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By Robert Wexelblatt


The Montréal Review, August 2011


"Ceské Kvartetto" (1907) by Hugo Boettinger





Many affairs of this life are fueled by money but one doesn't think about it unless the gas runs out. So, all beginnings being to some degree arbitrary, I will begin with the money made by the Heller Machine Tool Manufacturing Company of Zittau. The worthy founder and sole proprietor of this firm died an early death which was reasonably ascribed to overwork. That Konrad Heller's efforts exceeded what was necessary was proved when the firm not only survived without him but expanded. He had to be on the floor overseeing every detail of the operation from the ordering of lubricants to maintenance schedules; he would recalculate all his bookkeeper's sums, review weekly the personnel records of each of his employees and he wrote personally to every customer once a month. The business he nurtured and its profits passed directly to his widow, Roswitha Heller, one of the most remarkable women I've ever known. Frau Heller hired a first-rate manager down from Dessau and a Czech Deputy of Operations from Ostrava. For a year she kept her hand on things until she felt assured the ship was in good order. After instructing the German and Czech to keep a close eye on one another and send her monthly reports, she moved her household from Zittau to Karlsbad. Her only child, Hilda, soon married the eldest son of a banking family from Brno who came en-masse to take the waters and went away with Hilda, with her mother's resigned blessing.

Frau Heller, a sensitive woman, intelligent and active by nature, had her own ideas and advanced tastes, especially in the arts. Her interests extended even to the unsavory theories of Dr. Freud, two of whose public lectures she traveled to Vienna to attend. At a reception I once overheard her say tartly to a small-minded millionaire, "Jews don't frighten me."

In Karlsbad, Frau Heller rapidly became well connected. She was a gracious hostess who fed people well and so they called on her. She liked this, and invited more of them. She cultivated artists, writers, musicians, architects, and designers, helping some with money, others with introductions. Hilda, as she well knew, took after her father, had little interest in conversation, and none in the arts. She was, in fact, a happy Philistine the height of whose ambition was to be a proper wife and mother, an aim which her stolid husband and his dull family firmly seconded.

When Frau Heller learned that her nephew, the fourth of her brother's children and the only son, had revealed a precocious musical talent, she more or less took him over. Neither her brother nor his wife put obstacles in her way. While the railroad company had given Johannes Austecker the pompous title of Deputy Chairman for Moravian and Silesian Freight Operations, his salary was considerably less impressive; moreover, the females in his house were of the costly variety and the boy was sickly. Roswitha offered to see to her nephew's education and his other needs and the offer was accepted with a decent if perfunctory show of hesitation. Thus, at the age of nine, the fate of Werner Austecker passed into the hands of his aunt.


Though it was only September, the day on which I made the short train ride from Prague to meet Roswitha Heller might have been plucked from late November, dull gray with a cold, steady rain soaking the countryside. I watched the drops race one another across the window of my compartment. I was alone and the whole train was nearly empty because Karlsbad's high season was over and real life reasserted itself, rainy and chill. I had been taken for a brief stay at Karlsbad when I was a child; perhaps that is why I thought of the place as exempt from the commonplace, like an amusement park. It seemed odd to me that anybody actually resided there, in a regular house.

Frau Heller's villa was charming, even in the foul weather. Though large, it was not imposing; though elegant, it was not ornate. The gardens, even in that unpleasant weather, were gorgeous. A young maid opened the door for me. From her accent I could tell that the girl was from somewhere near Pilsen. "You're expected, sir," she said, and showed me straight into a drawing room. Frau Heller greeted me politely. "Best not take my hand," she said considerately. "I've caught a head cold." The girl from Pilsen brought in a platter of small sandwiches of wafer-thin ham and radish cheese, then a pot of excellent tea. "It's English," Frau Heller explained, when I complimented it. "It goes down well with a cold. I'll give you some to take back with you." She was a handsome woman still, even with her raw red nose and rheumy eyes.

"Herr Rybar," she began as soon as I had set down my cup, "you wrote that you had something to tell me that touches my nephew. Since you are one of the first violins in the Orchestra, I presume it has to do with the premiere of his symphony."

I thought it best to pretend to be surprised. "You know about my position?"

She smiled. "Oh, not only that. I also know that, before you changed it to Miklos Rybar, your name was Klaus Fischer."

This really did surprise me. "Your sources are excellent," I said tremulously, feeling a little ashamed.

I told her what Prazak was up to and, as she asked, offered my speculations on his motives. She listened carefully and with too much dignity to make any personal comments about the conductor.

"And what measures do you propose?"

So I told her that as well. Why else had I come?


Tomsa Prazak's wife Helene happened to be with three of her friends at the Café Magus when the young pianist who had recently been hired to entertain the patrons astonished everybody by performing three pieces by a Negro-American named Joplin. They are called "rags," from "rag time," a sort of syncopation. Hints of this rhythm can be found in Beethoven, yet what Joplin wrote is entirely different, wonderfully jolly. The pianist was Werner Austecker and the pieces were "The Maple Leaf," "The Entertainer," and "The Gladiolus." I've heard them; you can hardly help leaping up to dance. Helene Prazak was enchanted by the music and charmed by the good-looking young pianist, who followed the Joplin with Schubert's Impromptus. She had no idea that his name was known to her husband, still less that Tomsa would be so displeased to hear it, or that this displeasure would be exacerbated when she extolled the American dance music.

Tomsa Prazak was a fierce nationalist of the old school, steeped in Beethoven and Brahms, in Haydn and Mozart, in Schumann and Mendelssohn, whose work he knew intimately and conducted splendidly, but he hated the German language. His heroes were Garibaldi, Washington, Hus; his gods were Smetana and Dvorak, both of whom he knew and several of whose works he premiered. Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs he loathed and said so, albeit in private. Though it would be an overstatement to call him a reactionary, he did dislike most of the new trends in music, whether, as he once put it in my hearing, they "spewed up from the South or oozed down from the North"-that is, whether they were German or Austrian. Wagner he called a tyrant and a bore; his fulminations on Mahler were very nearly comic. In a political sense, however, he welcomed the modernism that disgusted him; he believed it was hollowing out the Empire for whose collapse I believe he prayed every day before breakfast. The programs he chose were, of course, conservative-he would say "undecadent"-and by 1910 this had become a sore issue with his orchestra manager and board, also with the younger subscribers. It had been years since the orchestra had given a first performance of anything.

With age, Prazak's once commendable nationalism had turned rancid. From embodying the humane and life-affirming spirit of Czech music, he turned to simply hating Germans and Jews, calling the former "interlopers" and the latter "parasites." Of course, many of the most talented and advanced thinkers and artists in the Czech lands were precisely these German-speakers. "They are sick, sick or mad," Prazak would mutter whenever he heard them spoken of with approval.

Little as there was of it, Prazak had heard an example Austecker's music. After the affair of Joplin at the Magus, his wife insisted he go with her to the Ballet for the premiere of Apollo and Daphne, a neo-classical gem in this humble fiddler's opinion. By rights, the music ought to have pleased Prazak, being such a tuneful and stringent antidote to Wagnerism; it even incorporated folk melodies. Yet he was quoted in the Prague press as saying: "To give him his due, the young fellow has talent, but his work is so frivolous it might just as well be French."

Austecker bore a German surname, hailed from the German-speaking north, and, last and worst, he was a protégé of the formidable Roswitha Heller who incarnated all Prazak so detested: a rich and progressive Germanophone. And now her precious nephew plays Negro music at the Magus, in front of Czech women, in front of his own wife! It was enough to make the old conductor apoplectic.

Let me be fair. Prazak was by no means a bad man. He hated groups, certainly, and said ugly things about them; but put an unhappy or needy member of one of those groups before him, and he would be solicitude itself. He also had some endearing eccentricities. For example, he cut his own hair (very badly) and rebuked any instrumentalist who made a slip during rehearsals-one of the first violins, for instance-by gently cajoling and calling him by his given name.


-Now, come over here, Werner. There, that's good.

-What is it, Aunt?

- I've arranged an audition for you at the Conservatory in the capital. It will take place in two weeks. Just think-the Conservatory!

-Thank you, Aunt Roswitha.

-You understand, there's no guarantee you'll be accepted.


-And I'm afraid the Committee can be expected to be especially hard on a boy with a name like Austecker.

-And why is that, endlessly generous Auntie?

-That'll do. You know perfectly well why.

-Yes, Aunt. Perfectly.

-Well then, I have a suggestion.

-How delightful.

-You are a rascal, Werner.

-Austecker, not Rascalnikov.

-Enough, you enfant terrible. Here's what I wish you to do. I want you to compose something for the audition.

-Won't there be required pieces?

-Oh, most likely, but it doesn't matter. I'm sure you can perform whatever pieces they want and also the new composition.

-Which has yet to exist. Well, what's my assignment? What am I to compose in two weeks?

-One week. You'll need a week for practice.

-Why not? A week, then.

-I've consulted a friend and he thought something to flatter the Committee wouldn't hurt.

-Flatter the Committee?

-That is to say, Prague.

-Oh, I'm to flatter the entire metropolis?

-He advised that you choose a theme from Don Giovanni. The Czechs still think of it as written expressly for them.

- La ci darem la mano? It's been done and done, Aunt. But still, I very much like the idea of writing some Mozart variations. What do you suppose your good friend would say to themes from K. 504?

-Stop teasing your old auntie. K. 504?

-K. 504 is Mozart's thirty-eighth symphony, called The Prague. First performed 19 January, 1787, conducted by the Maestro himself. He and Prague were crazy about each other back in 1787. Peddlers in the streets whistled tunes from Figaro, fiddlers scraped them out in taverns; and that's why Mozart wrote for them this great and odd three-movement symphony. But there's a particular reason I'd like to try some variations on it.

-And what's that, you precocious monster?

-Well, Aunt, you see, Mozart thought along the same lines as your friend; I mean he wanted to cater to his audience. He inserted a theme from Figaro into the finale, Aprile, presto aprile, and, of course, he marked the whole movement Presto. Charming, no?

- Oui, c'est charmant. And?

-And so the crowd went wild, so wild that they compelled Mozart to stay and improvise at the piano for another hour-twice the length of the symphony, by the way.

-I see. You are clever.

-Clever perhaps, but sickly certainly. Sollers Sed Infirmus could be my motto.

-Nonsense. You are not sickly.

-My adorable, never-to-be-adequately-thanked Aunt, you don't really believe I'll see thirty, do you?

-Please don't talk that way, Werner.

-Very well. I'll go and write some variations instead. To the Bechstein with me.


I'm no Thucydides; still, I too may permit myself to invent what might have been, or ought to have been, said on a significant occasion. I do know that Austecker was granted an audition at the Conservatory at the age of fifteen, that he played a set of original variations and more than won over the professors in their pince-nez, trimmed beards, and stiff Czech collars.

"I thought of Mendelssohn," said one afterwards.

"Mendelssohn! A German-and a Jew to boot," retorted his colleague, thinking himself droll.

"Mendelssohn was a Lutheran!" came the indignant reply.


At the Conservatory, Austecker flourished; his brilliance was recognized, and yet he was not well liked by most of his peers and instructors. His ability set him apart, as did an intimidating penchant for sarcasm. Still, he made a few close friends and a larger number of admirers.

For a few years after leaving his lessons, Austecker lit up Prague's musical firmament. So as to miss nothing of his career, to be close to and protect him, to give him a place to live and work, Roswitha Heller leased a spacious apartment on Zborovska. In addition to Apollo and Daphne and popular recitals that included his Novelleten and Ballades, there were his Bohemian Dances -an homage both to Smetana's Czech Dances and Dvorak's Slavonic -with four astringent polkas, plus that lovely and piteous Polish mazurka, and the final, sardonic waltz which some took to be a sly comment on Vienna. It was a period of activity that was, in more than one sense, febrile. Early in 1909 Austecker began coughing up blood; the diagnosis was quickly made and, at Roswitha's insistence, twice confirmed.


-You see, Aunt?

-You're going to the Tatras. No arguments.


-The Villa Dr. Sontich. It's in Novy Smokovec and I'm assured that it has an excellent reputation.

-For cures?

-Don't be flippant, Werner. They practice the climatic cure; there are sun-beds. You'll have good clean air, plain, wholesome food, and, above all, rest. Plenty of rest.


The Villa Dr. Sontich was established in 1876 by a Czech physician of that name-one wonders, though, whether behind Sontich a Sonntag may be hiding. Two decades later the place had expanded to two dozen buildings in all, including twelve summer houses. One of these small lodges was specially winterized and fitted out with a spinet at the expense of Frau Heller. Here her nephew contemplated peaks and abysses, death and nature; and, if this confrontation did not alter him, it certainly transformed and deepened his music.

It was in the Tatra mountains in 1909 that Austecker composed the mighty symphony-Mahlerian in scope, Brucknerian in length-which he titled Krank und Gesund. "Far above the busy parts of the earth," he wrote to his aunt with an uncharacteristic absence of irony, "my senses are sharper and, in general, I've become more acutely conscious. I can see the voles moving in the high grass, hear pebbles tumbling from the ridges. I am able to make out every pore on little Fraulein Hausner's pretty face. Yesterday, I was sure I could distinguish one falling snowflake from another. Precious, no?"

The symphony is complex and inventive; Austecker yanks at the form as a child might taffy. It is in five huge movements and six different keys, major and minor-and often ambiguously either, both, or neither, as if to show that life is a jumble, that in dying there is living and vice versa. The orchestration requires automobile horns, cow bells, an electric motor, bird calls, twice the usual complement of double basses and four saxophones. There is a sequence in rag time. The Andante so slow and ravishing that one feels one is dying as one listens to it. The finale is joyful; audiences, having been through so much, eagerly assent to its happiness with palpable relief.

The demands this piece places on musicians are unrelenting, and not just on their skill, I can say first-hand, but on their souls as well. As for the conductor, well, he must obviously be in top form and indefatigable; but also he must understand Austecker, feel in sympathy with a genius dying young and so becoming old.


His aunt's announcement that she would be visiting him in the Tatras did not surprise Werner, nor the eagerness he felt to see her. But he was uncertain whether to tell her about the work he had been doing, hard and exhausting work. He had fibbed when he wrote her that he was doing no work whatsoever, only breathing deeply, eating heartily, reclining on his sun-bed, and, once in a while, amusing himself and his fellow patients with the spinet. He had also lied to her about getting better and rightly presumed that the doctors would do likewise.

Roswitha Heller pulled into the Villa like a freight train loaded with stern love.


-What have you been writing?


-I'm not yet the old fool I'll doubtless become, Werner.

-Very well, then. It's big. Enormous, actually. An elephant. A whale.

-You bad boy.

-Yes, that's just what I am, Aunt.

-And what is this Behemoth?

-A symphony. Can't imagine where I got the nerve, but then everybody up here gets light-headed.

-I know where you got the nerve.

-Shall I show it to you, the score? I'd play some but it really needs an orchestra. Two orchestras would be better.

-It's finished?

-It will be. Before I am, that is.


Roswitha resolved that her dying nephew's chef d'oeuvre would get the premiere it merited, that he deserved. He would hear it precisely as he imagined it, cow bells, electric motor, double basses and all. She would do whatever was necessary; she excelled at arranging things and spending money.

First she approached our orchestra manager, who was eager to please. Then she invited the two members of the board whom she knew best to tea at the Grand Hotel. It all turned out to be amazingly easy.

-A happy coincidence.

-Just what we've been looking for.

-Ah, but will Tomsa Prazak do it? Is he even up to it?

That was indeed a question. But the matter was placed before the conductor by the full Board in pretty stark terms: he could go on being a venerated conductor or he could be merely venerable. The orchestra needed a premiere; everyone was clamoring for something new. Frau Heller had undertaken to cover the cost of the extra musicians; she would even pay for advertising.


"It will be quite an event," said the Chairman of the Board from his wide English leather chair at the head of the table. He looked over at the Manager and grinned. "They may even raise their eyebrows in Paris. What do you say to that, Dusek?"

"A scandal wouldn't be an entirely bad thing," allowed the Manager.

The old conductor saw how things stood, so he also stood, nodded at the Board, ignored the Manager, and walked out of the office growling under his breath, "And how does one conduct an electric motor?"


And so, we return to my visit to Frau Heller's villa in Karlsbad.

Werner Austecker was still high in the Tatras, worrying his aunt and pretending to obey his doctors, but would descend to our busy world for the premiere of Krank und Gesund, for which our orchestra was supposed to be preparing. I say "supposed" because Maestro Tomsa Prazak was not preparing us; in fact, just the opposite. For one thing, he canceled three rehearsals in a row, pleading illness. Worse still, he introduced major changes into the score, all of them to the bad. He speeded up the Andante, redesignated piano passages forte and vice versa; he altered rhythms and dynamics. Worst of all, he rewrote whole passages, substituting vulgar tunes in some and simply making a hash out of others. We sent the Concertmaster to question him on our behalf. Prazak was short with him, shamelessly insisting these were all last-minute emendations by the composer.

When informed of what was afoot, the Manager made light of it. All he wanted was the premiere of something new-and to him new did not mean original or daring, let alone sublime, only unfamiliar and strange. Dusek had the soul of an accountant and loved Strauss waltzes. "What do you want me to do about it?" he said in the best Pilate-manner.

So I wrote to Frau Heller who invited me to Karlsbad. She had left the apartment in Prague and returned there as soon as her nephew departed for the Tatras. I expect she was glad to get away from the hostile nationalists of Prague who sneered at her name and accent.

"And what measures do you propose?"

"There's the alternative of getting another conductor, of course," I said just so that she would have the opportunity to reply as she did.

"No. I don't want another conductor. No last-minute substitutes. Tomsa Prazak may be a bigot but his absence would diminish the importance of the premiere. What's more, he would then be free to ridicule my nephew, the symphony, and whoever replaced him at the podium."

"Just so," I said. "My idea is to let Prazak go on as he is doing."

"Undermining my nephew, you mean?"

"Precisely. However, with a little financial help from you, I believe we can defeat him. By 'we' I mean my colleagues who are as little pleased with Prazak's conduct as I am. Czechs and Germans alike."

"Go on, Rybar.or is it Fischer today?"

"We secretly rent a hall. We secretly rehearse. The Concertmaster can take charge, and certainly would for a small fee. The same for my colleagues, I'm sure. We could even manage without any conductor at all-that waving really is overrated. We have the original score copied, learn our parts thoroughly, and, on the night, we simply pay no attention to the old man. We ignore him. He could be conducting The Moldau."

Frau Heller regarded me almost with alarm, but only for a moment. Then she broke into a smile. "Sehr gut," she said decisively. "Can I trust you to handle the arrangements with your colleagues?"


"And the money as well?"

"If you like, Madam, but I think it would be best to arrange things through a reliable bank, one of those that are known for their discretion."

"A Jewish one?"

"Yes, that would be ideal."


The look on Maestro Prazak's face the first time we musicians waved farewell to his conducting was worth the price of a ticket, though, unfortunately, it was the one thing the audience couldn't see. Even before the end of the opening movement he had gone from confusion to perplexity to fury. Acceptance, if that is what it was, at last arrived, fittingly, during the long-breathed Andante, where our bows moved at about half the velocity of his arms.

Werner Austecker was seated in the third row, off to the left, between his splendid aunt and a pretty girl, possibly Fraulein Hausner. Fresh from the mountains, he looked deceptively robust, with his suntanned face and bright eyes. Even his thinness suggested youthful elegance, not the withering away it really signified. Three times I saw his body convulse as he pressed a handkerchief to his mouth. After that, I stopped looking his way.

Prazak's wife Helene was in her usual box. I enjoyed looking up to see rapture on her face and pride in her husband's new progressivism.

Though I had been a member barely a decade, I doubt the Orchestra ever delivered a more remarkable performance than it did that night. Our secret night rehearsals, held in the gymnasium of the Makovica Academy, were long and full of contention. We felt the lack of the strong hand and iron will to which Prazak had accustomed us. The Concertmaster was a fine fellow but he hadn't the authority to keep us quiet and in line. Gradually, though, we adjusted to this new democracy and, in my opinion, benefited from it, hashing out together an interpretation of the composer's intentions, re-imagining what he heard up there in the high Tatras.

When the performance ended, we were exhausted and exhilarated, while Prazak appeared almost ghostly. But I should give the old man his due; he played his part. He never stopped waving his baton and, after the final crushing cadence, turned to face the audience. As for them, the crowd remained silent for a full half-minute. Imagine the awful weight of the silence of a thousand overdressed, influential people, the suspense of it. Then, as if at a sign from Roswitha Heller, the applause began to roll forth, then cheers, the rising din breaking like a thunderstorm over Novy Smokovec.

What then? I was summoned to a last tête-à-tête in Karlsbad during which Frau Heller pressed on me her gratitude and a munificent check.

Her nephew lived to see 1911, but only just. He worked until the end, producing the settings of Chinese poems for baritone and orchestra he called Hsi-Wei's Skull and the frequently performed Suite for Two Pianos, a piece that always makes me think of a pair of cavorting lion cubs, full of the joy of their new lives. Austecker died at twenty-six.

As for Tomsa Prazak, his waning and parochial career revived when he received the two unprecedented invitations, first from Vienna and then Berlin. They wanted him to conduct Austecker's Krank und Gesund.


Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies.  He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; his recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.


Zublinka Among Women Robert Wexelblatt

( KenArnoldBooks, 2008)

"Loaded with wit, bristling irony, draped in erudition and studded with metaphysics": so wrote The New York Times Book Review about Robert Wexelblatt's work. This warm and witty novel of ideas shows that goodness is possible-and in Zublinka palpable-but that goodness is seldom unalloyed. As Zublinka and we learn in the course of this richly rewarding story, the discovery of truth and one's self is the work of a lifetime. Wisdom is possible and hard won.


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