“Anton, listen to me. You won’t get anywhere like this.”
Herr Hoffmann looked over my shoulder at the notes I was composing and sighed.
“The salons of von Genzinger want something new. Your five-finger piano exercises use tunes from twenty years ago. Viennese, yes. But similar to very early Mozart. Not what should be written for sale today, in 1786.”
He held the manuscript up under the light of a candle, and ran his hand over his wig.
“Also your handwriting is not always clear. For instance. Is this a G sharp, or a G natural?”
“A G natural.”
“Then, for God’s sake use a sharper quill! We have plenty of goose quills here. And the knives to sharpen them. So there is no excuse.”
“But I can’t get his tunes out of my head. One hears them on every street corner. I even imagine his rhythms in the thumps from our presses below.”
“Then in that case you should become a music copyist for Artaria, Mozart’s publishers. But here, here we are trying to produce new imaginative exercises for piano practice. Go home and come back tomorrow with a fresh mind.”
I walked through the busy market square to try to clear my head. My job would depend on it. In the May evening the stallholders in the Freyung Marketplace were packing up for the day. I stepped round the piles of horse manure on the cobbles, but could not avoid passing close to one old horse that suddenly let out a splash of stinking urine onto the bottom of my breeches in a quantity that must have been held in all day.
I threaded past stalls with red and white striped canopies from under which the strong smell of mature cheese and wurst overpowered the new.
Baskets overflowed with cabbages, potatoes, and beets, the fresher ones displayed on top. Yet the stallholders’ earthy calls were unable to distract me from the tunes in my head.
In a doorway a man with a pointed beard, turban, shoes with curled-up toes, loose trousers, and a satin waistcoat around a tanned bare chest was performing a fire-eating act. As I paused to watch, I realised that it was a cool flame and his act was made spectacular by the cymbal-clashing of a young woman assistant. But even those catchy Turkish rhythms did not unhinge the Mozart melodies from my brain.
In an alley off the square, a line of familiar washing stretched from one high window to another across a corner. I opened a door and climbed the steps inside.
Gretel and I had arrived in Vienna a few months ago, and we were in our early twenties. She was now pregnant with our first child. She had seemed worried that morning, partly because of the pregnancy, and partly because she knew I was having problems at work.
However, tonight Gretel was unexpectedly cheerful. “Here, eat your bean stew quickly,” she said. “We haven’t got long.”
She said she had heard that Mozart himself would be performing at the soiree of von Genzinger tonight before leaving for Salzburg. When I protested that we had no invitations, she said that I should stand in the crowd outside as he leaves and ask him about his music.
“You want to talk to him, don’t you?”
I groaned. I could not get away from this man. I was a moth drawn to a candle. I felt that I knew everything about him except the most important thing. How had he been able to write such wonderful music when he was eight, and yet after all my study I could barely write anything?
We hurried through the streets to see a large crowd outside the railings of a house. A carriage had drawn up ready to take the famous man away.
I eased my way to the front. The crowd was beginning to sing snippets from The Marriage of Figaro.
The door opened and I saw two tall men in tricorn hats and thick long coats come out. Behind them, after a brief moment, the cheery short figure of the thirty-year-old Mozart stepped out. The crowd cheered and surged forward, bringing me as a piece of flotsam towards him.
Before I knew it, I had hailed the great man.
“Herr Mozart, your music is wonderful! Please give me some advice on how I could compose a modern symphony as you do.”
The crowd was stunned into silence, waiting for an answer.
Mozart looked me over, his foot on the carriage plate just about to take a step in as one of the two men had opened it for him. “You are still young. You should try writing short exercises.”
“But Mozart, I am in my twenties, and have studied music for over fifteen years. You wrote your first symphony when you were nine. Please tell me how I can do it like you.”
He paused, but then stepped into the carriage, which started off. As it turned the corner at the end of the street, he leaned out of the window and shouted back, “Mein liebe Herr, das ist so. But the difference between you and me is that I did not ask how to do it.”
I stood motionless for a long time. Eventually I realised that the street had fallen silent and the crowd had gone. Up in a nearby tree a poignant blackbird began an evening call, as if from an oboe I had not heard before. Perhaps that had not been heard in all of Vienna before. Another blackbird answered, and at the far side of the park the clatter of horses set up a rhythm against the birds.
I had no more questions to ask. I hurried home to transcribe the notes. Gretel clutched my arm, afraid of being left behind. But she did not speak, for she knew what had just happened.
Stuart Larner is a chartered psychologist. Besides writing for scientific journals, he has written articles, poems, stories, and pieces for the stage. He has published four books: Jack Daw and the Cat; Guile and Spin; Hope: Stories from a Women’s Refuge (with Rosie Larner, collectively as Rosy Stewart); and The Car. See his blog at stuartlarner.blogspot.co.uk.