Excerpts from

The Old Music Master
A Small-Town Christmas Memory

by Young E. Allison


If Christmas did no more than heat up old memories for those old enough to have them it mould be a fine season, well worth the year's preparation. Memory has curious chemical processes. It turns water into wine, age into youth, pains that were into pleasures that are and achieves the immortality of the soul by the resurrection of the long dead into present life if only for the short atom of a moment. Your first Christmas tree may rise up again, all alight, glowing as in fairyland, standing right before the front door of heaven, which you remember, opened thereon. Through that entrance a really earnest boy might hear, if he tried hard, the very voices of angels in the lilting notes of the old church organ sounding above the rumble of bass, the whole melting into a glory of sight and sound that survives faintly yet as some rare dream in the morning.
I remember the first Christmas tree in the old church in the little town where I was born -- in that little Western Kentucky community where aristocracy was all democratic. The first Christmas tree I had ever seen except in the cold black and white of book pictures. I was one of the smallest of those of the Sunday school who marched with the radiant faces of cherubim upon that splendid gleaming sight, with the old organist of St. Paul's filling the arches of the great roof with the beauty of overwhelming loveliness of sound that rolled up and poured down again and enveloped us all in wonder and joy.
That organist, the old German music master, was the inspiration, the beginning and the end of musical art in the little town. His long sinewy artist fingers had first brought the thrall of artistry to us. I see him through the haze of years, already grown shadowy, a figure half romantic, half pathetic, but all appealing and noble. Beau ideal of simple courtesy, wrapped in dreams, absent-minded, patient, devoted, solitary in the crowd. He had emigrated from a little city in soft Saxony following the Revolution of 1848-49, into which he had been drawn by student sympathies with Liberty. He had studied at Heidelberg (from which he bore upon his forehead the accolade scar of the dueling sword) and was finished in music at Leipsig. He was one of a little group of Germans and French, seeking freedom, who came brothers together and founded an ambitious seminary of arts in the rich little town in the middle of the last century, and soon came to disaster.
They brought with them the strange, exotic leaven of old world art culture to a community in which. on the basis of slavery, existed a peculiar aristocracy that expressed itself mostly through what may be called the etiquette of manners. All soon passed on except the fine old music professor, who remained in the soil of his adoption. From his associates came the knowledge of his early life. How he had been a prodigy of music in the little duchy and was called "the Little Mozart." Long afterward came the revolutions, the upheavals, the throwings-out and flights, and so the artist of great promise became a Prometheus Bound to our little rock in the mid-American wilderness, when he should have walked unbound amidst the art culture of Europe. Thus fate grinds splendid dreams to dusts powder.
I see him now as I first remember him, already an old man, with sparse white hair, almost wholly bald on top of his great head. Many and many a Sunday morning he sat perched on the cushion of his box seat at the pipe organ in the choir loft of old St. Paul's. Then inevitably out would come the lacquered snuf-box, which he invariably offered with a smile in grave familiar jest to anyone who might be observing him. He had come out of the snuff-box age, a remainder of it, behind which you might perceive shadowy figures, moving in an olden society. Our bass-singer, tall, Indian-like, athletic leader in the new generation, would once in a while insert the tips of his finger and thumb in responsive grave courtesy and smilingly withdraw them and proceed with perfect grace through fluttering motions, apparently with winged fingers, to flick the aromatic rappee to his nostril. But he withdrew no tobacco.
It was all Barmecidal and well understood between them. For there had once been a scandal that stretched from choir gallery to the communion rail over that. The basso had actually partaken of the snuff and in the midst of the solemn pause over "The Body and the Blood" the great resonance of his mighty voice had exploded in a concussion, half-sneeze, half deep-mouthed bark of a cough, that shook the very groining of the sanctuary. And it was repeated in one resounding "har-rash-oo" after another; the solemnity was dashed with a dismay that threatened to be ridiculous, until he unfolded his mighty length from his chair, dashed stoopingly out of the choir door, down the winding stairs and emerged on the street to fight it out in the open air.
I see the old professor, dressed in his black broadcloth, wearing his tall silk hat, with his snuff box and handkerchief in one hand, his umbrella under the other arm, walking with his slow and uncertain step along the walks of the old town. His eyes are strained upward staring at nothing in particular, his mind "pasturing far away in the flowery mead of dreams." There is snuff upon his shirt front, and like the last figure out of a gallery of old portraits he stumbles his absentminded way along to the homes of his pupils. He taught my two sisters the piano. One of them, prepared by assiduous practice, was able one day to delight him with an unexpectedly good performance of the task set. He expressed his pleasure with a courtly bow and smile and straightaway sat down at the piano to reward her with his own best playing -- and forgot himself and other pupils, until with sudden awakening he rose hurriedly, bowed himself out with smiles and explanations and went his way. Some minutes later the bell rang, she opened the door and there stood the professor, heated and apologetic:
My hat!" he said, with a smile of self-depreciation, pointing to his bare head and then to his hat standing there upon a chair in the hall; "I left it there, and only now have I perceived it when walking far up the street."
The fine old professor! For more than a generation he was organist at St. Paul's, in whose chronicles it is noted that he missed not one service in thirty years of that time. In those days there was not much flattering esteem for male practitioners of music. But in his person art commanded respect from our dullest materialists. He was enveloped in a glamor somehow, and legend covered him. I have wondered if that has not been the reward of every good workaday musician in every self-centered town of the old times. He was modest and never spoke of himself. But there was the universal faith in town that he was one of the greatest organists of the world, lost by some miracle in our obscurity. Certainly the bishops and big clergymen who came to us for church councils and visits, listened to his playing in amazed delight and open wonder.
We who loved music there also spoke to each other in awe of the great operas he had written and that were yet in manuscript -- unproduced in Germany, because he was too modest to batter at the doors of Fame never now to be produced, alas! because there was then no producing of operas in America. Those wonderful operas, that it was said he arose at midnight sometimes to play over upon his own piano, immersing himself in their beauties -- playing them in camera, and in pianissimo and thus revisiting his youth and conquering the world in the microcosm of his own rapt solitude! I have often wondered what became of those operas -- whether they were shadows from legendary space, or what they actually were. I never knew.
He was a composer to my knowledge; at least an improvisatore at the organ and the piano. On Sundays I have stood in the choir loft to hear him "play the congregation out" with swelling paean pouring out through every pipe from the whole keybank; the music rolling up into the pointed arches of the ceiling and falling back in a hood over the moving people. It was all improvisation, during which he was transfigured, lifted out of himself into some world apart from us, who marveled at his gifts.
During all the years of my youth his was the seat of all musical authority. Presiding at piano or organ, he set the seal of art on concerts. When the Golden Dramatic Company came, as it did twice a year, for a stay of several weeks, he was its sole and complete orchestra for entr'actes and for that form of entenainment between drama and opera well-defined then as melodrama. When I hear these songs and duets thrummed now upon pianos, I can see him again and hear the preludes.
And there was the fine old professor, beckoning on all that wonderful melody with a masterful nod of the head, a lift of the warning finger, a flash of the inspired eyes. Whenever, as often happened, the audience broke into generous applause after his entr'act playing, he would rise and make his acknowledgment in a bow that ranks in my memory alongside that imperial sweep of comity with which Anton Seidl half a century later was wont to bend to the world's audiences and lift them to his own plane, matching their intelligence and his skill on equal terms with a splendid benevolence. I was 13 or 14, and impressions then become memories fixed forever.


Printed in the Louisville Courier-Journal, December 21, 1919.

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