He Revisits the Paris Conservatoire
I feel very much like the tutor of Prince Karl Heinrich in the pretty play “Old Heidelberg.” After a long absence he returned to Heidelberg where his student life had been happy—or at least had seemed so to him in the latter, lonesome years. Behold, he found the same reckless crowd, swaggering, carousing, flirting, dueling, debt-making, love-making, and occasionally studying. He liked it so well that, if I mistake not, the place killed him. I felt very much in the same position as the Doctor Jüttner of the play when I returned to Paris last summer. The Conservatoire is still in its old, crooked, narrow street; it is still a noisy sheol as one enters at the gate; and there is still the same old gang of callow youths and extremely pert misses going and coming. Only they all seem more sophisticated nowadays. They—naturally enough—know more than their daddies, and they show it. As they brushed past, literally elbowing me, they seemed contemptuously arrogant in their youthful exuberance. And yet, and yet —ego in Arkady!
I stood in the quadrangle and dreamed. Forty years ago—or is it fifty?—I had stood there before; but it was in the chilly month of November. I was young then, and I was very ambitious. The little Ohio town whose obscurity I had hoped to transform into fame—ah! these mad dreams of egotistical boyhood—did not resent my leaving it. It still stands where it was—stands still. I seem to have gone on, and yet I return to that little, dull, dilapidated town in my thoughts, for it was there I enjoyed the purple visions of music, where I fondly believed that I, too, might go forth into the world and make harmony. I did; but my harmony exercises were always returned full of blue marks. Such is life—and its lead-pencil ironies!
The First Arrival.
To be precise as well as concise, I stood in the concierge’s bureau some forty years ago and wondered if the secretary would see me. He did. After he had tortured me as to my age, parentage, nationality, qualifications, even personal habits, it occurred to him to ask me what I wanted in Paris. I told him, readily enough, that I had crossed the yeasty Atlantic in a sailing vessel—for motives of economy —that I might study the pianoforte in Paris. I remember that I also naively inquired the hours when M. François Liszt—he called him Litz!—gave his lessons. The secretary was too polite to laugh at my provincial ignorance, but he coughed violently several times. Then I was informed that M. Liszt never gave piano-lessons any time, anywhere; that he was to be found in Weimar; but only by passed grand masters of the art of pianoforte-playing. Still undaunted I insisted on entering my name amongst those who would compete at the forthcoming public examination. I was, as I said before, very young, very inexperienced, and I was alone, with just enough money to keep me for one year.
How I Lived.
I lived in a fourth-story garret in a little alley—you couldn’t call it a street—just off the exterior boulevard. Whether it was the Clichy or the Batignolles doesn’t matter very much now. How I lived was another affair—and also an object lesson for the young fellows who go abroad nowadays equipped with money, with clothes, with everything except humility. Judging from my weekly expenses in my native town, I supposed that Paris could not be very much higher in its living. So I took with me $600 in gold, which, partially an inheritance, partially saved and borrowed, was to last me two years. How I expected to get home was one of those things that I dared not reflect upon. Sufficient for the day are the finger exercises thereof! I paid $8 a month—about 40 francs—for my lodgings. Heavens—what a room! It was so small that I undressed and dressed in the hall, always dark, for the reason that my bed, bureau, trunk, and upright piano quite crowded me out of the apartment. I could lie in bed and by reaching out my hands touch the keyboard of the little rattletrap of an instrument. But it was a piano, after all, and at it I could weave my musical dreams.
I forgot to tell you that my eating and drinking did not cut important figures in my scheme of living. I had made up my mind early in my career that tobacco and beer were for millionaires. Coffee was the grand consoler, and with coffee, soup, bread, I managed to get through my work. I ate at a café frequented by cabmen, and for 10 cents I was given soup, the meat of the soup—tasteless stuff—bread, and a potato. What more did an ambitious young man want? There were many not so well off as I. I took two meals a day, the first, coffee and milk with a roll. Then I starved until dark for my soup meat. I recall wintry days when I stayed in bed to keep warm, for I never could indulge in the luxury of fire, and with a pillow on my stomach, I did my harmony lessons. The pillow, need I add, was to suppress the latent pangs of juvenile appetite. My one sorrow was my washing. With my means, fresh linen was out of the question. A flannel shirt, one; socks at intervals, and a silk handkerchief, my sole luxury, was the full extent of my wardrobe.
When the wet rain splashed my face as I walked the boulevards on the morning of the examination I was not cast down. I had determined to do or die. With a hundred of my sort, both sexes and varying nationality, I was penned up in a room, one door of which opened on the stage of the Conservatory theater. I looked about me. Giggling girls in crumpled white dresses stalked up and down humming their arias, while shabbily dressed mothers gazed admiringly at them. Big boys and little, bad boys and good, slim, fat, stupid, shrewd boys, encircled me, and as I was mature for my age joked me about my senile appearance. I had a numbered card in my hand, No. 13 and all those who saw it shuddered, for the French are as stupid as old-time Southern “darkies.” Something akin to the expectant feeling of the early Christian martyrs was experienced by all of us, as a number was called aloud by a hoarse-voiced Cerberus and the victim disappeared through the narrow door leading to the lions in the arena. At last, after some squabbling between No. 14 and No. 15, both of whom thought they had precedence over No. 13, I went forth to my fate.
I came out upon a dimly lighted stage which held two grand pianofortes and several chairs. A colorless-looking individual read my card and with marked asperity asked for my music. Frightened, I told him I had brought none. There were murmurings and suppressed laughter in the dim auditorium. There sat the judges—I don’t know how many, but one was a woman, and I hated her though I could not see her. She had a disagreeable laugh, and she let it loose when the assistant professor on the platform stumbled over the syllables of my very Teutonic name. I explained that I had memorized a Beethoven sonata, all the Beethoven sonatas, and that was the reason I left my music at home. This explanation was received in chilly silence, though I did not fail to note that it prejudiced the interrogating professor against me. He evidently took me for a superior person, and he then and there mentally proposed to set me down several pegs. I felt, rather than saw, all this, in the twinkling of an eye. I sat down to the keyboard and launched forth into Beethoven’s first sonata in F minor, a favorite of mine. Ominous silence broken by the tapping of a nervous lead pencil in the hand of a nervous woman. I got through the movement and then a voice punctuated the stillness.
“Ah, Mozart is so easy! Try something else!” And then I made my second mistake. I arose and bowing to the invisible one in the gloom I said: “That was not Mozart, but Beethoven.” There was an explosion of laughter, formidable, brutal. The feminine voice rose above it all in irritative accents.
“Impertinent! And what a silly beard he has!” I sat down in despair, plucking at my fluffy chin-whiskers and wondering if they looked as frivolous as they felt.
Nudged from dismal reverie I saw the colorless professor with a music book in his hand. He placed it on the piano-desk and mumbled: “Very indifferent. Read this at sight.” Puzzled by the miserable light, the still more wretched typography, I peered at the notes as peers a miser at the gold he is soon to lose. No avail. My vision was blurred, my fingers leaden. Suddenly I noticed that, whether through malicious intent or stupid carelessness the book was upside down. Now, I knew my Bach fugues, if I may say it, backward. Something familiar about the musical text told me that before me, inverted, was the C-sharp major prelude in the first book of the well- tempered Clavichord. Mechanically my fingers began that most delicious and light-hearted of caprices—I did not dare to touch the music—and soon I was rattling through it, all my thoughts three thousand miles away in a little Ohio town. When I had finished I arose in grim silence, took the music, held it toward the chief executioner, and said: —
“And upside down!”
There was another outburst, and again that woman’s voice was heard:—
“What a comedian is this young Yankee!”
I left the stage without bowing, jostled the stupid doorkeeper, and fled through the room where the other numbers huddled like sheep for the slaughter. Seizing my hat I went out into the rain, and when the concierge tried to stop me I shook a threatening fist at him. He stepped back in a fine hurry, I assure you. When I came to my senses I found myself on my bed, my head buried in the pillows. Luckily I had no mirror, so I was spared the sight of my red, mortified face. That night I slept as if drugged.
In the morning a huge envelope with an official seal was thrust through a crack in my door—there were many—and in it I found a notification that I was accepted as a pupil of the Paris Conservatoire. What a dream realized! But only to be shattered, for, so I was further informed, I had succeeded in one test and failed in another—my sight reading was not up to the high standard demanded. No wonder! Music reversed, and my fingers mechanically playing could be hardly called a fair sight-reading trial. Therefore, continued this implacable document, I would sit for a year in silence watching other pupils receiving their instruction. I was to be an auditeur, a listener—and all my musical castles came tumbling about my ears!
What I did during that weary year of waiting cannot be told in one article; suffice it to say I sat, I heard, I suffered. If music-students of to-day experience kindred trials I pity them; but somehow or other I fancy they do not. Luxury is longed for too much; young men and young women will not make the sacrifices for art we oldsters did; and it all shows in the shallow, superficial, showy, empty, insincere pianoforte-playing of the day and hour.—Old Fogy.
Etude Magazine. December, 1903