The Mastersinger from Minsk
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Morley Torgov
Maestro Wagner did not bother to rise from where he was seated when I entered his study, nor did he apologize for keeping me waiting a half-hour. “Come look at this, Preiss,” he said, his cerulean gaze fixed on an object the likes of which I’d never before seen. “It’s a gift from the King, King Ludwig himself! A belated birthday present he calls it.”
“Does it work, Maestro? I mean, to me it looks like a toy,” I said.
“Does it work! Listen to this.” Resolutely, almost fiercely, Wagner played what I took to be a fanfare, perhaps four or five bars of music. “The prelude to Act Three of my new opera,” he said with evident satisfaction.
The king’s birthday present to Wagner was a Bechstein piano with a full keyboard, but designed to sit on top of a desk. I guessed that two people could easily move the instrument from place to place. “The world’s first portable piano,” Wagner said, “and it is mine, Preiss, mine alone.” He said this quietly, as though King Ludwig and he were the inhabitants of some deeply secret and exclusive society of gods.
Our young monarch’s proclivities, despite the fact he had ascended the Bavarian throne only four years earlier, in 1864, were by now famous throughout Germany. Tall and lanky, with flashes of eccentric behavior that matched his extraordinary height, he had come in his short span of rulership to be known as the Mad King, understandable given that he was the descendent of the Wittelsbach family, a long line of royals whose chief contribution to German culture was to demonstrate down through the ages that even men and women wearing crowns and coronets could be utter fools. (One claimed to have swallowed a glass piano; another embarrassed the clan by loudly proclaiming abominable sins of the flesh before a crowded cathedral.) As for Ludwig himself, his sins of the flesh and other moral lapses were widely spoken of in whispers by his subjects, sometimes with envy but more often with disgust.
Ludwig’s one redeeming quality was his patronage of the arts in general, and the art of Richard Wagner in particular. Indeed, it was said he worshipped the composer first and second, and God third. He must have been blind to Wagner’s professed contempt for royalty, for Ludwig favoured the Maestro with a degree of largesse other musical geniuses could only dream about. Hence this latest gift.
“Can you imagine, Preiss, what this must have cost?” Wagner asked, shaking his head with awe. “Of course,” he went on, “poor Mozart would have forfeited something like this in payment of a gambling debt; poor Beethoven would have pounded on it without being able to hear a single note; and poor Schubert would have pawned it to buy food for a week. I must count my blessings, Preiss, mustn’t I?”
“Speaking of which, Maestro, I had the pleasure of Madam Wagner’s company over tea while you were occupied counting your blessings.”
“Ah, Inspector,” Wagner said, his smile almost beatific, “no man on this planet has ever loved a woman as much as I love Cosima. Of course, I would not expect you to fathom the depth of our love, Cosima’s and mine. After all, you are in a profession not noted for the poetry of love. Besides, I’m told you are a bachelor, so what could you know of such things, eh?”
Stifling the urge to strike his precious new Bechstein with my fist, I responded, with an evenness that surprised me, “True, policemen are not given to flights of poetry as a rule, but I do enjoy the odd nursery rhyme. As for bachelorhood, it does have its moral advantages, you know.”
Wagner looked dubious. “What moral advantages?”
“Well, take the matter of infidelity, for instance,” I said. “As a bachelor, one can be unfaithful without leaving the trail of damage and destruction that an adulterous spouse leaves. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Wagner frowned. “You’ll have to pardon me, Preiss, if I’m not in a mood to be agreeable. I have more important things on my mind at the moment.”
“Such as the unfortunate murders of your man Lantos and Wolfgang Grilling, you mean. Yes, of course, let us talk about that.”
“Let us not talk about that!” Wagner said with some vehemence. “Their deaths are now your business, Inspector Preiss. As for me, whole days have gone by since I received that threatening note, and I’ve heard nothing but a deafening silence from our wonderful police force.”
“Very well, let’s deal with the question of the threat made against you. Until he was found dead today, I considered your tenor — I’m referring to Grilling, not Schramm, of course — as a suspect. I know for a fact that he was extremely resentful that you chose Henryk Schramm over him for the lead role in your new opera. Actually that is a gross understatement, judging from his reaction at the audition, and later from the bitter complaints he made to Sandor Lantos.”
“I have nothing — absolutely nothing — to apologize for,” said Wagner, his sharp facial features made sharper by a tone of defiance in his voice. “Grilling as a singer was competent; as an operatic performer, however, the man had no presence, Preiss; no profile, no personality. He occupied the stage like a rug!”
“According to Lantos, Grilling’s anger was exacerbated by the designs you insisted upon for his costume and facial makeup. He said they made him look like a Jew.”
Wagner suddenly sat bolt upright and let out a raucous laugh. “He did, did he? Well now, Preiss, I didn’t think our late friend Grilling was so astute!” Just as suddenly Wagner’s expression turned serious. “Of course the costume and makeup would make him look like a Jew. That is exactly what I had in mind, don’t you see? The character of Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger represents the one poisonous element in German society today. The Jews, Preiss … the Jews! I take it you have not had the benefit of reading my article ‘Judaism in Music.’ It was published several years ago but it’s still highly regarded among people of culture, people who care about the future of our great race.”
I was aware of that particular tome but preferred for reasons of my own to confess otherwise, a confession that, as expected, brought a look of disbelief to Wagner’s face. “My God, Preiss, are you deaf and blind?” he shouted. “Our ‘friends’ the Jews are professional plaintiffs. They keep up a constant cry in public and in the courts about how the Christian world oppresses them, even while they manage to sweep the wealth of the nation into their private hiding places.”
“Maestro, I hate to argue with such a recognized authority on this subject,” I said, “but it’s common knowledge that Jewish bankers, especially the ones in Frankfurt, have helped to finance plans for German unity —”
“Yes, Preiss but with whose money? Ours, Preiss, ours … yours and mine!”
“And their contribution to the arts and culture —”
“I suppose you’re going to mention Felix Mendelssohn, eh? Spare me, Preiss. First of all, the Mendelssohn family didn’t even have the courage to adhere to their origins and faith, so they converted to Christianity to enhance their personal fortunes. Secondly, despite his conversion, Mendelssohn’s music reeks of Jewishness. Tunes to dance to, parlour ditties, a violin concerto that opens with a melody they chant in a synagogue!”
“Dare I mention Heinrich Heine then? No poet ever expressed his love for Germany as passionately as Heine.”
Wagner looked away in disgust. “Preiss, you are so naïve, so pitifully naïve. I suppose during your earlier days in Düsseldorf Heine’s poetry had an impact on people who didn’t know better. But face it, Heine was another one of those converts of convenience who never understood the true German spirit. Do you know what he wrote once about us? Listen to this, Preiss: Heine is visiting in Italy, comes across a parade of soldiers, and notices that their officers are issuing commands to them in German. In German, do you hear? So what does our famous Jewish poet conclude from this? That German is the natural language of commandment? No! Instead he writes that we Germans are so accustomed to being ordered about that our beloved tongue is nothing more than the language of obedience. Do you know what I say about your wonderful Heinrich Heine, Preiss? He’s been dead now a dozen years, and good riddance.”
This line of discussion was proving totally fruitless from my perspective. “Maestro, I’m not here to debate what’s good and what’s bad for our country. I was hoping you might provide me with some valuable insights … clues, if you will … to help me solve the murders of Grilling and Lantos.”
“And I was hoping you would arrive with news about the threat made against me. It seems, Preiss, we are both going to be disappointed today. In my case, I might add, bitterly disappointed.”
As he said these words, Wagner half rose from his place at his desk, signalling that as far as he was concerned the interview was ended.
The next day, to get some background information relevant to the death threats recently made against Wagner, I went to see Mrs. Vronsky, and asked her if a conservatory in Minsk would typically have an opera department.
“Most definitely,” she said. “Opera is very popular in Russia among the upper class. Attending the opera is a kind of status symbol in high society. The women sit fanning themselves, imprisoned in their tight corsets; the men sit perspiring in their evening clothes and military tunics; everyone, having overeaten beforehand, tries desperately not to belch or let wind; and during intermissions they pretend they’re French and fawn all over one another. Why, even your Richard Wagner has had his works performed in Russia, although his experience as a conductor of an opera orchestra there has gone down in the annals as the greatest upset caused by any foreigner since Napoleon’s invasion! It’s one of the choicer bits of gossip to come out of my humdrum homeland in at least a generation, believe me. Oh, but you’ve undoubtedly got too many urgent concerns and too little time on your hands for gossip, so we’ll leave it for another time.”
“No, Madam Vronsky,” I said hastily, “please … gossip is to a policeman what —” I paused, struggling for a suitable comparison.
“What mother’s milk is to a baby?” Madam Vronsky offered, coming to my rescue. “Very well, to gossip, then. Maestro Wagner toured a couple of Russia’s major cities several years ago … I think it was during the year 1862 … and tales were circulating throughout the musical world that he was in every kind of trouble imaginable. He had separated from his wife Minna; he was drowning in debt; he’d had some colossal failures in Paris and Vienna, and performances of his operas had ground to a halt. He was desperately in need of a patron but none was then even distantly on the horizon. The journeys by train to Moscow and St. Petersburg were exhausting, what with sleepless nights and unbearable food. His ability to communicate to Russian musicians was limited, some German here, some French there, an occasional bit of Italian, all delivered at the top of Wagner’s lungs on the supposition that the best way to speak to people who don’t understand a word you’re saying is to shout at them. And shout he did, so much so that at one point in Wagner’s first rehearsal with the orchestra in St. Petersburg the concertmaster, a violinist who happened to be fluent in German, shouted back at Wagner. “We’re not deaf, Maestro Wagner,” he said, “and what’s more, we are accustomed to beginning a piece not on the upbeat but on the downbeat. In fact, we are having difficulty following your beat altogether.”
“Was this fellow — this violin player — insane?” I asked. “Nobody … not even The Holy Trinity … would dare speak that way to Richard Wagner.”
“Wait, Inspector, that’s not all. A few minutes into the first selection, Wagner’s Overture to Rienzi, the Maestro yelled at the musicians to stop. He ordered the first violin section to replay the passage they had just played, which they did, then demanded they play it again, glaring at them the whole time, watching every move they made as though through a microscope. Signalling the concertmaster to rise from his chair and come forward to the podium, Wagner shouted to the members of the orchestra, ‘You see, this is what happens to a violin section when there is total absence of discipline, of leadership, all the bows going in different directions like bulrushes in a windstorm instead of in unison.’ Pointing accusingly at the concertmaster, Wagner went on: ‘And this one should be in charge of a band of gypsies on a street corner, not sitting at the first desk in a concert hall in St. Petersburg. But then, what else would one expect from a man with a name like Simon Socransky, eh?’
“With that, Wagner summoned the orchestra manager, declared that he would not proceed so long as ‘that Jew Socransky’ was present, whereupon the unfortunate Simon Socransky was dismissed on the spot.”
I was shocked that an orchestral player could be sacked in such a summary fashion, but Madam Vronsky explained that musicians were regularly hired and fired at will, even the most senior of them. “It’s a precarious way to earn a living,” she said, “especially when your fortunes on any given day depend upon which side of the bed the conductor arose that morning.”
“Tell me, Madam Vronsky, how did you come to hear of this incident? You seem to know all the gory details as though you were actually there.”
“In the world of music and musicians, bad news travels faster than an off-key entrance,” she replied.
“But if I understand you correctly, hirings and firings are not all that unusual or remarkable,” I said.
“Ah, but this was both unusual and remarkable, Inspector. And tragic, too. Horribly tragic. You see, Simon Socransky was distraught; after all, he’d slaved for years to achieve the high position of concertmaster, had been obliged to spend much of each year away from home and family in order to hold the post in St. Petersburg, suffered such appalling humiliation right there in front of the entire orchestra, then found himself suddenly and cruelly unemployed. And so he returned to his native city … but in a coffin.”
“You mean he took his own life?”
“Where was he from? Where did his family live?”
Madam Vronsky paused, rubbing her forehead, a slight frown showing between her beautifully manicured fingers. Slowly she replied, “Well now, Inspector Preiss, that’s an odd coincidence, isn’t it?”
“What’s an odd coincidence, Madam?”
“Come to think of it, Simon Socransky was from Minsk.”
Excerpted from The Mastersinger from Minsk by Morley Torgov.
Copyright © by Morley Torgov, 2012. All rights reserved.
Published throughout Canada by Dundurn Press.
The Mastersinger from Minsk can be purchased now at Amazon and McNally Robinson. Some of Morley Torgov's other novels are available as e-books at BevEditions.com.
Morley Torgov was born in l927 in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, and since 1954 has been practicing law in Toronto. His first book, A Good Place To Come From, was awarded the prestigious Leacock Medal for Humor in 1975; later it was adapted as three one-act plays and produced at the 92nd Street Y in New York, and as a television play on CBC. He was awarded a second Leacock Medal in 1983 for his novel, The Outside Chance Of Maximillian Glick, which was adapted as a feature film and CBC television series. Two later novels were also short-listed for the Leacock Medal, St. Farb’s Day, and Stickler and Me, the former also winning a City Of Toronto Fiction Prize and Jewish Fiction Prize in 1992. He has written numerous articles and essays and has appeared for a number of years as a panelist on “Talking Books” on CBC Radio. Other published novels include The Abramsky Variations (1977), The Wars To End All Wars (1998), and Murder In A-Major (2008). He is currently working on a third novel in the Inspector Hermann Preiss mystery series.