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Liz McSkeane – Leopold’s Violin

Liz McSkeane LE P&W February 2019

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Leopold’s Violin, a short story by Liz McSkeane.

Liz McSkeane born in Scotland of Scottish and Irish parents and has lived in Dublin since 1981. She is an award-winning novelist, poet and short story writer: her début novel, “Canticle”, was a winner in the Irish Writers’ Centre/Greenbean Novel Fair of 2016; in 2011,  she was an IWC Lonely Voice winner and in 1999, she won the Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year.  Liz has three poetry collections and has published short stories and poems in many journals. More information about her work can be found on her website,  https://www.elizabethmcskeane.com/  and from Turas Press, https://turaspress.ie/ the small, independent press she set up in  2016. Turas Press, published six books during 2016-18, with a further four scheduled for 2019. In addition to her literary work, Liz is an educational consultant. She holds a PhD in Education and consults on education policy and practice for organisations in Ireland and Europe.


The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, ca. 1763.

The Mozart family on tour:
Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl.
Watercolor by Carmontelle, ca. 1763.

Vienna, 1st May, 1785.

My dearest sister,

He is gone at last and although I should not rejoice at this parting from our father, I own that I am glad of it. He took the mailcoach this morning at first light and should be home in Salzburg by nightfall of the day after tomorrow. God grant that his journey be less arduous than the last – he will not forget those dreadful days of sleet and snow he endured when first he came. Perhaps he longed to see his grandchild, mindful that he never saw the first. Carl is big and bonny and we are thankful for it. Constanze remembers still your words of comfort during those terrible days when we lost our little Raimundo. She kisses your hands and asks when we may see you here in Vienna with your new husband.

Our father is greatly failed. You will not, I think, find him the better for his time with us. It is true that in the early days, he accompanied us to concerts and theatres and was much delighted and amazed at the admiration and respect shown me here wherever I go. Only in Salzburg do people lack taste and generosity but I do not blame them, for they are under the thumb of that idiot prince of the Holy Roman Empire, so much that no-one dares advance or even praise me. Here in Vienna there are those who know music and understand what I can do and also, those who understand nothing but are charmed by my work without knowing why; and both types are to be found amongst the common people as well as in the ranks of the highest in the land. It would greatly surprise me if our father has not already told you of my playing on his first night here. I wish you could have seen his tears of joy when the Emperor himself waved his hat at me and cried, “Bravo, maestro!” In truth, I had not seen papa so happy and proud since those days in the streets of Verona and Bologna when the people and the magisteri of the Academies, too, hailed this “dulcissimo puero,” a “vero Orfeo” – your little brother, who dazzled the Pope himself with his tricks.

Well, my sister, that was long ago. For a short time, as the snow began to melt, I thought I felt our father’s coldness thaw and even wondered if he might forgive me all the wrongs he sees in my behaviour, even if I do not always see them for myself. Since first I had to make my way from court to court without his steady hand, what have I done (my music excepted) that has not met with his disapproval and disappointment? Court positions lost, money squandered, wrong company kept and the wrong wife chosen. A youth and then a man who beggared his family so that his poor father has to go about in tatters, his morning coat in shreds with holes in the shoes he cannot mend because all is gone to keep his feckless son who amuses himself in Munich or Mannheim or Paris or anywhere there are theatres and good living to be found. The sacrifices, the efforts brought to nought, the careful training in the rules of composition, the introductions to people who might help us – what would the boy have been, if not for all that? And what is he now, having thrown it all away on flatterers and a scheming little wife who cannot spell?

Well, now he sees that the wastrel has made his mark. Here in Vienna no-one cares what the Archbishop of Salzburg thinks. Here, the opinion of men like Herr Haydn carry real weight. Did you know, the maestro spoke most highly of me to our father. He came to my own house to honour me and led us in one of his own quartets, for which our father played the violin!  That, I think, was father’s last good night with us. The company and the praise for both of us were meat and drink to him and I was obliged to hear once more variations on the old speeches he used to make when strangers would stop us to shake hands in the street: “O yes, indeed this is my son, as you say a true Orpheus, no,  the clavier  was first, then he heard his papa practise and off he went with the violin and since then has not left it from his sight… yes Your Grace is right, he is a grand little fiddler, just like his father.”

As well you know, my sister, this is how it was, and worse. For so long I have been his work, his life, his life’s work, his creature, his puppet, his plaything, his instrument. For so long he has played me as he plays that wretched violin, no matter the distance between us, for every mailcoach brings a quiver of well-aimed words that pluck at me and strain my gut on all manner of things. You will stay in the Archbishop’s employ. You must return to Salzburg.  The state of your linen requires attention. Will you cut your beard or no?

No more. These last few years I am renewed – I am no fiddler now. The docile little fellow, resplendent in the cast-offs of the Crown Prince, ever happy to climb upon some lady’s lap, be patted on the head and called her  “little man,” then run off to the clavier to amaze – he is no more. In his place is a man, like himself, with wife and baby of his own and money in his pocket and friends and patrons of his own choosing and success of his own making.

After the night of Herr Haydn’s quartet, father fell into a melancholy from which he never really roused himself.  He felt tired, he said, was not equal to all our engagements and in any case did not find the company congenial. So we left him to his own amusements. And soon the sharpness of his tongue and eye returned.   You would have praised me, Nannerl, for my restraint in the face of his scoldings and recommendations – that I must meet this choirmaster, that I should court that conductor, that now I am successful I must make hay and seize the opportunity to sup with some lackey of the Grand Duke and wear my best silk suits and my grandest rings and my Golden Spur and make a deeper bow.

Those are the things he says. Then there are the things he does not say, the words he thinks but does not utter, quite. They spill from the swelling of his silences – the inspections which take a careful note of the sluttishness of our maid, the grubbiness of the baby, the dust on the floor, the excessive strength of our punch and the copious quantities in which we drink it and finally, a most eloquent sigh which noisily concludes that Emperor’s hat or no, the lad did not amount to much.

I have no more heart for an open quarrel than ever I did. This has perhaps been my error all along. But these last years of separation have greatly strengthened me and I no longer try to guess his moods or cloak my wishes and desires in terms which I imagine him willing to accept. And yet, Nannerl, although what lies between us is so much the same as ever it was, the strangest thing, the one thing different is, the man we knew, our father, Leopold. For he is gone. The stern, kind guide we knew when we were small, he vanished long ago. And now the man who plucked and still would try to pluck my strings – he too has disappeared. Last night he spilt his wine at table – the hand that always drew a steady bow was trembling. He saw I noted it, and was ashamed. This morning when I helped him to his carriage he faltered, and for the first time in – how many years! I grasped his arm. It was but skin and bone.  Our father – his upright bearing, those long limbs, the terrifying thin lips, hardened in a line that so often signalled the descent of a thunderous silence like a storm that could last for hours or even days, when I would grasp your skirts and whisper, “Why is papa angry?”  And you would clasp my hand and hush me and explain he was not angry, but sad and disappointed. O, never was there comfort or music on earth or in heaven to fill a soul, the way his silent disappointments filled my soul!

When did his eyes grow clouded and rheumy? When did his breath grow short and his step begin to falter? Where is the thundering silence that frightened me so?  If I were afraid (and I am not) and were I minded to be angry (which I do not think I am) there is now no-one there to fear, no-one to receive my anger, but a poor scarecrow in our father’s shoes.  It is not fair. When did this old man take his place? How many fathers can one man survive?

I have frightened Constanze with my rantings. But do not worry that your brother loses himself entirely in reproaches and self-pity, for out of these sad thoughts I have made a little something. This morning, very early, after I had left our father to his coach, I found hanging on a nail in the linen cupboard the violin he had made for me when first I played as a child. It was dusty and a spider had spun her web in the strings. I took a cloth, made her homeless and drew the bow once or twice. You will not be surprised if I tell you that a little theme peeped out which, after I had coaxed awhile, revealed itself a little more. And so it always goes, I tempt, it tiptoes out, I entice and soon it takes me for a stroll along a glorious secret pass, where worries cannot reach.

Yet even as I resolve to follow my theme and forget the lonely journey which our father makes, a curious thing occurs. Instead, today my music guides me very gently to his side. The rattling of the carriage over rough terrain. The heat, the flies, the bad food, the bed-bugs in a cheap inn.  His rheumy eyes. Is there a fire for him at home or ashes in the grate?  How will he manage his soup, or will the trembling in his hand pass? Whether I will or no, I find I cannot but accompany him in my heart today and this, knowing that some day his journey will end, as it has ended for our mother, for the sisters and brothers we never knew, for you Nannerl. For me. And when the last vibration of the last note fled, as flee it must,  I put my bow down to find myself immersed in the echoes of the peace that awaits us all, so near, so near, in the sweetest, most resplendent, silence.


©Liz McSkeane