and myself.
The manager reared her; she had been a foundling. She told me this
at the beginning of our intimacy. We often played games of picking out
the handsomest houses and châteaux we passed, pretending that her
parents lived in them. She was very jolly, was my little Léontine, and
remained with me nearly all the time, except when practising her
difficult feats; this she did in company with the manager, who attended
to the ropes and necessary tackling. He was a charming fellow, and very
One day I was sitting half-asleep in the spring sunshine, with my
back to one of the tents, awaiting Léontine's return. She was, as
usual, rehearsing, and I, composing and dreaming. Suddenly a laugh
aroused me, and I heard a woman's voice:
But the young idiot never will discover them; he is too blind and
too fond of drumming.
I tuned up my ears. Another woman answered in a regretful tone:
See what it is to be fascinating like Léontine; she gets all the
boy's money, and has the manager besides. She must earn a pretty
I sat perfectly cold and still for several moments, then managed to
wriggle away. I can give you no account of my feelings now, so many
years have passed; besides, I don't think I felt at all. Every day I
became more and more thoughtful, and Léontine and the manager rallied
me on my silence....
At last I made up my mind that it was time to act. We went to Lille
and gave there our usual display. I had not seen Léontine all day, and
when the evening came I sent a message telling her I was not hungry and
would not be home for supper. I could be a hypocrite no longer.
In the evening the regular performance began. I was in a gay humor,
and the men in the orchestra laughed at my wit, saying that I was more
like my old self. My wife's aërial act came last on the bill, being the
event of the show. What a brilliant house we had! I still can smell the
sawdust, the orange peel, see the myriad of faces and hear the crack of
the ring-masters' whips, the cries of the clowns and the crash of the
She comes, Léontine comes! shrilled a thousand throats.
Into the ring she dashed on a milk-white horse, and, throwing off
her drapery, stood bowing.
What a graceful figure she had, and how lovely she looked as she
clambered aloft to her giddy perch! Breathlessly every one saw her make
preparations for the flight through the air. The band became silent;
all necks were strained as she swung lightly to and fro in space,
increasing the speed to gain necessary momentum for the final launch.
Off she darted, like a thunderboltbang! went my druma moment too
soon. The false unaccustomed rhythm shook her nerves and she tumbled
with her face toward me.
There were no nets....
Later I sought the manager. He was in his room, his head thrust
beneath pillows. I tapped him on the shoulder; he shuddered when he saw
me. 'Tis you who should wear black, I said....