He was not a refugee, not an immigrant, not a displaced person. Or, rather: yes and no. When he and I became close friends, he once said to me: “Sometimes Americans ask, ‘When did you come to this country?’ I did not come to America; I went there.” And if he was asked why, the “when” was the answer to that: 1939. He was twenty-five years old, very intelligent. He knew and felt that Hitler was about to conquer much of Europe. About the United States he had not many expectations or illusions. He saw it as a strange exaggeration of Europe, because the United States, too, was a product, an outcome, a result of the “modern age” that was not about to last long. Progress was not forever, though Americans thought it so.
On a cold March noon he boarded a modest French ship from Le Havre. He remembered those two large words painted on the seaward wall of a factory, though Le Havre was no longer a big harbor. New York was more than a harbor. It was a big maw, a safe haven, especially for the hundreds of thousands who fled from Europe to the United States, especially from 1938 to 1942. He was one of them. He looked quite a bit older when I first met him. I know not much, even now, of his youth. It was a brown fug, most of it, he once said, though I can piece together some things he told me from time to time. He came into his world in 1914 in Moravia, then of the Habsburg Empire, and later part of Czechoslovakia, the people there German and Czech. His father was a shoe manufacturer. His mother had about her all the marks, the conditions, the characteristics of middle-class motherhood. She doted on him and protected him. He was their only child. I saw an early photograph when he must have been around ten, good-looking, large wondering eyes, a strong nose and a definite mouth, not really childlike. Around that time he recognized—more than discovered: recognized—his attention to music. His parents got a piano teacher who came twice each week to their bourgeois flat with its black Erhard piano. There was an English teacher, too. This sounds like the life of a high bourgeois family, but it wasn’t: These were not luxuries but instruments for the education of their only child. Of his elementary and then gymnasium years he said nothing, because he remembered of them little or nothing. He was a loner at school. That he knew, but there was his growing captivation with music.
His father did not know him very well. His mother largely did. In 1935, when he was twenty-one, both of his parents, a few months apart, died suddenly (there was a short-lived typhoid epidemic that year). He was taken to live with his mother’s aunt, a silent old woman. She died, too, again suddenly, two or three years later. Now he was a complete orphan. He had no real material anxieties, only political ones. Hitler would add first Moravia and then Czechoslovakia to his all-German empire. Two years before that, he met and married another piano student in an academy of music. Martha was half-Jewish. She oddly resembled the softness of his mother. She loved him. She was even awed by him; she would follow him anywhere in the world. He chose Switzerland, whereto they got a visa and moved there before Hitler took the city of his birth. By that time, his teachers were aware of his talent as a pianist. Two of them knew some people in Switzerland; they gave him (and her) fair and good recommendations.
When they got to Zurich, there was no place, no job for him. Penury and misery followed until he found a position as an assistant pianist in the Basel (not Zurich) orchestra. He also gave piano lessons to uninterested Swiss bourgeois youngsters. Then two things happened to him (perhaps “happened” is not the right word, since they came not from outside but from within him): He understood something beyond pianism and pianos, that there must be a new kind of music. And worse: He came to dislike Martha. Her motherly qualities and her very appearance began to repel him. Before they married, she had been hired as a piano teacher in a convent academy in a small town south of Augsburg in Germany, notwithstanding her non-Aryan race. The people there learned of her difficulties in Switzerland, and in September 1938 told her that her job and place were still there, that she and they were not affected by racial legislation in Germany. He had said that he could not and wanted not to live with her. She said, “I shall never forget you,” then packed up and crossed back into Germany. She wrote two letters to him. They were unanswered. In 1940, she was extracted from the convent. Two policemen took her somewhere. Her superiors, the sisters, were told nothing. There was no trace of where or when she died. Two years before, she had been ready to go to America with her husband—but he did not give her a thought.
Or not for many years.
He lived in New York for about six years during World War II when New York was the capital of the world. He followed the war insistently. He revered Churchill, who stood for what was old. He was thin, quite lonely; he spoke little. He did not like New York. He met people from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Germany, and a few American intellectuals, too, but thought that their Americanism was somehow too superficially complete, like a good suit taken from a rack in a store. He liked one man among them (Dwight Macdonald), even though they did not much talk with each other. He gave piano lessons. Two lines began marking, indeed, defining his face. Many of his pupils and their parents respected him. He had a small furnished room on the west side of Manhattan, two of its narrow walls crowded with books, the contents of many of them about theories, structures, architectures of music. He taught himself much about orchestration; he hoped that one day, with his piano talents, orchestral knowledge could be an asset in his musical career.
One day he met and spoke with an assistant director of the New York Philharmonic, an Austrian. He summoned the courage to say something about what he knew of orchestras and orchestration. His Austrian conversant heard him out and spoke to him with more than a modicum of sympathy. “No chance,” he said. There was no place for that. Symphonies sound open from outside, but they are closed musical congregations. “We ourselves,” he said, “are even more philharmonic than we are harmonic.” A little later, he got an invitation from a suburban chamber orchestra—a pleasant prospect, even though the pay was very low. In 1943, his fortunes improved. He was engaged to play piano, American popular music, in a velvet-posh café on an east avenue in Manhattan. A few people who knew him were startled: a potential concert pianist playing jazz in a nightclub? He did not think so at all. American popular music had an attraction for him. It was not “jazz,” but it did or could contain something else. That “else” was there in their unexpected chords, small surprises in the midst of these popular songs and ballads, here and there. They accorded not only with his tastes but with his own aspirations—they were minimal morsels of some potential beauty. He knew that, perhaps alone in the world.
About that time, we met. Our friendship was unusual. I was impressed by the skeletal structure of his head and face and, then, by my increasing wonder of how and what he knew. He was reticent. I was less inquisitive than curious about his existence. So one evening I asked him: Was there any woman in his life, or at least on the edges of it? He said no. He did not want an affair, which was, after all, no more than a side effect of one’s life. But after that evening, we talked about women often. What was astonishing was how much he knew about them. One long night he went on and on. He said that women for him were perilous—not because of their constitutions but because of their minds. “One thing I know,” he said once, “but don’t ask me when, how, or why. The sexual act,” he said, slightly stammering, “for a man amounts to a completion; not for a woman. Not even its aftertaste. What matters to a woman may be, often is, a remembrance.” “Indeed,” he went on and on, “all of Freud’s ‘discovery’ of ‘the subconscious’ amounts to nonsense. What is subconscious is not below but within our consciousness. For one reason: because the past is always latent in the present as the meaning is in a word.”
I was able to do something good for him. In 1945, I was a Philadelphian who had come to New York often during the war, and now less. On a train from New York, I chatted with an Austrian whom I had known for some time. He was a pianist and sometimes a conductor of a small orchestra, too. He was a “Feschak,” a Viennese slang word meaning not quite “dandy,” but a man who cares much about his appearance. He was leaving for California soon for a lucrative job there arranged by a very nice divorced woman. He had lived in Philadelphia for at least five years, professor of piano and music in a small Catholic women’s college governed by nuns who treated him fairly. Now they and he needed to find someone to replace him, which was not easy, since it involved not only piano teaching but knowledge of chamber music, too. Immediately I thought of my friend. The Austrian liked that. He would speak to the president of the college tomorrow. That president was an unusual nun! She had a degree from Cambridge, read loads of books, and loved music. If they had no other applicants, she would want this man to come for an interview; and if most matters were satisfactory, he would have an offer for the position.
So he translated himself from New York to Philadelphia and a small college on a hillside for young Catholic girls. He heard and saw some things about certain American Catholic customs that were strange to him, and also for other European Catholics in the United States. (Examples: the rosary the students chanted in the college gym or on the athletic field before a championship game; or the habit of the pastor at Sunday Mass to begin his sermon with a joke, everybody laughing.) On the other side, there was respect for his teaching. He did not much mind the wear and tear of it. He should have looked for and found a furnished room not far from the college, but such dwellings had old women with suspicious ears and inquisitive eyes—appalling circumstances for him. Instead he found and rented a flat in downtown Philadelphia on the third floor of a stone-dark house built around 1880, on Spruce Street. Three times a week he had to take a suburban train and then change to a bus to the gate of the college and then trudge uphill to the main college building. A good part of a full day that was. He took his main midday meal at the college.
After a few months in Philadelphia, I had him meet a few people. One or two of them said: “Isn’t it boring or even awful to teach classical music to a gaggle of geese who know nothing at all?” “Yes, a gaggle of geese,” he said, “but little geese. They can appreciate some things.” That they were in awe of him, he did not know. He learned something around the thirty-fourth year of his life: He did not mind teaching. It was a small compensation in his life. That much he knew. But he began to mind something deeper, too. It began when he was still in New York. He thought more and more about Martha. One day he told me, suddenly, that sin can be borne since it is not the worst thing in the world; what cannot be borne is guilt. I tried to soothe him. “I am guilty,” he said more than once. “I am worse than sinful. I ignored my parents and I killed my wife.”
It was not until he moved to Philadelphia that he told me he had made a decision. He would go to Germany to find where Martha died. He could do this immediately. The college had three months of a summer vacation. He saved and scrounged his money for that. I went on and on and asked him why. I heard more and more about Martha. Guilt: perhaps, yes. But for him to learn—learn!—to love her now? I did not think so. Remorse and love—what a poor couple they are! I took him to the airport, and then and there I knew that he felt both.
First, he went to the convent south of Augsburg. The sisters and the staff were stunned. They knew that he had abandoned his wife. They also told him that during her last year, she went to Mass every morning. Early in 1940 she had to leave the convent. Two policemen took her to Augsburg into a small house where some old Jews still lived. After that, nothing. At that time, Jews who had visas could still leave Germany. She had none such. The mass murder of Jews, Auschwitz, and so on had not yet happened, but she knew that she was bound for some kind of concentration or prison camp. There were some in Germany then, Ohrdruf, Sachsenhausen, Dachau, and a fourth whose name I do not remember. He drove across the Reich to see them. He rented a wreck of a German car. This was the summer of 1946. Halves of German cities were in ruins, while in much of the German countryside young flowers were popping up between hard stones and along rivers and in fields. In these empty camps, the new staffs knew nothing. Except for Dachau, there were no lists with the names of prisoners who had been taken there. In one of these camps, a civil servant told him that about one-third of the inmates had died before 1942–1943 when the rest were transported to the east. In 1946 there was as yet no institution collecting that kind of information, except for one office in a half-ruined building in West Berlin. They, too, could tell him nothing. He suffered from one place to another before the end of his . . . pilgrimage? Or should we call it the pursuit of a death?
He came back to the convent again. The librarian came down to see him and said, “We have something for you.” In one of the convent’s albums, there was a postcard Martha had sent to the sisters, a picture of a village on its back and her careful name on the front, her full married name written with large letters. He trembled. “Could I have it?” he asked. “It belongs in that album,” she said. “You can have it photographed in the town.” He did. Where it had been sent from, no one knew because the postmark on it was illegible, smeared. He took it to the postmaster, whose assistant said that it was mailed in Augsburg sometime in 1940. He wrapped that copy in tissue paper. “Where to put it?” he asked himself when he returned to Spruce Street. Not on a wall or on his desk among other photographs. He had it put in a simple black frame and placed it on the night table next to his bed.
He told me much, very much, about his eight weeks in Germany. The Germans were not bad people, he said. He spoke less about Martha. His second year at the college was coming upon him. It was something of a mixed experience because it was tiresome. He had few sympathizers among the lay faculty. They were at best indifferent, at worst jealous of him since he was an educated European, God only knows from where. One exception was the professor of Italian, who shared some interests and who also had a sense of humor. More important were two sisters, both of them deans, Sr. Clare Jonathan and Sr. Loyola Augustine. Because of the measure of his teaching, his unexpected patience and kindness with his students, his chamber music, and his solitude, they came to like him. He was an asset to the college, they told the president, who agreed.
Toward the end of his second full year, he found a new friend, Fr. Mulvaney, senior professor of English, a curmudgeon to the core who had distrusted and disliked him at first. Fr. Mulvaney was the greatest asset to the college, the president often said. He was one of those Irishmen without a doctoral degree, whose knowledge of English literature was astonishing and everlasting. Eventually they found that they had things in common. More and more they talked about English and Irish books and their writers, some not widely known. (Examples: Baring, Gerhardie, Gissing, Sydney Smith, Elizabeth Bowen, Flann O’Brien, etc.) Both of them liked French novelists better than Russian ones. Both of them thought that, compared to Chesterton, Belloc could be boring. The prestige of this priest was such that he had his dinner meal served in his quarters. Eventually, he invited his friend to join him. There was a tot of Irish whiskey before their dinners together. They said sometimes meaningful things. (Example: There is not one piece of prose that cannot be made clearer by omitting some words, but that was impossible for a fine poem.)
He bought a car, enabling him to get home without a bus and a train at night. One evening, well-laden with talk, I said to him: “You could do worse. You have now an almost bourgeois existence.” “This is not so,” he said. “Look out this window. Most of these bourgeois houses have their furnaces and central heating, but their architects and builders had put fireplaces in their living rooms, for their owners or renters to enjoy flames without smoke. Look at all these roofs with their chimneys—hardly any smoke.” And smoke, yes, much smoke belonged to the bourgeois age, especially in the nineteenth century. Caillebotte was a very talented Frenchman: He had money enough to buy paintings and befriend their painters. He himself painted in 1876 a street and a small square with light rain, smoky, a single man with an umbrella, very large ungainly “modern” apartment houses filling most of his canvas. Caillebotte knew what he saw. Did Fra Filippo Lippi or even Raphael at the end of another age? What is now left from the bourgeois age is an illusion. Cities, too, are melting away—not at all only at their edges! People are leaving them.
And then, first on the edges and then into the midst of his life, came two unexpected things: a grand piano and a woman. Lewis, a friend of mine, a widower with two daughters, lived in a handsome country house about twenty miles west of Philadelphia, “Wentworth,” which had an unusual combination of large rooms and great comfort. One bright evening, I brought my music teacher friend to meet him. In one of those rooms stood a Bösendorfer grand piano. Lewis chose to tell us its story. His mother was a young girl from patrician Virginia, fond of music—her parents took her to Vienna to study more music in 1909. Her teacher, well established, had a Bösendorfer. “You must know that a Bösendorfer is at the very top of grand pianos, like a Daimler among luxury cars.” After a year and a half in Vienna, she, trembling, asked her father to buy her teacher’s Bösendorfer for her. And so he did. She played it for years, but after she married, her musical aspirations declined. “So this grand piano became mine—but wait, this is not the end of its story.” After some years, it needed serious repair. “I had a principal piano architect look at it.” He said that it had to be restrung, costing about $30,000 without a guarantee that it would turn out perfect. Then Lewis found a Philadelphia piano craftsman to look at it, who spent three hours at Wentworth and said, “This piece does not need to be restrung. Five or six new strings and hammers may do the job, costing you perhaps three or four thousand. I would not spend that kind of money. Just let it be.” And there was something else. “The lower octaves, as much as one-third of the keyboard, are astonishingly perfect. They sound like a miracle.” Why and how he could not tell.
My friend listened. He was entranced. He recalled a starry memory in Paris—where he had spent a week or so before boarding the ship to America. Among other things, he visited Salle Pleyel. Pleyel made the best pianos in France. On a small pedestal in the Maison Pleyel stood a small concert Pleyel. A curator said, “The perfect Pleyel.” Of course, he was not allowed even to touch it. But the curator was impressed with what this visitor seemed to know. They went to an adjacent room where there was another Pleyel. “Almost as good as the exhibit,” the curator said. He let my friend play it for a minute or two. He saw him to the door and unexpectedly said, “Your left hand is like a harp.” He told that to me once. He was inspired enough to try something on the Bösendorfer. How the lower octaves could sound was astounding. Two or three weeks later, Lewis phoned me suggesting a lunch for the three of us at the Philadelphia Club. There he asked whether my friend would accept the Bösendorfer for a lifetime or until he were to become an invalid. His daughter Amy had no place for it, but Megan, who married a rich young man who had a big apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York, would. “I understand that you have an apartment in Philadelphia. Would there be a place for it?” In his one sizable room, yes. Three weeks later, the Bösendorfer was transported from Wentworth to Spruce Street. (An enormous job that was: Three massive legs had to be taken off; so did the pedals, together with the lyre that held them.)
Into a big, empty corner of the apartment, the monument fit. It had a beauty of its own. Most Bösendorfers were ebony black. This was a golden brown (rosewood and oak). Did it change his life? He did have a small, electric pianino on which he rarely tinkled. Now he played his grand piano some evenings—seldom for long and, of course, only when he was alone. And there was something hidden, yet at times congealing rather than crystallizing in his mind. He was a struggling composer. Crystallized in his mind was his historical consciousness. He knew more than most people, perhaps more than almost everybody, that the age of the last five hundred years was over, irretrievably so, and the history of its music with it, too. Symphonic music was one achievement of what he called the bourgeois age. It had two restrictions.
One: it had to have an audience, which was not necessarily so for other creations of art. The other was its dependence on the eighty-eight keys of a piano, eight octaves. No matter how “symphonic” and rich, this age ended about 1950. Music will always exist. It is needed by all kinds of living beings, but a new kind of music will appear. One long evening he said much about this to me. That may have come about because of a small but tangible change in his manières. He now took strong spirits some evenings and tended to become voluble, sometimes angry. Amazing things he would say, for example, that symphonic music, indeed nearly all music between 1500 and 1950, was obvious. The obviousness of the compositions was what drew their audiences. They were period pieces. A man such as Bach was almost genius; Beethoven less so. Mozart he abhorred—nothing but a decorator of the obvious; his trilling of the upper registers was nothing, nothing. (Glass chandeliers on the ceilings of bordellos, he once said.) Near the end, a Ravel or perhaps a Debussy or a Sibelius wanted to get beyond accustomed barriers, but they couldn’t.
Months later, on another night, he made a startling confession. Of course, he needed the piano, but he tried not to compose with strings. “Sometimes I try to invent knots. Or whorls. Or con-certs, in the proper sense of that word.” “Play at least one such,” I begged him. He took another drink, sat down, and played (as if that is the word) for a good ten minutes. I was entranced. “Celestial,” I said. “No,” he said, “ethereal, perhaps, but only here or there.” “Have you ever written this down?” I asked him. “A little of it,” he said, “on about one quarter of a score sheet, some four or five lines. I don’t know if I can go further.” “What would you call it?” “An ascent? An orchestration, perhaps.”
Clothilde was (and still is) the most beautiful woman I have ever known. Exquisite face, figure, legs. Her small imperfections too, for example, the little golden freckles on her forearm. Did she fall in love with M.? (She preferred to name him so, with a single initial.) That was not the right term. She did not “fall”; she chose to love him. (At the end of a historical age: I knew women attracted less to men who were powerful, handsome, successful than to men who seemed to have independent minds of their own—not professional intellectuals.) Was Clothilde radiant? She shimmered. One summer day I saw her in a dress: When she stood or sat or moved, it was as if she were clothed in a glitter of mosaics. She had a decent husband and two children. Were M. and she lovers? I seldom talked about her with M., who was so reserved and shy about it. Sooner or later I became convinced that they were. She came to meet him twice or thrice every week. Sooner or later he began to tell her some things that he never said to anyone else. Did he speak to her about Martha? (To me he said once: “Do you see that postcard on my night table? When I die, they should put it in my coffin.”) He met Clothilde’s husband but once. Later rather than sooner, he asked her, “Does he know?” “Yes,” she said.
One summer afternoon we sat with others on a small sunny terrace. He suddenly turned angry. He said something and banged his glass of wine on the table. The glass broke, spilling red wine over the table, staining Clothilde’s skirt. He said not a word. He repaired home. He woke at four at night. He sat down to the Bösendorfer for an hour. He went back to bed. He called Clothilde early in the morning, asking her to come over. He looked at what he had scribbled at the piano during the night. It was no good at all. At noon, Clothilde came. She found him in a state of despair she had never seen before. He stood in front of the keyboard and hit one single key. An “Es,” he said. “E-flat in English, a stupid term.” He went across the room and leaned against a bare wall. “That Es,” he said. “When I try to compose, no matter where I start, the first note is always an Es or something around an Es. I don’t think that I can go further.” She put her arms around him. What happened during the rest of that day I don’t know.
Lewis had an old friend. They had been at college and then at university together. After that, they met and talked often. Both of them were early widowers. He lived in St. Louis, where he had plenty of money. He was an extraordinary man with unusual ambitions. He wanted to be the president of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. That was extraordinary because that title was not more than formal: The trustees and the director and the conductor were who counted. But his interest in music was formidable, as was his civic and financial reputation. They named him president and then found that he wanted to do many things. First, he aimed to make the St. Louis Symphony one of the best in the United States. He reviewed and hired musicians himself. Once, for such a purpose, he was on his way to New York when he chose to stop at Lewis’s home. He would also meet Connor Ross in New York. He wished to make Ross interested in the rising quality of the St. Louis Symphony. Ross was world-famous, his overall knowledge of orchestras astounding. He was also the music editor of the New York Times, where he wrote his caustic and lucid articles almost every Sunday. “Could we see your friend the music teacher, too?” he asked. Lewis replied, “Of course.” A month or so before, Lewis had told him some things about the opinions of the latter. Now he listened intently during a good discursive dinner about “new music.” “A director of music is what we may need,” he said. “We now have a good conductor, but what we need is a music director, someone who knows things like you do.”
“M.” told this to me and to Clothilde after a day or two. Clothilde came to see him. She wanted to marry him, she said. She would go to St. Louis with her children. She would divorce her husband. He said, “No. It would be bad for the children. It would be tragic for Andrew. I have no family. I am alone. I do not matter.” Clothilde cried. He embraced her and kissed her wet cheeks with a tenderness he never knew he had. Clothilde: “At least—at least—you could say perhaps.” He did not say perhaps, but he bowed his head a little.
Three weeks went by. Sometimes they quarreled. For the second time in his life, he felt sorrow for a woman close to him. But there was a difference. His sorrow and pity for Martha rose years after she was gone. He did not want Clothilde to disappear from his life. (And then what? He did not know.) One Saturday night, coming home late after an outing at the Philadelphia Orchestra with some students, he picked up his mail. In it was a handsome envelope with blue edges, “St. Louis Symphony” on its back flap. Its contents were composed with care. It began: “Would you care to apply for the position of Musical Director of our orchestra? Two other applicants are being considered. The president wishes attention to you, too. Your duties would be largely administrative. What is needed are serious musical judgments of the productions and their performers.” He would be requested to perform seldom. He would, of course, have to live in St. Louis. His salary would be $40,000 per annum with yearly increments. Lewis was on a business trip, Clothilde on a weekend with the children. “I’ll tell them on Monday,” he thought. In the morning, there was the fat roll of the Sunday New York Times at his door. In its music supplement was a long article by Ross. As he read it, he was startled to find that Ross wrote about things they had talked of at Lewis’s, about traditional music and new music. Then came a paragraph: “There exist now men throughout the world who aim or move in the direction of new music. There are a few in the United States, too. One is a music teacher in Philadelphia whose understanding of the history of music is exceptional.”
I wish I knew what he did during the rest of that day. Surely I can imagine him rereading that paragraph in the Times. But I can also imagine him leaning on the flank of the Bösendorfer, as he often did, and speaking to himself: “I don’t want more. Because I can’t do more.” He died the next night. His cleaning woman (whom he always called his “cleaning lady”) came every second Monday morning to clean and do his laundry. She found him on the sofa, in his forever brown tweed suit, except that he had no socks or shoes on. He was barefoot.
When I got to his funeral five days later (there was also a Mass), I was astonished. There were at least two hundred men and women there. Who were all these people? How many people knew him in Philadelphia? Living symptoms of American goodness they were. Groups of nuns, too, moving to both sides of the path to make way for Sisters Clare Jonathan and Loyola Augustine. Clothilde and I and Lewis were somewhere in the crowd. When we came back from his grave in the small cemetery next to the church, Clothilde said: “He was a saint. A saint of a very low order. But a saint.” I decided to drive down to Spruce Street, where there might be some important papers of his. In his apartment I was struck by the sense of that special emptiness in a house whose inhabitant had just died. I opened a window. I saw a wisp of smoke somewhere.
Martha and Clothilde were taking him to heaven.
John Lukacs is a historian and author, most recently, of A Short History of the Twentieth Century.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?