Read The Silver Swan Online

Authors: Elena Delbanco

The Silver Swan (6 page)

“I’m not that much interested in girls,” Claude answered seriously, “except in playing music with them, of course. I mean, I like girls very much, but Maman says I must concentrate on my cello and she thinks I’m too busy to go around with them.”

“Is that what she says?” Alexander asked, a smile widening across his face. “You’re not such a kid anymore, you know. At your age, I was living in New York City on my own and making love as often as I could get a girl into my bed.”

“I think my parents would not approve of that, if they knew, M. Feldmann.” Claude smiled. “I think we won’t mention it to them.”

“What else does your mother say on the subject?”

“She has very strong opinions — she says there is a right woman for every man, and I shall know when I find mine. She says also that one should save oneself for that woman, that marriage is sacred and, once married, one should remain true.”

Alexander bellowed with laughter. Claude felt both hurt and puzzled. “Why do you laugh, M. Feldmann?”

Stopping short, Alexander turned to look at him and, studying his face, backtracked. “Not because your mother is wrong, of course. Just because it’s so charmingly old-fashioned.”

“What do
think?” Claude searched Alexander’s face.

They continued walking. Clouds were gathering over the lake. “I think when one is young and full of energy and desire, one should enjoy it, enjoy the body and the pleasure, without sacrificing too much of one’s work time. One should gather experience and then go back to the music, take all that experience back to the music. Take everything in your life back to the music. But the music must be the center of your life.”

“Then why marry at all?” Claude asked. “Why not just continue having experiences, as you call them?”

“Because sooner or later you’ll want not to be alone. You’ll want someone to look after you.”

“With music, you’re never alone, M. Feldmann. Surely you believe that.”

“Ah, but music does not dine with you or listen to you or make a family, and those are also important parts of life.”

“I think I won’t marry,” Claude said, thoughtfully. “I have my mother and father for all those things you mention, and I like the idea of keeping my freedom.”

“You’ll feel that way till you meet the right woman, as your mother says, and want to keep her. Then you’ll marry. But first, enjoy all the pleasures of youth.”

William Rossen lived in a new apartment complex in Chelsea, at the rear of the building. Facing west, his studio had additional soundproofing that permitted him to practice without disturbing the neighbors. He greeted Claude warmly at the door, telling him his wife and children were out for the afternoon, so they could rehearse in peace. Rossen, a much sought-after pianist, was a lanky man with a fringe of red hair and Vandyke beard. He had made his reputation as an accompanist and later embarked on a solo career. Ten years Claude’s senior, he was doing him a favor. In New York, the name Rossen would fill a good-size concert hall, and to lend Roselle his imprimatur was to guarantee attention to Claude’s debut.

Because they had played together only twice before, in Germany, they knew they had a great deal to do to prepare the Brahms sonatas — particularly the second. The Sonata in E Minor, op. 38, was familiar to them both, and they would also play the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major, op. 78, as arranged for cello and piano. But the third piece, the second Sonata for Piano and Violoncello in F Major, op. 99, was a major musical challenge. They had discussed it the night before.

In Rossen’s living room, Claude opened his cello case and removed the bow and resin. He took out the music and
then his Tecchler, feeling a twinge of disloyalty; the cello now seemed drab and pedestrian. It was as though his old companion — faithful and dependable — had been supplanted by something much more glamorous — a hausfrau replaced by a beautiful mistress. Claude told his host, in confidence, the news about the Silver Swan. Since he hoped to perform with it, it could not come as a surprise to Rossen when they walked onstage. The second movement in particular, Adagio affetuoso, offered him his best chance to show off the instrument’s power.

His host, he could see, was impressed. “We always heard you were Feldmann’s prize student. This certainly does prove it.” The pianist studied him. “But why did it take you so long to play in America? I’ve often wondered.”

“You know, my father never found it important to have a career here. He conducts only in Europe and seems to think it unnecessary to cross the Atlantic — perhaps because he was never
to conduct in America and feels the insult deeply.” Claude arranged his chair and music stand as he spoke. “And my mother, for reasons I don’t understand, seemed determined to keep me away from the States. Of course I’ve traveled to New York before, but only a few times, as a tourist. It is, I must say, wonderful to finally come here to perform, and it’s a great honor to play my first American concert with you, William. You’ve always accompanied much greater artists.”

“Perhaps more famous,” Rossen replied generously, “but not necessarily greater. Except, of course, for Alexander Feldmann, who was in a class by himself.”

This gave Claude the opening he’d hoped for. “I’ve heard his daughter was also an exceptional talent. Do you know her?”

“I’ve met her, but I can’t say I really know her. I heard her play several times. She was a remarkable performer. Her playing was special — something all her own, though you could hear her father’s sensibility as well. She possessed virtuoso technique, but she never succumbed to melodrama or ‘staginess,’ just a melodic, reserved sensitivity and romanticism of tone. She had great integrity as a player and at the same time the ability to bewitch you. Real flamboyance, too, when it was appropriate. She was really something.”

Claude said, after a moment, “And so gorgeous, it’s hard not to notice her. Everything in one package for a great career.”

They laughed.

“Have you any idea why she stopped concertizing?” Claude asked. “I’m so sorry not to have heard her.”

“She made a few recordings, only a few, but they are extraordinary — the Dvořák in particular, and the Victor Herbert. The Haydn, too. Her pitch was true, I mean true like Greenwich mean time. And her ability to communicate with the listener was so profound as to be mysterious, but one never felt the effort behind it. You can still find them — the recordings. They’re available and you should judge for yourself.” The pianist paused, thoughtful. “As to why she ended her career, apparently she had tremendous performance anxiety and this grew worse instead of better. Finally, one night she collapsed onstage … that was in 2002, I believe.”

“Stage fright,” said Claude. “It’s not something I’ve experienced. But I do know it can be devastating to a career.” He paused. “I also heard rumors about an affair she had with Anton Pietovsky. Did you know anything about that?”

“It was impossible not to know about it. They were constant companions. Mariana was crazy about him. There was
a lot of gossip, but I don’t know what really happened. I do know his wife moved here from Moscow and Pietovsky gave Mariana up.”

“Was her father upset? She was so young to be with someone Pietovsky’s age, and he was married!”

“People said he didn’t try to bring it to an end and he didn’t stop being friends with Pietovsky after the affair broke up, even though Mariana was crushed. Strange man, Feldmann. Despite everything he said publicly about how brilliant a musician Mariana was and how she’d inherited his talent, he seemed to undermine rather than encourage her — to resent her success. He was rumored to be something of a tyrant, insisting she follow his musical ideas, complaining when she used a fingering that wasn’t
. You know, that kind of thing. It is claimed that at the end of his life, the old man used her as a companion, a secretary and, virtually, a servant. She devoted herself to taking care of him. Many think Feldmann ruined her career.”

Claude was intrigued. When the rehearsal was over, he would write a note to Mariana, inviting her to his concert, the reception, and dinner. Sensing that his mother would dislike the invitation, and remembering her behavior at breakfast, he decided not to tell her. Unlike his girlfriend, Sophie — so small and blond and compact, so Swiss and intellectual and self-contained — Mariana promised excitement. He had already found her phone number and address in the telephone book and carried it in his wallet. He was determined to know her better, and soon.

“Come, Claude, let’s get to work.” Rossen pulled out his piano bench. “We have a lot to accomplish before my brood returns.”


Mariana, distraught, fled from the lawyer’s office back to the New York apartment she had leased to a friend during the years she’d lived with Alexander, and had now reclaimed. In the months since Alexander’s death, he had nonetheless consumed her time and attention. She had buried him, mourned him, celebrated him, arranged memorials, made speeches, and done everything in her power to do what he would have wanted — what he had, in fact, expected her to do.

Now she felt pure boiling rage. Who the hell was Claude Roselle to get
cello? Alexander was a bastard. She had been so loyal, so foolish. He had cared for no one but himself and his own great legacy. Now, were it in her power, she would destroy that legacy. She felt humiliated. Everyone would know he had taken the Silver Swan away from her and given it to a stranger.

She blamed Francine Roselle. The woman had certainly schemed to get the cello for her son. Apparently, if she got nothing else out of their forty-odd-year relationship, she would get her son the damned instrument. Mariana remembered with revulsion Francine’s attempt to embrace her in
Beecher’s office and to inquire after her emotional state. She loathed the woman and wanted her to suffer.

Claude, though, had seemed genuinely surprised by the gift. He had behaved rather touchingly, Mariana decided, and she could not blame him. His perfidious mother had lived a lie that would hurt him if he ever found out. He, too, was a victim of their reckless, selfish liaison, whether he knew it or not.

Perhaps Claude’s childhood had been as lonely as hers, she mused. Like her, he had been raised by parents who were consumed by their careers and love affairs. Neither she nor Claude had a sibling. Alexander had frequently said to her, “You don’t need a sibling, you have the Swan. Look how she sits next to you in the backseat! And she doesn’t quarrel!” Although she was fiercely proud that her family owned such a treasure, she had also resented this favored sibling who traveled everywhere with Alexander. The Swan flew only first-class on airplanes and toured the capitals of Europe, which Mariana longed to see. She and Pilar stayed home.

Mariana had attended her father’s departures, standing just inside their apartment, holding the door for him. Maxxi, their cocker spaniel, would start whining piteously the moment her master lifted his suitcase and cello and brought them to the foyer. And after Alexander’s departure, the dog would slink off to curl herself into a corner of his studio, whimpering.

Pilar herself would not come to the door. Alexander, going to the dinette to find her, tried to kiss her goodbye and Mariana would see her mother turn her face away. Then he would sweep past Mariana, giving her a hug and a pat on the head, grabbing his bag, coat, and cello. He would tell her to be a good girl and remind her to practice.

“Take care of your mother,” he would always say, as the elevator door closed. And although she had been proud to have this task assigned her, she had no idea, in the face of her mother’s stark anger and grief, how best to fulfill it.

It was as if her mother’s fragile inner light dialed down, as if her husband had controlled a human dimmer switch. Pilar would sit at the table, smoking and making interconnecting circles on the borders of the
New York Post
with the stub of a pencil.

Sometimes Mariana tried to cheer her up, to propose a plan — a visit to Pilar’s father in Queens, a shopping trip to Macy’s, or a stop for cream cheese on date-nut bread sandwiches at Chock Full o’ Nuts. She could see her mother was suffering and she suffered too, as much from her mother’s pain as from the departure that caused it. She knew that her mother, while Alexander was away, had little to do and few friends to see. And yet she seemed to get no pleasure from Mariana’s afternoon return from school. She did not rise from her chair or prepare a snack or ask how her day had been. “Do you have a lot of homework?” was the most she asked. The only traces of her day’s activity were the filled ashtray, the phone messages she took for Alexander on a pad at her elbow, and the evidence of a trip to the newsstand to get the paper — these and the books, the stacks of Modern Library editions, which grew around her chair.

“Mama, I’m supposed to ask you if you’d like to volunteer to work at the school bazaar this year. It’s on Saturday, April 7th.”

“Tell them I can’t, please. Your father will just be coming home.” Pilar always knew Alexander’s schedule, but only the dates of his departures and returns, never where he was on
any given day. For this information, Mariana had to consult the engagement book on the desk. She checked the itinerary daily and left herself little clues as to whether her mother had opened it. She rarely did.

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