Etzel possessed two voices: one from his throat and the other within his fingers. He kept a silent keyboard in my office. It wasnít just any keyboard, but a keyboard with 105 keys made of ersatz ivory that matched the keyboard of his ten-foot Boesendorfer. Once we had run through the dayís news, he would practice for a while and then leave. I liked to watch his hands interact with the keys while he strengthened the possibilities of each individual finger. Sometimes he would simply play through a piece to reinforce to memory.
The Boesendorfer in Etzelís home was an instrument as grand and beautiful as Vienna, the city of Etzelís birth, the wonderland of Mozart and Beethoven. Etzel was from the romantic generation. He would ramble about the differences between billowing cloudscapes and manmade artifice overlade with scrollwork, and their relation to the soulful themes of Schumann, Liszt, and Schubert.
"Schubert ignites the light of emotion in my fingertips," Etzel would say.
He claimed I was the master hand of Bach, festooned and fastidious. I did have a harpsichord at home, stacked high with Baroque musical scores, which annoyed Etzel. My fingers were skinny and smaller than most menís.
I remember how we played Schubert for Four Hands by the hour in Etzelís living room--two old men straining to fit on the bench, until Etzelís illness loomed so large and his strength vanished so quickly we could only sit side-by-side on the bench and talk about musical moments of the past. Sometimes Etzel would rock back and forth to some unmeasured beat and sway his hands through the air, and I would watch the shadows bounce on walls and surfaces that he made with his massive hands in the declining light.
Were it not for him, his piano might have resembled an inanimate sculpture in the gardens of a gallery. Not a few days went by that I did not circle the Boesendorfer and drag my fingers across its smooth, ebony surface: wood, ivory, metal, ornate designs, lacquered and veneered finishes refined to excellence; hammers that struck varying anvils, metal strings stretched taut across the bridges of a soundboard capable of eliciting the gamut of human pathos.
Yes, Etzelís Boesendorfer, English action, not German, and with felt, pins, pedals that could sustain or dampen the sound--a geometry of curves, horizontal and vertical lines, the tensions of the parts, and with its percussive range, an orchestral instrument that was itself an orchestra.
"Those bastard Germans!"
Etzel never allowed me to forget how Vienna was annexed to Germany and the Boesendorfer compromised like the rest of the sane world. A Jew, he would look at me and apologize and remind me that, most of the time, I was a different German; but there were other times when Etzel would inflict a brutal wit and sarcasm. I had swallowed more than my share of "Prussian swine."
A few nights before Etzel died, I was the one who worked hardest to keep music alive. I reminded Etzel that Andre Watts would play Rachmaninoffís three piano concertos on PBS at eight oíclock that evening and suggested we watch together.
"Is that all?"
"Do I sound like a fool?"
"Freund, it is tedious to listen to you do your thing." Etzel ended the conversation.
On the highly glossed ebony veneer of the Boesendorfer, reflections were cast from photographs on the adjacent walls. I studied these oversized reflections, then turned to the photographs themselves. Stubs from two green movie tickets wedged in the rim of the frame of a photograph of Etzelís favorite, the one where I stood by a light post in an elegant English parker with Scottish shearing. A happy night, Etzel and I had walked to his house from the little artsy movie house where we saw Felliniís The Orchestra Rehearsal and proceeded to get into a tiff.
I said Felliniís Orchestra Rehearsal was a flop and did not deserve the dignity of comparison with the masterpiece La Dolce Vita. We sat down on the sofa next to the Boesendorfer and sipped imported Russian vodka.
"Didnít you think it was absurd that one musician shared a music stand with another musician and then snatched the music from him in the middle of the rehearsal?" I asked.
"Why not? The other player was hogging the stand," Etzel said.
"Would you turn your back on the conductor and eat a pastrami sandwich, sauerkraut dripping off your chin?"
Etzel laughed. For Etzel there was something cute about the way a Baroque specialist saw reality: "everything with a dainty accent here and a curly queue there," and it was then that Etzel coaxed me beneath the Boesendorferís 750 kilos, to make love.
On the occasion of another orchestra rehearsal, Etzel and I had met for the first time. At that meeting, I played a soft trill in the courtyard of Auschwitz. Both chosen to play in the camp orchestra, we were terrified but fortunate. Etzel had thick blond curls that attracted even the foreboding sunlight, and I watched Etzel study his profile and try to understand how I could be there, not being a Jew.
We were German social outcasts and music was our hope. At the end of the war, when finally liberated, we vowed to never let each other go alone. For years Etzel endured nightmares of the Gestapo pulling him out from under the piano (his fatherís idea of a bunker), and he never awoke until the harrowing moment when the Gestapo pulled him out had repeated itself. I would hold Etzel as he trembled in my arms.
After the War, I purchased Etzel his Boesendorfer.
"This piano is a piano, not a bunker," I told him.
I sheltered Etzel from the $40,000 price tag, a cost that might be seen as prohibitive by most, but Etzel didnít seem to care and never asked. For him, the Boesendorfer was the spring of all life; the imagination, the never-ending bond with all suffering that came before or waited in the future. It was all of reality.
It had no price.
"Didnít some haul heavy buckets with spoiled hands never to return with the metals they carried from the core of the earth, nor survive, never to hear the music of the keys and strings they made possible?"
"Thatís not true," I said.
"And the mystical reaches of art, Sapphic songs and their memory, the discoveries of children rubbing together blades of grass or blowing breath through a reed of bamboo in the jungle; the evening wind spreading across the plains of grass, bending branches as it traveled; and the roars of lions which compelled hunters to explore and to conquer even though many might perish and only a few, transport back the ivory tusks of elephants and the woods of hard trees to their cultured worlds."
One night I called him on the phone. Neither remembered that death was a reality and this might be the last phone conversation.
"Letís plan my next recital," Etzel said.
Etzel performed annual recitals for friends, and though I never desired to perform in public, I assisted in practical ways, making sure the tuner was on standby, that there were enough chairs, and programs were perfect, wine and cheese prepared.
"A recital not an eulogy."
"I called the piano tuner all ready."
In the background, I heard Etzelís stereo and Mussorgskyís Pictures at an Exhibition."
"No, and turn your God-damn record played down."
"During the Gates of Kiev?"
"It might as well be ĎDeutschland, Deutschland, uber alles?í"
The blazing brass and pealing carillons were more than I could handle.
"Are you crazy? Germanyís national anthem?"
"Etzel, I need to be dramatic right now. The idea of performing a recital is preposterous. How can I be expected to unite in a musical moment with you after you have died?"
Maybe the connection was bad. I was afraid my comment had rubbed too hard. Etzel never answered. I hurried to Etzelís house, but as usual, he was sitting at the Boesendorfer. I spanned the massive keyboard and tried to absorb the predicament he had placed on me.
"My dream of playing stays alive with you," Etzel said and cleared his throat. His words were broken.
"Okay," and then, drowning the sudden rush of tears and rescuing the moment, I used his best falsetto voice, whose tone might have been Etzelís own, and I began to recite:
"Music is a metamorphosis of human emotion for everyone who listens. It inhabits the cavities of emptiness and the void. Music vibrates for those, like Beethoven, who did not hear."
Etzel looked up at me, startled by this unexpected eloquence, and we burst into laughter, and hugged and rocked in each otherís arms until I told Etzel I loved him, and I would perform the recital as Etzel desired.
"I knew you would," Etzel answered. His eyes glistened for a moment and, as quick, began to fade." The call to perform is so ripe for your Germanís ego?"
I ignored Etzelís last hit. Instead, I helped Etzel carry bundles of music scores to the piano. Everything that passed between us was gentle, until on leaving, I repeated that I would play whatever Etzel chose and Etzel said he would search for the final cadence.
"Why did you bring up the final cadence?"
"Freund, you know music talk is pure idealism."
I couldnít expect Etzel to understand the pain of this final moment.
He died before morning.
Officials from the mortuary draped Etzelís body in a cloth and carried away his body. A white envelope rested on top of one of Etzelís favorite music boxes, the music box Etzel and I had found in Vienna during Etzelís first trip back after the war. The music box was initialed on the bottom with letters that matched Etzelís family name. We had imagined it was probably the work of a distant relative during the renaissance though neither knew it to be true.
I took the envelope and handed the music box to the mortician and instructed him that it was the container to hold Etzelís ashes and should be brought back to the house and placed on top of the Boesendorfer. There would be no service. Except for the recital, it was over.
I opened the envelope and looked at the program Etzel had scrawled on the paper inside for the recital. I expected a personal message, program notes, anything, but there were only pieces scrawled in order and numbered. The program would begin with the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, a Baroque masterpiece. What a joker. Next was the Grosse Fantasie in D, by Schubert, one of his favorites--and I must agree, a perfect choice for the full tones of the Boesendorfer--then a small intermission. He left it to me to choose "any combination of Lisztís Wagnerian Transcriptions by Liszt." Me? Making romantic choices, and with Wagner? How would I forget almost coming to blows with him about controversies surrounding Hitler and Wagner?
Last on the program was the Mazurka in A minor, by Chopin. I pulled out my music encyclopedia. This particular mazurka was dictated by Chopin from his deathbed and had no final cadence, rather, the publisher inserted a note to continue playing repeats until one could make their own decision to end.