The Composer's Winter Dream

by Norman Dubie

Norman Dubie

Vivid and heavy, he strolls through dark brick kitchens
Within the great house of Esterhazy:
A deaf servant's candle
Is tipped toward bakers who are quarreling about
The green kindling! The wassail is
Being made by pouring beer and sherry from dusty bottles

Over thirty baked apples in a large bowl: into
The wassail, young girls empty their aprons of
Cinnamon, ground mace, and allspice berries. A cook adds
Egg whites and brandy. The giant glass snifters
On a silver tray are taken from the kitchen by two maids.
The anxious pianist eats the edges of a fig

Stuffed with Devonshire cream. In the sinks the gallbladders
Of geese are soaking in cold salted water.
Walking in the storm, this evening, he passed
Children in rags, singing carols; they were roped together
In the drifting snow outside the palace gate.
He knew he would remember those boys' faces. . .

There's a procession into the kitchens: larger boys, each
With a heavy shoe of coal. The pianist sits and looks
Hard at a long black sausage. He will not eat

Before playing the new sonata. Beside him
The table sags with hams, kidney pies, and two shoulders
Of lamb. A hand rings a bell in the parlor!

No longer able to hide, he walks
Straight into the large room that blinds him with light.
He sits before the piano still thinking of hulled berries. . .
The simple sonata which

He is playing has little
To do with what he's feeling: something larger
Where a viola builds, in air, an infinite staircase.
An oboe joins the viola, they struggle
For a more florid harmony.
But the silent violins now emerge

And, like the big wing of a bird, smother everything
In a darkness from which only a single horn escapes—
That feels effaced by the composer's dream. . .
But he is not dreaming,
The composer is finishing two performances simultaneously!

He is back in the dark kitchens, sulking and counting
His few florins—they have paid him
With a snuffbox that was pressed
With two diamonds, in Holland!
This century discovers quinine.
And the sketchbooks of a mad, sad musician

Who threw a lantern at his landlord who was standing beside
A critic. He screamed: Here, take the snuffbox, I've filled
It with the dander of dragons! He apologizes
The next morning, instructing the landlord to take
This stuff (Da Ist Der Wisch) to a publisher,
And sell it! You'll have your velvet garters, Pig!

The composer is deaf, loud, and feverish. . . he went
To the countryside in a wet sedan chair.
He said to himself: for the piper, seventy ducats! He'd curse
While running his fingers through his tousled hair, he made
The poor viola climb the stairs.
He desired loquats, loquats with small pears!

Ludwig, there are Spring bears under the pepper trees!
The picnic by the stone house. . . the minnows
Could have been sunlight striking fissures
In the stream; Ludwig, where your feet are
In the cold stream
Everything is horizontal like the land and living.

The stream saying, "In the beginning was the word
And without the word
Was not anything made that was made. . .
But let us believe in the word, Ludwig,
For it is like the sea grasses
Off which with giant snails eat, at twilight!" But then

The dream turns to autumn; the tinctures he
Swallows are doing nothing for him, and he shows
The physicians his spoon which has dissolved
In the mixtures the chemist has given him!
After the sonata was heard: the standing for applause
Over, he walked out where it was snowing.

It had been dark early that evening. It's here that the
Dream becomes shocking: he sees a doctor
In white sleeves
Who is sawing at the temporal bones of his ears. There is
A bag of dampened plaster for the death mask. And
Though he is dead, a pool of urine runs to the

Middle of the sickroom. A brass urinal is on the floor, it is
The shape of his ears rusting on gauze. The doctors

Drink stale wassail. They frown over the dead Beethoven. Outside,
The same March storm that swept through Vienna an hour before
Has turned in its tracks like the black, caged panther
On exhibit in the Esterhazys' candlelit ballroom. The storm crosses
Over Vienna once more: lightning strikes the Opera House, its eaves
And awnings filled with hailstones,

Flames leaping to the adjacent stables! Someone had known,
As thunder dropped flower boxes off windowsills,
Someone must have known
That, at this moment, the violins would emerge
In a struggle with the loud, combatant horns.

Last updated August 11, 2015