Murray stared at the piece of sheet music like a confused puppy. It was an absolute mess - a series of symbols populating the sets of horizontal lines that looked more like a child’s scribbles than a melody. Of course, to the trained eye, every symbol had a valid meaning, but it was far more dense than any piece Murray had ever seen, and appeared to have been written in a frenzy, completely lacking the composer’s usual elegance. The piece appeared to be atonal - the key signature contained no sharps or flats, which meant that nearly every bar conformed to a different key than the previous one, which explained a significant portion of the frantic scribbles. Along with the myriad of accidentals, the page was bursting with accents, tenutos, crescendos, decrescendos, and a fair amount of written directions such as “freely,” “with emotion!” and “faster, with a hint of urgency.” At the top of the page was the only thing written with any sort of care, the title: “Vitale’s Final Cadence.” It was the last piece of music Murray’s old mentor had written before his sudden disappearance.
Sergio Vitale had been nothing short of a prodigy, and was known throughout Europe not only for his grand symphonies, but for his tutelage of multiple up and coming young artists. Murray had come to him at age eight and studied with him for ten years. Vitale was a hard teacher, often sending Murray home with sore fingers and a broken spirit, but he never stripped the boy of the will to learn, to grow, to become a true master of the art. For the first few years, Murray hated his mentor. In the middle years, he began to respect him. By the end, he loved him like a father.
The year that Murray turned eighteen, Vitale had suddenly and without warning cancelled all of his lessons to retire into private life. Murray was devastated by the news, despite the fact that he had already become a well-regarded artist in his own right. Most students eventually grow tired of studying under a superior, and become eager to break away from their teachers and establish themselves as the master. But Murray never stopped being hungry for musical knowledge, and of that, Vitale was a bottomless well.
He tried to write to his old master, but received no word in return. He considered going to his door and knocking, but phantom pains from being rapped over the knuckles in their more intense lessons made him reconsider disturbing him uninvited. When he began to worry, he asked around town, in the local markets and pubs. A few folks saw Vitale about once a week, briefly, and they spread rumors. Stories got around about some mysterious new symphony Vitale was working on, something special, the absolute perfect composition. At first, it seemed a relatively normal burst of inspiration. But after a year or so, the story got strange. It seemed that Vitale believed there was something supernatural about the piece he was working on, that he was solving some kind of puzzle of tones that when played would unlock the secrets of the universe. As the stories continued to get more and more peculiar, Murray came to a heartbreaking conclusion: His old mentor had gone mad.
Three years after Murray had given up hope of reconnecting, Vitale ceased appearing around town and was declared missing. Another year after that, he was declared dead, though a body was ever found. It was then discovered that Vitale had drafted a will, and left everything to Murray, to Murray’s complete and utter shock. After years of thinking his idol had abandoned him, along with reality itself, Murray learned through a piece of parchment that Vitale had loved him as a son.
Murray, who had just recently married, wasted no time moving himself and his new wife into Vitale’s impressive estate. While she lost herself in its vastness, Murray was interested in only one room: Vitale’s study, which consisted simply of a grand piano, and piles upon piles of theory books and sheet music. Of course, the public began buzzing immediately about Murray’s inheritance of Vitale’s legacy, which would mean his final work would finally come to light. The community was eager for Vitale’s mysterious lost symphony to be revealed, and Murray was already daydreaming about the notoriety it would bring him. Therefore, he was dismayed to find, after turning the study inside out at least three times, that there was only a single page he did not recognize: “Vitale’s Final Cadence.”
The piece looked like an impressive sight-reading exercise, but hardly a master symphony. Nevertheless, Murray told himself, there had to be something here. He studied the page until the finger positions began to take fruition in his mind, then put his hands to the keys and played. The piece was quite beautiful. Murray had half-expected a cacophony, the tone-deaf scribblings of an absolute madman, which Vitale had undoubtedly become in those final days, but somewhere within that madness his genius was still intact, and this piece was proof. Brief as it was, it was haunting and emotional. The expressions that were haphazardly scribbled down came to Murray naturally, and he knew even without looking that he was playing it correctly. When he got to the final bar, the chords swelled up to a climax of such intensity that Murray nearly burst into tears, and then - nothing. The piece ended.
It wasn’t finished. Vitale had spent more than five years in near seclusion working on a single page of music, and he hadn’t even finished it.
Murray found himself afraid to face the public with such a disappointing prize, and so he lied, told them he had discovered the grandest of symphonies, and he just needed time to learn it before he would assemble an orchestra to perform it for the public. It was a risky lie, one that even the master himself may not have made, but Murray had become quite the genius himself, and he was confident that he could make something out of this cadence. After all, the chords were stunning, and the progression unlike anything anyone had ever heard. He already felt as if this single page had expanded his entire understanding of music in ways only Vitale could teach him. And somewhere deep down, Murray felt as if he knew where the cadence was going. That was, of course, the definition of a cadence, a piece of music that is in motion, working its way toward a logical conclusion. There was only one place this cadence could go, Murray knew that, all he had to do was find it. After that, expanding its themes into movements and arranging it for an orchestra would be child’s play.
And so, he cancelled all of his upcoming performances, and set to studying the piece, often for hours a day. He played it over and over again, each time thinking that his fingers would know where to go after reaching that maddening climax, and each time sensing nothing. When he could no longer bear the weight of the cadence’s final bar, he went back to basics, digging through Vitale’s endless collection of lesson books and exercises, playing scale after scale, drill after drill, pattern after pattern. When he grew tired of rudiments, he moved on to complete works, playing through all of Vitale’s original symphonies, among other famous pieces.
For about the first year of living in Vitale’s estate, Murray spent roughly ten hours a day on this cycle. Then he would spend the evenings with his wife, and occasionally go out on the town to meet with his friends. They inquired endlessly about the final symphony: what key was it in? How many movements was it? When could they hear a bit of it? As it became more difficult to lead them on with lies about his progress, he began to avoid outside company, only leaving the estate for quick trips to the market. Somewhere during the second year of his work on the Final Cadence, he stopped leaving home entirely, and hired a runner to deliver any goods he needed. Also during that year, his ten hour practices sessions extended to twelve hours, then fourteen. By the third year, his wife no longer waited up for him, turning in alone to a bed that was cold and empty.
By the fifth year, Murray had very nearly stopped sleeping. And that was when it happened. When his fingers reached the final bar of Vitale’s cadence for perhaps the ten-thousandth time, they didn’t stop playing. They moved almost automatically, as if guided by phantom hands, to another chord, and then another, and then another. Murray was suddenly swept away, playing and composing simultaneously, bar after bar, and every single note was perfect. And so obviously perfect that Murray questioned why it had taken him five years to find them. But of course, that is the curse of all masters. To see things come into focus so perfectly after countless hours of devotion to a craft, only to feel as if that thing is suddenly beneath you, obvious, even trivial. And yet, despite its relative simplicity, the Final Cadence was undeniably beautiful in its unabridged form. Murray’s cheeks were stained with tears as his fingers reached the final chord, the one that felt like home, the one that took all of the emotion and intensity and dissipated it, putting it to rest once and for all.
Suddenly the room went dark. Was it night? Murray had lost track of time and couldn’t remember, but all lights had gone out and none came in through the windows of the study. The wind picked up, causing the walls of the manor to shudder violently, and a chill filled the room that sent shivers down Murray’s spine. From the corner of the room, a figure stepped out of the shadows. A tall middle-aged man with hard, striking features. It was Vitale.
“Well done, my son,” he said.
“Master!” Murray leapt up from the piano bench, bewildered. “Where have you been?!”
“I have been...away.” Vitale replied.
“Away? What do you mean? Master, we thought you were dead!”
“In a sense, I am. Dead to this world, anyway. Dead to its banality, its vulgarity. I’ve moved on, and now, so have you.”
“What?” Murray was stunned and confused. He stuttered through his next words. “I don’t understand, I … I finished your song! The ... The Cadence!” He snatched the paper off of the grand piano’s music holder and held it out to his old teacher. “I finished it!”
“Yes, I know,” Vitale said calmly. Despite Murray’s flustered disposition, Vitale’s charisma never faltered. There was no trace of the apparent madman who’d haphazardly scrawled the notes on the page Murray was holding. He was poised and seductive. “You’ve completed the cadence just as I did. You were the only other one who could, of that I am certain. And now, you must come with me.”
“Go with you? Go with you where?”
Instead of answering, Vitale extended his arm toward the far end of the room. A light appeared from nowhere in particular, revealing what appeared to be a grand recital stage, backed by breathtaking red velvet curtains, an ornate grand piano occupying the center. Murray knew that what he was seeing was not in the room, it was not even in this world. He sensed that in the space between him and the beautiful stage was a threshold of sorts, one he might not be able to cross again if he chose to step over it.
“I…” He didn’t know what to say, then suddenly he remembered his five-year-old lie. “I can’t, I have to finish the Cadence. I mean, I have to share it-”
“What?” Vitale interrupted, with an arrogant chuckle. “Share it? With whom? With those Plebeians?” He said Plebeian with utter disdain. “What good would it do them?”
Murray was stunned to silence by the absurdity of the question.
“Ah yes, of course,” Vitale continued. “You want fame, don’t you? Well, you will have it, but I’m sorry to say, my son, that fame is not for the famous to enjoy. No, fame is for the common people. Let them idolize you, let them tell stories of you. You and I will be legends, Murray. They will speak of us for centuries. But the words are not for us to hear. Nor are they for us to speak. Our stories are not our own to tell. The only thing left for us, now, is to disappear. To move on. And yes, to leave our work unfinished. For a story that is left unfinished is one that will be told for eternity. And is that not the artist’s true dream? To be immortal?”
Immortality. Yes, that is what waited beyond the threshold. And Murray could not deny he longed for it. Only one remaining thought kept him from crossing over.
“My wife … I can’t leave my wife.” Murray said.
“Your wife?” Vitale tittered. “What wife? You have no wife. The wife you had left you two years ago, I’m afraid.”
“What?” But before the syllable was fully out of his mouth, he knew it to be true. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her. He couldn’t even remember the last time he had left this room. He hadn’t changed or bathed in months, nor seen another human face besides Vitale’s in even longer. He wasn’t even certain if he had eaten recently. But he was quite certain that with the exception of himself and the specter before him, the manor was completely empty. He had neglected everything in his relentless pursuit of the Final Cadence, and now he had nothing left. Nothing except for his one true dream: Immortality.
With a sudden burst of resolve, Murray stepped forward, over the threshold, onto the recital hall stage, took a seat at the piano at the center, and began to play.
Murray, unlike his predecessor, had left no will. The estate belonged to no one after Vitale’s protege was declared dead. On the day it was set to go to auction, some local townsfolk formed a mob and burned it to the ground, convinced that it was haunted by some evil presence. No one else ever laid eyes nor ears on Vitale’s Final Cadence, but the story was passed on from generation to generation. Through the ages, countless musicians wrote tributes to Murray and Vitale. Some even claimed to have communed with them, that they passed on the final symphony in a dream, and that their version was the only true version of the piece despite the existence of similar claims.
Others paid tribute in a different way: by living fast and dying young, passing on before their time, and leaving their stories unfinished.