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(Le Secret de l'ancienne-Musique)

by Villiers de L'Isle-Adam

from Contes Cruels (1883, 1927 ed.)

Translated by Hamish Miles


   It was the audition day at the National Academy of Music. 

   The heads of the institution had just decided on putting 
into rehearsal a work which they owed to a certain German 
composer (whose name, since forgotten, happily escapes us!);
and this foreign master, if credence must be given to
certain notes in the Revue des Deux Mondes, was nothing
less than the promoter of a "new" music! 

   That day, accordingly, the executants from the Opera were
assembled only with the object of getting some ideas about
it, as they say, by deciphering the score of the
presumptuous innovator.  

   The moment was a grave one.  

   The director appeared on the stage and handed the leader 
of the orchestra the voluminous score under dispute.  The
latter opened it, cast an eye over it, shuddered, and
declared that the work appeared to him to be impossible to
perform at the Academy of Music of Paris.  

   "Explain yourself," said the director.  

   "Gentlemen," said the leader, "France could never take it
on herself to mutilate by a faulty execution the conception
of a composer — to whatever nation he may belong.  Well, 
among the orchestral parts specified by the writer, there
figures a military instrument which has to-day fallen into
total disuse, and no longer has any executant among us. 
This instrument, which delighted our fathers, enjoyed in its
day the name of the Chinese Bells,  [Chapeau-chinois in the 
original French]  I conclude, therefore, that the complete
disappearance of the Chinese Bells in France forces us to
decline, though with the utmost regret, the honour of this

   This speech had plunged the body of listeners into that 
state which physiologists describe as "comatose."  The
Chinese Bells!! — The most venerable could barely remember 
having heard them in their childhood.  But they would have 
found it hard, at the present day, to describe exactly so
much as their shape. — Suddenly a voice uttered these
unhoped-for words: "Excuse me, I think I know one."  Every
head was turned.  The leader of the orchestra rose with a
jump: "Who spoke?"  "I — the cymbals!" answered the voice.  

   A moment later, the cymbals was on the stage, surrounded,
flattered, and pressed with lively interrogations.  "Yes,"
he continued, "I know an old professor of the Chinese Bells,
a past-master in his art, and I know that he is still

   One cry went up.  The cymbals was looked on as a saviour!
The leader of the orchestra embraced his devoted young
zealot (for the cymbals was still young).  The trombones, in
the kindness of their hearts, encouraged him with smiles; a 
double-bass cast him an envious glance; the drum rubbed his 
hands, and grumbled: "He'll go far!" — In short, the cymbals 
enjoyed in that fleeting moment a taste of fame.  

   Forthwith a deputation, headed by the cymbals, set out
towards Batignolles, into the recesses of which, far from
the hubbub, the austere virtuoso was believed to have

   It arrived.  

   To inquire for the old gentleman, to climb his nine
storeys, to ring with insinuating respect at his bell, and
to wait on the landing, all out of breath, was for our
ambassadors the work of an instant.  

   Suddenly, all heads were bared.  A man of venerable
aspect, his face framed in silver hair falling in long locks
on to his shoulders, a head like Beranger's, a figure out of
a romance, stood on the threshold, and seemed to invite the 
visitants to enter into his sanctuary.  

   It was he!  They entered.  

   The casement window, with its frame of climbing plants, 
opened on to the sky, flushed at this moment with the
splendours of the setting sun.  Seats were few.  For the
delegates from the Opera, the professor's couch was the only
substitute for these ottomans and hassocks which, alas,
abound only too often in the homes of our modern musicians. 
In the corners could be seen the outlines of some sets of
ancient Chinese Bells; here and there lay several albums,
the titles of which attracted attention. — First of all, _A
First Love_, a melody for the Chinese Bells solo, followed
by Brilliant Variations on the Chorale of Luther, a
concerto for three sets of Chinese Bells.  Then, a septet
for Chinese Bells, entitled .  Then a youthful
work, somewhat tinged with romanticism: Midnight Dances of
the Moorish Maidens in the Fields of Granada, at the Height
of the Inquisition, a great bolero for the Chinese Bells;
and finally, the chief work of the master: The Eve of a
Sunny Day, an overture for one hundred and fifty Chinese

   The cymbals, deeply moved, stood as spokesman in the 
name of the national Academy of Music.  "Ah, so they  
remember me now, do they?" said the aged master, with  
bitterness.  "I ought...  My country before all!  Gentlemen,
I shall go."  The trombone insinuated that the part looked
difficult of execution.  "No matter," said the professor,
reassuring them with a smile; and stretching out his hands,
crippled by the difficulties of a thankless instrument, he
said: "Till to-morrow, gentlemen!  Eight o'clock, at the

   Next day, there was a great to-do, in the corridors, in
the galleries, in the box of the anxious prompter: the news
had gone round.  All the musicians, seated at their
music-stands, were waiting, their weapons in their hands. 
The score of the New Music was now no longer any more than a
matter of secondary interest.  And suddenly the low door
gave entrance to the man out of the past: eight o'clock was
striking!  At the sight of this representative of the Old
Music, they all rose from their seats, offering him homage
as being a kind of posterity of his.  Under his arm, laid in
a humble wrapping of serge, the patriarch carried the
instrument of vanished times; it assumed, in this way, the
proportions of a symbol.  Threading between the stands, and
finding his way without hesitation, he took his seat on the
chair he used to occupy, to the left of the drum.  Having
settled a black linen cap on his head, and a green shade
over his eyes, he unwrapped the Chinese Bells, and the
overture began.  

   But with the first bars, and from the first glance at his
score, the serenity of the old virtuoso seemed to be
clouded.  Soon an anguished perspiration beaded his brow. 
He leaned forward, as if to read better; his eyebrows were
drawn together, his eyes glued to the manuscript; feverishly
he turned it over and over; he seemed almost to stop

   So the old man found something very extraordinary to 
read, to be troubled so profoundly? 

   Indeed he did! — The German master, from some Teutonic  
malice, with Germanic harshness, with spiteful malignancy,  
had taken pleasure in making the Chinese Bells' part simply
bristle with almost insurmountable difficulties!  They trod
on each other's heels, hurrying — ingenious — sudden!  It was
a challenge! — But judge for yourselves: the part was
exclusively made up of nothing but silences.  Now, even
for people who are not expert in the business, what is there
more difficult for the Chinese Bells to perform than a
silence?  And here was this aged artist, expected to
execute a vast crescendo of silences! 

   He turned rigid at the sight; a feverish movement slipped
from him!  But from his instrument, not one sign betrayed
the sentiments which stirred him.  Not one little bell
tinkled,  Not one jingle!  Not one tiny tingler moved.  You
could feel that he had it completely in his power.  He was
indeed a master, he too! 

   He played on.  Without one stumble!  With a mastery, a 
sureness, a brio that filled the whole orchestra with 
admiration,  His execution, always restrained, but full of  
fine shades, had a style so chaste, so pure in effect, that 
sometimes it seemed — strangely enough! — as if one heard

   Bravo!  The cheers were about to break forth from every 
side, when, in the classical heart of the old virtuoso, a  
heaven-sent fury kindled into fire.  With eyes aflame, and
waving aloft with terrific din his avenging instrument, like
a demon hovering over the orchestra, the worthy professor
burst forth: 

   "Gentlemen, I give it up; I understand nothing of it all. 
Overtures are not written for a solo!  I can't play; it is
too difficult!  I protest, in the name of M. Clapisson, I
protest!  There is no tune in all this.  It's just a jumble! 
Art is dead!  We are falling into an abyss!" 

   And, struck by the thunderbolt of his own transports, he 

   In his fall, he cracked the big drum and disappeared
therein like a vanishing apparition! 

   And alas! in being thus swallowed up in the cavernous 
flanks of the monster, he carried off with him for ever the 
secret of the charms of the Old Music.  

(Prepared by Laurence Roberts)