Three Footnotes from Henry-Louis de La Grange, Mahler, Volume I
by Clarissa Nemeth
Frau Landler cannot rid herself of the headache. It feels as if someone holds ice to her temples; they throb coldly, deeply, and each pulse of pain reverberates in the cavity of her mouth. For days now. Weeks. Even when she sleeps.
She has never had such headaches, and she believes they come not from within her, but from some malevolency without, some creeping evil spirit kicked up from the city’s mud and dirt by the careless feet of its socialists, its Jews. Her tenants, three bedraggled boys, drag such filth to her door on the tracks of their boots.
She dreams of leaving Vienna. Her husband once promised her a house in the country, by a lake, but now she has only the meager income from the room she lets. She hates him for dying. She hates the boys. She hates this pain.
From downstairs comes the clanging of a piano that used to be her husband’s, the one she cannot bear to see anymore. Then bellowing voices, monströs. The little shits never stop singing. The low notes of the piano echo in her head, but the high falsetto, the warbling Brünnhilde, she feels in her teeth.
Frau Landler heaves herself down the stairs, into the little room that reeks of sweat and dirty clothing, coffee and overripe fruit. “Aussteigen!”
The trio, crowded around the piano, look up at her, puzzled. The one in the middle, the the one she suspects is a Jew, pushes up his glasses. His gaze is piercing, pitiless. As if the sin were hers.
“I will not stand this! Aussteigen! Jetzt aussteigen!”
She screams until they scramble their skinny limbs like spiders, grabbing armfuls of clothing, stacks of sheet music and scores, boots, an apple, a coffee cup. She screams so that they cannot speak to each other. She screams until they have put their threadbare coats upon their backs, and then she stands in the doorway and screams at them in the street.
Then the room is bare but for their smell, and the piano. The pain in her head pounds as if the boy still sits at there, fingers splayed over the keys. As if he has given it rhythm, texture, cadence; a terrible, insistent kind of beauty.
When the stranger at the door tells her that the conductor of the great Vienna Opera is in the courtyard, she thinks it is a joke. She asks, Do you think I am a fool?
No, no, signora, the strange woman says; the conduttore is…indisposed. We are touring the canals, you see. And the need came upon him…
Then a man comes up behind her, tall and pale. He argues in German, she does not know what he says, but it hardly matters. How can it be, she thinks; such serendipity!
Conduttore, of course, she interrupts, gesturing for them to come in. Conduttore, this is an honor, to be in the presence of such a great artist, such a master, it is a dream of mine to hear the opera someday, tell me, do you play Verdi there?
His companion translates, says, Madam, may he…?
Oh yes, of course, you must make yourself at home, conduttore, please, let me show you.
She thanks God she has just replaced the flowers in the drawing room, that there are baskets of fresh oranges at hand should the great man need refreshment. She fetches the chamber pot, presents it to him like a chalice.
The conduttore’s eyes are wide, his face flushed. He protests with his hands, speaking rapidly to his companion
Madam, is there not another place?
No, no, I insist, you must use the best room in the house, it’s only right.
But if there were a more private…?
No, no, it does me honor to have you here, you are an artist, a genius!
And so she and the translator slide shut the little door and leave him to his performance. She wants to sing with joy, that history has come to her humble little house on the Giudecca. The longer he stays in the room, the more blessed she feels.
When he emerges some time later she offers him water, wine, food, but he insists he must be going along. To thank her he goes into the courtyard and picks a little bouquet of violets. When she takes the flowers from him she clasps his hand and kisses it. When they leave she can hardly believe it happened.
But there is proof. The chamber pot sits in the drawing room, between the window and the undisturbed basket of oranges. She peers into it, thanking God for the blessing of the visit; thanking God for the blessing of the violets.
The Deutsche Zeitung is calling her a Jewess again.
Every time she sings, whatever the role—Elisabeth, Sieglinde, Leonora—they imply in their reviews that she is on the stage not because of her talent, but because of the Kapellmeister’s agenda. They are always comparing her to Marie Renard, the soprano she replaced. Selma Kurz, they say, is not as pure as Renard.
The readers understand they are not referring to her voice.
Once she ignored this sly libel. It was easy to do when after every performance he praised her lyric voice, her liquid eyes, the incomparable softness of her tone. So supple, he said; watch, and I will shape you into a woman no one will forget.
In those early days his genius seemed fierce, towering, irresistable. So when he insisted that she rehearse for days with a blindfold to capture the movements of Iolanthe, or break the Guild’s rules to sing his own lieder with the Philharmonic, she never considered that she might say no.
She kept the notes he slipped under the door to her dressing room: Selma, come round my flat tomorrow, I want my friend to paint you.
Selma, Liebchen, come to my office, I must see you.
Mein Schatz, my eyes ache for the sight of you.
Selma, why did you slip away after rehearsal? Don’t be angry, Schatzi, you know how I must behave. When we are alone, I will cover that treasured face with kisses.
Selma, have no delusions; my heart belongs to you and you alone, but how can I marry you unless you leave the opera?
She burns them now, the notes, the letters, every one, in the flame of the candle, along with the review clipped from the Deutsche Zeitung. The edges crisp, curl, blacken. The words flake away to smoke and bits of ash that she can blow off her hand in half a breath, no effort at all. She knows how to conserve and use her lungs. He taught her, his hands around her waist, beside the piano: just there, Selma. See? Oh, but what they will say when I am done with you.
Clarissa Nemeth is originally from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and currently hails from Asheville, North Carolina. She has a Bachelor of Music degree from Boston University and an MFA from North Carolina State University. She has previously published work in The Writing Disorder and Appalachian Heritage (now The Appalachian Review), and is the winner of the latter’s 2015 Denny C. Plattner Award for Excellence in Fiction. When she’s not writing, Clarissa is involved with community animal welfare work and enjoys spending time with her husband and their pets.