THE Master's great work had just been performed under his own direction. There was a full orchestra, and the audience numbered two thousand. The enthusiasm was indescribable! Flowers and laurel wreaths were showered upon the great composer, the frantic crowd almost stormed the little platform where he stood to conduct, and made his arm ache with the violent hand-shaking forced upon him. Women shed tears and men applauded vociferously. It was a complete triumph, a scene of delirious excitement. Only one person was not satisfied, only one felt no inclination to rejoice, and that was the Master himself. He felt, instead, a sudden oppression—almost a nervous disquietude—at his heart. He was suffering from the lassitude and nausea which inevitably set in when that which one has worked at for years in the sanctuary of one's own study, and carried about even longer in the still more inviolable sanctuary of one's heart, is for the first time produced in public. It is given up to the public and they understand it as they can and will, but never as the Master intended it.
To-day the Master felt keenly that the electric current which he had counted on was missing. Those very passages which were to him the finest and most important were coldly received. And at this he felt a mist pass before his eyes, hiding the music-score from him, and slowly enveloping the whole orchestra. There is always a reaction from the nervous strain and fatigue of the work itself and of the rehearsals, and a feverish impatience to turn from it to the new work already planned in his brain, which is to be so much finer than the last! And there one has to stand and let one's self be applauded and congratulated, when one would so much rather be at home—alone in one's own little sanctum, alone with the Muse, alone in the atmosphere of sweet sound, that seems always to prevail there.
And yet to-day the Master felt that he could not go straight home when all was over. The agitation was still too great from all the emotions he had undergone, all the impressions received. He wished to be alone—and the next minute he could not bear the loneliness. That he was expected at a great banquet, to be given in his honor, had utterly escaped him. He wandered about restlessly in the empty streets, trying in vain to rid himself of the horrible sensation of nausea that sat like a nightmare on him—then, scarcely conscious of what he did, he returned to the concert-room.
The lights were all extinguished; only the moon shone in, and its rays lighted up everything so brightly, wherever they fell, that the surrounding darkness seemed all the deeper by the contrast. Numbers of instruments, carefully shut in their cases, were still lying about. The piano seemed to have been forgotten, for it had been left open.
Still half unconsciously the Master sat down before it, and let his fingers wander dreamily over the keys. And as he did so the whole weight of his soul-sickness and weariness seemed to slip from him, like an actual burden falling from his shoulders to the floor. The nightmare had gone; he could breathe again. And he played on and on; he tried over again certain passages which had fallen short of his expectations, which had borne quite a different signification to himself. But involuntarily he soon left this piece, which now in reality lay behind him, and went on improvising. He had a new and marvelous project in his mind, a vast conception of which he had not yet spoken to anyone, and he was seeking expression for it.
All at once he thought he heard a gentle tap. He looked around, but there was nobody to be seen. He thought he must have been mistaken, but again there was a rap behind him, and now, when he turned, he saw that the case of the first Cello was opening slowly and it sounded as if footsteps came stealthily down into the hall. There was a fresh rapping, and this time it was the first Violin that left its case, and then the two Bass Viols came out together, arm in arm, supporting one another, as if they were not quite sober. The Flute came hopping along in the maddest style all over the benches and music-stands, giggling and balancing itself on its one leg, as if it were inventing a new dance. The Violas walked along at a majestic pace, the French Horn summoned its comrades in rather boisterous style, at which the Bassoon grew slightly cross, and muttered something about the unbearable noise. The Big Drum gave one sharp beat, and then began rolling in a mysterious and spectral fashion as if it would wake the dead. Little by little the whole orchestra seemed to be aroused, and now began many whispered conversations, scraps of which the Master overheard and was much amused at. For he discovered that the instruments themselves had been criticising him the whole time, and that they had much more to say than the human beings. Each instrument spoke of the special difficulties of its own part, which it naturally thought the chief feature in the whole performance. It was really very amusing to hear them. The first Violins had a great deal to say—they wanted to be praised for their tone; and when the Bassoon told them that they had no tone, they fell upon the musicians for not knowing how to play them as they ought to be played.
"We will show what we can do when we are left to ourselves," cried the indignant Violins, "and when no stupid men are there to spoil us with their clumsiness!"
"And we should like to play entirely true at last!" sighed the Horns.
"That remains to be seen!" growled the Bassoon.
"And I will playa solo!" screamed the Piccolo in her thin little voice, but the others put her down at once as a forward, impertinent minx; they all disliked her for perpetually trying to make her voice heard above the rest.
"I will show you what a solo should be!" said the Cello almost to himself, while the Double-bass paid court to the Violin, telling her she was the Prima Donna, and that the whole Orchestra was in reality only there for her. But the Violin did not find the Double-bass very interesting, and turned her back on him somewhat curtly.
They were all walking about of their own accord; it was very funny to see how they moved—just like very slim or very stout people. The Double-bass had quite a solemn air, the Trombone stalked along bolt upright, carrying its head very high, on account of the prominent part it played in sacred concerts. The Trumpets were a little bit vulgar; they swaggered and boasted of their connection with the army, and were therefore dreadfully looked down upon by the Violins. Only the Harp stood quite still, waiting dreamily to see what the others would do. The Cellos waddled about, portly and important. They were the actual leaders on whose thoroughness the proper execution and ultimate success of every concerted piece must depend. They were fully aware of this, but kept their counsel, lest it should irritate the Violins. By degrees they all took their places, but not in quite the same order as usual.
"Do not quarrel, children," the Big Drum called out, "or I shall have to let you see what I can do. I will beat such a roll for you as will deafen you all. You little know the strength I have."
The Violins had in truth already begun to quarrel with the others, complaining that they were too crowded for the really brilliant execution they were bent on, and that they wished to show for once what they could do.
"Now, then, a little moderation, please!" grumbled an old Viola. "There are more of us here who would like to have our solos, and be heard, too."
"What, you?" sneered the Violins, turning up their noses.
"Attention!" shouted the Big Drum. "I am going to beat time, and whoever makes a false start will have to pay a forfeit!"
"What forfeit?" tittered the Flutes, and one of them drew herself out to her full length. "Pray let us hear what sort of forfeit you propose."
"It shall be to invent a solo, quite different from anything that has ever yet been played, in a new key, that has never been heard before, and that yet is perfectly harmonious, and with variations that it would puzzle the devil himself to play."
The Master listened attentively. What would be the result of all this? But who shall describe his feelings as the instruments struck up, with such delicacy and precision, as if all the greatest Masters in the world were playing them, as if the most renowned performers, whom one only hears as stars, had all seated themselves in the orchestra!