Mark was seven years old when he first heard the Eroica Symphony. He sat the 33 1/3 long play record on the Hi-Fi and dropped the arm. When the arm picked up an eternity later, he knew that everything had changed for him.
He had always been different from the other kids. Not one of the popular kids, but also not one of the problem kids: a watcher, he called himself. He wasn’t allowed to participate in the life at school, just allowed to watch the other kids live. But the Beethoven Symphony changed all that.
Two thunder-clap chords and he escaped time upon them. The cellos sang the opening theme and he lived a lifetime in every note he heard. His older brother complained, “It’s quiet stuff, then suddenly it’s loud, back and forth with nothing in between. But he knew his brother was wrong. The whole universe was in between every note.
Although that record was the only Beethoven record the family owned, he occasionally heard other Beethoven pieces on KDFC. Even before he began piano lessons, he had learned that there were 32 piano Sonatas by Beethoven. He was determined to learn all of them.
Two years later, he began asking his teacher, Mrs. Robillard, every other month, “What about the Beethoven Sonatas?”
She would smile, always smiling kindly, and would say, “Not yet. You are not yet ready,” but never slightingly, never condescendingly. “Why don’t you try this Three-Part Invention by Bach?” or “this Sonata by Czerny.”
Finally she permitted him to try the Beethoven Ecossaises and the German Dances. These were delightful pieces, but not the Beethoven he wanted. They were youthful Beethoven, full of verve and flash, but lacking the profundity of the Eroica Symphony or the Waldenstein Sonata.
Then, at last, she ended a lesson with the words, “Buy the Beethoven Sonatas and bring them with you next week. It is time to start.” At his next lesson, she assigned the first movement of the Sonata Quasi Il Fantasia, often wrongly called the “Moonlight Sonata.” He began learning it as soon as he got home, playing until dinnertime, and then playing it after dinner until bedtime. “How could something that was so simple be so difficult to play?” he asked himself over and over.
He asked that question of Mrs. Robillard. “You will find it to be true in everything,” she answered. “The simplest things are the hardest things to do well. Any average piano player can master the mechanics of this piece, but to make music of it? Ah, that is another matter.”
By his eighth grade year in Junior High School, he had become his church’s pianist, playing with Harland Shippam, the organist, for all the hymns. Every couple of months he was asked to play a prelude, an Offertory, or a postlude by himself. Mrs. Robillard always decided which piece was ready for these events.
Not long after this, Mrs. Robillard broke into his playing of the Sonata with a question. “Have you fallen in love?”
Reticent as any teenager to discuss matters of the heart with an adult, he haltingly replied, “Yes, I have.”
“But it ended unhappily, didn’t it?”
He looked down at his hands on the keys, unhappily giving a nod of agreement. He, having no knowledge of the rules of dating, had made some unknown, apparently unforgivable, mistake.
“I could tell,” Mrs. Robillard said. “It is in your playing. Next time you are asked to play the prelude or Offertory at church, play this piece.”
It was, at most, a month before Harlan asked him to play an Offertory the next Sunday.
“Would this piece be too long?” he asked, showing Harlan the music.
“Are you playing Beethoven now?”
“It will be fine. Play it next Sunday.
Within his church choir was an elderly German woman, Helga Kunkel. Harlan, the organist, and his sister, Maple McFarland, the choir director, always called her Miss Kunkel with deep respect. In the 1930s and 1940s she had sung in the Berlin Opera Company. Mark never liked the vibrato that opera singers filled their voices with, so he had paid little attention to Helga’s singing. He was quite surprised on the Thursday following his playing the Beethoven in church, to find a letter waiting him at home. It was from Helga. He read the note to his mother.
“My brother requests that you join us for tea this Saturday at two o’clock. He particularly desires that you play for him the Beethoven Sonata you played in church on Sunday.”
He showed the letter to his mother. “What should I do?” he asked her.
“You will go,” she replied, “and you will play for him.”
The Kunkel’s lived in a small ranch house just a few blocks from the church. Helga opened the door. “Come in, come in,” she welcomed him.
Just to the right as he entered the house was the piano. Large bookcases stood on each side of the piano and shelves stretched over the piano between the bookcases. These were filled with piano music.
“This is my brother, Rudolph. Rudolph, this is the boy I told you about, Mark,” she introduced them.
“Come, come,” Rudolph waved him to a comfortable chair. “Thank you for joining us for tea.” Helga bustled out of the living room and a few minutes later returned, bearing three cups of tea in fancy bone china cups and several German pastries on a platter. They settled down to eat and talk and drink.
After some small talk, Rudolph began the conversation. “So you are a pianist?”
“I hope to become one someday,” he replied.
“And you are learning Beethoven’s fourteenth sonata?”
“I’ve just begun work on the second movement.”
“Did you know that I was a pianist once?”
“No,” he replied, surprised at this admission.
“You know my sister sang in the Berlin Opera Company?”
“I was the pianist for the Berlin Opera. But that is a long story that can wait until after you play for me. Are you finished with your tea?”
“Then please play.”
Somewhat ill at ease, unused to playing at command and unsure how a pianist once employed by the Berlin Opera Company would view his playing, he took his place at the piano. Rudolph’s copy of Beethoven’s sonatas was open on the piano rack. He poised himself, taking a long, slow breath. Then he began to play.
When he released the last pianissimo chord, he again inhaled slowly, then turned to his audience. Rudolf and Helga were looking at each other, a smile on Helga’s face. “Did I not tell you?” she softly asked her brother.
“Good,” Rudolph turned to him. “Good.” Mark could tell Rudolph’s approval indicated he had surpassed Rudolph’s expectations, but he wasn’t sure how good Rudolph really thought him.
“Now if you would retake your seat and, perhaps with a little more tea, Helga, I will tell you my story.”
“When the war began, Hitler needed musicians. Our performances would indicate to the world that life still went on the same in Germany. We musicians received deferments. I was glad, for I had no wish to fight for Hitler. I was content to stay within the small world we musicians created for ourselves—our oasis of beauty and peace.
“But in 1944, Hitler was losing the war. He needed men for his armies, so he revoked all musician deferments. I received my orders to join the army.
“We had two weeks training, barely time to learn which end of a rifle to shoot out of, and then we were sent to the Eastern front. I was not a very good soldier. My very first day on the front, I was captured by the Russians.
“I was taken to a prisoner camp. It was a miserable place. I was put in a small cell, barely enough room to move a step or two. We were given a thin cabbage soup—more water than food—maybe a small piece of cabbage or a scrap or two of potato in a bowl. That was our dinner each day. And we were given a single sheet of very poor quality paper every week, to write a letter home on. Of course, I didn’t write any letters. Here, let me show you.”
Rudolph went to the music bookshelves, pulling a large folio from the shelves. He handed the folio to Mark saying, “Open it.” Then Rudolph settled back into his chair. “I used my paper to write music. I had to draw the staffs as small as possible to squeeze as many measures of music onto a page as possible.”
Mark opened the folio. Course, gray paper, roughly 11 inches by 17 inches, contained tiny lines of music, each, despite its small size, clearly written in a neat hand.
“Some of the guards were kind. One would occasionally give me an extra sheet of paper. When some of the other prisoners learned what I was doing, the ones who had no one to write home to would send me their paper through a friendly guard. I had to hide my extra pages, of course, for we were not permitted more than one blank sheet of paper at a time in our cells. Most of the guards, however, never searched my cell thoroughly.
“The Russian government wasn’t interested in letting us Germans go home after the war. For my one day on the front, I spent four years in that cell. We were not released until late 1948, those of us who survived. So many did not.” Rudolph had leaned close to me and was turning pages in the folio, telling of the different pieces. “This one I wrote when the news of Germany’s surrender reached us. It is filled with hope. And this one,” he said, turning a page. “See the smear here, this tiny blurring of these notes. A guard came to me one day in early 1947. He told me a German held on the floor above mine was dying of tuberculosis. This prisoner was also a musician, like I was. He was drafted in 1944 and captured soon after reaching the front. This man was dying and he had told the guard that he wished to see some music one more time before he died. So this guard came to ask me if he could take some of my manuscript to the dying musician.
“What could I say? I gave him six sheets. After the musician died, the guard brought my music back. He said, ‘The musician told me to thank you for letting him hold and read your music. He wept as he turned the pages. Then a coughing fit struck him and he could not turn away fast enough, but spit up on this spot. He was horrified, apologizing numerous times. He kept those sheets by him where he could touch them and see then until he died.’”
Rudolph paused for a few moments, then he murmured, “Poor lad,” before turning the page. “We were released in 1948. I made copies of all these pieces, normal size, which was wise as my sight is now not good enough to read these originals. Then I had these bound to help preserve them. Come to the piano and I will play one of these pieces for you.”
As Rudolph played, Mark knew he stood in the presence of a master. His fingers deftly grasping the keys, brought forth music of an order and a level he had never heard before save on some of his records. The piece was difficult, full of darkness and inner storm. Yet it was grand and exultant at the same time. The piece stormed to its triumphant end.
“Well, enough of this,” Rudolph said.
“Oh no, Maestro. I would love to hear more.”
Rudolph nodded his head in acknowledgement of the praise, but returned to his chair. “When Helga and I came to America, early in 1949, we had to take factory jobs. Neither of us worked as musicians again. Helga sang in church choirs. I focused on composition.
“Come, boy, it is almost time for your mother to pick you up. Continue your studies of the sonatas. It will be time well spent.” And though there were so many questions he wanted to ask, Mark felt too unworthy to ask them. They made small talk until his mother arrived.
After the visit, Rudolph began coming to church with his sister three or four times a year. He also came to the monthly father-son breakfasts, never missing one. He became good friends with Pop Shippam. About a year later, the discussion at breakfast somehow became a sharing of where the older men had served in World War II. A couple of the men had been in the Pacific, another with the Flying Tigers in China. One had been in the Filipino resistance. Most, however, like Mark’s father, had served in Europe. When the sharing came around to Rudolph, he said, “Pop, had we met in Europe 25 years ago, we would have been trying to kill each other, and now we are friends. Will we ever learn?”
The room fell silent. Finally Pop said, “Thank God we didn’t meet 25 years ago.”
Mark was a senior in high school, playing in orchestra, and still studying the Beethoven Sonatas. The sole cellist in the school orchestra wrote in his yearbook that year, “You’re a better piano player than people think, but I can tell you are concentrating on the Beethoven Sonatas. Good luck and don’t stop playing the piano.”
A day later the phone rang just before dinner. His mother took the call. When she hung up, she called him. “The phone call was from Helga. Rudolph died of a heart attack today.”
He felt his body go numb. Then his mother said, “Helga told me that her brother specified that he wants you to play,” she read off the note she had made, “the first movement of Beethoven’s fourteenth Piano Sonata at his funeral.”
When he could trust his voice, he asked, “Why me?”
“I don’t know why. All he had written was that he wanted you, and only you, to play this piece at his funeral. This is a high honor, you realize.”
“Too high,” he thought. “Of course, I’ll do it,” he said.
But the funeral home didn’t have a piano. Their organ was in terrible shape, some stops dropping out immediately as they were played, some continuing to play after they had been released, and some not playing at all. It was his highest musical honor and his greatest musical regret at the same time. He didn’t get to play at the funeral.
He never thought to ask Helga what would be done with Rudolph’s music. Two years later, when Helga died, he was living in Mexico. When he returned, he was unable to find what had been done with the music. Too late, he wondered why he never asked her for a copy of some of Rudolph’s pieces to study.
Too late. They are terrible words, for they say so much about a person. Too late to know what Rudolph really thought of his playing. Too late to know why Rudolph chose to tell him his story and to play him one of his pieces. To late to do anything but to remember and to honor one who once played for the Berlin Opera Company, to remember an unknown musician who died longing to see music one more time, and to remember the question, “when will we learn?” and to be haunted by the silence that followed the question.
(The above story actually happened as described above. The major change was I gave Rudolph and Helga fictional names).