Webern’s Lament

K. E. Karl

“What’s that music?” Evan asked. “It sounds like it’s from a horror film.” Evan, my neighbor, had decided to drop by my southwest-facing condo so he could get a good view of the sunset. My expectation of a quiet dinner listening to some of my favorite music vanished. 

“It’s Anton Webern’s Four Songs, Opus 13,” I replied. “I’ll turn it down.” Not many people like Webern’s music. So, rather than lowering the volume, I switched it off to enjoy it later. Webern, along with Schoenberg and Berg, was one of the three masters of the twelve-tone technique, but much of it is atonal, making it difficult listening for fans of Bach, Beethoven, or the Beatles. I knew Evan liked jazz but doubted he ever listened to classical music.

“Can I get you a glass of wine?” I asked, being politely formal since I knew the answer.

“Need you ask? Thanks. I dropped by to watch the sunset with you. Your view is better than mine.”

“I’m honored. I thought it was the wine.”

“That too, of course!”

“Will you be staying for dinner this evening also?”

“What a delightful idea. Thank you for the invite. Turn Weber back on and tell me about him.”

“It’s Webern,” I said, heavily emphasizing the ‘n.’

“Yes, just as I said.”

“He was a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, who taught him the twelve-tone technique. He composed 31 pieces in his lifetime, and they are short; his sole symphony takes only about nine minutes to play. We’re listening to his Complete Works conducted by Boulez. They fit on three CDs. In contrast, it takes about 170 CDs for all of Mozart’s music, and he didn’t live long. The Nazis denounced Webern’s music as ‘degenerate art.’ Ironically, at the end of World War Two, Webern was shot dead by an American soldier in a tragic mistake. He was 61 years old.”

“Boulez?”

“Pierre Boulez. A famous French composer and conductor.”

“Of course. I knew that. Shame about Weber’s untimely death.”

“Your wine, Evan,” I said, handing him a glass of Gavi.

“Thanks. And what’s for dinner?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll have to thaw something from the freezer. Shrimp, scallops, mussels?”

“Scallops, thanks. That would be lovely.”

“As you wish. I’ll cook it in wine and butter and sprinkle some chives on it. We’ll have it over linguine.”

“Sounds delightfully delicious!”

“We’ll see,” I said.

Evan was medium height, portly, with flush-red cheeks and thinning hair. Though old enough to retire, he had recently taken up a position at a software company that analyzed Collateralized Loan Obligations (CLOs). Evan knew the CLO market and, importantly, many CLO buyers. On the other hand, the kids he worked with were experts in programming data analytic tools. A match made in financial heaven. He indulged in his favorite pastimes in his spare time: eating and drinking. He also liked long walks and visiting museums. Accompanying him to a museum often presented a social dilemma due to his unfortunate condition of excess flatulence. One could not view paintings alongside him, lest the other viewers surmise you to be the culprit. Nevertheless, he was always jovial company.

“Marvelous sunset, simply spectacular.”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying it. Another glass of wine?”

“I don’t mind if I do. Don’t get up; I’ll fetch it myself.” Evan rose from his chair, facing the window, and bounded across the room with surprising alacrity for someone of 65 years who had just knocked back a glass of wine like it was soda pop. He poured himself a generous splash and returned to his seat. My condo has windows stretching from the floor to the ceiling and a mostly unobstructed view of the horizon. It was an early evening in November, too chilly to watch the sky from the balcony. 

“You’re a good friend, Frank.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m sure you’re astonished to hear that I thoroughly enjoy this music.”

“I’m flabbergasted but also flattered.”

Just then, there was a knock on the door. I went to the entry and opened it to find Audrey waiting to return the screwdriver I had lent her.

“Who is it?” Evan shouted from the other room.

“It’s Audrey,” I shouted back.

“Audrey, come on in! We’re having wine and watching the sunset. Frank’s invited us to dinner – scallops.”

“Oh, thank you, Frank. That’s very kind,” Audrey said as she handed me the tool and brushed past me. “Don’t mind me. I can pour the wine myself. What do we have? Oh, a Gavi. Excellent.”

“Just help yourself,” I said. What is my place, a restaurant?

A phone rang, and Evan and Audrey simultaneously reached for their cell phones. It was Audrey’s, and she answered it while walking toward the windows – glass in one hand, phone in the other – to view the reddish-blue sky as she listened.

“Great,” she said. “Well, why don’t you join us? We’re all having dinner at Frank’s. Fabulous. See you soon.”

“Frank, that was Geraldine. She’d love to have dinner and thanked you profusely for the invitation.”

“I’m charmed,” I said. Chez Frank: no reservations required!

The sunset began as a yellow band across the horizon, interrupted only by two monolithic buildings. As the night progressed, its color shifted to orange, then red, the sky above bleeding from light into midnight blue. Inky clouds slashed the skyline, creating cut-outs in the orange backdrop. The nearby towers were black against the crimson sky, except for the dots of white light emanating from a few windows. The two monoliths would soon display a colorful light show but not before darkness engulfed the panorama.

“How’s dinner coming, Frank?” Evan asked. “I’m famished.”

“I’m still thawing the scallops.” Or perhaps, Le Bistrot Frank, avec service blasé.

“Frank, what is this ghastly music?” Audrey said. “You’re not playing Schoenberg, are you?”

“It’s Webern, not Schoenberg,” I replied.

“Even more appalling,” Audrey said.

“Evan quite likes it,” I said.

“Yes, it’s stupendous,” Evan said. “Marvelously chaotic. I love it.”

“Oh, you two. Incorrigible. But I suppose I can live with it.”

“Thanks,” I said. “That’s big of you.” I’m glad they’re not going to fight about the music. The evening has only just begun.

Audrey, tall and slim, with elegantly coiffed grey hair, settled herself into one of my ‘Star Trek’ chairs. Made of Koa wood from Hawaii, they have a seat that curves around your buttocks and a high, thin back. Instead of four legs, there is a large, elegantly sculpted one with two long feet poking forward. Audrey had retired years ago from a consulting job at one of the Big Four Accounting firms and recently settled herself in my building in a north-facing unit. When not reading books about art and classical music, she busied herself socializing, visiting museums, and attending concerts.

“Oh, that’s my friend Alfred,” Evan said, responding to the tune on his phone. “Hello, Alfred. You’re nearby? We’re having dinner at Frank’s this evening. Hurry up so you can catch the end of the sunset. Yes, see you soon.”

“That was Alfred,” Evan said. “He’ll be joining us for dinner.”

“Yes, I heard,” I said. It should be a good crowd. They have a lot in common; everyone loves to bicker.

“Thank you,” Evan said. “It’s so generous of you to have us on such short notice, Frank.”

“Yes,” I said. Am I enjoying myself? Or just playacting as the host? I like these people, but perhaps I would have preferred a quiet evening?

I unlocked the front door, so the other guests could let themselves in, opened another bottle of wine, set out two more glasses, took some more scallops out to thaw, and began preparing dinner.

Geraldine and Alfred arrived, poured themselves a glass of wine, and joined Audrey and Evan, viewing the sunset.

“Do we want anchovies with our romaine lettuce salad?” I asked. A chorus of No’s settled the matter. However, a similar request about parmesan cheese was answered in the affirmative.

“Frank, this wine isn’t chilled sufficiently,” Alfred said. Alfred had been a surgeon and only recently left his practice. Over the years, he had become so accustomed to commanding precision in the operating theater that he expected it in his private life from everyone as well. I nodded and put the bottle in the freezer, mollifying him. We were all used to his prickliness and paid it no mind. Short, rail-thin with a shaved head, it was impossible to take his brusqueness seriously; it was just the way he was.

Having made the salad, I turned my attention to the scallops. It’s a simple dish. First, sauté the scallops in olive oil, taking care not to overcook them, and remove them from the pan. Next, add butter, salt, pepper, and finely diced shallots to the pan, and cook them until soft. Finally, pour in a glass of white wine, some water from the boiled pasta, reintroduce the scallops to the mix, chuck in some chopped chives, the cooked linguine, stir, and voila!

“What are you making, Frank?” Geraldine asked.

“Scallops linguine,” I replied.

“It smells divine,” she said.

“Thank you. Let’s hope it tastes that way.”

“I’m sure it will,” Geraldine said. “It’s very kind of you to invite us to dinner and share your view.” Geraldine was short, plump, and with hair dyed a shocking shade of scarlet. It had an effect. Something like waving a red flag at a bull.

“Yes, and fortunately, I had sufficient scallops for the five of us,” I said.

“But what is this music?” Geraldine asked.

“Webern. His complete works. It should just take us through the evening. I know you’re excited.”

“Yes. Of course. I’ll just turn it down if you don’t mind.”

“Evan might object.”

“We’ll see about that,” Geraldine said.

“Don’t touch that dial!” Evan said, beginning the customary Geraldine-Evan spat, though sooner in the evening than usual. Generally, it started after both had drunk two glasses of wine, but tonight we would be treated to an early rendition of an all-too-familiar act.

“I can’t hear it,” Evan said as Alfred stepped in between the two of them who had squared off, their hands on their hips, glaring intently at each other.

“Why don’t we lower the volume only a bit as a compromise,” Alfred suggested to Geraldine. “Then, Evan can hear it, but it will be less oppressive for you.”

“Fine. That’s fair,” Geraldine said, adjusting the volume to suit both of them.

“Louder!” Evan said.

“OK, but only a little,” Geraldine responded. “And that’s loud enough.”

“I think I can live with it,” Evan said.

“Good!” Geraldine said, prompting a low growl from Evan.

“More wine, anyone?” I asked, pulling the bottle from the freezer and placing another two inside. I thought a bottle each might just get us through the evening.

“I don’t mind if I do,” Alfred said, failing to notice the temperature had barely budged.

While I prepared dinner, my four guests became deeply involved in a conversation about the Jaspar Johns exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Only Evan had seen the other half of the show at the Whitney, so he attempted to regal them with how much better it was than the Philly one but only irritated everyone. While Alfred and Evan preferred the Johns show, Audrey and Geraldine argued vociferously for the superiority of Emma Amos’s works, also on view at the museum. According to the two women, she was only less famous than Johns because she was black and female. I observed the histrionics, complete with wild gesticulations, from the safety of the kitchen area, Webern’s music bolstering the tumultuousness of the debate.

“All those flags, numbers, and hatch mark paintings are tedious and repetitive,” Audrey said. “Whereas Amos’s work is highly creative and affirmative of women and African Americans. What’s Jaspar’s work affirmative of? Himself! Nothing more.”

“I disagree,” Alfred said. “Johns’s work is quintessentially affirmative of America, which is a good thing, given all the lousy press we get overseas.”

“You need to see the whole exhibit to fully appreciate Johns’s contribution to art,” Evan said.

“You split the infinitive, Evan,” Audrey said.

“Oh, please,” Evan responded.

“Yes, enough, Evan,” Geraldine said. “I’m sure the Whitney exhibit is much the same as the Philadelphia show. Amos’s work is uplifting, and the Johns’s stuff is mostly depressing. There is just no comparison.”

“Dinner is ready,” I interjected. I wish their discussion could be more cordial, more copacetic. But isn’t this who they are and what they enjoy?

I had set the table for five with myself at the head, well-placed to intervene in case of any further altercations. Everyone grabbed a seat with the ladies on my right, facing the windows, and the men on my left, viewing the room. Too late, I realized Geraldine was across from Evan, and Alfred was facing Audrey.

“So, why haven’t you retired yet, Evan?” Geraldine demanded as she dove into her plate of pasta, applying her unique vacuum-cleaner eating technique.

“I’m quite enjoying my work, and the young people I work with keep me youthful,” Evan replied.

“What nonsense,” Geraldine said. “It’s unseemly for someone of your age to be still working so many hours.”

“I enjoy it greatly; it hardly seems like work at all,” Evan said. “Just because you like retirement doesn’t mean it is for everyone.”

“Life is meant to be lived in a cycle,” Geraldine said. “We’re born, we attend school, we work, we marry and have children, and then we retire. It’s as simple as that!”

“But you never married, nor did you have kids,” Alfred said.

“Quite so!” Evan said.

“That’s beside the point,” Geraldine said. “The point is that there is a time and a place for everything, and it is your time to retire, Evan.”

“I appreciate your interest in my life, but I’m happy to live it as I please,” Evan said.

“I have been enjoying my work at the hospice,” Alfred said, attempting to steer the conversation in another direction. “I find it gratifying helping people in their dying days. They appreciate a laugh, and a little kindness goes a long way.”

“I can’t think of anything more dreadful than attending to the terminally ill,” Audrey said.

“You should try it; you might enjoy it,” Alfred said. “Or perhaps you could help disadvantaged kids learn to read. There are plenty of worthwhile activities you can do to support our local community.”

“I never seem to have the time to do everything I’d like,” Audrey responded. “I have no idea where I would find the time to help children. Nor do I think I would be good at teaching them anything, let alone how to read.”

“I get much more back than I put in,” Alfred said. “It’s gratifying to be engaging with people in a simple way, so much more pleasant than slicing people up while they lie immobile in front of you.”

“Well, I should certainly hope so,” I said.

“I give blood,” Evan said.

“You’ve got a lot to give,” Geraldine said.

“If you’re referring to my weight…” Evan said

“That’s very socially responsible of you,” Alfred interrupted. “Hospitals always need blood. How often do you give?”

“Once a year,” Evan said. “I find it exhausting losing all that blood.”

“Every pint helps,” Alfred said.

“I tried providing my management skills to small businesses, but no one seemed interested in my help and advice,” Geraldine said.

“That’s hardly surprising,” Evan said.

“I’ll have you know that I was a very efficient manager of my clothing boutique,” Geraldine responded.

And so, the conversation proceeded with the two general discussions I had heard many times before. First, is it better to continue working as long as you like, or should one retire and enjoy life? Second, should one devote some time to the needy in one’s waning years or simply enjoy a well-deserved respite after a long work life? Personally, I think each person should decide for themselves, but many people feel the need to persuade others toward their viewpoint.

***

“What’s for dessert? I see you have some pears,” Audrey said, hinting that she would like my specialty – pears poached in white wine with lime zest, cinnamon, and a dash of Cointreau.

Another easy dish, and the table quieted mercifully as I served it.

“What’s that music?” Audrey asked. “It changed abruptly.”

“That’s an arrangement by Webern of one of Bach’s pieces,” I said. “It will be followed by some songs by Schubert, also arranged by Webern.”

“Oh, turn it up, please,” Geraldine commanded, and I obliged.

“Now that’s luscious and pleasant,” Audrey said. Alfred and Evan looked at each other and nodded in agreement; it was calming.

“I liked Weber’s pieces better,” Evan said, causing Geraldine to direct a menacing scowl at him. “But this is good, too.” Geraldine smiled, tilting her head back in appreciation.

The sun had long ago set, and city lights sparkled below us. I realized that this is how life should be: dinner with wine and good friends. The chaotic squabbling was simply the hum of human interaction, like the murmur of pigeons fighting over a scrap of bread or the babbling of water breaking over the rocks of a fast-running creek, the sun sparkling off the splashing drops. The music had changed the mood, relaxing old tensions, easing frayed nerves. Webern had delivered an evening of strife, then reconciliation. What more could you ask from a composer?

“Have some more wine,” I said, circling the table to ensure everyone had something in their glasses. “I’d like to propose a toast: To friends! May we always cherish each other.”


About the Author

K. E. Karl is an emerging writer whose fiction has appeared in the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, an upcoming issue of the Evening Street Review, and online at Reedsy. He has lived and worked in Oregon, London, Mbabane, Philadelphia, Maputo, Bangkok, New York, and Zurich. K. E. Karl recently completed a novel based on a true story, OUR MAN IN MBABANE, expected to be published later this year. He lives in Philadelphia, PA. See kekarl.com for more information.