CHAPTER 2 - SMELLS AND MEMORIES
Smells and Memories
May 20, 2016 - Vienna, Austria - Morning
Like ripples in the water,
Like honey through the hives,
Like weeds among the garden,
Are echoes spreading from our lives.
Meyer Ernst stopped in front of the creaky wooden door to his violin shop on the Strozzigasse in Vienna and took a deep breath as he let the morning cool of late-spring fill his lungs. The air was fragrant with flora and heavy with ghosts of rain from the evening before. He could sense the city coming to life around him as up and down the street merchants unlocked their doors and opened their shops. His door, a heavy old wooden door, was made out of sturdy oak and glass, and had many scratches and grooves from years of wear and tear. In faded gold lettering, the words, “Ernst Family Fine Stringed Instruments and Repairs. M. Ernst - Luthier and Archetier.” greeted clients and friends. His shop was a whimsical faded stone building that had originally been built as a home for one of the city’s low-level aristocrats back in the 1800’s. It made him very happy that a grand old building that had long been used to store the creations of great men and women, was also a cozy home for his best creations and most valued possessions. He could never throw anything away, and he loved having all of his treasures here in one place.
Meyer loved this part of the day. There was something enchanting about opening the shop door and taking in the scent of old wood and new instruments, of sheet music and rosin. Those smells took him immediately to long, happy hours of practice and performances. His heart warmed as he strolled leisurely into the main room and smiled at all of his precious instruments on display hanging from the walls. The showroom was divided into three sections: Classic and Rare Instruments, Ernst Custom Creations, and Student Rentals. He also had a cherry wood display case to show off his vast collection of rosins, oils, and varnishes. Of course, he also had instrument cases galore and even some fun colored bow hair that seemed to be all the rage these days with the younger players. Meyer considered the colored bow hair an abomination, but he loved the shop’s students, so he kept every color of the rainbow around for them to choose when they needed to get a bow re-haired. His well worn cordovan shoes played a familiar tune on the seasoned hardwood floors as he meandered throughout the shop. He took his time inspecting everything with care...surveying his tiny Kingdom.
In the back was his workshop. Full of organized chaos, it was where Meyer was able to create. Being a Luthier and Archetier meant that he specialized in crafting fine stringed instruments and bows. Some newer artisans were using composites and synthetics for their bows (which Meyer considered equally as blasphemous as colored bow hair), but Meyer only used the finest woods and horsehair that he could acquire. His specialty was violins. He could also craft a viola, but rarely bothered. He was a perfectionist with his work, and often found himself throwing out almost-finished projects that were not up to his standards. For Meyer, it was about creating something meaningful and repairing older and grand instruments to their former glory.
He had spent countless hours in his workshop repairing and creating. It was his place of solace, and one of the only places he was able to completely and totally relax. Meyer felt safe here. He was good with the tools and sharp instruments. They were an extension of him, and he could use them blindfolded. Not many people could use these tools with such surgical precision, but for Meyer, it was as natural as breathing. He knew he was lucky to have the gifts he had been given, and in ways it made him appreciate the shop all the more. He flicked on the rest of the lights in his workshop and moved slowly to the front of the store.
At the checkout counter, Meyer had an old-fashioned cash register and a leather-bound inventory ledger where he still kept track of everything by hand. It was time consuming work, and tedious, but he liked that. He took a quick glance at yesterday’s business and closed the book while doing calculations in his head. He made just enough to keep things the same, and he was fine with that. Near the register there were also concert programs and framed sheet music from favorite pieces and performances long gone. He never dared play anymore, but his students and clients seemed to get a kick out of what he once was, what he had once aspired to be … and so he kept the relics. His fingers would involuntarily start moving as he stared at the sheet music.
Naturally, his eyes were drawn back to one of his favorite pieces by the great Mozart. On the cover, he could read, “Mozart: Violin Concerto: KV271i: Rondo Allegro Composed 1775.” His mind took him there, back in time. His thoughts began to produce the tune and he could hear it as clearly as if the orchestra had formed all around him.
He can see the theatre and his eyes catch the lights dimming on and off to let everyone know the show is about to begin. He can hear the crowd quiet with a hush, the audience replete with anticipation. The ambient noise of the theater dying down as well-dressed gentlemen and ladies come to rest in their seats. He can see the concertmaster strut to the stage, imaginary plumage on full display. A tinge of jealousy moves throughout the first and second violins, who mostly believe they could do the job better if only given the chance. They snap out of it. Now we tune with the perfect pitch “A” resonating throughout the room...tune up if it’s flat, tune down if it’s sharp...a cacophony of notes swells and fades as the other instruments follow suit...then we are ready. All of us are ready.
Meyer sees the conductor now. His wild, white hair looks more disheveled than Albert Einstein, and the tails of his jacket bounce along with his brisk walk up the stage. Tap tap tap! His baton strikes the large stand with the even larger orchestral score resting upon its black surface. Up go the conductor’s arms and he surveys his penguin army, his tuxedoed warriors armed with wood, silver, gold, bross, rosin, and string. Each soldier snaps to attention and is now staring at him with absolute focus. Ready to fire.
Slowly the arms of the conductor rise and count out the time signature...1-2-3-4….and… GO! Enter the strings, the woodwinds, here an oboe, there a clarinet, the brass...music coming alive...old notes becoming new again. All in sync, instruments of all types and sizes, playing their symphonic anthem. How lovely, how perfect! There is nothing like playing in an orchestra! Nothing takes you away so fast, and holds your attention so fiercely. The audience becomes a distant memory. You look at your music while at the same time you watch the conductor out of the corner of your eye. Your mind follows his baton and you know when to speed up and when to slow down. When to play forte and when to hush with pianissimo. Ever vigilant...moving as one. You know your instrument just like the back of your hand, probably better. As you do the conductor’s bidding, so your violin moves under your expert command.
Left foot tapping in time…fingers of the left hand walking with precision up and down the fingerboard...vibrato bending the sound without losing pitch...wrist of the left hand moving at the perfect speed… while in tandem the right arm is moving the bow gently but firmly across the strings with just the right amount of pressure...keep it loose, keep it tight...keep tempo! Tempo, tempo, tempo!...in control, but out of body...carried away by the notes. Whether the music was written 300 years ago or 3 years ago, it is made new again in this moment. Old… for the musicians, for the performers who have been through hours of practice at home, sectionals, and rehearsals. New...for someone out there is surely hearing this particular work by Mozart for the first time, gripped and swept away by the same magic that brought the orchestra members to this very stage. New… for the concertgoer who came just for this piece, just to hear it once more LIVE, as it was written and meant to be played.
The orchestra is building up to something now. They are closing in on the ending...the BIG FINISH. Tensions are heightened once more as everyone and everything plays to it’s maximum potential. Sweating...moving...working...playing...living...Fin! And it’s over. A brief pause that feels like minutes. And then... Pure joy. He had played so well that night, his big solo executed to absolute perfection! The crowd swells with a standing ovation for him! The conductor (who never, ever shows even the slightest levity in mood) looks at Meyer with a hidden smile and nods in approval. Ah, what a night!
He let out a long sigh and reluctantly removed himself from his reverie. Reminiscing on past accomplishments is the favorite hobby of old men since time immemorial, and Meyer was no exception from this truth. His eyes wandered over to the instruments and he felt gripped by the longing. He could always remember, but he did NOT play. He could not...would not. Not anymore.
He slowly turned around to face the wall behind the counter. Relief. A smile spread across his face as he stopped to blow a kiss to his most precious treasure of all, a large photo of his beloved Anna on their wedding day. They had married so young, but for Meyer it didn’t matter. He loved her so fully from the first day, and he knew they would spend a life together. The photo was kept in a gorgeous hand-carved wooden frame painted gold. Meyer had made this frame for Anna and given it to her as a present on their first wedding anniversary.
Bruges, Belgium - 1969
Crafting the frame had taken him months of work. At the time, a young, 20 year old Meyer was doing an apprenticeship at Master Carpenter and Luthier Alain Wagner's shop in Bruges, Belgium. His grandfather had arranged the apprenticeship, and wanted Meyer to learn “the business” from someone outside the family. Alain Wagner was an old friend and acquaintance of Meyer’s grandfather, and his shop made everything from wardrobes to violins. Monsieur Wagner always said that he made furniture to pay the bills, and instruments to thrill his soul. It was here that Meyer learned the delicate art of making an instrument. He began to see each tree and piece of wood as potential for something even more beautiful. There was so much potential there, you just needed the patience and skill to complete the transformation. It took Meyer a painfully long time to craft his first violin, but when he did...it was pure magic.
Meyer had searched for days before settling on just the right piece of wood for his special frame for Anna. He would arrive at the shop early and stay late to work on his special project. Luckily, M. Wagner was generous enough to let him use the shop’s equipment as long as he finished his day’s work. M. Wagner used to tease him relentlessly about his special project, “Meyer, my boy, you must learn to pace yourself with a woman! You set the bar too high for yourself! What will you make her on next year’s anniversary? A house? A boat? I carved my wife a sheep once, and she never stopped asking for the rest of the flock!” Wagner let out a good chuckle and shook his head at his young apprentice.
It was in Wagner’s luthier shop that Meyer really fell in love with creating. The brusque, but kind man was his grandfather’s age. He spoke French, German, and Italian, and loved all things music and food. He always had something to say to anyone and everyone that passed by, and never failed to make others laugh with his outrageous stories. Monsieur Wagner’s wife would often pack extra lunch for her husband to share with Meyer. There were many days he still craved her delicious homemade endive Chicon Au Gratin, Waterzooi fish stew, or of course her layered chocolate cake.
In the luthier’s shop Meyer learned to see the world differently. Trees that provided shade and played their songs as the wind blew through their leaves would one day be used to form new instruments to play a different kind of serenade. There was spruce, and maple, and rosewood. All playing a part, taking decades to grow and mature...and then age for decades more. Now a fraction in size of their former selves, these beautiful specimens would become something different...something greater. He saw the horses in the field as beasts of great power and quiet beauty. He learned to recognize the fineness of the hair in their tails. He imagined the great white Mongol and Canadian horses that would provide the hair for the bows . This luxurious, long hair that would one day be placed on bows, and would in turn be used to caress the strings that made music. He learned that white hair only comes from white horses, and that only a small amount of the horse hair is actually good enough for use on a bow. Every great luthier differs slightly in how they place hair on a bow, and Meyer slowly developed his own style. Finally, there was the luxurious and expensive Pernambuco wood from Brazil. This wood was used only to make the bow itself. It had to be treated gently...carefully...with an artist’s touch. A touch learned over much time and practice, the art seeming to come slower than molasses moving uphill in the middle of winter.
Meyer heard the music in his mind before it was played. He dreamt of what he might create. He learned to love the many tools of his trade. The planes, the saws and calipers, the reamers and shapers, the bending tools, and gougers. The glues, and stains, and powders, and finishing elements. Each so technical, so precise, so….perfect. For Meyer, this craft and perfection was the essence of life, of love, of what made the world go ‘round. He worked and he learned. Day after day.
Long hours and little pay. Early mornings and dinners at 8 pm. Still he kept on. He persisted. There were many days where Meyer scarcely heard his boss leaving the shop.
“Goodnight, Meyer. Lockup when you’re done.”
Silence… as Meyer worked away at his special present for Anna. “MEYER!”
“Ah, yes sir. Sorry, sir. I’ll lock it up. Goodnight.” Meyer looked up from the frame.
“Goodnight, Meyer. Don’t keep your lovely wife waiting, OK?”
“Of course, sir. I mean, of course not, I mean I won’t keep her waiting. Anyways, Goodnight. Thank your lovely wife again for the exceptional lunch.”
M. Wagner sighed and moved off into the night, muttering something about his crazy apprentice and how young men in love do the most idiotic things. “Just wait until you’re my age. You won’t be working late to surprise your wife, you’ll be hiding from extra chores.” He thought with a chuckle.
In his apprenticeship, Meyer had scrimped and saved to buy the luxurious gold paint for the perfect finish to Anna’s frame. He took his time painting three layers onto the wood. When the frame was finally done he wanted to give it to Anna right away. It was a month early, but he was not good at waiting. In the end he convinced himself to hold off, but it wasn’t easy. He truly lived for those moments when Anna looked at him with her big, brown eyes, completely and totally in love. He loved surprising her.
When the day eventually came to give the gift, he had Anna standing with eyes closed tight in the living room in their tiny apartment. Her long, brown hair was flowing in curls down her neck. She looked perfect in a blue cotton dress and red shoes. She was slender and had olive skin that looked gorgeous against the blue color of the dress. Meyer loved her in blue. Meyer had set up the frame on a kitchen chair and covered it with a bed sheet they had received as a wedding gift. He gently led Anna into the kitchen while she covered her eyes with both hands. One hand on her elbow, the other on the small of her back. Guiding her to the big surprise. He stopped once they reached the kitchen and walked over to the frame.
“Alright, darling….and….OPEN!” With a flair for the dramatic... Meyer whisked away the bed sheet that was covering the frame, “Presenting, my beautiful bride!” Meyer watched her eyes intently. He wanted to see every reaction on her face, every expression of love and joy.
“Oh, magnificent!!! Meyer...it’s...it’s simply stunning! Where did you find the time to make this? Is this what’s been keeping you at that shop day and night? This looks like it belongs in a palace! You will be world-famous one day! ” She was all smiles and so happy. She couldn’t stop talking and she couldn’t stop smiling. He could hardly contain his own joy at seeing her this way. “...and the gold paint! Meyer, it’s just wonderful!”
“Anna, my dear, you are too kind, but you are all I need. Besides, I think your beauty will keep anyone from ever noticing the frame. How did I get so lucky?”
She leaned in to give him a long hug and a quick kiss, and whispered, “Meyer, Meyer. You do know how to make a girl feel special.”
They embraced. They loved. Dinner boiled away on the stove in the background and was never touched that evening. One batch of horribly ruined stew, but one supremely happy marriage.
He often looked back on the day he gave Anna her special frame, and he thought for all the world that he was the luckiest man on earth to have had such happiness. Great love is so easy on the mind. It’s a perfect match of two souls that become something wonderful once united. Great love is all the heart can handle, and it fills it completely. There is no problem too complicated, no puzzle too complex, that great love will not find a way to solve. That is what he had with his dear Anna. Something irreplaceable and unimaginably good.
He stood there for a long time smiling at his Anna. Time flowed around him like a river rolling over an old stone. He was perfectly still. His knees were getting worse these days and he felt sore, but he stood. He was remembering the good times until he couldn’t suffer it any more. The good times seemed like an eternity ago, and after the good times came the bleakness. The shattering. The nightmare. He should have been content to be a poor man with a rich life. He started to feel a familiar cold sweat that also sent chills down his back and set his heart racing. His old bones felt as fragile as the floorboards when the past caught up to him like this.
No, No. He could never forgive himself. If it was torture to sit here and look at his Anna, to allow himself to remember what was lost, then that is what he deserved. She was never coming back. Head shaking and fists balled up, he sat down on the stool by the counter and allowed the waves of grief to wash over and through him. It was in these terrible moments, almost every day since the bleakness, that Meyer felt so alone.
Great love, once removed, leaves a hole so vast and so dark and so cold that the remaining soul can only feel alone. Desperately, hopelessly alone. This hole completely consumes and overwhelms. Who can say what becomes of the space Great Love used to occupy? Who can say what grows in it’s place? What kind of man had Meyer become? Would he make the same choices? Certainly not, but then again … the Violin still called to him. He yearned to play as much as he always had.
But he never played. Not anymore. No matter how dire the situation, he never played. Not for anything or anyone.
Questions upon questions lingered on his mind. Guilt upon guilt. Dreams upon dreams. Gifts upon gifts. Once blessed beyond comprehension, and now broken beyond repair. And for what? For this gift ... this curse??? No, no. It was more than that. He had wanted so badly to help others with what he had been given. That's all. He had needed to hold on that power then, and to this day he still couldn’t let it go.No matter what it had cost him, he could not separate himself from it completely.
After a while, he could not carry the burden of this weight any longer. He slid down to the old, dusty floor and cried like a child. He stayed that way for a long time.