A short story inspired by Gustav Klimt’s ‘Schubert at the Piano’ (1899) and Franz Schubert’s Fantasia in F Minor (1828).
The piece Johannes Lehner was to play was written for four hands. “You know well it’s meant to be a duet,” he growled at his wife as their guests looked on.
“Nevertheless,” she replied, looking about her, attempting to save face before the room. She had positioned herself so as to see Maria’s expression as he performed it. “That,” she thought, “would be enough.”
It had been a wet April morning when the daughter of an acquaintance had called to their home for the first time, all rosy in a flurry of raindrops and fresh laughter. In grasping the handle to open the door to her, Johannes had allowed to enter with Maria something insatiable in him.
“If only I had answered it,” thought Helga across a solitary summer of new music emitting from closed doors.
August had begun to burn when he eventually emerged from his salon brandishing what he described as his greatest work. It was the moment of triumph they had both been waiting for, but Helga could not share in it. While undulating notes had been scratched into staves, and hammered out on ivory by sun and candlelight, Helga’s solitude had revealed certain chords within her.
Over three years, she had watched her husband descend to near insanity with his inability to match his own previous triumphs, while in Vienna, they waited. Some wrote letters. She intercepted them. “It would be,” she thought, “that the one thing I failed to catch has awakened him.”
Helga had comforted the composer through torrid nights after which she would tiptoe out to leave him sleeping into the late afternoon. There was always an encore, and she was ever on her feet for it. It had been a dreadful winter. She prayed for deliverance, but she did not ask for it to be in the form of Maria.
He barely touched his tea that April afternoon when he languished before her, mouth crooked with awe, his eyes the sharpest his wife had seen them in some time. Maria spoke animatedly of Geneva, her family, the beauty of her journey through the Alps, and a whole host of passions. Helga didn’t have to say much. Johannes said nothing. That was, until Maria’s interest turned to his music. Helga braced herself, but instead of the pain and fury she had long endured, she witnessed her husband speak calmly with a delight and vigour which she thought had died with his last composition.
After Maria left, Helga watched him remain on the step as he looked out after her. Once her carriage disappeared from view, he turned swiftly, passed Helga with the briefest of acknowledgments, and retired directly to his salon. Helga stood in silence facing the large mirror in the sitting room. She looked into her own eyes, lifeless but for the flecks from the grate. A single note rang out, followed by a second, and then a third. “I was not enough,” she thought, as Maria’s music filled the house.
It was everywhere, and each note reminded Helga of her; of her husband’s way with her. The promising composition built across the summer months, but there was nothing that could prepare Helga for hearing the piece in its entirety.
One evening, a week after his announcement to his wife of his great triumph, Johannes threw open the high salon doors as the sound of horses’ hooves emerged from the dusk. Helga stood in the window and watched them approach.
“It’s Tobias Steiner,” declared Johannes as he straightened his tie and smoothed his collar. “We’re playing my duet.”
Helga turned to look at him as she moved to open the door. A duet.
Tobias’s brusque entrance bore all the commingled excitement and nervousness to be expected of a pianist invited to perform a new composition by a maestro, not least one so long awaited. His eyes glittered as Helga greeted him, and he turned fervently to the doorway in which her husband now stood.
“Johannes,” said Tobias, striding towards him. “It is… I’ve no words for it.”
The composer smiled. “What words are needed when there is music?” he replied, beckoning them both.
Helga never entered the salon. But, as Johannes looked warmly at her, it reminded her of a time, and she followed them into the room, taking a seat on the green chaise longue that ran parallel to the piano.
As Tobias took out the music that Johannes had sent him, and both men prepared themselves, she looked at the stubbed candles that had seen out her husband’s summer nights, the piles of parchment pushed against walls and into corners, the wine velvet curtains that swept down to the floor boards he treaded as he found his way. She could often hear him pacing before a return to the seat would be followed by tentative notes rising to confident strains. She knew how he worked.
He was talking to Tobias at speed as he arranged the sheet music before them, and Helga recognised the light within him. But a glow belonging to someone else could be felt in the room that night.
As the men began to play, Helga thought the world would fall away. Johannes struck the first note, quickly followed by Tobias, who was concentrating hard. As it swelled and reached strains of beauty Helga had never before heard, she saw her husband’s eyes were closed, his head tilted back in ecstasy.
In the music, to Helga’s ears, he had captured that thing intangible in Maria; that ethereal quality that made her irresistible. It spoke of the glory that was her presence in the world. It marvelled that such a being could exist. But it also conveyed that he could never have her, and that he would spend the remainder of his life consumed by his desire. He would rather have seen her once, and live a life in pain, the notes seemed to say, than to never have seen her at all. In one moment, he asked himself if he might act out his fantasy, in another, the impossibility of it cast him into utter despair. It wasn’t enough that she existed, he seemed to be saying, if he could not satisfy his longing.
Helga thought her heart would break to the strains of her husband’s passion. In his coming to life again, she resolved that it was now she, not he, who must reside dead among the living.
She had dreamed about the shared pleasure of his great return. The fire in him would see them sip drinks by candlelight, make love, and travel into Vienna again, a glorious pair savouring the prime of everything. He would tell her she was beautiful as they parted, he to perform, she to look down from the box at those who had gathered to hear him, and lean her gloves on velvet as she watched him enthral, then bow to rampant applause.
Such was the genius of his new composition that she knew all that could be theirs once more, but also that she could not bear to enjoy any of it in the knowledge of where it had come from.
It was Helga’s idea to host a gathering of the cream of Viennese society to debut his new work, and buoyed by her compliments and his tremendous piece, Johannes insisted it happen without delay. A neat stack of invitations, written in Helga’s hand, were promptly whisked away, and preparations commenced. But, there was one envelope missing, and an unexpected addition took its place.
Word soon spread of the select coming together, and Helga sat coolly scanning related articles in the Viennese press. Whisperings were afoot of a composition in the offing, and as she passed the papers to him over breakfast, Johannes smiled broadly with anticipation. Such was his belief in what he had created, that he felt no fear. Indeed, he had only one concern. “You’ve made sure to invite Tobias,” he said, once a day for the first few, and could not rest until his wife reassured him that an acceptance had been received from his partner, and not to worry himself.
“And why wouldn’t he want to be part of such a moment,” she shooed as she stood up from the table. “You saw how he was last week.”
A relieved Johannes, chiding himself for doubting her, kissed her hand.
The night of the concert came, and Helga watched as he readied himself in their bedroom. The years of suffering had rolled away, and there was a striking dignity in how he held himself now. She would have felt shame had the anger she concealed not banished every other emotion.
“Where else but in my home,” he said, smiling at her as she moved to leave the room to meet the arriving guests.
“My thoughts precisely,” she replied.
On the landing, she looked to the long window that gave on to the avenue. A string of carriage lights rocking back and forward with the rhythm of their horses floated towards her. It was as if their old life was returning with the sight of each new light appearing round the bend. But things could no longer be that way for her.
As she descended the staircase, the sweet aroma of breathing wine and warm foods rose to greet her. Such care had been taken in moving the piano to the main sitting room for the performance, and everything looked just as it should. The flurrying servants had begun to calm, and all now anticipated the arrival of the guests.
As each carriage door opened, and Vienna’s ladies were assisted to the ground by gentlemen in dark coats, the night bloomed with sprays of colour. The fires which blazed on each pillar made miniature flames in their jewels, and the servants looked on in disguised awe at the spectacle before them. It had been many years.
Helga was an impeccable host and imagined the sound of voices rising through the floor to assure Johannes of a captive audience. Once she had greeted the guests and was satisfied to leave them, she returned to her husband.
“It’s time,” she said, finding him seated in the corner of their room, reading over his sheet music. He looked up at her. About to rise, he paused.
“Helga,” he said. Her name was still syrup on his tongue. But that was not enough.
“This composition I’ve written, it’s more than a piece, you know that.”
She bowed her head.
“Things will be different now.”
Looking into his eyes, she mustered a smile and replied, “Well then you had best not keep everyone waiting.”
Helga went down the staircase first and turned to see Johannes at the top where he had appeared to rapturous applause. He bowed, and descended to his piano. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he called out. “I thank you most sincerely for joining my wife and I in our home this evening.” The guests clapped again. He was always so accomplished at this, and Helga’s memories were many.
“It has been some time,” he continued, revelling in the moment, “since I have had the pleasure of presenting you with some new music.”
He looked over at her, and her benevolent expression urged him on.
“I would be lying if I said that this period of… well… what would one call it? I suppose you could say things have not been easy.”
Noting the arrival of a particular guest, Helga had swiftly moved to the back of the room, and was now bringing a young lady forward at her insistence. The girl seemed confused, and a trifle embarrassed, but Helga was adamant that she be at the piano to hear her husband play, and watched him intently as she moved her into position.
Johannes was astonished to see Maria appear by his side. As she bestowed a small smile upon him, it seemed to him that her awkwardness and humility only succeeded in enhancing what he had thought to be impossible. He gathered himself.
“Sometimes,” he said gently, turning to the guests, “it is on the most unexpected of days, in the most unlikely of places, that one finds…”
His words died away, and the room, in thrall, remained silent.
“My music must speak for itself,” he added quietly, and all remained still.
At length, he addressed the gathering once more, declaring, “All that remains now is for me to say that I hope you enjoy what you are about to hear.”
Another round of applause ensued over which could be heard Johannes, summoning Tobias. The crowd looked behind as they clapped, and to each side, but nobody was stepping forward.
“Tobias,” he said again in a light voice. “Come now. No need to be afraid.”
A few guests laughed, but his calls were to no avail. The clapping subsided, and the gathering looked on as Johannes’ face drained.
Tobias Steiner was not there.
Seated at the piano, his wife behind him now, and Maria standing to his right, he turned back to Helga.
“Did you not say he was coming?” he asked her with a barely concealed desperation.
“I did,” she replied.
“Well, where is he?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
Helga scanned the room before leaning down to her husband’s ear.
“Perhaps, someone else could accompany you?”
“You know that’s impossible. Have you any idea of the practice needed? The days and nights Tobias has already… No, it’s impossible.”
“Well,” replied Helga, “I suppose you’ll just have to play it by yourself then.”
“By myself? You know well it’s meant to be a duet,” he growled as their guests, including Maria, looked on.
“Nevertheless,” she replied, looking about her, attempting to save face before the room.
She had positioned herself so as to see Maria’s expression as he performed it.
“That,” she thought, “would be enough.”
Johannes turned to the keys, taking one last desperate look for Tobias. But he was not there.
He could not refuse to play in the circumstances and, given his speech, it had to be a new piece. And so Johannes Lehner resolved himself to playing what was one part of a duet. Helga, having heard it, knew it would be nothing on its own.
He began to play to reverent silence. The room swelled in anticipation, but mere seconds in, had begun to deflate. It sounded as weak as Helga had hoped it would without Tobias. She knew that it could never be the sum of its two parts.
Now, the time had come for her to enjoy the look on Maria’s face. The expression which would belie his favourite’s inner disappointment about the glorious composer she had so idolised in their home earlier that year. It would be the very moment in which she could witness and savour the death of his fantasy to the strains of his own passion.
She turned to Maria.
But it was not there, that look. She waited through the empty rise and fall, but it did not appear. The audience knew that something was wrong. So did Maria. But, what was it that Helga saw in her? Pity, concern and… and affection. Was that love in her expression, for Helga’s husband? Surely not. Where was the derision? The disdain? The disappointment?
At length, she found it. But it was not in Maria. Helga needed only to look to the large mirror to her right to see it all, in the expression of her own reflection, in her lifeless, candlelit eyes.
By Emma Hynes
If you enjoyed this story, you may wish to read a short background note on it in which I talk about the relationship between different art forms and writing.