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An Emotional Acrobat by James Huneker


    They were tears which he drummed.


Perhaps you think because I play upon an instrument of percussion I admire that other percussive machine of wood and wire, the piano, or consider the tympanum an inferior instrument?

You were never more mistaken, for I despise the piano as a shallow compromise between the harp, tympani and those Eastern tinkling instruments of crystal and glass, or dulcimers and cymbalum. It has no character, no individuality of its own. It is deplorable in conjunction with an orchestra, for its harsh, hard, unmalleable tone never blends with other instruments. It is a selfish instrument and it makes selfish artists of those who devote a lifetime to it.

Bah! I hate you and your pianos. Compare it to the tympani? Never, never! It is false, insincere, and smirks and simpers if even a silly school girl sits before it. It takes on the color of any composer's ideas, and submits like a slave to the whims of any virtuoso. I am disgusted. Here am I, an old kettle-drummer—as you say in your barbarous English—poor, unknown, forced to earn a beggarly living by strumming dance tunes in a variety hall on a hated piano, and often accompanying singers, acrobats, and all the riffraff of a vaudeville, where a mist of vulgarity hangs like a dirty pearl cloud over all. I don't look at my music any more. I know what is wanted. I have rhythmic talent. I conduct myself, although there is a butter-faced leader waving a silly stick at us while I sit in my den, half under the stage, and thrum and think, and blink and thrum.

And what do you suppose I do with my mornings—for I have to rehearse every afternoon with odious people who splash their draggled lives with feeble, sick music—? I stay in my attic room and play upon my tympani, my beloved children. I have three of them, and I play all sorts of scores, from the wonderful first measures of Beethoven's Fifth, to Saint-Saëns' Arabian music. Ah! those men understand my instrument. It is no instrument of percussion to them. It has a soul. It is the heart of the orchestra. Its rhythmic throb is the pulse of musical life. What are your strings, your scratching, rasping strings! What signifies the blare of your brass, or the bilious bleating of your wood-wind! I am the centre, the life giver. From me the circulation of warm, musical blood emanates. I stand at the back of the orchestra as high as the conductor. Ah! he knows it; he looks at me first. How about the Fifth Symphony? You now sneer no longer. It is I who outline with mystic taps the framework of the story. Wagner, great, glorious, glowing Wagner!—I kiss his memory—he appreciated the tympani and their noble mission in music....

Yes, I am an educated man, but music snared me away from a worldly career. Music and—a woman; but never mind that part of it. Do you know Hunding's motif in “Die Walküre”? Ha! ha! I will give it to you. Listen! Is it not beautiful? The stern, acrid warrior approaches. And Wagner gave it to me, to the tympani. Am I crazy, am I arrogant, to feel as I do about my darling dwarf children? Look at their beloved bellies, so smooth, so elastic, so resonant! A tiny tap and I set vibrating millions of delicate, ethereal sounds, the timbre of which to my ears has color, form, substance, nuance, and thrills me even to my old marrow. Is it not delicious—that warm, velvety, dull percussion? Is it not delicious, I say? How it shimmers and senses about me! You have heard of drummed tears? I can make you weep, if I will, with a few melancholy, muffled strokes. The drum is the epitome of life. Sound is life. The cave-men bruised stones together and heard the first music.

I know your Herbert Spencer thinks differently, but bah! what does he know about tympani? Chopin would have been a great tympanist if he had not wasted his life foolishly at the piano. When he merely drummed with his fingers on the table, Balzac said, he made music, so exquisitely sensitive was his touch. Ah me! what a tympanist was lost to the world. What shading, what delicacy, what sunlight and shadow he would have made flit across my little darlings on their tripods! No wonder I hate the piano; and yet, hideous mockery of fate! I play upon an old grand to earn my bread and wine. I can't play with an orchestra—it is torture for me. They do not understand me; the big noisy boors do not understand rhythm or nuance. They play so loud that I cannot be heard, and I will never stoop to noisy banging. How I hate these orchestral players! How they scratch and blow like pigs and boasters! When I did play with them they made fun of my red hair and delicate touch. The leader could not understand me, and kept on yelling “Forte, Forte.” It was in the Fifth of Beethoven, and I became angry and called out in my poor German (ah! I hate German, it hurts my teeth): “Nein, so klopft das Schicksal nicht an die Pforte.” You remember Beethoven's words!

Well, everybody laughed at me, and I got mad and covered up my instruments and went home. Jackass! he wanted me to bang out that wonderful intimation of fate as though it were the milkman knocking at the door. I am a poet, and play upon the tympani; the conductor and the orchestra are boors. But I do injustice to one of them. He was an Alsatian, and spoke bad French. But he was an excellent bassoon player. He often called on me and we played duets for bassoon and tympani, and then read Amiel's journal aloud and wept. Oh! he had a sensitive soul, that bassoon player. He died of the cholera, and now I am alone....

After my failure as an orchestral player I gave a concert in this city, and played my concerto for seven drums and wood-wind orchestra. The critics laughed me to distraction. Instead of listening to the innumerable rhythms and marvellous variety of nuances I offered them, they mocked my agile behavior and my curiously colored hair. Even my confrères envied and reviled me. I have genius, so am hated and despised. Oh, the pity of it all! They couldn't hear the tenderness, the fairy-like sobbing made by my wrists, but listened with admiration to the tinkling of a piano, with its hard, unchangeable tone. Oh, the stupidity of it all!...

But time will have its revenge. I will not stir a finger either. When I die the world of tone will realize that a great man has passed away, after a wretched, neglected life. I have composed a symphony, and for nothing but Tympani! Don't smile, because I have explored the most fantastic regions of rhythm, hitherto undreamed. Tone, timbre, intensity, rhythm, variety in color, all, all will be in it; and how much more subtly expressed than by your modern orchestra, with its blare, blow, bang and scratch. And what great thoughts I have expressed! I have gone beyond Berlioz, Wagner and Richard Strauss. I have discovered rhythms, Asiatic in origin, that will plunge you into midnight woe; rhythms rescued from the Greeks of old, that will drive you into panting dance; rhythms that will make drunkards of sober men, warriors of cowards, harlots of angels. I can intoxicate, dazzle, burn, madden you. Why? Because all music is rhythm. It is the skeleton, the structure of life, love, the cosmos. God! how I will exult, even if my skin crackles in hell-fire, when the children of the earth listen to my Tympani Symphony, and go crazy with its tappings!...

I have led a shiftless, uneventful life, yet I envy no one, for I am the genius of a new art—but stay a moment! An uneventful life, did I say? Alas! my life has been one long, desperate effort to forget her, to forget my love, my wife. My God! I can see her face now, when she flashed across my sight at a provincial circus. It was in France. I was a young man drum-mad, and went to the circus to beguile my time, for I couldn't practise all day. Then I saw her—“Mlle. Léontine, the Aërial Virtuoso of the Century,” the playbills called her. She was fair and slim, and Heaven had smiled into her eyes.

I am a poet, you see. Her hair was the color of tender wheat and her feet twinkled star-wise when she walked. She was my first, my only love, my life, my wife. She loved me, she told me so soon after we became acquainted, and I believed her; I believe her now, sometimes, when I strike softly the skins of my dear little drum children. We soon married. There were no impediments on my side; my parents were dead and I had a little ready money. I gave it all to her. She took it and bought diamonds.

“They were so handy in case of hard luck,” she said, and smiled. I smiled, too, and kissed her.

I kissed her very often, and was so desperately in love with her that I joined the circus and played the drums there; hush! don't tell it to any one—and the side-drums at that. I would have even played the piano for her, so frantically did I adore her. I was very proud of my wife, my Léontine. She did a tremendous act on the trapeze. She swung and made a flying leap across the tent and caught a bar, and every time I gave a tap on the big drum just as she grasped the trapeze. Oh! it would have made your blood shiver to see her slight figure hurtling through space and landing safely with my rhythmic accompaniment. And how people cheered, and what crowds flocked to view the spectacle! In some towns the authorities made us use nets; then the crowds were not nearly so large. People like risks. The human animal is happy if it smells blood. Léontine noticed the decreased attendance when the safety nets were used, and begged the manager to dispense with them.

He often did so, for he loved money as much as she loved fame. She was perfectly fearless and laughed at my misgivings, so we usually did the act without nets....

We had reached Rouen in our wanderings through the provinces, and I mooned about the old town, sauntering through the cathedral, plunged in a reverie, for I was happy, happy all the time. Léontine was so good, so amiable, so true. She associated with none of the women of the circus and with none of the men, except the manager and myself.

The manager reared her; she had been a foundling. She told me this at the beginning of our intimacy. We often played games of picking out the handsomest houses and châteaux we passed, pretending that her parents lived in them. She was very jolly, was my little Léontine, and remained with me nearly all the time, except when practising her difficult feats; this she did in company with the manager, who attended to the ropes and necessary tackling. He was a charming fellow, and very obliging.

One day I was sitting half-asleep in the spring sunshine, with my back to one of the tents, awaiting Léontine's return. She was, as usual, rehearsing, and I, composing and dreaming. Suddenly a laugh aroused me, and I heard a woman's voice:

“But the young idiot never will discover them; he is too blind and too fond of drumming.”

I tuned up my ears. Another woman answered in a regretful tone:

“See what it is to be fascinating like Léontine; she gets all the boy's money, and has the manager besides. She must earn a pretty penny.” ...

I sat perfectly cold and still for several moments, then managed to wriggle away. I can give you no account of my feelings now, so many years have passed; besides, I don't think I felt at all. Every day I became more and more thoughtful, and Léontine and the manager rallied me on my silence....

At last I made up my mind that it was time to act. We went to Lille and gave there our usual display. I had not seen Léontine all day, and when the evening came I sent a message telling her I was not hungry and would not be home for supper. I could be a hypocrite no longer.

In the evening the regular performance began. I was in a gay humor, and the men in the orchestra laughed at my wit, saying that I was more like my old self. My wife's aërial act came last on the bill, being the event of the show. What a brilliant house we had! I still can smell the sawdust, the orange peel, see the myriad of faces and hear the crack of the ring-masters' whips, the cries of the clowns and the crash of the music....

“She comes, Léontine comes!” shrilled a thousand throats.

Into the ring she dashed on a milk-white horse, and, throwing off her drapery, stood bowing.

What a graceful figure she had, and how lovely she looked as she clambered aloft to her giddy perch! Breathlessly every one saw her make preparations for the flight through the air. The band became silent; all necks were strained as she swung lightly to and fro in space, increasing the speed to gain necessary momentum for the final launch.

Off she darted, like a thunderbolt—bang! went my drum—a moment too soon. The false unaccustomed rhythm shook her nerves and she tumbled with her face toward me.

There were no nets....

Later I sought the manager. He was in his room, his head thrust beneath pillows. I tapped him on the shoulder; he shuddered when he saw me. “'Tis you who should wear black,” I said....


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