Sandy McIntosh
(In the style of the Flamenco)

Music will watch us drown.                
—James Tate, “Read the Great Poets”


“What is that you’re doing,
babosa? Stop it now; it annoys me.”

I’d been playing a Chopin waltz for Señora Ernesta. It was the Op. 42 in A flat. And I (as was my wont) let my body sway lavishly: I was a single dancer in a crystal ballroom, solitude and grace propelling my fingers across the keys.

“Are you some kind of
puto?” Maestra demanded. “¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Ay!”

Perhaps I’d overdone it, but continued playing, now weeping the while. I could not stop. I was like a great forest of dancers shaking all at once in the emptiness that follows the hurricane.

“¡No me jodas!” she cried. “Stop it!”

But later:

“You have talent, I must say (perhaps with some regret). It could be that you’ll land upon the concert stage—tumultuous applause. Or, (it is more probable) that you’ll land on your
culo, a knife between your ribs, if you go on swaying and swooning your torso like that.”

But later still:

“¡Ay!” sighing. “You remind me too much of myself.”

[Entrada Libre]

That old bastard Leschetitzky,
To whom I was sent to study in 1885
Pushed me out disdainfully
(After I’d I rejected him) onto
Clara Wieck, relic of the dead composer,
Robert Schumann,
At Frankfurt am Main,
And mistress (I didn’t know at the time)
To that fellow Brahms.

She was, I thought,
Not a bad pianist,
And she performed for me
The last sonata of Beethoven.

Superlative, the music. Like you,
I was moved to weeping.
But she took my tears
For love of her
And left the bench
To mount my lap.

“I knew you had a soul,” she declared.
“I knew I could inspire it.”
Saying which, she began to rub
My costume.

What could I do? I was sixteen—your age,
She perhaps forty—altogether ancient
And unattractive, you’ll agree.
But it is our duty to realize our talents.
And so, I yielded to her pleasure
With enthusiasm, and at length.


“You must wear your costume
            On stage, at receptions,” Wieck instructed,
                        Directing my career.
“The music can never be enough
            For the bored husband in attendance,
                        Or the jaded wife. You must distract them
From the incomprehensible,
            Let them pass the time
                        Avec plaisir.”

She was here
            Referring to my costume—
                        A Flamenco dancer’s,
Something my mother had sent
            From home—I could not imagine why.

“It’s a handy prop,” Wieck explained.
            “The blouse with satin and gold—
                        So heroic—
And the flashing ruffled skirts,
            So feminine.”
                        ¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Ay!

So, onto the stage she thrust me,
            Arranging concerts
                        In little theaters in great cities,
Always in the shadow of her true lover,
            The bumptious Brahms.

We were oddly twined, Brahms and I.
            He overwhelming the Grosser Musikvereinssaal in Vienna
                        While I, the plodding dray-horse,
Through Malagueñas, Granaínas, Media Granaínas,
            And other tedious transcriptions
                        Of Spanish dance music
For the Ladies’ Tea Society,
            Or some such,
                        Located somewhere
                                    Near the wharf.

In his splendid dressing rooms
            Brahms received the King and Queen.
                        I, in my turn,
Attended the
            the Ladies and Gentlemen in Waiting,
                        Waiting for me,
In my backstage
                        Hole in the wall.

“You are, after all, the beginner.
            There is a price to pay for advancement.
                        Pay it, grin and be happy,” ordered Wieck.
                                    ¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Ay!


It was, I must say, a lovely,
Lucrative time. Lachrymose, the
Germans for music, crying at
Each arabesque, every waltz, the

Ushers running the aisles with lace
Handkerchiefs for the ladies. They
Cried in the streets for a popu-
lar tune. And, God help us, When a

Fashionable composer died!
Old Glück’s funeral—four months long!
Multitudes of musicians in
His memory. Accompanists

to the country’s wistful, obliv-
ious      dreaming         .

[Cante Libre]

And I also dreamed deeply
On my concert stage,
Fascinated spectator
To imaginative scenes unfolding
In my mind as I played:
Elaborated image upon image.
And, over years,
My visions joined by dream actors
Who never failed to amuse.
I never asked, “Where am I?”
So certain was I of my strengths.

Old Beethoven in his time
Laughed at his audience
As, by mere whim,
He played to make them weep,
or whimpering silent—
Or, who knows? Faint dead away.

I, too, made listeners quake,
But I loved them (unlike him)
And only wanted them
To witness what I saw—
Those ecstatic things.

And, naturally,
They did see
And honored me
With applause
Joyful noise,
Duly noted by
Music critics.
“Señora Ernesta Pleases.”
¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Ay!

I pleased them—
I pleased myself—
In every European country,
Yet Wieck kept me
In Flamenco costume,
And touring everywhere but Spain
(Where they preferred
German pianists
In lugubrious

All went well.
I played a wider repertoire
Dropping stale Spanish ditties
For music of weight,
Of darker dreaming,
Yet always pleasing my audience,
With novelties
As finale.
My special piano
Made by mad
Clement of New York.
At my whim it would
Chirp like a bird, croak like a frog,
Boom like a thunderclap, howl
Like a dog in heat, shriek
Like a parrot, or
Emit rude sounds of
The water closet.

But then
(It was somewhere eastward, I think,
In the Ottoman),
Something went wrong,
On stage, playing dream music
The audience with me
(I could hear them swaying,
In their seats),
As I brought the music
To its graceful end,
(So I thought,)
I found myself
Not at the piano,
But in the wings,
In my street costume
About to leave the theatre.
What had happened?

“You walked out before finishing, Madam,”
Said the stage manager,
The audience behind us
Restive, uncertain.

What had happened?
I’d been playing
Robert Schumann’s “The Poet Speaks”,
Its lovely grace, its sadness.
I alone on the empty stage,
In dreaming. As usual,
The music done, I bowed,
Retired in modest dignity,
A caress to the souls
Of each listener.
But this night
I had not
Awoken from the dream.
(That must be the answer, I surmised.
I’d remained in the music
Even leaving the stage
And almost into the street.)

Next night:
Again it happened.
Am I mad? I demanded
Of myself.

I consulted Wieck.
She looked at me sadly,

“This is what happened to Robert,”
Her husband, the dead Schumann.
“He wandering away
into his dream,
never returned.”

(I’d heard Schumann had died in Bedlam.)

“It’s a conceit, affectation, indulgence
To pretend music has pictures,
Has a story to tell.
Robert knew, in truth,
That music is only music,
Though that knowledge
Gained him nothing.”

For my part,
I had no idea what she meant.
Music, of course, had stories
And pictures, to pull
Us from quotidian quarrelsomeness,
Waking-life vexation.

“Music,” she continued,
“Is a wild beast.
She must be
Else she turn upon you
Destroying all.”

Unbelieving, I
Shook my head
Not speaking.

“You need to see.
I’ll show you,” she declared,
And took me
To Byreuth, to vulgar Wagner’s operas,
Der Ring des Nibelungen.

The horror of them!
¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Ay!
Through their music
I saw what Wagner saw:
Shades of the monumental.
Males and females towering above mountains,
Lumbering over the earth,
Lathering bloody ancient ritual,
Never intended for
Modern times.

“To loosen grasping grip
On him, Robert
recklessly wrote
Music without program,
Without picture,
But picaresque withal, you see,
And touching, too:
‘The Poet Speaks’
His first attempt.
To break the curse—no pictures
At all! Or so he thought.

“It turned out
To be the worse for him,
Losing his way to the music’s end
Without the markers, the maps.
The pictures.
And, at last,
He was lost.

Lest I, too, lose my way,
She told me.
I must avoid all music with programs,
With stories, damn pictures
Able to lead me to
Unknowable dungeons
Of darkness in dream.

Fear and caution
Gathered me in,
Nourishing my performance
With hungry diet
Of the safe
And acceptable
“You cannot afford,” said Wieck,
“To disgrace yourself upon the stage.
Not even once!”

So, it was back to the safety
Of Malagueñas, Granaínas, Media Granaína,
And other tedious transcriptions
Of Spanish dance music.

Twice I attempted to break free,
Challenging the forbidden
“The Poet Speaks,”
The first time with mild success,
But the second
With terror,
Finding myself in the stalls,
Applauding wildly,
While the audience stared
At the empty stage.

From then, I resolved to ply
The narrow road
Without imagination.

I was already forty
And should have been
At my zenith.
But still I performed
In Flamenco costume,
Though certain sure
I’d outgrown it
Long before.

Humiliation shared residency
With any triumph
I achieved.

My modest sensation and fame
Had competitors.
Two especially (I won’t mention names)
Attempted to crowd me
From the stage.
One toured with burros
Wandering about
Diverting audience attention.
Another boasted
Masked dancers
In silent pantomime
Both, of course,
Imitated my costume,
But elaborated
Upon it:
One by smoldering phosphorous flairs;
The other by transportable
Electric lights.

They were nothing,
No threat to me,
Like the real threat
Of Enrique

He, a likeable man,
A genuine Spaniard,
Wore no costume
When performing—instead
In mufti—and playing
His own compositions,
That left the sting of lemon
On your tongue,
And the red Sahara dust
Of the leveche
On your tongue,
And the yawning
Of the afternoon veranda.
Tropical is what he was,
And boon
To frigid European winter.

He was my enemy,
Though I liked him
Well enough,
And sympathized silently
His suffering
And terrible stage fright.
I offered my council,
Telling him: “Don’t worry.
Just go out there. You’ll think
Of something.”
And, against my hope,
He did, always.

I copied his improvisations,
Claiming them for my own.
(I, by then,
So frightened
By imagination’s wildness
That I could do
Little else.)

He, in turn,
Loved me,
Questioning me about life
And travel—something he feared
Then (it was 1913 or 1914)
His Goyescas found
International success,
And he received an invitation
From America,
To concertize
For the President.

Impossibly nervous,
He asked would I go with him,
Discretely, of course?
He had certain nightmares
While playing his piano….
He’d pay my way,
I to stay with him
For companionship,
No personal intrigue,
Help him
Understand the New World.
He’d pay my way.

He’d pay my way.
It would be the retainer
And the retained.
But, why not?

I could see very well
The folly of Germany,
The sentimental music
Fueling visions
Of majestic ascendancy;
Apex of Europe—
Her composers
Told her so.

Why not go with the boy?
But his dreadful foreshadowing:
“I play my music
And dream of the ship
Torpedoed,” he confessed.
“The seawater
In my nose,
Choking me, filling
My lungs.
I know this to be
But come with me.
At least keep my mind
From the bottom
Of the sea.”

They were,
So much like my own,
But, for him,
Not far off the mark.

The warring powers
With deadly sea weapons;
Sinking ships.
Our daily news.


Consulted I with Clara Wieck.
            She (one hundred years old
                        If a day by now)
Was doyenne of composers,
            Beloved of the powerful.
                        She advised:
“Go. There is nothing
            For you here.”

She arranged passage
            From France
                        On the Mirabelle,
A Spanish freighter.
            “My friends inform me
                        That Spanish ships
May pass our blockade
            Unharmed. It is
                        The English ships
                                    That must go down.”

At the dock
            Granados waited
                        Nervous, pacing.

“So glad to see you!”
            Clutching the hem of my mantón.
                        “I thought you would never come.
The most awful dream!
            I dreamed it
                        Last afternoon
At the salon
            At which I played.”

“Ah,” I tried to reassure him.
            “It was only a dream.
                        Music does that
                                    To us all.
Mirabelle is
            A solid ship. A Spanish ship.
                        We will feel
                                    At home.”

“The dream so vivid!”
            Stammered he. “The ocean
                        Broke through the walls!
I, swept away!
            Then you,
                        Sitting in a lifeboat.
You waved your fan at me. ‘Bon voyage!’
            Paddling away.”

He began to cry.
            I patted his shoulder.

The Mirabelle sounded
            Her great horn. Granados
                        Refused to board.
“I cannot travel
            On this ship,”
                        Declared he
                                    With finality.

I reasoned:
            “All our luggage—your beautiful piano
                        All are aboard!”

“No, no. You sail.”
            His eyes lolling.
                        “I’ll take the next ship.
Which one? Ah!
            The Exeter sails Friday.
                        I’ll take the Exeter,
                                    A good British ship.”

“No!” I cried,
            But he not listening.
                        I could have told him
British ships
            Would be torpedoed.
                        But, no. I did not.
A terrible sin of omission?
            Or was it the tact
                        Of a lady?

“Next Wednesday,” he said
            A wild grin.
                        “We meet in New York
                                    Next Wednesday!”

Arrived in New York,
            The news report said
                        The Exeter had been sunk
Only a few miles
            From Le Havre.
                                    There were none.


In short,
Granados dead,
I was offered
His place, playing
For the American president
As I had suspected
I might.
I had taken the precaution
Of registering
In my own name
All his original music,
His wonderful piano! Its
Rosewood cover!

And so I became established
Unchallenged, respected
The greatest interpreter
Of the works
Of Enrique Granados
(Which I, at times
Of convenience to me,
Called my own

For several years, at least—
My longevity in the public eye,
Enhanced via
Old Leschetitzky,
Who, now arrived in New York,
A sentimental place
In his halting heart,
Coaxed me to play
For the mechanical piano
Granados’ music,
To make piano rolls
For the wide appreciation
Of music-loving
But illiterate

Thus when nightmares on stage
(Young Granados
In the sea, willing water
Solidify for handhold,
Failing, drowning,)

I could tease tunes
From the player piano
With pumping pedestrian feet,
Staying trembling,
Haunted hands.

When I play
For my public now
I play for safety—no silly
Pictures in my head
To preoccupy me,
Only the plodding
Scales, chords, the arpeggios—
At adventurous times,
The exercises of Hannon,
Or Clementi—
That in lesser hands
Might seem ridiculous,
Elementary. But genius
Will out.

And so it is with me.
I am never reckless.
My arms and torso
I do not wave about
Like a puto—like you!
No more
Wild musical
¡Ay! ¡Ay! Ay!

And after my concerts
I read the newspapers
And it is always:
“Señora Ernesta Pleases.”


Don’t look         shaken, chico.
She is a wild animal,     this music,
She must be       controlled,
Caged     else she turn upon you
Destroying all.

Arrogant armies    stamping feet across
Continents         Inspired, each one,
By some           affected anthem
Dribbling sentiment,      some musical monstrosity
Imaginary righteousness.         What better exemplar
Of menace         and disgrace?

If I may present you a proverb
Of my own invention:
“Music ,“ I will caution you.
“Music will watch us drown.”
¡Ay! ¡Ay! Ay!

(I applaud myself:       ¡Olé!)

[Author's note. Claudio Arrau performing the second movement of Beethoven's last sonata (Sonata No. 32) can be found here. A recording of Schumann's "The Poet Speaks" can be found here.]

Sandy McIntosh's collections of poetry include Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways To Escape Death and eight other books, including a Chinese cookbook. He has published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Nation, the Wall Street Journal, American Book Review, and elsewhere.

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