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Symphony No 3 ('Bracken') - A Romance in Three Movements

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i. Furioso

Waiting out of sight of the audience, Sebastian bounced up and down on his toes. Before this evening, he never would have said that he was given to nervousness. But then, tonight he was conducting an orchestra for a paying audience. And more than that, they would be playing his own composition: the Woodland Symphony.

He played the opening bars over in his head, and groaned. The speed of his bouncing increased, and he tipped his head backwards, shrugging his shoulders, loosening them. He felt a hand on his shoulder.

'Are you nervous, my friend?' asked the first flute.

'Me, nervous?' Sebastian answered. 'You mustn't know me at all!'

'I know you well enough,' smiled Angelo. 'All will be well,' he added, and went out to take his seat on the platform.

Sebastian tried not to look out at the crowded hall. His family, including his beloved father, would be sitting close to the front; Sebastian's teachers were there, as well as some influential critics. But Veronica was not. She was in London, dancing with the Sadlers Wells company, instead of hearing the symphony that Sebastian had written for - and indeed about - her. Only he hadn't told her so until it was too late.

The members of the orchestra began their tuning up. Sebastian breathed deeply, reminding himself of all the hints and tips he'd been given by teachers and friends who had done their own conducting. Be confident, and the orchestra will trust you. Forget about the audience, concentrate on the music. But how was he to forget the tear-stained pale face that had watched him leave the Bracken stables a few days ago in a steaming rage? Where could he put that emotion when he stepped out to conduct this symphony of his?

The concertmaster finished tuning, and the stage manager (roped in at the last moment, when the usual fellow found himself trapped on his outlying farm by the snowfalls) prodded Sebastian.

'Out you go,' he said gruffly. 'No time for nerves.'

Sebastian took a breath, and stepped out.

The applause was warm, and welcoming, and Sebastian smiled a little as he bowed. They were being nice to him, unsure what to expect from this unseasoned young upstart. He squared his shoulders, ready to show them what he could do. With a final look at the score in front of him,
he lifted his baton, took a deep breath, and began.

The first movement was fine. He settled in, beginning to appreciate the sensation of leading this orchestra, the joy of hearing them respond so well to his conducting. At one point he remembered what had inspired a certain lilting phrase from Angelo on the flute: a brook out in the hills he'd ridden so often. But for the most part he was concentrating on the music, the actual notes on the score and those that were issuing from the instruments.

The second movement was more difficult. This was the movement through which Veronica's image danced. It was impossible for Sebastian to hear it without thinking of her; without remembering how long he'd waited for her to hear it, to sense that it was she, dancing by the side of the pond, barefoot in the spring sunshine that had inspired it. Sebastian pulled his mind back to the orchestra, furious with himself for risking his big chance on nostalgic memories. The last of the arpeggios joined with the countermelody of the cello section, and he breathed a sigh of relief to realise the movement was almost at an end.

The third allowed him to show his frustration: the movement he had played over on the piano, endlessly, the night of Lady Blantosh's concert. It had been too late to make changes, but the rage of the winter storm had been an emotional outlet for him that evening, and was playing the same role again. The dynamics swelled, the whole orchestra, as well as its conductor, throwing themselves into the drama Sebastian had created. Although Sebastian didn't know it, that night he began to gain his life-long reputation as an extremely active conductor: practically throwing himself from the platform to ensure that the second violins followed his demanding tempo. As the final, more peaceful moments of the piece asserted themselves, Sebastian imagined that the peacefulness of the music fell upon him, the orchestra, and the audience. He was ready, as the clarinet and first violins floated through the last few notes - his snowflakes and silver-white moon - to breathe deeply, and put his anger behind him.

Until he turned around to bow and saw his family - his father and uncle and Cousin Caroline applauding enthusiastically, Aunt June attempting to look as though she understood what she'd just heard, and Fiona barely interested. There was no Veronica. There wouldn't be Veronica. She had chosen dancing over him, and in the midst of his moment of triumph, he was once more swamped by the familiar sense of desolation, and the memory of her tear-stained face.

Despite the return of his melancholy, Sebastian gamely kept up his mask of the sardonic, but on this occasion humble, young composer on the rise. He accepted the congratulations of his family and friends, and the claps on the back by the members of the orchestra. He nodded and smiled politely to the various members of Newcastle's presumed musical establishment, who had a knack for saying "Very impressive, young man," in such a way as left you in no doubt that they hadn't expected much of him at all. He was suitably awed and honoured when one of his teachers introduced him to Humphrey Messenger, and both proud and deeply relieved when the great man acknowledged Sebastian's talent and suggested that he might arrange for an audition with the Royal College. It wasn't until he was sitting at home, next to a crackling fire and with his father in the chair opposite, that he allowed the facade to crack, just for a moment.

'Balletic,' he grumbled. 'He said - Messenger said that it was balletic. I never want to hear the blasted word again.' Sebastian crumpled a piece of paper in his hands and threw it into the fire. 'I do wish,' he said, and then stopped.

His father said nothing for a minute or two. They listened to the crackling of the fire, and the whirl of the wind outside against the windows.

'You should be very proud,' said Adrian Scott. 'What you did tonight takes a great deal of courage.'

'I'd like to say it was nothing,' Sebastian replied.

Adrian smiled and nodded. 'This chap Messenger. How long does he think it will take you to get an audition?'

'No more than a month or two.'

'You'd be going to London then. And abroad after that I suppose?'

'It is how one gets a decent musical education,' said Sebastian.

Father and son stared into the fire.

'Will you look up Veronica when you're in London?' Adrian asked quietly.

'I rather doubt it,' said Sebastian, without looking away from the fire. 'She's busy with her own life. I shouldn't think she would want me coming around, keeping her from her precious ballet.'

'Don't forget,' Adrian said carefully, 'She's barely sixteen. You're only seventeen yourself. And you both have terribly stubborn natures. You were bound to argue over something one day.'

'I'd rather not talk about this any longer, Father. As a matter of fact,' he said, getting up and stretching, 'I'm awfully tired.'

'Goodnight, son. You did well tonight.' He reached up a hand to pat Sebastian's arm as the boy walked past.

Sebastian put his own hand over his father's, and then bent down quickly to brush a kiss on his father's cheek. 'Goodnight,' he said gruffly, and left the room.

 

 

ii. Theme and Variation

It was odd, Sebastian thought as he waited outside the room where he would audition for the Royal College of Music, how his and Veronica's lives insisted on running in a sort of parallel, no matter how much they each might wish they didn't. She had done these same things: boarded the late night train, warmed up in a dingy practice room, stood outside an audition room knowing that her future would be deeply affected by the outcome. His life was music just as much as hers was dance, and although he was still deeply angry with Veronica, he could perhaps understand why she had acted as she had. After all, she was young - barely sixteen, as his father had reminded him. Just a kid, as she herself had said. He was too busy for spending his precious time on kids, he told himself. Music - his music - was far too important.

Once he was accepted to the Royal College, he was indeed busy. Composition class, ensemble, technique, conducting. Papers to write for tutors and pieces to prepare; solo and trio music to practice and compositions that had to follow weekly themes set by the Fellow in charge. In his spare time he went to concerts and wrote reviews and critiques that were themselves picked apart by his teachers. He found himself once or twice outside the Wells during the season, but resolutely turned away. Opera, symphony and chamber music were on the College syllabus: ballet was not. And he'd sworn off ballet for life in any event.

But on his occasional travels back to Northumberland, he couldn't help but stand in the train corridor, remembering the first time he'd spoken to Veronica, in the corridor of the Flying Scotsman. Her pale, funny little face had attracted him from those first moments. Her passion
for dance, and her determination not to let the circumstances change all that. Her stubbornness. Idiotic, really, to be swept away so wholly. He tried, harder than ever, to put her out of his mind, and to concentrate on his music.

He thought, sometimes, that the fates were conspiring against him. In his final term at the College, when he was already looking forward to a year or two's study with a great Master in Leipzig, his composition tutor surprised him one day.

'You never write concert reports on the ballet, do you, Scott?'

'No, sir. Don't care much for ballet.'

'I doubt that very much,' said his tutor, looking sternly at Sebastian over his glasses. 'Your compositions fairly dance across the page. I would have assumed you knew the standard ballet repertoire very well indeed.'

Uncertain how to answer, Sebastian stumbled over his words. 'No, sir. I mean, yes sir.'

'Make up your mind, do!'

Sebastian decided that silence was his best option.

'Talk this over with Herr Kaufmann, of course,' said his tutor, 'But if I were you I should make a study of this sort of thing. The ballet, I mean. You may turn out to have a flair for it, and if you do, it would be better for you to have seen the great companies. Go to Paris when you can. See the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, or the Opera Ballet. Stay away from the second rate companies, though. They'll teach you more faults than otherwise,' he finished, and turned to a detailed critique of an unaccompanied song that had been the week's assignment.

He spent a year in Leipzig. His German improved, and he went often to the opera, there or in Berlin. He usually spent more time watching the conductor than the singers, but the theatricality of opera appealed to him nonetheless. Of course, the conductor wasn't in the spotlight, as he was in conducting an orchestra, but the idea of holding a dramatic performance together, of melding the action on stage with the music from the pit, held a certain appeal.

In Leipzig, too, he made friends with other music students, and then with others in the town. His outgoing nature attracted him to many, and his good looks, not to mention his faintly accented German, made him stand out. His circle of friends included many young women, intelligent, talented students in Leipzig to study, as he was. Chief among them was a French cello student, with an elfin face and short dark hair. They went to concerts together, and he played as her accompanist in exams. She flattered him and praised him, and he thought her one of his greatest friends. She invited him to Paris to spend Christmas with her family, and although he hesitated before he did so, he accepted Celine's invitation. He imagined his father alone at Bracken Lodge without him at Christmas, but the glittering image of Christmas in Paris was too much to miss.

It was both as cold, and as beautiful, as Sebastian had expected. Together he and Celine strolled down the Champs Elysee together, and walked through the Jardin de Luxembourg despite the cold. In the Tuilleries, Celine halted their progress and turned to face him.

'My parents think you will propose this weekend,' she said. 'Please don't.'

He was so stunned by the idea of proposing to her that he couldn't think how to respond. He tried to think of a quip, something to lighten the tension, but couldn't.

'I can't go on as a musician if I'm married,' Celine continued. 'You are sweet, and lovely, but I simply can't marry you,' she said. 'Please don't ask me.'

'Very well,' he answered, finding enough voice for those two words.

'You are not angry with me, I hope?' she asked.

Sebastian smiled, lifted her hand to his lips, and kissed it. 'No, Celine. That is something I could never be.'

Sebastian's thoughts whirled about him. He was appalled by the thought that he might have given Celine the wrong impression, and at the same time wondered why he hadn't thought about her in such a way. He spent the rest of the day distracted and silent, until he realised what he had been doing, and compensated by being even jollier than usual. Celine's parents nodded to themselves and muttered in rapid French about the poor boy's disappointed hopes.

On Christmas Eve he made his apologies to Celine and her family, and instead of going with them to the crowds of Notre Dame and midnight mass, he sat at their piano and played, slipping from one piece to another; from Christmas carols to Caisse Noisette, to Les Sylphides and on through the ballet music he hadn't allowed himself to play in years.

The next morning, tucked into the corner of the English church in Paris, hearing the choirboys' voices soaring as if to the heavens, Sebastian could think of nothing but a midnight service at the Bracken Church, standing next to Veronica and holding her hymnbook open to the right page. She had glanced up at him and smiled gently, her eyes shining at him in the candlelight. He remembered walking home with her and Caroline, playing in the snow and singing carols together. And how beautiful Veronica had looked, framed against the stars and the far-off lights of Bracken Hall.

He realised in that moment how much his home meant to him, and how much he missed it.

 

 

iii. Romance poco a poco

Sebastian returned to Leipzig following his Parisian Christmas, and found an old country melody haunting his thoughts. He scribbled it down one day, and then came back to it, developing it further. He began to search his memory for the source of the tune, and from then on, his mind was more full of his new work than of anything else.

His friends teased him when they met together in their favourite coffee house, ignoring the Soviet posters and talking loudly in English and French.

'He is in mourning,' said one friend.

'Ah, but for what?' asked another, slyly. 'For a lost love, or a lost opportunity?' For Sebastian had been passed over that week for a conducting masterclass.

'Neither,' said Sebastian idly, continuing to scribble on manuscript paper he kept in a pocket notebook. 'I'm being creative.'

'Oh, my!' exclaimed his friends. 'Fancy that - the baby composer, being creative. And what are you creating, dear boy?'

'I'm not certain yet,' admitted Sebastian. 'I'm thinking it may be another symphony. The history of Lindisfarne, with a country dance tune and a chant winding through the movements.'

'Dancing again,' said one friend.

'And yet he swears that he can't stand the ballet. Even though he went with the wonderful Celine to the Opera Garnier in Paris...'

'Oh!' said one of the more dramatically inclined of the group. 'Perhaps he broke Celine's heart by having an affair with a dancing girl from the Opera Ballet!'

'Country dance is entirely different to ballet,' was all that Sebastian said.

'But what is this Lindisfarne?'

Sebastian put down his pencil with a flourish. 'An island not that far from where my home is. It has a castle on it - all in ruins now - and has been a monastery over the years as well. I think this can be a really sweeping piece of music, with the monks’ chant representing the times when it was a place of faith, and the country dance for when it was a castle and part of secular society.'

One of Sebastian's companions patted him on the shoulder. 'Do not become too enthralled by the monks, my friend. There is a girl out there for you, even if it is not the luminous Celine.'

Sebastian hesitated, but smiled. He knew just who that girl was, but didn't yet know if he could ever win her. He put some of that uncertainty into his symphony - a story he had heard at a ruined abbey not far from Oxford was his inspiration - and the themes built up and up around his chant in what he was already calling his Lindisfarne Symphony.

Herr Kaufman dealt him a blow before he was quite finished: his time in Leipzig had to be cut short, as Herr Kaufman had decided to leave. He wasn't sure yet where he would settle, and so his students were dismissed - 'as to the four winds,' he said. Sebastian took the chance to travel
more around Europe, and when he and the Second Company of the Wells crossed paths in Lisbon, he got a gallery slip and watched Veronica dance. His sleep that night, back in his lodgings, was sweet, but uncertainty came over him again when he woke.

Eventually his path led back to London. He went back to his old maestro with the work he had done on the Lindisfarne Symphony, and endured yet another lecture on ballet. He worked hard, and was gratified that his work in Germany was beginning to reap benefits in contacts and even in conducting engagements. He conducted choral works, and small community orchestras, and then soon was working with larger orchestras, as the musical assistant directing rehearsals when the regular conductor was busy. He met more and more musicians, and learned what they wanted in a conductor. And he worked on the Lindisfarne Symphony until he - and maestro - were satisfied that it was ready for performance.

He went back to Bracken, mostly when he was certain Veronica would be on tour. He watched her dance at Covent Garden, and saw her climbing the ladder of roles as others had done before her. But he didn't yet want her to see him. He contented himself with the odd bits of news of her that came in letters from his father or from Cousin Caroline, which were few and far between.

When his Symphony premiered, and was once more called 'balletic' by one of the critics, Sebastian smiled instead of growling. He bought proper seats instead of relying on gallery slips for the next season at Covent Garden. He concentrated on conducting rather than composing, and went, cap in hand, to Maestro and asked for introductions to his friends at a first-rate ballet company that was not Sadlers Wells. Maestro smiled at him.

'I always knew you had a reason to deny that you loved ballet. When will I meet her?'

'You will meet her if she accepts me,' said Sebastian, now wily in the ways of conversing with his beloved teacher, and not at all surprised by his insight.

'If you want to explore the idea of conducting for the ballet, then that must be soon. There isn't another company in the country I would encourage you to work with.'

'When she gets her first big role,' said Sebastian firmly. 'I have to make it clear this time that I don't want to stand in her way.'

Maestro nodded. 'You have romance in your soul, my boy. I hope that she is worthy of you.'

'I hope I am worthy of her,' replied Sebastian, in a moment of unaccustomed humility.

Not long thereafter, Sebastian sent a telegram to his father, who arrived in London a day or two later.

'I'll admit to some hesitation in giving this to you,' Adrian said, handing over a heart-shaped leather case 'without knowing whether I'll approve of the young lady in question.'

'You will,' said Sebastian. 'You may want to get tickets for the first performance of Lac des Cygnes next week. That's if there are any left.'

'Veronica?' said Adrian. 'Then you may have the ring, and welcome.' He paused. 'Have you spoken to her?'

'Not since that night in the Bracken stables.'

Adrian chuckled. 'I'm not certain whether to call you brave or foolish.'

'The former, I hope.'

Adrian smiled. 'Thus did George slay the dragon. Bless you both, son. I will be very happy.'

'So will I,' said Sebastian.