Ancient Instruments, Today’s Reveries

Ten years before the Soviet Empire collapsed, I had a travel grant to visit the Schumannhaus in Zwickau, East Germany. In those bad old days, the only way to reach the GDR was through Czechoslovakia, so I flew into the coldest January in Prague in a hundred years. The water in the toilet of the otherwise pleasant Hotel Opera was frozen solid, so retreating down the hall to the loo from my freezing room was no relief. Neither was the single program broadcast on each of the four radio stations: whap, plunk, kerwhap, plunk, whap, fizzle fizzle: “Fifteen love.” Smack, fizzle. “Thirty love.” The next day, a jovial polyglot tour guide explained that, if we could scrape the frost off the window, we would see the bullet scars, an everlasting memorial to the sins of the Nazis who indiscriminately shot up this beautiful city. “And note as we pass, the cornerstone.” We did: it read 1955, and not a Nazi in sight.

Russian soldiers were still much in evidence in 1979; they huddled, despised and miserable, in the tearooms whose glass doors were darkened by heavy horse blankets drawn against the encroaching cold.

Leaving for the GDR, I found my cabin unheated, so I was glad for the company and body heat of the immigration officer. He asked for my hotel confirmation (obtained through the mail in lieu of a visa which one got only inside the country), my passport, 25 East German Deutschmarks, and one of my biros “for my international collection.” I knew that having East German marks outside the GDR was a felony. So I evaded trap number one. He asked for Czech crowns, which I gave him. He left to make the proper arrangements in the bureau inside the gingerbread stationhouse. I thought this operation took too long. True enough: when the train started to roll, I saw the border guard chasing us down the platform, diligently and futilely waving my passport, my hotel confirmation, my crowns. My biro was already in his pocket.

Clearly, I was never to see my babies again, and my book of poems about the Schumanns and Brahms would have to wait for some other young poet. Each ten minutes of the next 90 doubled the terror—victim of the Stasi, disappeared American disavowed by the CIA, even my Chancellor, a Vietnam veteran in his CIA days, claiming never to have known me. But when we braked into the first station inside East Germany amid the steam, the frosted windows, the guard towers, the battalion of soldiers armed with machine pistols, the German Shepherds champing against their short leashes, a tap at my track-side window signaled me. And there was my rosy cheeked, out-of-breath best friend who thrust my papers through the window and disappeared before any dog sniffed out his crime.

The change he had given me was West German not East German marks, a fact that led to some hilarity when I tried to upgrade my onward ticket to Zwickau. The young clerk at the Hotel Mercur thought the story of my confrontation with the Ticket Harpy droll and promised to help me with the necessary visit to the police to register my stay in Zwickau. “Is very luck for me,” said he. “Mercur is Mother’s hotel. She leave to bury my aunt, so I substitute her. I help you with everything; you speak English with me; we both glad.”

This is how you meet your first Stasi agent.

I spent the week with Martin Schoppe, the sweet-hearted curator of the Schumann House Museum. He called his boxer Satchmo though the dog’s official papers identified him as Otto Wilhelm. Every Wednesday night, Martin crawled up into his attic and connected an illegal aerial that allowed him to tune in Columbo, beamed in from Munich. Unlike other dreamers of American life, he thought we all wore baggy raincoats and drove crotchety Hillman Minxes.

Martin introduced me to Robert’s piano, his holograph manuscripts, the plaster cast of Clara’s hands, gracefully posed one atop the other. Over lunch one day, he asked if I kept a trip diary. Yes. Had I written anything indiscreet? Not a word. Good. It’s been read. That young man who’s been helping you? . . .

When I left Zwickau, I helped an older woman carry an immensely heavy bag up the stairs to the train platform. That put me opposite the platform I needed for Leipzig, but it also fated me for a redeeming ride to Munich, which I took. The woman’s burden was a porcelain coffee service, the last gift from her dying mother. The woman now lived in Nuremberg. Her husband, with no East German roots, no longer made these home visits with his wife because he was incessantly harassed, questioned, and sometimes arrested. And now, the woman felt sure, we would arrive at the border only to have a guard confiscate her inheritance for his own use. An emblem, somehow, of her relationship with her mother, whom she would never see again.

The closer we came to the border, the more agitated we both became. She didn’t want to weep before the guard; tears were simply an admission of guilt. At the border, a six-foot blade of a redheaded woman with a huge sidearm at her hip, entered the cabin, sent the Nuremberg lady into the passageway, and sharply addressed me in German. I confessed didn’t speak the language. Later, I found out she then said “I saw you two talking together. Don’t pretend you don’t speak German.” Finally, she allowed my new friend to translate. I was a poet doing a research. I had spent a week in Zwickau. I had a manuscript with me.

She then flipped through every page I had written, opened my suitcase, unrolled my socks. Victory came when she dug through my pipe tobacco pouch with her fire-red fingernails, nails that proudly pronounced the color of her hair. She found no contraband, but her sharp talons did spear the apple slice that kept the tobacco moist. She withdrew a hand mutilated with black stains under her nails and up over her cuticles. Maybe it was too much to ask for her to shriek and flee, or draw her pistol and shoot off the offending fingers. Alas, she merely gave us each a basilisk look, turned on her heel with military precision, and stalked off, left foot first, just as they taught us in marching band. Her eyes never settled on the Nuremberg lady’s bag. The Commie bureaucracy was foiled. My friend and I celebrated all way to Nuremberg. She had chocolate cookies; I had aspirin.

Another eight years passed before the book was published. You can look it up: Unsettled Accounts, 1987 winner of the Quarterly Review’s international poetry contest. (The adventure, in memory at least, is better than the book.)

So why am I returning to this ancient tale? Because, Sunday, I found myself shaking, unable to hold my camera steady in the Museum of Ancient Instruments. Here was a piano built by Conrad Graf late in his career. He gave it to Robert and Clara as a wedding gift, a present that must have infuriated Clara’s father  since he had just lost the lawsuit attempting to prohibit the union. Sometime after Robert’s suicide attempt and his dispatch into the madhouse near Bonn, the piano passed to Brahms who, in spirit, was so married to Robert that he could never—at least would never—marry Clara and become father to her eight children.

And next to this instrument, where I imagined Clara’s small hands gracefully posed for the sculptor while Robert watched on, balancing children on each knee to keep them away from the hardening plaster, was another piano. This one was the instrument Clara played on to inaugurate the small recital hall in the Musikverein, the great Viennese concert hall. That room is now called the Brahms Saal. Brahms and Clara, married at last. in the museum, the bust of Johannes rests benignly between the immortal pianos.

Such lives! Such fates. Such connections and discoveries. How circles close! And how those closing circles embrace the heart.

6 thoughts on “Ancient Instruments, Today’s Reveries

  1. And here I am reading this post on a break from rehearsal for our next show.. Featuring Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe in its original 20 song cycle, alongside poet Heinrich Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo. Fancy that?!

    • Shadou, I hope someone thinks to make a video of the Dichterliebe performance that I might have. That would be a great pleasure for me. Maybe I’ll send you the Schumann poems in return. In any case, much merde for your upcoming work. I think you have some idea of how happy I am for you these days.

  2. I always find musical instruments in museums an odd spectacle because I yearn to hear them. It’s an eerie feeling. Your casket comment about the pedal piano tickled me because it adds to that feeling of this dead history. Although, my initial reaction was more that it looks like a road box for traveling. Perhaps a very early boom-box, if you will.
    And I want a giraffe piano. What easier way to discourage people for setting a glass riddled with condensation on it, than having not having a flat surface?

  3. Jamie, I wish you were right about the virtue of the giraffe piano. But thoughtless are nothing if not imaginative. (Last year I donated my beautiful Yamaha baby grand to the school. It has a new life in a music classroom. I don’t dare go visit it and count its wounds. Poor thing.)

  4. Peter,

    It is always amazing for me to read your extraordinary adventures, your memories and your insights. What a joy! I remember the good old days of the GDR…and you describe them beautifully accurate.

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