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Failures in Vienna


2 He sniffed the tea that was left on the iron stove for the last three days. It was passable. More so than the interior of Master Nikolaus Brunn’s top-floor studio. It stood between the apartments of an adulterous widower and a family of sixteen Polish immigrants on a grey street in Vienna. The walls were lined with endless stacks of music manuscripts with the power to move audiences to tears. They were not written by Nikolaus. He moved towards the tall window and tripped over the ottoman next to the faded yellow chair. The cold tea splashed through the lace of his frilled collar. He cursed, picked up a glass trinket, and hurled it towards the offending furniture. The cat used to lounge on the ottoman, and it still would, had it not mewed so loudly while Nikolaus struggled to compose his second scherzo. He had wrenched the cat up by its neck and thrown it out of the window onto the rainy street below. Three o’clock found him pacing along the creaking floors. Finally, he heard a slight knock. He tied his robe and opened the door. A boy, no older than ten, stood with a frightened expression and gripped his mother’s hand. “You must be an impudent boy to arrive late to my lessons,” Nikolaus said. The boy’s mother produced a handkerchief. She dabbed away the spit that landed on her son’s face when Nikolaus spoke. “Please forgive Erik, Master Brunn, it was my fault,” she said. Nikolaus scowled at the boy’s pure, white-blonde hair. “Get to it then,” he said. He closed the door and shoved Erik to the middle of the room where a blacklacquered grand piano sat.

Margaret Cogswell

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843.830.1233


3 “Sit, boy.” Erik planted himself on the tattered upholstery of the bench. The name “C. Bechstein” shimmered in gold letters just above the spotless keys. Nikolaus dragged the ottoman across the floor. Erik started to play from sheet music on the stand. The notes were simple, yet the boy played with superb technique. His fingers caressed and pushed deeply into the keys as a man would his lover. Nikolaus ran to the piano and swept the papers to the floor with a quick hand. “Who told you to play that? That is my work! My étude!” “Master, it’s lovely,” Erik said. “Of course it’s lovely! Better than any of the trash that Polish fraud wrote. When I publish my work, he won’t be so proud.” “Yes, master.” “Quiet, boy.” Nikolaus shuffled through a stack of manuscripts and found three to his liking. “Your mother didn’t tell me you’ve played before.” “She enrolled me in Master Kalkbrenner’s school, but then he died, and then I studied with Master Czerny, but he said my technique was too ‘sweet’, and then mother took me out of—” “Enough! I did not ask for your autobiography.” Nikolaus set a piece on the stand, one that took him three years to master. He smiled wryly. “Now play.”

Margaret Cogswell

margaretcogswell.com

843.830.1233


4 The boy hesitated, but Nikolaus violently beat out the tempo with his palm on the top of the piano. Erik, frightened that he would be beaten next, began to play. “One, two, three, play, it, forte!” Nikolaus shouted. Erik pounded out the notes with his well-toned fingers. His small hand struggled to hit the octaves, but Nikolaus could tell he would be able to play it perfectly in just a few lessons. “Stop, stop! Damn child. It is too sweet, as Czerny says. You’re playing like a kitten. Soft and without passion. Again!” Once more, Erik laid his fingers upon the keys with the greatest force he could muster. When he hammered the bass octaves, the room shook and clouds of white dust floated down from the ceiling. With each new measure the boy thrust his body toward the piano. Nikolaus was astounded. “Stop.” “What’s wrong, Master Brunn?” Erik asked. Nikolaus eyed the boy from underneath his white brows. The mid-afternoon sun crept through the window and Erik’s hair glowed. His rosy face was lovely and untouched by the years of scorn that beset failing artists. “It is clear I cannot teach you,” Nikolaus said. “My mother will be so upset! Please, I’ll try harder,” said Erik. Nikolaus exchanged the piece on the stand for a nocturne. “This should be played gently.”

Margaret Cogswell

margaretcogswell.com

843.830.1233


5 The boy drifted through the piece with ease. Sunlight illuminated his white eyelashes. Under them, his eyes flicked from left to right as he read the notes and pursed his lips. He was much like Anton. Nikolaus thought even his ears were like Anton’s, though grade school was long ago. He remembered watching his schoolmate’s lovely face as he read the secret notes he passed to him in the back of the classroom. A child’s declaration of endearment. He also remembered what Anton called him when Nikolaus shouted, “I love you,” across the schoolyard. All the boys laughed and when Nikolaus went home he sat under his mother’s bed and sobbed with his face pressed into one of her dresses. Anton moved away a year later and he never saw him again. Erik finished the piece with a flourish. Nikolaus looked at him wistfully. He picked up his étude from the floor and placed it before his student. “Gently now, like this,” he said. He stood behind the boy and leaned over him to play. To a trained ear, his technique was clunky and weak-fingered. He faltered through several measures before stopping. “Now, Erik, you try. And play it sweetly,” he said. He cracked the most undetectable of smiles and waited. Erik was magnificent. He played the first page like a lullaby, and as he moved into the second, the resonation of the chords began to swell. Nikolaus’ chest became tight and he felt his face grow hot as he watched the child play his own composition better than he ever would. The music reached a climactic note and Erik played furiously. “No, no, no!”

Margaret Cogswell

margaretcogswell.com

843.830.1233


6 In an instant, Nikolaus slammed the lid of the keyboard onto Erik’s hands. The boy pulled his cherished fingers out and screamed. That evening, Erik’s mother told Nikolaus that her husband would be coming to see him shortly. She said he should be wary, as her husband was a magistrate of the court. Nikolaus closed the door on them, retrieved his music from the stand, and pulled the ottoman over to the faded yellow chair. He sat down and let the papers drop to the floor. The tea cup from that afternoon was still there next to him. He stared at it until the sun no longer shone through the window. Then he picked up the cup, turned it over above the papers, and fell asleep as tea and black ink bled across his Êtude.

Word Count: 1,140

Margaret Cogswell

margaretcogswell.com

843.830.1233

Failures in Vienna  

A failed piano teacher is reminded of his own inadequacies by a prodigious student.

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