Writ in Water

I retired two years ago when Sarah, my first and only wife, died. Cassie,
our daughter, won’t use that verb; she says “passed.”
Sarah had been after me for years to hang up my baton. Travel or
not travel—she didn’t care so long as we’d be together. Now I’ve got the
time but not Sarah.
Why did her dying provoke me to retire? In order that I could die a
little too? To let her have her way, even belatedly and uselessly?
Because I couldn’t go on doing what kept me from her without her?
Frankly, I’m not certain. I actually retired on an impulse. There I was on
the phone with Miles Cotter, our mild-mannered, omni-competent
orchestra manager, about arranging for a children’s choir for the Mahler
Eighth when I found myself saying “Miles, time to start looking for a new
music director.” I didn’t decide, but something in me did.
I tell everybody who asks that I’m writing my memoirs. This keeps
people on their toes. They worry about what I might write about them;
it’s like being a rich old coot with a revisable will. The concertmaster has
been almost irritatingly attentive and I’ve heard from no less than four
former assistant conductors. Well, I did my best for them. They’ve all got
jobs though only one has an orchestra to order around. There aren’t a lot
of openings for conductors. In the arts, supply generally outstrips
demand; think of poetry. My retirement created the biggest vacancy in
years. It was as if an archbishop kicked the bucket—the whole hierarchy
rearranged itself. According to an article in the Sunday supplement, my
replacement “is working hard to attract a younger audience.” Well, he’d
In my working days I traveled. I did the usual guest conducting but
mostly I took the orchestra on tour. That was much more fun, especially
in Asia. Europeans tend to be blasé on principle; and their critics excel in
finding reasons to be unenthusiastic. Reading some of our notices, I
sometimes had the feeling that haute Europeans believe the words
“American” and “conductor” go together about as well as “pork” and
“ice cream.”
Anyway, now I go nowhere. Cassandra’s happily married in New
York and busy with her job at one of the flushest arts foundations. She
used to raise the money but now she dispenses it, which she assures me
is much better, like conducting in Tokyo instead of Vienna. She’s been
out to visit me twice since the funeral. And I flew to New York once,
though only for a weekend.
I’ve moved into our summer house here in Shelter Cove. It’s “on
the northern California coast,” a phrase the locals always use so that
nobody will think they live anywhere near Los Angeles. SC is full of big,
costly piles that wouldn’t look out of place at the other end of things, in

Maine. Most are rented out almost year round. Not mine. I’ve got enough
space here to put up a small circus, if they should chance to drop by.
I remember my newly widowed mother complaining about having
to come home to “a dark, cold empty house.” I was at the Conservatory
at the time and had two roommates, one obsessive and the other
depressive. I didn’t say it to her, but those adjectives sounded pretty
good to me.
I’m not going to write my memoirs because to do so would require
both perfect honesty and perfect memory, and I’m spotty on both
counts. What do I do? I do a lot of reading, even studying. My current
roommates are elevated bad cholesterol an high blood pressure. I don’t
have a dog, which they say keeps you alive longer, like being married.
How many years could I have left, then? And yet I feel this urge to fill in
the chasms in my education. Mostly, I read philosophy and history, the
former for the mental gymnastics that try to explain things, the latter for
the intricate stories that also try to explain things. I don’t really expect
anything to get explained, though. I don’t think of history as what
happened but what historians make of what happened. As for
philosophy, I consider it idle speculation raised to something like high
art. Anyway, when I study Plato and Epictetus, Thucydides and Gibbon,
Huizinga and Tuchman et alia, I take notes and on occasion I’m moved to
compose commentaries. For these I use the black Pelikan fountain pen
my daughter spent all her savings to give me for my fiftieth birthday. I
have to buy the ink online. But it’s a link to tradition, that pen, and, of
course, to Cassie too. I used to annotate my scores with it. The Pelikan’s
the first thing I’d grab if the house went up in one of those blazes they
have out here. (Local joke: California does have seasons, four of them—
fire, flood, mudslide, and riot.)
All my reading isn’t so weighty, of course. I also read lighter stuff
for entertainment. It’s so much better than television which seems to
offer only endless permutations on a few familiar formulas and what’s
new seems mean-spirited: the familial and personal humiliations of the
“reality” show. Movies have begun to bore me too—even good ones;
they all seem a half-hour too long. Plato’s dialogue seems to me better
than Hollywood’s, maybe even Truffaut’s. Of course I also listen to a lot
of music, though never my own recordings. A few weeks back I played
Igor Markevitch’s 1961 Symphonie Fantastique with the Lamoureux, and
was so thrilled I decided to take a detour in my reading program. I was
hardly going to read Berlioz’s memoirs when I couldn’t write my own, so
I bought the biography by D. Kern Holoman. The reviews reprinted by
Amazon all lauded it. The book is good and thorough; it runs over 700
pages and weighs more than two and a half pounds, which is tough on
my chest as I like to read in bed.
I remembered some things about Berlioz’s relations with Harriet
Smithson and even a little about the premiere of the Symphonie
Fantastique, but going over these in Holomanian detail had an oddly

rejuvenating effect on me, an inspiring too. Somehow, this reading about
Berlioz has led me, of all things, to write a story. It’s 86 pages long, so I
suppose I can call it a novella. The only other time I wrote fiction was in
tenth grade. Though my story was awful it was nevertheless published in
the high school’s still more awful literary magazine. Mordant Mr. Fish, the
faculty advisor, christened the journal Lethe. The following year I
transferred to the Conservatory and after that it was music wall-to-wall.
My exquisite but narrow education turned me into “a clarinet jock.”
That’s what old Professor Rheinach—with his customary mixture of
contempt and affection—called me. Years later I ascended to being a
conductor jock. Thus, the aforementioned chasms.
Even as I was writing it, I was fairly certain of what my novella
wasn’t. It wasn’t a memoir; it wasn’t even autobiographical—well, not
exactly. I puzzled over what the novella is, though, whether there was
any more to it than an idle retiree’s divertissement. I thought about
where it came from and what it has to do with me. True, the story didn’t
begin just with my musing on Hector and Harriet but with a little incident
drawn from my own life, though it didn’t stay with that for long.
I think the novella has more in common with Plato’s dialogues than
with stories by “real” story writers like Conrad or Chekhov. I don’t mean
it’s more philosophical than literary; I mean something else. Plato’s
clearly writing fiction, or rather, as Thucydides openly admits he did,
writing what ought to have been said—the Platonic idea of a
conversation on piety, for example. In the Euthyphro he invents the
perfect straight-man for Socrates, the ideal target for depicting his
teacher’s irony and his method. Euthyphro’s a youngster who thinks he
knows but doesn’t; he doesn’t even get Socrates’ sarcasm (“You’re as
much wiser than I am as you are younger.”) If you think of Plato as a
writer of stories, he appears more subtle than when you think of him as
a philosopher only. If you look closely, this short, comical prelude to the
great Apology will show you what the prosecution has against Socrates,
why he’s been charged with not believing in the gods of the city and
corrupting its young men. The dialogue really is a little marvel.
In the Protagoras, which is much longer, the two interlocutors are
set up as perfect contrasts: Protagoras sixtyish, Socrates half his age;
one the inventor of tuition, the other of the open classroom; the elder
man famous throughout the Greek world, the younger with only a local
reputation; Protagoras supremely self-assured, Socrates less sure of
himself but courageous. It’s actually an even match; that is, Socrates
doesn’t wipe the floor with his Sophistical opponent, as is usually the
case. The argument itself, ostensibly about good education, is really
more about how to argue: Protagoras’ method is to orate with such
eloquence and at such length that Socrates can scarcely believe it when
he actually stops. He, on the other hand, floats like a butterfly then, with
his annoying little questions, stings like a bee. The two men so
exasperate each other that both want to quit and have to be persuaded

to continue by the audience. The listeners insist that Protagoras be
allowed to bloviate and Socrates to cross-examine; they are apparently
delighted with it all.
What got me about the Protagoras wasn’t that the argument never
reaches a conclusion—that’s Plato all over, or Socrates anyway—but that
it winds up with an unexplored paradox. Protagoras stoutly denies that
virtue is knowledge yet insists it can be taught, and taught best by him,
while Socrates maintains virtue is knowledge but that to teach it is
impossible. Asking questions isn’t “teaching,” as he says at his trial. In
the end, Plato doesn’t resolve the matter; he chooses instead to
editorialize, having Protagoras grant that the young fellow is really
something—he’s won his bones, he’s got chops—and predicts he’ll go
far. You see? It’s as if philosophy were pure verb and not a noun at all,
like whistling or playing poker or flirting, something you do over and
over and not what it would become in the hands of, say, Aristotle, a final
analysis, a doctrine, a book. But without Plato, no Aristotle. In fact, I
suspect Aristotle was right about so much only because his teacher was
so much more brilliantly wrong. “Dear is Plato, but dearer still is truth”
reads his famous student evaluation.
In 1831 Mendelssohn wrote to his mother that the Symphonie
Fantastique was “utterly loathsome” and “indifferent drivel,” among
more specific insults. I can only imagine what Fürtwangler had to say in
private about von Karajan, the Nazis’ fair-haired boy.
But I’m digressing. What did I mean by writing that my story has
something in common with the way Plato writes about Socrates? I
suppose I meant that it’s a kind of thought-experiment or an idealization
or a playing out of the way things might, or ought to have gone. But
what I had on my mind when I began writing wasn’t Plato but Berlioz,
especially Berlioz and Harriet Smithson.
In September, 1827 Berlioz went to the Odéon and saw the Irish
actress Harriet Smithson play first Ophelia and then Juliet, two juicy
roles. He became infatuated with both the actress and Shakespeare;
probably both were infused with the glamour of the other. He inundated
Harriet with a tsunami of love letters, and this apparently scared her.
Nothing came of this stalking; they didn’t even meet in person, not then.
But the infatuation did lead to something consequential, the Symphonie
Fantastique, finished in 1830—only three years after Beethoven died
and two after Schubert. Berlioz became engaged to Marie Moke, on the
rebound from nothing-doing Harriet. Then he won the Prix de Rome and
left Paris. While he was loving Italy and hating Rome, Marie’s mother
wrote to him breaking the engagement so that her daughter could marry
the son of the wealthy piano-maker Pleyel. Berlioz arranged to disguise
himself as a woman, appropriated a brace of pistols, organized two
varieties of deadly poison and headed to Paris. His plan was to kill the
mother, daughter, then himself. He only came to his senses somewhere
along the Côte d’Azur.

When he got back to Paris success awaited, both professional and
romantic. Both came from the big concert of his music that featured the
Symphonie. What a night it must have been, and what an audience!
Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Heinrich Heine, Paganini, Liszt, Chopin,
Sand, de Vigny, Gautier—all of French Romanticism, more or less—and
also Harriet Smithson. Following his triumph, Berlioz and Harriet were
finally formally introduced and at once started an affair. It’s fun to
imagine how it went in the early days, what with his knowing no English
and her knowing no French. It went well enough that in October of 1833
they married. Liszt as one of the witnesses. They had one child, a boy,
but the marriage rapidly went south; in fact, was catastrophic. An old
story: the ideal didn’t survive being domesticated. Still, Hector and
Harriet didn’t separate for eleven years. By then her acting career had
collapsed and she’d become an alcoholic. Berlioz moved in with his
mistress of three years, the singer Marie Recio. He married her as soon
as Harriet died, a decade later, explaining to his son that he’d wed his
mistress out of duty. It certainly wasn’t for her voice; he said she sang
“like a cat.” For a Romantic, Berlioz was dutiful indeed; he provided for
Harriet for the rest of her life, paying four servants to care for her after
she suffered a series of strokes in the revolutionary year 1848. Harriet
lingered on for another six years. The relationship yielded one
extraordinary symphony and more than a decade of mutual misery, in
two languages.
The summer of my nineteenth year I landed a spot at the
Tanglewood Music Center in the Berkshires. Bernstein was there;
Copland dropped in. They died later, within two months of each other;
but then they were full of fun, like kids on holiday. We were all wowed. I
played the opening movement of his Clarinet Concerto for Copland.
Idyllic. Terrifying. Unforgettable. Tanglewood brought young musicians
from all over, among them a Midwestern pianist. Her name was Victoria
and her long hair was red (“red” doesn’t come near covering it; “red” is
almost a blasphemy). I looked for that hair everywhere and my heart
took a little hop whenever I spotted it. Victoria and I spoke a few times
but I was tongue-tied. She didn’t seem to notice; Victoria was all
business. She’d talked about the competitions she’d enter, the agent
she’d choose, what she’d wear on the cover of her first album. She
might have unrolled this future out before anybody; I don’t think she
realized why I was the only one who wanted to hear about it. But I could
be wrong. Maybe she knew very well how I felt, why I listened so
carefully. I’ve always been stupid about such things and was probably at
the height of my idiocy that summer.
One afternoon I trailed Victoria into a practice room where she
permitted me listen to her practice Ravel’s Noble and Sentimental
Waltzes. It was a basement room, cool, with late sunlight slanting
through a high window opened wide to let in mountain air and birdsong.
Bliss. I expect watching that magnificent girl play Ravel was for me was

what looking at Harriet Smithson playing Juliet was for Berlioz. Except
that I understood the music and Berlioz didn’t understand English.
Except that I didn’t produce a blizzard of billets-doux. I just went home in
August and sealed the memory up in the usual plastic bag. It only broke
out whenever I happened to hear the Ravel waltzes.
You’ve guessed what happened? I read about Hector and Harriet
and was reminded of Victoria, of me and Victoria. But, as I said, my story
only began with this shard of memory and quickly left it.
The novella begins with Bershad, the protagonist, a young second
violinist. He’s just been hired by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, so
he’s feeling lucky and a little pleased with himself. His dreams are
modest. Someday he might be asked to join the first violins. Perhaps
he’ll find a woman who likes him enough to marry him. That sort of
thing. In the meantime, he enjoys the city, makes new friends, goes to
parties, listens attentively to his older colleagues, practices five hours a
day, studies scores, watches television, and fulfills his civic responsibility
by rooting for the Red Sox.
Then one weekend the Orchestra’s guest soloist is a female
prodigy, a violinist who’s only eighteen and has already been famous for
six years and has played everywhere. She’s going to perform the Barber
concerto. Bershad can’t take his eyes off her; he even stops bowing for
several bars. She’s magnificent and he falls hard.
She’s staying at the Ritz-Carlton. He sends her flowers and notes.
He tries to persuade her to see him. When there’s no reply, he persists
anyway. He’s pulled aside by the orchestra manager. There’s been a
complaint from the young woman’s mother, who travels everywhere
with her.
He writes her more letters. They’re all returned.
He sends her three poems; they bounce back too.
Bershad begins to take long lonely walks along the Charles, goes
back and forth from Cambridge to Boston and vice versa. He lingers on
the Harvard Bridge and the Longfellow too.
Then, one night under a full moon, he is possessed by an idea. It
astounds him so much that he is breathless.
He will compose a concerto for her. He’d written some things at
the Conservatory, nothing much; he didn’t take his required composition
class too seriously. He was a violinist and that was all he had aspired to
be. A violinist with a job. But a theme came to him on the bridge, then
another. He ran home and began to compose. This concerto would be his
way to her, the path. He’d dedicate it to her and then she’d have to take
note of him and, of course, would want to perform the premiere. There
would be rehearsals, just the two of them, working out both the music
and the flowering of their love. He’d liberate her from the vigilant
mother, from the shelter of her prodigy’s childhood. He’d take her to
Fenway Park where they’d eat peanuts and Italian sausages. His dreams
grow bigger as the concerto became longer.

The piece is finished, but the dedication is refused. He’s almost
shattered by the formal language of this rejection. She isn’t interested
and, besides, is engaged for a full season of appearances in Europe.
Bershad shows his concerto to the orchestra manager who agrees
to give it to the music director. He thinks it is a splendid work and wants
to perform it. A male violinist plays the premiere. The reviews are
glowing and then there is a commission, another success, followed by
more commissions. Bershad is invited here and there and receives
letters from established composers, welcoming, congratulatory,
encouraging letters. He turns out more compositions, all good, though
none is ever as popular as his Violin Concerto.
Bershad acquires a girlfriend, a singer. They marry and move to
the West Coast, buy a house in Santa Monica, with a studio. They have a
little girl. Bershad travels all over the world, attending premieres of his
work; he handles the press well, is always humble and humorous in his
interviews. He gives lectures at conservatories.
Meanwhile, the career of the soloist who inspired his declines.
She’s burnt out, no longer the darling young prodigy. Her mother dies
and, freed from that choke collar, she becomes sexually promiscuous,
never marries, and ends up as a mid-level teacher of violin living in a
small house on Staten Island.
Well, that gives you the gist. Is it like Plato? Is it what ought to
have happened? The names of conductors, like those of second
violinists, are writ in water. Composers have a shot at immortality.
Without Plato, Socrates might have been a second violin in an orchestra
led by Protagoras. If it weren’t for Harriet Smithson, Hector Berlioz might
have turned into something no better than, say, Louis Spohr. Little
wonder he was generous about the servants.
Eventually, of course, I realized that my unexpected little novella is
autobiographical—an alternate autobiography. You command an
orchestra for a couple of decades, you get accustomed to hearing
applause. Acclamation’s a drug that gives you brief highs; worse, it
breeds amour-propre. It’s a fine thing to be accounted a good conductor
—even a decent second violin. But what are those compared to
composing the Symphonie Fantastique, to suffering that flamboyantly,
to loving that absurdly, to sublimating that sublimely?
Berlioz wrote his symphony because he didn’t get Harriet and
then, because of what not getting her inspired him to write, he did get
her—and it was a disaster, especially for Harriet. This seems to me even
more ironic, and certainly more poignant, than Protagoras maintaining
that virtue can be taught but isn’t knowledge and Socrates insisting on
the opposite.
A conductor’s name lies glitteringly on water, like the light of
Bershad’s full moon on the Charles, then dissolves in it.
I might have been Bershad but I’m not; or I’m both Bershad and
not Bershad. Poor Keats died at twenty-five, never suspecting that he’d

forever be John Keats and among the English poets. Why would he?
Don’t put my name on the granite tombstone, he bitterly instructed
Severn. My name, he said, is writ in water. He got the girl, got his Fanny
Brawne, but also he didn’t. So, life’s like that. In fact, it’s like almost
Here’s how my novella ends:
Visitors were always surprised that the window in Bershad’s studio did
not look out over the Pacific. What, they wondered, was the point of
paying through the nose for the privilege of living on the coast if you’re
going to look away from it? But when he worked Bershad wanted to be
reminded of where he’d come from, where she still was. It pleased him
to think that the light streaming into his study had lit up her living room
three hours earlier. The cord was thin, a beaten filament, but, for Bershad,
it was unbreakable.