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Thomas Koschat - My Opus I.


thomas-koschat.jpgI am, indeed, sorry that I cannot say that at the early age of 8 years I had perfectly mastered the church organ; that I could barely reach the pedals with my little legs; yet in spite of all had called forth the astonishment and admiration of the congregation. When I was a boy of 8 I knew as little about notes as a baby about the alphabet. But I had sung a great deal, naturally only by “ear.” Soon after I began to sing “second,” with my strong alto voice, to our cook, who sang Carinthian folksongs very well; and after that I helped our hostler to sing the bass (of course about two octaves higher). In short the folks considered me so musical that on the occasion of one of our church festivals, I was allowed to carry the big drum of the village band on my back, a distinction which flattered my pride very much, since, for such an honorable office, only such youngsters were selected as could march in strict steady time.

Next my schoolmates thought they discovered a fine quality in my voice, which was taking on a bass character. I was advised to get on good terms with the organist and choirmaster at the Cathedral in Klagenfurt, so that I could be initiated into the mysteries of music. In a short time the counsel was changed into fact. In the first lesson I was taught to distinguish the difference in value of the whole note from the half and the quarter. Indeed, I must have been an extremely clever scholar, since in the second lesson, in my own way, I discovered the B-flat major chord. It happened thus:—

My teacher was rehearsing me in a little folksong, using the piano. I noticed that he struck only the white keys. He was called from the room by some school matter and left me there alone, with the remark that he would be back in about an hour. For the first time in my life I was master of a piano upon which I could thump to my heart’s content. My first impulse was to try to pick out one of my own melodies which I had often sung with our cook at home. I hummed the tune lightly to myself and sought to find on the piano the tone with which I had commenced (it was F). Then I counted from the lowest note at the left of the piano up to this tone and wrote the number on a piece of paper. In the same way I tried to find all the tones of my little song. I was none the less proud because occasionally I struck a black key. The latter I marked on my paper by placing a circumflex over the figure. Without bars or note divisions my song lay before me in a kind of “neunæ.” This then was my Opus I. In the evening of the same day I showed the composition to my friend, the hostler. He was not a little surprised at the great mass of figures which he saw and asked me to give him until the next day to unravel the puzzle. I consented with proud self-consciousness. But my false friend passed the paper to the village schoolmaster for examination. As I learned later, he looked at my paper with its hieroglyphics from all sides, and gave it back to the hostler with the remark: “Only a fool or a drunken fellow could have written that down for music.”

In 1867 I exchanged the retort of the chemist for the lyre; the university student was transformed into an opera singer. Now it was my business to turn to music earnestly. I buried myself in my studies in harmony, and in every book I could find on singing. I announced my progress to those at home after about a year, having concealed from them my change of calling.

Among the letters which came to me was one from the father of my boyhood love, inclosing the copy of my Opus I, on which he had written various ironical remarks. And as a sort of supplement there was inclosed a little note from the maiden saying that her father had forbidden her to have anything more to do with a theatrical vagabond.

As I siezed (sic) my pen to write a letter of reproach, a yellowed paper fell to the floor. I picked it up, took myself back to the time I had written the puzzling characters, and my interest increased so that I forgot everything but the work of transferring its contents to our present notation. It was really a pleasing melody in B-flat major, which, in default of a text, I hummed through to “la, la,” accompanying myself with a guitar.

Sometime later I concluded, instead of writing a letter of reproach, to send to my false lady love a little poem I had made in Carinthian dialect, in which I pictured myself as parted from her by fate, and told of her virtues and loveliness. When I had finished it I made the surprising discovery that it fitted in meter to my melody in B-flat. With great satisfaction I sang it to myself with a soft guitar accompaniment, and the next day gave it, under the title “Kärntner Liab,1 to a friend, who several days later sang it at a concert with accompaniment of a male quartet, with extraordinary success.


[1] Known in English as “Forsaken.”


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