The Cymbalist

They acclaimed him hero and yet his was a triumph bitter-sweet

A. W. SMITH January 1 1933

The Cymbalist

They acclaimed him hero and yet his was a triumph bitter-sweet

A. W. SMITH January 1 1933

The Cymbalist

They acclaimed him hero and yet his was a triumph bitter-sweet


PERCHED on his chair, high up in the back row right of the orchestra, George Comfit looked out over the heads of his fellows into the dimness of the auditorium.

Opposite him, the double bass viols nursed their instruments. Below him were the brasses, the wood wind and the fiddles.

Beyond them was row upon row of pale blank ovals of faces, stretching Kick into the dark. Down there the programmes rustled like dry leaves in autumn, for the audience liked to know the story. It wanted to recognize the north wind as it swept in on the rushing strings, and to know precisely the significance of the plaintive note of the horn.

In the middle was the rostrum which awaited the great Leon Sokowsky. standing empty in the brilliant lighting of the stage. On the desk was the black-bound score, and across it lay the great Leon’s slender baton.

George Comfit stirred in his seat and adjusted the music on the stand in front of him. Sheet followed sheet, blank but for the ruling until there came a call for the cymbals — moderato and then t trace con brio. He slipped his fingers into the leather thongs of his instrument, and under his breath he hummed. "Ta ta ta la. clash—ta—clash -clash — clash clash ” And there he must put his fingers on the brass to stop the ring. His hands made involuntary movements and his left f<x>t, crossed over his right, gently beat the contrapuntal time.

“Hey!” hissed George, as Antonelli, the piccolo, late as usual, ducked under his elbow, bringing the cymbals together with a tiny clash. André, the leader of the first violins, in command until Leon Sokowsky minced to the rostrum, frowned up into the back row. It was at that silly old man. Comfit, that he frowned. And George, who had played the cymbals for nearly fifty years, frowned back.

There was a stir in the orchestra and the light tap. tap of the great Sokowsky’s feet as he pattered from the wings. Hie audience clapped a desultory fusillade which was

more a conventional gesture than a show of feeling. The symphony audience was not easily moved. Leon flicked his handkerchief, wiped his nose largely, and replaced it in his breast pocket with only a white comer showing. It was a characteristic motion. This action just occupied the time between visibility in the wings and the step up into the conductor’s position.

He tucked in his cuffs. There was complete silence. He glanced round, baton raised. Behind him in the dim distance some one coughed—a faint scratching in the throat, stifled at birth. A pause, and Sokowsky swept his violins into the andante of the first movement.

His cymbals between his knees. George watched the precise rise and fall of the violin bows. Sokowsky raised an eyebrow at the wood wind. The mewing clarinets answered the muted pizzicato of the strings. Sokowsky raised his undulating left hand and the bass viols sawed busily, left wrists swan-necked over the heavy, ropelike strings. Out beyond in the distance, the audience row upon row of luminous ovals breathed silently, hardly daring to stir, for Sokowsky, as every one knew, wouldn’t stand it.

The oboe mooed pleasantly. That, thought the audience, mindful of the story it had read in the programmes, must be the old father telling Gretchen that the spirits of the north wind are up to no gx>d.

"West wind, west wind.” piped Gretchen on the piccolo.

“Kind of thin.” thought Sir. Comfit, scowling across at

Antonelli. His enemy, however, could not scowl back, for his long upper lip was hooked over the tiny hole of his instrument. When the time came and he made a dive for the fife tucked in his shirt front, he could give as good as he got. For the moment he could only look ridiculous.

GEORGE COMFIT blew his nose silently as the andante came to a close and the scherzo opened to the crash of brass and tympana. Fifty years he had played the cymbals in the symphony; ever since its inception. It was all familiar to him. from the horn shaking out the spittle to the clutching sweep of the harpist’s long fingers as he sat with one leg outstretched, the other doubled under him, and the gilt pillar of the harp cuddled between cheek and shoulder.

Leon’s hands—in the andante they had weaved and undulated like ribbons of white weed in slow moving water. As the scherzo leaped into life their movement was sharp, angular, definite in purpose. Presto, prestissimo—they lifted the marching rhythm out from the brilliancy of the semicircle of the orchestra to the dim auditorium, where comfortable stomachs, well lined with good food, rose and fell in the close embrace of starched linen and trouser band or silk-covered elastic. Digestion went on, unimpaired by the discordant shout of the trombones.

Fifty years George Comfit had sat up there. He had seen conductors come and conductors go—long-haired and bald, Christian, infidel and Jew—directing sound into the vast deeps of the cavern beyond. That cavern gave back no sound hut a polite and desultory hand clapping in return for what it received.

George’s hands tightened in the soft leather straps of his polished disks. Leon raised his eyebrows to the hack row. Clash— pause —clash—

Master of gesture, a virtuoso of the cymbals—unaware, however, that he was a fraction of a second late—George

brought them together with a precise rubbing, striking motion. Right hand lifted high—clash, clash, clash: down, up down. He pressed the cymbals to his chest to halt the ring. Releasing his right hand, he turned the page to another of blank ruled lines. He sat down with a sigh.

There was more in the cymbals than there appeared to be he thought—a point which no one but himself seemed able to understand. He might have given lessons on the playing of the cymbals, but no one wanted to be a cymbalist. Violins, yes; even harps and oboes. In the clash of the cymbals they seemed to see something funny—which, as George said, only showed they didn’t understand them.

True, there wjas little opportunity for his skill. There was only one of his trade to every orchestra, and w'ho ever heard, as Mr. Comfit asked plaintively, of a conductor who had been drawn from the ranks of the percussion?

“That’s right,” Miss Comfit, his sister, who was darning his socks had once said as she glanced up at George’s lionlike mane of white hair and the bunchy sweep of his black bow tie.

A whirl of violins ended the scherzo and they swept into the slow procession of the largo. Mr. Comfit shifted in his chair and sniffed inaudibly. No punch, he thought. Give him Wagner and the splendid clanging of the Valkyrie.

He closed his eyes to think. In a soundproof chamber of his mind, music took shape and form. Pealing notes, swinging and tumbling through space, made him breathe a little faster, and his hands gripped the leather loops of his cymbals resting on his knees. Bright silver, and gold of brass and cymbals— the chords struck colors behind his closed lids. He wanted to put out his hands to grasp and perpetuate them.

He was hearing the music of the Comfit Overture—at home on his desk lay the sheets, written and orchestrated— the Comfit Overture for twelve violins, the trombone, and, of course, the cymbals.

The Cymbal Overture, he had called it.

By George Comfit . . .

“George Comfit, born 1862. With his Cymbal Overture, George Comfit takes his place among the moderns ... A tone poem . . . symbolizing the clash of marching armies ...”

That animal of a thousand starched shirt fronts and a thousand luminous bosoms, under which two thousand heavy dinners lay—that animal, breathing stertorously in the recesses of its cave—would need to be told what the Comfit Overture symbolized. The beigeclad programme must tell them . . .

As if the Comfit Overture could be put into terms of words.

“Ah, yes, Sokowsky—he’s very modern,” they might remark as they leaned to each other before the lights went down. “Very modem—sh, sh— here comes Sokowsky . .

Tripping feet tap-tapping across the stage—Sokowsky removing and flicking his handkerchief—putting it back in the breast pocket—two steps up—hands out —eyebrow raised . . .

The clear purity of tone—bows up, bows down—up, down, up, down— faster, faster—

Now that was where he had scored it originally for the piccolo—Weiss had been a friend—but since Weiss had died and Antonelli had come in, Mr. Comfit had cut out the piccolo because he hated Antonelli and his foolish twirls, his prehensile upper lip stuffing air into his pipes of wood. No piccolo for him now Weiss was dead . . .

Mr. Comfit raised his eyes as the largo ended. He ducked and slipped out through a back door.

“Mr. Comfit,” said some one at his elbow, “Mr. Sokow'sky v'antsto see you.”

'V\7ITH dragging feet, George climbed * * the iron staircase to the conductor’s office. The door was ajar. He pushed it open.

In front of the open fireplace the great Leon was smoking a cigarette, hand in pocket, his coat tails over his arm.

“Oh, yes, Mr. Comfit,” he said and coughed.

“Mr. Comfit, you wrere late w'ith the cymbals in the scherzo. Is that not so?

Yes? I think it w'as.”

He coughed again and tapped his cigarette with his fingernail, flicking the ash into the fireplace. Mr. Comfit

held the back of a chair, feeling that he needed support.

“You were late—maybe a thousandth of a second, but late. And you slept in the largo. You have been here how long? Fifty years? Well, well—fifty years. Too long, Mr. Comfit. I think perhaps maybe you might resign.”

George held tight to his chair. Resign? One by one his friends had gone -resigned, died, dropped off in one way or another. He shook his lion’s mane of hair. He could hardly see.

A thought struck him: he spoke.

“You see, Mr. Sokowsky, I will go if . . .” And he outlined his proposal rapidly.

The great Leon nodded his head and turned to the fire to hide a smile. A cymbal overture? The thing was absurd.

“Let me see it,” he said. “Maybe ...”

The directors w'ould never allow him to turn out the oldest member of the symphony. It would be a price—but what the great Leon Sokow'sky played was generally accepted.

“Let me see it,” he said.

Too big a price, thought the great Sokow'sky, tripping across the stage to the rostrum. But, then, his Wednesday afternoons were given over to all kinds of oddities. He and his orchestra took them more lightly than the fashionable Saturdays or the popular Sundays. On Wednesdays Sokowsky became unconventional—a modern who for the

rest óf the week played old-fashioned stuff for his bread and butter, but on his Wednesday liecame a musical Prometheus unbound.

Even so, the Comfit Overture —scored for twelve violins, the trombone and, of course, the cymbals—was a bit thick. Sokowsky allowed himself to wink at André, the first violin. Nor did he frown at Antonelli, who sat, his bowed head resting on his hands and his piccolo stuck into his shirt front. Sokowsky shook his head sympathetically. For Antonelli, these Wednesdays were very trying.

George himself sat beaming, his cymbals clasped to his chest. His hands trembled a little. For something to do, he craned his neck, trying to place the reviewers in the audience. Somewhere out there was young Brimmer of the Tribune—II. T. B., he signed himself—“Musicus” of the Clarion, and old Jack Gates of the Argus, who always copied what Benson, of the News Dispatch had to say.

Out there the audience stirred and was still as Sokowsky raised his expressive hands. It was Degoute’s new' thing— "Pavane sur la lune pour la morte d'une vieille Africaine.”

Primitive—and strong with the simplicity of jxission—a great work—w’hich consisted of nothing but the monotonous pom pom pom of drums.

• George sat through the rhythmic beat for the old African woman and hugged his cymbals. Through his brain ran the skein of light which made his overture —and after that the review's—

The Pavane thumped to an end —and George tried to conquer his rising excitement.. His fingers trembled as he turned the pages of his score. He rose to his feet at Sokowsky’s nod and met his smile with a bow'—He was ready—and before he knew it the Comfit Overture was under wray.

His eyes on Sokow'sky, he stood, lionmaned, in the blazing light. The familiar notes on his score w'ere blurred and dim. but he did not need them. His own notation, his own handw'riting—there they were, and from them, under Sokow'sky’s hands, came the violins smoothly singing and the swelling cadence of the trombone. The wrell marked tempo beat out in columns of liquid notes. This was music, he thought, and he awaited the entrance of the cymbals.

As he stood he smelled a curious smell. Like something burning, he thought, as he watched the violin bows rise and fall together — Behind him there was a crackle of rending wood. The orchestra members shifted uneasily in their chairs, and their startled eyes fixed themselves on the great Leon.

Presto —clash clash. George muted the hum on his chest.

By golly, there was something burning!

Behind him, behind the thin plaster wall which backed the stage, there were urgent voices and the stampings of running feet. Clash clash clash! George’s hands rose high as he stroked the brasses together in the even time of the Comfit Overture. Lost in a marching world of ringing brass, George hardly heard the frightened voice which shouted, “Fire!”

Clash —clash. The Comfit Overture— that man Antonelli had bumped his elbow as lie ducked for the exit.

“Fire?” thought George. “Fire or no fire, they’re going to go through with it.” Eyes shut, he hammered on; not seeing the wisp of smoke that wavered from a crack in the boards at his feet. In his mind ran the parallel lines of the score, carrying on and on to reviews in the Clarion, the Argus, the Tribune. . . .

HE OPENED his eyes on a world from which Sokowsky had disappeared, to say nothing of the twelve violins and the trombone. Only the cymbals remained. Old George Comfit stood alone, counting—counting the bars until he should come in again. Clashclash—clang—now he was all set for the next page and a half.

Overhead the lights still blazed, red eyes in the thickening smoke. In the dim auditorium the audience milled for the doors, while a solitary monotonous voice cried :

"Walk, don’t run, for the nearest exit if you please. There is no danger ...”

Continued on page 41

Continued from page 17

Clash—clash—clash! In heavy march

time. The jangling brass of the Comp! Overlure overcame the excited buzz in the struggling crowd, hit some hidden nerve of discipline. They took step from the clanging cymbals of the Compt Overture, and their struggle for the aisles became an orderly retreat.

A grey-clad usher whose frightened eyes were like plums in a cake of dough said: “Next row please—left, right, left—that’s right.” And the crowd stamped its feet in time to the clash of brass.

Out behind, Antonelli put his foot through a double bass in his struggle to reach the door. The brown wood crackled and its owner swore. A fire bell clanged, a siren screamed.

"Is every one out?”

The curling lines of hose snaking along the pavement quivered as the valves were opened, tautly arching themselves in straining curves, creaking and clucking with the pulse of pumping water.

The great Leon came running out, his arms full of sheet music, his neat little feet picking their way over the hose lines and around the rapidly forming puddles. Window glass smashed, the shining fragments tinkling on the ground. Immediately the black gaping holes belched smoke.

“Is every one out?”

Inside, where the smoke weaved up to the few remaining dim light bulbs. George Comfit clanged his cymbals. The Comfit Overture marched on, thrusting brassy ribbons of noise out into an empty auditorium.

Young Brimmer, H. T. B. of the Tribune, danced on his toes, eagerly noting the arrival of another ladder truck. “Musicus,” of the Clarion, wrung his fingers. Old Jack Gates, and Benson, of the News Dispatch, having conferred and agreed to pool their resources, took opposite ends of the building.

Old Mr. Comfit threw back his leonine head of hair and stared with eyes redrimmed by smoke at the empty seats. A tongue of flame licked round a chair leg, raising blisters on the blue-grey paint. It flickered and disappeared. It came againforked orange.

Mr. Comfit clanged on. His breathing became labored as the harsh smoke clutched his throat and nostrils. The Comfit Overture, ringing in martial pride, grew faint.

A voice cried from the auditorium. Mr. Comfit drew himself up for the triumphant coda which should bring his overture to an end. A pencil of light from a powerful torch searched through the smoke. To Mr. Comfit’s fuddled brain it was the limelight, his just due. It found and held him as the flames burst through the floor. For the last time, Mr. Comfit stroked his brasses together—and pitched forward to the floor, his cymbals clasped to his black-coated chest.

WITH only the haziest idea of what it was all about Mr. Comfit struggled to sit up in ted.

“Lie down, there’s a good boy,” said the nurse and she pressed him back on the pillow. “Lie down and I’ll bring you a nice glass of hot milk,”

“Can’t drink hot milk." said Mr. Comfit testily. “1 want to see a paper.”

"I should think you would. But wait till the doctor’s teen, and then you may have all the papers you like. The papers are full of you.” she added admiringly.

Mr. Comfit perforce lay back, the Compl Overture ringing through his mind. The papers were full of him, were they? The critics must have done their work well. He visioned the reviews—streaming headlines in the musical sections . . .

“Of course. the hall is gone.” said the nurse and she fluffed up his pillow under his head.

“Oh, yes—that.”—said Mr. Comfit, staring at the ceiling—but they hadn't in the excitement forgotten him and his overture. A triumph—a musical triumph—that’s what it was.

A knuckle tapped on the door, and the nurse’s whisper hissed through the crack:

“No, he can’t see any one.”

“Who is it?” asked Mr. Comfit.

“Oh, just some one to see you. One of the boys from the Tribune."

Old George lay back on his pillow and watched the light on the ceiling. There was a nasty taste in his mouth and he had a headache. Soon that would go, and Leon Sokowsky would come and congratulate him’ on the Comfit Overture. Some one might even bring him a bunch of flow ers. ;

The doctor came, cheerful, in his white coat.

“Well, well, and how are we?” he said. “Every one’s talking about you, Mr. Comfit. No, I wasn't there, but I hear you were wonderful.”

Mr. Comfit smiled as he submitted his chest to the chilly pressure of a stethoscope.

“Cough, please . . . Why, it’s a pleasure to meet a man like you, Mr. Comfit. And at your age—seventy? See a paper? Why, of course. Nurse, don’t let him see too many people.”

Nurse wrent out and came back with an armful of papers.

“Now I’ll sit you up,” she said. “Hupsy, j daisy—that’s right. The doctor says you’re I fine and can have a nice soft-boiled egg for j your breakfast.”

She pattered out as Mr. Comfit seized the Tribune. Passing over double-leaded columns, boxes and banner headlines, his trembling fingers turned to the fifteenth page. His eyes searched the columns.

“Wednesday afternoon at Symphony Hall, the programme was interrupted by a disastrous fire. For full description turn ...”

The Post-Dispatch and Argus the same.

Mr. Comfit turned back to Page One. “Musician Hero ...”

Mr. Comfit scanned the lines. Not a j word about the Comf1 Overture!

The breath caught in his throat, his eyes j dimmed, the room rocked. They had fooled him; fooled an old man! Mr. Comfit whimpered.

“Well, I never,” said the nurse, dashing j down the tray.

“My overture—the Cymbal Overture. . . . " j moaned Mr. Comfit.

“But you’re a hero,” said nurse.

Mr. Comfit burst into tears.