The ‘Enigma Variations’ of 1899 heralded the arrival of Edward Elgar, a young English composer who would not only surpass his teachers and rivals, but would restore international acclaim to British music. He was the greatest native composer since Purcell.
He overcame prejudice against his humble background, and his own discomfort in society as, for twenty years, he composed symphonies, oratorios and concertos that rank among the major works of Twentieth Century Music.
However, the sonic assault of his ‘Cello Concerto’ of 1919 was to be his last masterpiece. Shortly after, his wife died and he withdrew from public life, convinced that his art was old-fashioned, in comparison to the Modernist compositions coming from over The Channel.
That Elgar could be a part of the establishment, yet also a ‘down to earth’, ‘man of the people’ is attested to in the following anecdote.
William Walton, as a young music student, met the elder composer, and was so overawed by being in the presence of so great a man, that he was unable to speak. Elgar immediately put him at ease, by asking him if he knew who had won that afternoon’s big horse race.
Walton was befriended and encouraged by Siegfried Sassoon and The Sitwells, and wrote a musical interpretation of Edith Sitwell’s ‘Facades’. There was a society performance where the music played while the poetess recited through a megaphone.
In November 1935, the year after Elgar’s death, Walton’s First Symphony was finally premiered, ‘finally’ as it was started in England in 1932 and was scheduled to make its first appearance the following year.
It is dedicated to Baroness Imma von Doernberg, a young widow the composer had met in 1929.
By 1931, The Composer and The Baroness were living together in Switzerland, though Walton later returned to England and began work on the symphony.
Work on it was interrupted as Walton returned to Switzerland to be with the Baroness who had fallen ill, and they continued their often tempestuous relationship.
Aside from these personal problems, Walton was also lacking inspiration and canvassed his friends’ opinions as how to finish the symphony.
The on-off relationship finally ended in 1934, when the Baroness left The Composer for a Hungarian Doctor.
The symphony is regarded as an important addition to the canon of British music. It begins very softly, as if arriving through an early morning, country mist, before erupting into moments of intense drama, and sensual beauty.
Walton was still a relative newcomer to the music scene, when his First Symphony was being composed, whereas Vaughan Williams was a ‘grand old man’ when he began composing his Sixth Symphony.
This remarkable composition has all the energy and iconoclastic disregard of a young composer, anxious to make his mark by flaunting all conventions.
Three movements run as one, the quiet moments being just as uncomfortable as the loud, with their sense of foreboding. Yet it is the fourth movement that sets the symphony apart and on which its reputation rests: the entire section is played pianissimo. An early critic wrote of the finale as,
“… devoid of all warmth and life, a hopeless wandering through a dead world … “.
The Composer denied it had anything to do with the battlefields of Europe, the death camps of Poland, the post-atomic cityscape of Hiroshima.
Adapting folk melodies of one’s own country is known as Nationalism in music. Hearing that Ralph Vaughan Williams was a ‘Nationalist’ composer, the Hamburg University offered him an honorary degree in 1938. After much debate, he decided to accept, using the occasion to send a letter stating,
“I am strongly opposed to the present government in Germany, especially with regards to its treatment of artists and scholars … and my first instinct is to refuse … “
Hitler banned the music of Vaughan Williams later that same year.
Richard knocked the worst of the snow from his boots and entered the bar immediately seeing, and hearing, Chris and Arizona Al at a far table.
He ordered a coffee as he walked over to them, and began the process of taking off the layers of clothing.
It was only mid afternoon, but all lights were on. The day, seen through the large glass panes, was gray and bitter, people walked along quickly, heads down and wrapped up against the cold.
“Look what I got,” he said, opening his bag and taking out three second hand paperbacks. He put them on the table, Chris taking them straight up,
“Let’s see . . . ‘Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man’, hhmmm, ‘The Trial’, Kafka, and, ah, Dickens, ‘Tale of Two Cities’. Which one you gonna read first ?”
“Think I’ll have a bash at Kafka. You’re always talking about him. You read this one ?”
“Long time ago. Al ?”
“Err, what’s that ? Kafka ? No, who’s he ?”
Richard explained about the Czech writer, as best he could, only knowing what he had read in the introduction on the U-Bahn ride.
“Oh, yeah, cool, could give that a go, yeah, something different. Been meaning to ask you guys about books. Like to maybe borrow some, if that’s no biggie ?”
“Here,” said Richard, offering the Memoirs. “Thought it was something German, name like Siegfried Sassoon, but turns out he’s as English as can be.”
“Yeah, the fox hunting bit may have been a clue, what ?” said Chris with a wink at Al, before asking him, “You read Generation X ?”
“Err, no, no, don’t think so.”
Richard had brought it from London, and they had read and reread it many times between them. Chris was all for going home and getting it immediately, but Al told him that later would be OK.
“It legitimizes our whole existence,” continued Richard, “for example, I’m no longer a hopeless loser, I’m a McJober. We,” indicating Chris and himself, “are occupational slummers. You, Al, are retro, neo, rock star, throwback . . . something.”
“Actually,” corrected Chris, “I’m taking an occupational sabbatical.”
“Yeah, how’s the job hunt going ?” asked Arizona, trying to get the conversation back to something he could understand.
Richard laughed to himself, having heard all of Chris’ descriptions of sordid, Dickensian working conditions.
“I’ve got an interview, meeting thing tomorrow at some pasta restaurant in Yorckstrasse, so at least I’ll get some decent grub. But, fucking hell, some of the places. I went to one, out past Dahlem, and there was no sink in the kitchen. They were showing me how to take the plates and shit out to a big barrel in the yard, and wash them with a hose. Then I went to a brewery bar on the Ku’ Damm. Took one fucking look and thought fuck that. Enormous kitchen and about ten chefs, all screaming at each other and at the Spülers, who just stood there, heads down, as frying pans were flying around, fat was flying, food was flying, bottles . . . lucky not to be decapitated. Lucky not to be employed there.”
Richard enjoyed the embellishments Chris had made since he first heard that anecdote, when it had featured a mere four chefs. He then spoke up, as much to clear his name as anything.
“Of course, I offered to let him go back to Biberkopf . . . “
“Yes, but then what ? I have a much better chance of finding something than you. Besides . . . Monika’s not happy with me being just a . . . “
Arizona waited for the completion of the sentence, but was forced to ask,
“You and Monika not so tight ? I thought you were solid.”
Chris let out a whistle,
“No, sir, not by a long chalk. Trouble at mill.”
He knew that Arizona would have no idea what he was talking about, so he clarified.
“I don’t know, Al. You should know, you’re been around women. What should I do ? First, every thing’s fine, great, she’s the love of my life, next thing, she’s a bloody Tasmanian Devil, a force of destruction. Hurricane Monika. Not a house left standing.”
“Hey, man, can I ask you something ?” then without waiting for permission, Arizona continued, “what was the deal with that Melanie chick ?”
Richard sat up, hoping that at last, he may know the full story.
Chris did in fact look at him as he began, but now didn’t care and was happy to get it all out in the open.
“I don’t know. As you can see, when it comes to women, I’m at a bit of a loss.”
“She was into you like gangbusters, Dude. When you kissed Monika, her face was just pure evil. Queen of death.”
“Yeah ! That’s her. ‘Queen of Death’”
“All that black doesn’t help,” added Richard.
“She some kind of Antichrist or something ?” asked Arizona.
“Atheist,” said Richard, presuming Al has used the wrong word. “We had a discussion about her beliefs one morning. She told me there was no God. But atheists are like joggers; you never see a happy one.”
“And you couldn’t argue with her. She’s always right.” said Chris.
“Especially when she’s wrong,” concluded Richard. Arizona was more interesting in the background than the word games.
“But did you ever like, date or fool around ?”
“Yeah, you ever take her out to second base ?” asked Richard.
“Get to second base, asshole. If you’re gonna go Yankee on my arse, at least get it right !”
Arizona tried to get the answer. Chris refocused.
“No, no, well, yeah, OK, kinda kissed and shit, but I wasn’t really into it. Breaks down like this; I was working in a café, bussing tables ‘n’ shit. OK, I was pouring coffee and working the till, whatever, and Melanie also worked there.”
“And Will was a regular customer ?” interrupted Richard.
“I’ll get to that bloody old nuisance in a moment.” Chris shook his head and took a strong hit of caffeine. “So, we’re both students, Mel and me, but never meet on campus, because I’m doing heavy macho stuff and she’s into waste of time, book reading or flower arranging, I dunno, chick subjects. But, you know, there ain’t much a-happ’ning on the home front, and we get on, and one night we go to the movies. Then, afterwards, as we’re saying ‘goodbye’ she comes up to me and gives me a massive hug, really hung in there, got her moneys worth. That should have been a sign.”
“Oh, I get it. A clingy-thingy.” Said Arizona.
“I hear you, Man.”
“But you were never together ?” clarified Richard.
“No, course not. So we kissed a bit, well, you know, vodka will do that to ya. But then I pulled down the portcullis. Told her I wasn’t into anything physical. Childhood trauma and all. I expected her to run like the clappers, but, oh no, she has to add her own Freudian fuckups. Unable to . . . you know.”
Arizona nodded, slowly, sagely. He knew.
“But she was coming on like you were soul mates an’ all,” Richard explained, “such talk, like you have the best hands in history. Let me see. Hold up those Germans.”
Chris wasn’t exactly sure of that Cockney slang, but held out his hands for inspection.
Richard made a dismissive snort,
“They’re nothing to write home about. Now, Will; what’s his problem.”
“Where do I start ? He’s just some old fart who’d come in, buy one coffee and stay all day. Couldn’t shift the fucker. The sort that works out how much he’s saving on electricity. Sniffing around young students.”
“Male or female ?”
“I don’t think he was even bothered. In fact . . . Yes, sonofabitch, he came on to me. Few times. Cheeky bugger. Thought he was just being . . . ”
“HEY !” exclaimed Arizona, who had been looking at some flyers on the table, “whatdoyaknow ? ‘The Wiggling Kellys’.”
There were a few seconds of silence, as Chris’s story had been prematurely curtailed, and they would have to adjust to the verbal jet-lag, as a new, wholly unrelated tale was going to unfold.
“Ha, those girls. They were my backing band.”
Neither Chris nor Richard were willing to delay the story, so they indicated with their eyes that he should continue, without pause, with Richard holding up his coffee cup, and three fingers, to the waitress, whom he naturally found cute. He had already checked her left hand and noticed the absence of a ring.
“Yeah, they were backing me at the ‘So Was ?’ (So what ?) club in Kreuzberg. Ya been there ? It’s got this long kinda walkway catwalk stage, so it’s great for rocking out on. I’d met these two girls some time before and they’re real hot, groupie types, and they’re asking about venues and how to go about getting a band together, and I’m all, yeah, yeah, blah, blah, just trying to decide which one I wanna connect with, ya dig ? So I told them about this gig and they were asking do I need backing singers, and I’m thinking, well, no, but, hang on here, what better way to turn ’em on, play the rock star card, so I say, well, I don’t know, maybe, let’s see what ya got.”
Laughter and claps of approval.
“Yeah, I’m one one cool motherfucker when it calls for it, I know, so they do a number, in the bar, and, what can I say ? OK, can hold a tune, just, but they start dancing to it.”
“Wiggling ?” asked Richard, with excitement.
“Oh, yeah, they had the moves, you know what I’m saying ? So I thought, hang back, if they sing, they’ll fuck up the songs, but if they dance …”
“Fucking genius ! I’ve got a lot to learn from you,” Chris gushed.
“Sure ’nuff, Grasshopper. So comes the gig, I’m playing, and doing my stuff, I just had guitar and drum machine, and I start to walk up the stage. The girls see this, and next time, they walk with me, one each side, dancing away. So it goes. Every time I move up the stage, they come with me, and the audience are going crazy. I thought it’ld be a tough crowd, lot of biker leather in there. So I play another, and another, each time, loud screams. Then I go over to change a rhythm track and strum a few chords, but the audience are still going wild, even more so, then I look up and see the girls still dancing. Then the fucking PA motherfucka cuts my amp line and starts playing Techno shit, and the girls keep dancing, the audience going even crazier.”
“So . . . what did you do ?” Richard was forced to inquire.
“Just packed up my equipment, took a beer and watched the show. Gave them the name, too. From ‘90210’. You guys get that in England ?”
They both denied knowledge of it. Arizona continued,
“Yeah, I had a lot of afternoons at home in the early Nineties. So there’s this character called Kelly, and in the opening credits, she wiggles off. Man, you gotta see it. OK, gotta split. Oh, shit, Man, nearly forgot. Got a few gigs coming up.”
“Cool !” from Richard
“Rock on !” from Chris.
“Yeah, you’ll be there, right ? ‘Cause ain’t nothing worse than playing to an empty hall.”
“Of course. Even take the night off, if I have to. Chris ?”
“Absolutely. I’m so there. One question . . . “
“No, The Wiggling Kellys will not be there. Got their own gigs. Playing the, hey, check it out, they’ve got another gig at the ‘So Was ?’. Hah. Never asked me back. OK, out of here. Tschüs.”
After he left, Richard turned to Chris,
“I’m glad we know him. Oh, shit, he’s coming back.”
Arizona returned, holding out a cassette.
“You guys still play tapes, right ? Here’s a copy of some of my old stuff. Yeah, you may be into it. Give it a listen.”
He left again. Chris put the tape in his bag and Richard checked his watch.
“OK, gotta split soon, myself. You back at the flat tonight ?”
“Yeah, gotta stay sober for the interview, meeting thing.”
“Why you sweating it ? You’re a sure thing because, one, they really need a Spüler, and, two, they really need a Spüler. Another coffee ? Then I’ll have to go.”
Left alone, Chris read a bit of Dickens, starting in on the introduction, but couldn’t really concentrate. It was only an unskilled job, paying a basic wage, but money went a long way. A full week’s work would cover his rent and travel for the month, and there would be free food, as well.
But the job meant so much more. He still hadn’t told Monika about the studio closing and was terrified of her running into Al and him telling her. He had to get something, or he would certainly get something from his girlfriend who would instantly become his ex-girlfriend.