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The Wegstaffes Give A Musicale by James Huneker


I had promised Mrs. Wegstaffe and so there was no escape; not that my word was as good as my bond—in the matter of invitations it was not—but I liked Edith Wegstaffe, who was pretty, even if she did murder Bach. Hence the secret of my acceptance of Mrs. Wegstaffe's rather frigid inquiry as to whether I was engaged for the fourteenth. I am a bachelor, and next to cats, hate music heartily. Almost any other form of art appeals to my æstheticism, which must feed upon form, color, substance, but not upon impalpabilities. Silly sound waves, that are said to possess color, form, rhythm—in fact, all attributes of the plastic arts. “Pooh! What nonsense,” I cried on the evening of the fourteenth, as I cursed a wretched collar that would not be coerced.... When I reached the Wegstaffe mansion I found my progress retarded by half a hundred guests, who fought, but politely, mind you, for precedence. At last, rumpled and red, I reached the men's dressing room, and the first person I encountered was Tompkins, Percy Tompkins, a man I hated for his cocksure manner of speech and know-it-all style on the subject of music. Often had he crushed my callow musical knowledge by an apt phrase, and thinking well of myself—at least Miss Edith says I do—I disliked Tompkins heartily. “Hello!” with a perceptible raising of his eyebrows, “what are you doing here?” “The same as yourself,” I tartly answered, for he was not l'ami de la maison any more than I, and I didn't purpose being sat upon, that night at least. “My good fellow, I'm here to listen and—to be bored,” he replied in his wittiest way.

“Indeed! well I'm in the same boat about the music, but I hope I sha'n't be bored.”

“But good heavens, man, it's an amateur affair—musicale, as the Wegstaffes call it in true barbarous American jargon—and I fear Edith Wegstaffe will play Chopin!”

This angered me; I had long suspected Tompkins of entertaining a sneaking admiration for Edith, and resolved to tell her of this slur at the first opportunity. I didn't have a chance to answer him; a dozen men rushed into the room, threw their hats and coats on the bed and rushed out again.

“They're in a hurry for a drink before the music begins,” said Tompkins....

Going slowly down the long staircase we found a little room on the second floor crowded with men puffing cigarettes and drinking brandy and soda. Old Wegstaffe was a generous host, and knew what men liked best at a musicale. On the top floor four or five half-grown boys were playing billiards, and the ground floor fairly surged with women of all ages, degrees and ugliness. To me there was only one pretty girl in the house, Edith Wegstaffe; but of course I was prejudiced.

It was nine o'clock before Mrs. Wegstaffe gave the signal to begin. The three long drawing-rooms were jammed with smart looking people, a fair sprinkling of Bohemians, and a few professionals, whose hair, hands and glasses betrayed them. The latter stood in groups, eying each other suspiciously, while regarding the rest of the world with that indulgent air they assume at musicales. Everything to my unpractised eye seemed in hopeless disorder; a frightful buzz filled the air, and a blond girl at the big piano was trying to disentangle a lot of music. Near her stood a long-haired young man who perspired incessantly. “Ah!” I gloated. “Nervous! serves him right; he should have stayed at home!”

Just then Mrs. Wegstaffe saw me. “You're just the man I'm looking for,” said she hurriedly. “Now be a good fellow; do go and tell all those people in the other room to stop talking. It's nine o'clock, and we're a half hour behind time.” Before I could expostulate she had gone, leaving me in the same condition as the long-haired young man I had just derided.

“How tell them to stop talking?” I madly asked myself. Should I go to each group and politely say: “Please stop, for the music is about to begin,” or should I stand in a doorway and shout:

“Say, quit gabbling, will you? the parties in the other room are going to spiel.” My embarrassment was so hideous that the latter course would probably have been adopted, but Miss Edith touched me on the arm and I followed her to the hall.

“Oh, Mr. Trybill!” she gasped; “I'm so nervous that I shall surely faint when it comes my turn. Won't you please turn the music for me? I shall really feel better if some one is near me.”

I looked at the sweet girl. There was not a particle of coquetry in her request. Dark shadows were under her eyes, two pink spots burnt in her pretty cheeks and her hands shook like a cigarette-smoker's.

“But think, think of your technique, your mamma, your guests,” I blurted out desperately. She shook her head sadly and I shuddered. Are all amateur musicales such torturing things?...

The house was packed. A strong odor of flowers, perfumes and cooking mingled in the air; one stout woman fought her way to a window and put her head out gasping. It was Madame Bujoli, the famous vocal teacher, three of whose crack pupils were on the programme. Not far from her sat Frau Makart, the great instructor in the art of German Lieder interpretation, a hard-featured woman who sneered at Italians, Italian methods and Italian music. Two of her pupils were to appear, and I saw trouble ahead in the superheated atmosphere.

Crash! went the piano. “They're off!” hoarsely chuckled a sporting man next to me, with a wilted collar, and Moszkowski's “Nations” welled up from the vicinity of the piano, two young women exploiting their fingers in its delivery. The talking in the back drawing-rooms went on furiously, and I saw the hostess coming toward me. I escape her by edging into the back hall, despite the smothered complaints of my displaced neighbors.

I got into the doorway, or rather into the angle of a door leading into the back room. The piano had stopped; while wondering what to do next my attention was suddenly attracted by a conversation to which I had to listen; it was impossible to move away. “So she is going to sing, is she? Well, we will see if this great and only true Italian method will put brains into a fool's head or voice into her chest.” This was said in a guttural voice, the accent being quite Teutonic. A soprano voice was heard, and I listened as critically as I could. The voice sang the Jewel Song from “Faust,” and it seemed to me that its owner knew something about singing. I understood the words. She sang in English, and what more do you want in singing?

But the buzz at my left went on fiercely. “So the Bujoli calls that voice-production, does she? Humph! In Germany we wouldn't call the cows home with such singing.” It was surely Frau Makart who spoke. There was a huge clapping of hands, fans waved, and I heard whispers, “Yes, rather pretty; but dresses in bad taste; good eyes; walks stiffly. Who is she? What was it she sang?”

More chatter. I wriggled away to my first position near the piano, but not without much personal discomfort. I was allowed to pass because, for some reason or other, I was supposed to be running the function. Upon reaching the piano Edith beckoned to me rapidly, and I slid across the polished floor, where she was talking to that hated Tompkins, and asked what I could do for her.

“Hold my music until I play; that's a good fellow.” I hate to be considered a “good fellow,” but what could I do? Edith, who seemed to have recovered her aplomb, continued her conversation with Percy Tompkins.

“You know, Mr. Tompkins, Chopin is for me the only composer. You know, his nocturnes fill me with a sense of nothingness—the divine néant, nirvana, you call it. Now, Grünfeld—”

Tompkins interrupted rudely: “Grünfeld can't play Chopin. Give me the 'Chopinzee.' He plays Chopin. As Schumann says: 'The Chopin polonaises are cannon buried in flowers,' Now, Grünfeld is a—”

“No poet!” said I, indignantly, for I never could admire the chubby Viennese pianist. Tompkins turned and looked at me, but never noticed my correction.

“Oh, Miss Wegstaffe,” he continued vivaciously—how I hated that vivacity—“did you hear that new story about a wit and the young man who asked him to define George Meredith's position in literature? 'Meredith,' said the other, pompously, 'Meredith is a prose Browning,' and the young man thanked the great man for this side light thrown on English letters, when the poet added with a twinkle in his eye, 'Browning himself was a prose Browning.' Now, isn't that delicious, Miss Wegstaffe; isn't that—”

A volley of hists-hists and hushes came over the room as I vainly tried to see the point of Tompkins' story. Every one laughed at his jokes, but to me they seemed superficial and flippant.

The piano by this time was being manipulated by a practical hand. Herr Wunderheim, a Bulgarian pianist, was playing what the programme called a sonata in X dur, by Tschaïkowsky, op. 47, A, B, C, D, E, F, G. I listened: I didn't understand it all, but I was sitting next to Edith and would have endured the remainder of the alphabet rather than let Tompkins gain one point.

The piano thundered and roared; lightning flew over the keys, and we were of course electrified. Herr Wunderheim jammed the notes in an astounding manner, and when he reached the letter G the sporting man said to me in a pious whisper, “Thank God! we didn't go to H——altogether, but near it, my boy, near it!” I shrugged my shoulders and longed for my club.

Mighty was the applause. Herr Wunderheim looked delighted. Mrs. Wegstaffe, sailing up to the distinguished Bulgarian pianist, said loudly:

“Dear Herr Wunderheim, charmed, I assure you! We are all charmed; dear Tschaïkowsky, charming man, charming composer. Dear Walter Damrosch assured me that he was quite the gentleman; charming music altogether!”

The pianist grew red in the face. Then, straightening himself quite suddenly, he said in tones that sounded like a dog barking:

“Dot vasn't Schykufski I blayed, lieber madame; dot vas a koprice by me, myself.”

Even the second drawing-room people stopped talking for a minute....

The musicale merrily proceeded. We heard the amateur tenor with the cravat voice. We heard the society pianist, who had a graceful bow and an amiable technic; then two of Frau Makart's pupils sang. I couldn't get near the Italian contingent, but they chattered loudly. One of the girls sang Dvo[vr]ák's “Gute Nacht,” and her German made me shiver. The other tried a Brahms song and everybody talked. I turned to ask Edith the girl's name but she had gone—so had Tompkins.

This angered me but I couldn't get up then. Opposite me was a Yankee college professor—an expert on golfing poetry—who had become famous by an essay in which he proved that Poe should not have written Poe; next to me sat a fat lady who said to her daughter as she fanned herself vigorously, “Horrid music, that Brahms. He wrote 'The Rustic Cavalier,' didn't he? And some nasty critics said it was written by De——”

“No, mamma. He wrote—” more buzzing and I fled upstairs.

The men's room was crowded to suffocation. Everybody was drinking hard, and old Wegstaffe was telling a story to a group of young men among whom I recognized the fat author of that affected book “How to play Chopin though Happy.” He was pretty far gone.

“Shee here, bhoys; thish bloody music—thish classhic music—makesh me shick—I mean tired. I played Bluebottle for plashe to-day—50 to 1 shot—whoop!”

Another bottle was opened.

In a corner they were telling the story of Herr Schwillmun, the famous pianist who was found crazy with wine in a Fourth Avenue undertaker's shop trying to play the Dvo[vr]ák Concerto on the lid of a highly polished coffin. The Finnish virtuoso thought he was in a piano wareroom. Another lie, I knew, for Schwillmun was most poetic in appearance and surely not an intemperate man!

Wherever I went I heard nothing but malicious remarks, slurring accusations and tittle-tattle. Finally I joined a crowd in the upper hall attracted by the appearance of a white-haired man of intelligent aspect, who, with kindly smile and abundant gesture was making much merriment about him. I got close enough to hear what he was saying.

“Music in New York! There is none. You fellows ought to work for your grub, as I do, on a daily, and write up the bosh concerts that advertise. Humbug, boys; rank humbug! Modern music is gone to the devil. Brahms was a fraud who patched up a compound of Beethoven and Schumann, put in a lot of mystifying harmonic progressions, and thought he was new. Verdi, the later Verdi was helped out by Boito: Just compare 'Otello' and 'Falstaff' with 'Mefistofele'! Dvo[vr]ák, old 'Borax' as they call him, went in for 'nigger' music and says there's no future for American music unless it is founded on plantation tunes. Hence the 'coon' song and its long reign. Tschaïkowsky! Well, that tartar with his tom-tom orchestra makes me tired; he should have been locked up in the 'Ha-Ha House.' Rubinstein never could do ten bars of decent counterpoint. Saint-Saëns, with his symphonic poems, his Omphalic Roués, is a Gallic echo of Bach and Liszt—a Bach of the Boulevards. The English have no composers; the Americans never will have, and, begad, sir, we're all going to the dogs. Music—rot!”

I was shocked. Here was a great critic abusing the gods of modern music and not a dissenting voice was raised. I determined to do my duty. I would ask this cynical old man why he belittled his profession. “Sir!” said I, raising my voice, but got no further, for a household servant, whose breath reeked, caught me by the arm and in a whisper explained:

“Oh, Mr. Trybill, Miss Edith is a-lookin' for you everywheres and sent me to tell you as how you're wanted in the music-room. It's her turn next.”

My heart sank below my boots but I waded downstairs, spoiling many a tête-à-tête by my haste, for which I was duly and audibly execrated. Why do people at musicales flirt on the stairs?

Upon reaching the front drawing-room I found Edith taking her seat at the demon piano. Tompkins was nowhere visible, and I felt relieved. The guests looked worn out, and knots of men were hanging suspiciously about the closed doors of the supper room.

The musical part of the entertainment was about over, Edith's solo being the very last. Suddenly all became still; every one had to listen to the daughter of the hostess.

She looked positively radiant. Her eyes sparkled, and of her early nervousness not a trace remained.

“Do turn over the leaves nicely, that's a good fellow, Mr. Trybill”—again that odious phrase—“I feel so happy I'm sure I'll play well.” Naturally, I was flattered at the inference. I was near her—the darling of my wildest dreams. Of course she would play well, and of course I would turn over the music nobly.

She began. The piece was Liszt's Polonaise in E. My brave girl, how proud I felt of her as she began. How she rushed on! I could scarcely turn the leaves fast enough for my little girl, my wife that was to be. How sweet her face seemed. I was ravished. I must tell her all to-night, and she will put her plump little hand in mine and say, “Yes”; the sweet little—

Bang! Smash, crash-bang! “Stupid fellow, I hate you!” I awoke as from a dream. Edith was standing up and in tears. Alas! Fatal dreamer that I am, I had turned over two pages at once, and trouble ensued, for Edith never memorized....

As I stood in horrid silence Mrs. Wegstaffe swooped down on Edith and took her away, saying in a harsh voice, “The young man knows nothing of the divine art!” Then the supper signal was sounded, and a cyclone's fury was not comparable to the rush and crush.

Old Wegstaffe, in a very shaky condition, led a gallant band of unsteady men in a gallop to the supper room, crying, “Bluebottle's the horsh for me.” I lost heart. All my brilliant visions fled. As I stood alone in the hall Mrs. Wegstaffe triumphantly passed me on the arm of Herr Wunderheim. She looked at me a moment, then, seeming to pity my loneliness, leaned toward me, saying in acidulously sweet accents:

“Ah, no partner yet, Mr. Trybill? Your first partner is engaged, and to Mr. Tompkins. Do go in and congratulate him, that's a good fellow.”

She swam away in the bedlam of shrieks and clattering of dishes and knives. I walked firmly upstairs, found my coat and hat, and left the house forever. It was my first and last experience at that occidental version of the Hara-Kiri, called a musicale.


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