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Terez Mertes

Schumann's Ghost

May 28, 2010 at 1:04 PM

Those of you who’ve regularly read my blogs know that sometimes I let my characters do the talking. ( The following is an excerpt from my novel-in-progress. Kylie, narrating, is a precocious thirteen-year-old with mystical tendencies, on the cusp of tremendous change, buffeted about by the spiritual and sensual stimulus that have pervaded her life since watching her grandmother die. Ilse, her mother’s friend, who shares the same mystical sensibilities and interest in classical music, has just lent Kylie a Robert Schumann CD, whose life story and music fascinate Kylie.


 An interesting story behind this concerto,” Ilse had written on a note tucked inside the plastic CD case. “Google it, and don’t miss the bit about violinist Jelly D’Arányi and Schumann’s ghost.”

Kylie wondered if Ilse had misspelled the name; what kind of name was Jelly? But she Googled it, happily abandoning the poem she was struggling with for literature class, and there it was, a part of the Schumann story that hadn’t appeared in the biography she’d read. Jelly D’Arányi was a Hungarian virtuoso violinist, the grand-niece of the famous Joseph Joachim, to whom Schumann had dedicated much of his violin compositions. Schumann had consulted him on the violin concerto once he’d completed it in October of 1853, but just a few short months later came the madness. The concerto was never performed. Joachim kept the manuscript for the rest of his life as a memento. Along with Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, they agreed to keep the violin concerto a secret, deciding that not only was it not Schumann’s best work, but that it carried the taint of madness that did him in.

Joachim eventually brought the manuscript to the Prussian State Library in Berlin with the stipulation that it stay there, unplayed, unpublished, until 100 years after Schumann’s death. However in March 1933, Joachim’s grand-niece, Jelly d’Arányi, had a visitation during a spiritualist séance in London. A spirit-voice identifying himself as Robert Schumann told her to recover an unpublished work of his and perform it. She knew nothing about the concerto—almost nobody did, nor where to find it, until a second message, from her great-uncle, Joachim, directed her to its location.

There she went. There, at the Prussian State Library, she found it.

The skin at the nape of Kylie’s began to prickle in that spooky, delicious way. Had Ilse known just how perfect this story, this piece of music would be for Kylie?

Of course she had.

She skittered out of the study and up to her room, hastily sliding the CD into the player. Stretched out on her bed, she listened intently. When the concerto ended, she cued it back to the start again and listened to it all a second time. A third time. A thrill spread through her. This was her poem for literature class. This story, this piece of music. The assignment, due next week, had been to bring a piece of music and recite a poem or essay on how it made you feel. Forget the contrived, junky prose poem she’d been trying to write, to the music of Beyoncé. Music that now seemed as contrived and flashy-phony as her poem.

She wrote fast. It poured out of her. Schumann, she knew, had written this concerto equally fast, starting in early September and completing it on October third, just two days after meeting Johannes Brahms, who became an instant, lifelong best friend to both Robert and Clara Schumann.

She played the second movement over and over, utterly sucked into the melody’s spell. There was a sense of warmth and underlying security, even though the music was in a minor key. A dazzling sense of sweetness pervaded it that, at the same time, hurt unbearably, making her heart ache. Look what had happened to Schumann, after all, just a few months later. And maybe Joachim had been right—maybe you could hear that in the music. Not morbidity or madness, but an occasional glimpse of the beyond, a land populated by spirits and unearthly fog and beauty so sublime it made you weep. Schumann had seen this and put it to music.

These were the thoughts she tried to share with her classmates the following Tuesday, as the music from the second movement played in the background. The classroom was overheated, redolent of Doritos and boredom. She’d been the second to the last person scheduled to recite, wafting up to the podium, half in a dream, half in a state of terror.

She’d incorporated the seasons as an analogy to help her classmates better understand. She talked about how the music conjured up an autumn mood, sweet and yet wistful, mindful of the shortening days. Indian summer, harvest time. A golden sunset. The way it felt to rest after a hard day’s work. The minor undertones of the approaching winter, the hardships it would bring. And if you were still, very still, and looked close, you could see, beyond that cold, dark winter, the hint of eternal spring.Her mind loosened and the rest slipped out, words and ideas pouring from her mouth before her brain had the chance to censor them. How Schumann lived on the cusp between lucidity and insanity by the end. Between knowing and not knowing. So many of his beloved friends and family members had died, it was as if he’d begun living with one foot on the other side. And this hint, this whiff, of the divine he found there—that was why he kept reaching.

She fell silent as an awareness crystallized inside her, casting rays of illumination into every dark corner of her psyche. She understood now why people devoted their lives to the pursuit of the sacred, the ineffable, why they sacrificed normal lives for it. Because to arrive at that place, where mortal meets divine—it was the pinnacle. A sweetness, a golden light, a place of such perfection that you’d just dissolve upon witnessing it.

That was where this sound came from. It was so visceral, it was as if she could actually taste it, run her fingers over the silky textures. This music. Schumann had done it. He’d captured both realms.

She heard the restless stirring of the other students and realized that she hadn’t spoken for some time. Her eyes flew open to find looks of blank incomprehension covering her classmates’ faces. Then one student began to snicker and another and another until it seemed everyone was laughing at her. Ms. Wong, the literature teacher, had to come stand beside Kylie and wave her hands to quiet the students.

Finally she turned to Kylie and beamed. “Well! You put some real thought into that, didn’t you, Kylie?” Her voice was bright and fake-sounding, but when she started clapping the others gradually joined in.

“Comments, anyone?” she said once the clapping had subsided.

Silence. Finally someone raised his hand. “Yes, Conner?” Ms. Wong said.

“That was kind of old fashioned music.”

“It’s called classical music,” Kylie retorted. She was trembling and tears made her voice froggy.

“Who was the composer, Kylie?” Ms. Wong asked.

“Robert Schumann.”

Ms. Wong nodded. “He was quite a famous composer. Class, has anyone ever heard of him or his music?”

No one raised their hand.

“Well,” she continued, surveying the students. “This is good music for you kids to hear once in a while.” Her tone was lightly scolding, but she was smiling. Everyone beamed back at her. She was that kind of teacher. 

Ms. Wong consulted her list. “All right. Darren? You’re next.”

Kylie, her face burning, collected her CD and returned to her seat. She sank down into the chair, arms folded, and decided that never again would she try and explain her thoughts and feelings with this group. Darren, meanwhile, had brought a rap CD and was playing it while reading his own poem. It sounded stupid.

Everyone else loved it.

Welcome to eighth grade.



© 2009 Terez Rose



From Anne Horvath
Posted on May 28, 2010 at 3:07 PM

I wouldn't go through 8th grade again for all the tea in China.  Bleh. 

There is a short movie featuring the character of Jelly, Elgar's Tenth Muse.  No Schumann, but lots of Elgar.  I found it on Netflix. 

Worst.  Movie.  Ever.  

There is also a book called The Sisters d'Aranyi, by Joseph Todd Gordon Macleod.  I haven't read it, but it has been on my Amazon wish list for the longest time.  Starting at $140 a pop, it is going to stay on the wish list for the longest time...

Thanks for sharing your excerpt.  Good luck with the publisher shopping.  You know I'll buy it when it comes out, even if it costs $140.  (Insert smiley face here!)

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 28, 2010 at 3:51 PM

Anne, I read this part:

>There is a short movie featuring the character of Jelly, Elgar's Tenth Muse.  No Schumann, but lots of Elgar.  I found it on Netflix

... and I thought, cool, will check it out. Then I read your next line.

Ah. Maybe I won't check it out. ; )


From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 30, 2010 at 5:16 AM

Terez, that was fascinating.  It gripped me so tightly that I couldn't turn away from a single word as I read it.  The insight that Kylie had about Schumann was beautiful.  I've never thought about Schumann that way.  I've been caught up in the tragedy of his mental illness, and now I know that there is beauty there, too.  I'm going to listen to more Schumann. 

Thanks so much for letting us read it before the book is published.  I'll buy at least one copy when it comes out.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 30, 2010 at 7:18 PM

 Aww, Pauline, what a wonderful response to read. Thanks so much for taking the time to describe your reaction and feelings. That means a lot to me to hear. Fiction is funny - it gets so close to the heart and personal. It's both me feeling this, and me through the character's reactions. (Did that make any sense?!) Schumann's story is so powerful to me, so sad and gripping (and particularly the thought of what Clara had to live through). I, too, have felt compelled to listen to more Schumann lately. Love his symphonies. The second symphony, third movement - aaah. This also shows up in my novel; Kylie and Ilse are together, listening to it. And again, it feels so profound for me as the writer, and as I experience it through their thoughts and actions.

Okay, too much writerly rambling, but I rest confident that you'll get it. : ) And for that, too, I thank you!

From Mendy Smith
Posted on May 31, 2010 at 1:20 AM


I love reading your writings.  Can't wait until it is published!

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 31, 2010 at 5:43 AM

I feel for Kylie as she was derided by her classmates.  I, too, was a teenage nerd.  You conveyed that feeling so well, Terez.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 31, 2010 at 12:19 PM

Mendy, thanks so much for the nice reply! And Pauline, I must confess the scene of an 8th grader reading a poem to her clueless classmates, accompanied to the strains of classical music, was rather autobiographical. Actually, for me, it wasn't classical so much as very sentimental music. (My mom's "Mantovani" album - my violin teacher said "who's Mantovani?" and I was like, dunno, it was my mom's version of classical music. Very very heavy on the violins and sentimentality.) In retrospect, I think the poem was rather dark. Afterwards I got that complete incomprehension on the faces of my classmates and I remember they were all too baffled to even clap. It was just horrible; I felt both defensive and ashamed. Misunderstood and unliked. Ugh. So, there you have it. A painful memory revisited through fiction. Ahh, how therapeutic! : )

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 31, 2010 at 12:25 PM

 You got the teacher's response, and the class' response, down so well.  I feel for Kylie.  It will be wonderful for her to grow up and find her people someday . . .

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 31, 2010 at 12:29 PM

 >I feel for Kylie.  It will be wonderful for her to grow up and find her people someday . . .

Boy, you said it, didn't you, Karen! That's the good feeling in working on her story; knowing that there's a happily ever after, down the road, for a sensitive 13 yr old girl. Unfortunately for her, it doesn't happen in the book! (And Karen, BTW, I must say I think of you and your mother-in-law Ilse lots as I write out my Ilse's story. What a beautiful name it is. My Ilse is becoming one of my favorite characters in the novel.)

From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 31, 2010 at 5:34 PM

Terez - what a wonderful passage!  Please let us know when the book comes out so we can all help make it a best-seller.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 31, 2010 at 10:57 PM

Terez, you're brave to go public with a painful memory.  I'm glad it was therapeutic.  When I was in high school, I didn't want people to know that I played the violin because I was afraid of appearing even more like a nerd.  When I told one of my classmates that I played the violin, she said, "You look like you play the violin."  I didn't know how to take that, but I was sure it wasn't a compliment.  Maybe the younger generation is different.  I don't think any of my students is ashamed to say "I play the violin."

From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 1, 2010 at 3:30 AM

 Tom, thanks for the nice reply, and I like the confident "when" versus "if" on the book coming out. It's quite the "iffy" business, but I love everyone's positive attitude toward my efforts here!

Pauline - here's what takes courage: posting one's fiction on a public forum. A daunting endeavor! More personal, in a way, than the personal stuff. (Of course I hit the jackpot, posting fiction based on a personal experience...) Thanks for sharing your own experience.

From Emily Liz
Posted on June 2, 2010 at 2:12 AM

This blog made me smile because I gave a report-speech just like this one on Kreisler in eighth grade. Everyone else wrote three pages and I came in with thirty. I obviously had to pare down a lot for the speech. Thankfully it wasn't nearly as traumatic as this - I'm not afraid of public speaking when I know what I'm talking about - although I did have the momentary frustration and despair because nobody else cared. Kreisler was just an old violinist nobody had ever heard of. Thanks for bringing back that memory. I hadn't thought of it in years.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 2, 2010 at 3:29 AM

 Emily, what a great story! I wish I'd put a PS at the end of my blog, saying, "Everyone share your favorite 8th grade and/or music "unappreciation" bad story. Thanks for sharing your comments.

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