From Portuguese: OUR SONG by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story Cantiga de esponsais by Machado de Assis – 1839-1908)


magine it’s 1813. You’re in the Carmelite Church, listening to one of those marvellous old masses that used to be the essence of public entertainment and musical artistry. You know what a sung mass is; you can imagine what a sung mass would have been in those far-off times. I’m not asking you to concentrate on the priests and sacristans, nor the sermon, nor the eyes of the Cariocan girls (already beautiful in those days), nor the mantillas of the dour senhoras, nor the shoes, hairdos, pelmets, lights, incense… none of that. I’m not even talking about the orchestra (which is excellent). I’m just pointing out the white-haired old man who—with all his devoted soul—is conducting the orchestra.

His name is Romão Pires, he must be at least sixty, and he was born in Valongo, or thereabouts. He’s a good musician and a good man; all the musicians like him. They call him Maestro Romão—in those days, for someone like him, you had the same name, private and public. ‘Maestro Romão will be conducting the mass’ would correspond to one of those announcements, years later: ‘the actor João Caetano will appear’ or ‘the tenor Martinho will sing one of his best arias.’ That was the icing on the cake—just the thing to pull the crowds in. Maestro Romão will conduct! Everyone knew Maestro Romão, with his diffident air, his eyes cast down, his sad smile and his slow walk. All of that disappeared in front of the orchestra; there, life inundated the maestro’s body and all his gestures; his eyes lit up, his smile shone out… he was someone else. Nothing to do with the mass being by him. This one, for example, which he’s now conducting in the Carmelite Church, is by José Maurício; but he conducts it as lovingly as he would if it were his own.

When mass is over, it’s like a brilliant light’s gone out, and now what shines on you is only ordinary light. Look at him coming down from the choir loft, leaning on his walking stick! He goes to the sacristy, kisses the priests’ hands and accepts a place at the dinner table. All the while indifferent, quiet. After dinner, he leaves and walks down Mãe dos Homens Street, where he lives with an old black man, Dadda Zé, who’s as good as his mother, and who, at this moment, is talking with a neighbour.

‘Maestro Romão’s on his way, Dadda Zé,’ the neighbour said.

‘Ah! So he is! Bye for now, Ma’am.’

Dadda Zé immediately disappeared in the house and waited for his master, who arrived shortly after, looking the same as always. Of course, it wasn’t a grand house; nor a cheerful one. There was not the least trace of a woman’s hand—old or young—nor were there songbirds, nor flowers, nor bright, happy colours. A bare, gloomy house. The least gloomy thing was a harpsichord, which Maestro Romão used to play sometimes, trying things out. Beside the instrument some music scores lay on a chair; none by him…

Ah! If Maestro Romão only could, he’d have been a great composer. It seems there are two sorts of vocation: those with a tongue and those without. The former are fulfilling; the latter represent a constant, sterile struggle between interior impulse and absence of a way to communicate it—as in the case of Romão. He had a real vocation for music. He carried within him lots of operas and masses, a world of new, original harmonies, which he couldn’t manage to express on paper. That was the only cause of Maestro Romão’s sadness. The local speculation was—of course—wide of the mark: some said this, some said that, lack of money, some bygone misfortune… But the truth is this: the cause of Maestro Romão’s sadness was that he couldn’t compose, he didn’t have a way of translating what he felt. That’s not to say he didn’t scribble over lots of paper or sound out the harpsichord for hours on end; but everything he produced lacked shape, lacked brio, lacked harmony. Recently he’d even begun to feel ashamed of what the neighbours would think, so he gave up trying.

Nevertheless, if he could have, he’d at least have finished off a certain piece, a wedding song, which he’d begun three days after he got married, in 1779. His wife, who was twenty-one at that time, and who died when she was twenty-three, wasn’t particularly pretty, not a bit, but she was extremely sweet, and she loved him as much as he loved her. Three days after his marriage, Romão felt, inside himself, something like inspiration. So he conceived the wedding song and wanted to compose it, but the inspiration wouldn’t out. Like a bird which has just been caught, and which struggles to break out of the bars of its cage, up, down, impatient, terrified… that’s how inspiration fluttered inside our musician, shut up in him without a way out, unable to find a door. Nothing. He managed to join a few notes together and wrote them down—one side of a score, nothing more. He tried again the next day, ten days later, twenty times during the period of his marriage. When his wife died, he re-read those first wedding notes, which made him even sadder that he hadn’t managed to write down that—extinct—feeling of happiness.

‘Dadda Zé,’ he said on entering, ‘I’m not feeling well today.’

‘Perhaps Masser ate something that don’t agree…

‘No, I already felt unwell in the morning. ‘Go to the apothecary…’

The apothecary sent something, which he took that night. The next day Maestro Romão felt no better. I should point out that he had a heart problem: a serious, chronic illness. Dadda Zé was horrified when he saw that neither the medication, nor the night’s rest, had worked. He wanted to call the doctor.

‘Why?’ said the Maestro. ‘I’ll get over it.’

The evening found him no worse, and he got through the night well. Not Dadda Zé, however, who hardly managed two hours’ sleep. As soon as the neighbours found out about his illness, that became the only topic of conversation. His more intimate acquaintances went to visit him. And they told him it was nothing, just something brought on by the weather. Someone joked that it was a ruse to avoid being back-gammoned by the apothecary. Someone else thought the cause was amatory. Maestro Romão smiled, but told himself it was over.

‘End of the road,’ he thought.

One morning, five days after the mass, the doctor found him really ill. And that’s what the maestro read on the doctor’s face, behind the soothing words.

‘It’s nothing, but you mustn’t think about music…’

About music! The doctor’s words made the maestro think. As soon as he found himself alone with the slave, he opened the drawer where he’d kept, since 1779, the beginnings of the wedding song. He re-read those unfinished notes he’d dragged out of himself with such difficulty. And then he had an idea: to finish off the work now, come what may. Anything would do as long as he could leave a little of his soul on Earth.

‘Who knows? Perhaps it will be played in 1880, and someone will say a certain Maestro Romão…’

The beginning of the song ended with a certain la. This la, which seemed just right, was the last note he’d written. Maestro Romão ordered that the harpsichord be moved to the back room, which looked out on the garden: he needed air. From his window he saw, looking down from the rear window of another house, two love birds, married for eight days—arms interlinked over shoulders, free hands clasped. Maestro Romão smiled sadly.

‘They’re arriving,’ he thought. ‘I’m leaving. But at least I’ll compose this song, and they’ll be able to play it…’

He sat down at the harpsichord, played over the notes and got to the la…

La, la, la…

Nothing, he couldn’t get past it. Even though he knew music better than anyone.

La, do… la, mi… la, si, do, re… re… re…

Impossible! No inspiration. He wasn’t asking for a profoundly original work, but he did want something that would be his and would relate to his first idea. He turned back to the start, repeated the notes, tried to reconnect with some fragment of that bygone feeling. He imagined his wife, those first days. In order to complete the illusion, he looked out of the window toward the love birds. They were still there, with their hands clasped and their arms passed over their shoulders; the difference is that, instead of looking down, they were gazing at each other now. Maestro Romão, gasping through illness and impatience, returned to the harpsichord; but the sight of the couple didn’t bring inspiration, and no new notes sounded beyond… la… la… la…

Exasperated, he abandoned the harpsichord, grabbed the score and ripped it up. At that moment the young woman—lost in her husband’s gaze—began to hum haphazardly, unconsciously, something never sung, never known, before, in which a certain la developed into a beautiful musical phrase, exactly the phrase which Maestro Romão had sought for years without ever finding. The maestro listened sadly, shook his head, and that night he died.

"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925


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