My brother framed a drawing of the young Schubert for his father-in-law, a German-born lover of Germanic music. I asked if the composer was wearing his trademark glasses, which I’ve always thought resembled an instrument of torture. No, this was a rendering of Schubert at age fourteen, sans specs. Ken asked if I knew that the designer of Schubert’s glasses also built an ear trumpet for Beethoven and invented the metronome -- a wonderful musical convergence and all news to me.
The inventor in question had a name almost as wondrous: Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who embodied equal parts engineer, entrepreneur and conman. I hope someone writes his life but “metronome” had stopped me. It’s one of those catalytic words that sets off a chain of associative reactions, in this case sending me back half a century to my Uncle Richard and Aunt Nancy’s basement – black and white linoleum, stacks of National Geographic, a rattan basket beneath the laundry chute into which we once stuffed a parrot, and an upright piano with a black Bakelite metronome ticking on top. Seated at the keyboard, practicing her Czerny études, is my cousin Julie, a secret crush. She was two years my senior and in reveries I imagined we had been kidnapped from a much more refined milieu. Julie always beat me at chess. I know she’s married and worked for Jane Goodall, and I’ve haven’t seen her in forty years, but part of me is still seated on the couch behind her, listening, in love.
She and Chopin, Czerny and metronome, sound a chord of memory, at which point I enter the realm of Donald Justice, poet, musician, magician of memory. Here is “The Pupil” (The Sunset Maker, 1987):
“Picture me, the shy pupil at the door,
One small, tight fist clutching the dread Czerny.
Back then time was still harmony, not money,
And I could spend a whole week practicing for
That moment on the threshold.
Then to take courage,
And enter, and pass among mysterious scents,
And sit quite straight, and with a frail confidence
Assault the keyboard with a childish flourish!
“Only to lose my place, or forget the key,
And almost doubt the very metronome
(Outside, the traffic, the laborers going home),
And still to bear on across Chopin or Brahms,
Stupid and wild with love equally for the storms
Of C# minor and the calms of C.”