Historical Fiction Creative Nonfiction Friendship

Therese Malfatti hunched behind a tree amid the crackling leaves and pulled her dog, Gigons, against her chest. He whimpered and struggled to get free, but she held him tightly.

Her mother called, "Therese! It's time to go home!"

"Hush, Gigons, don't let her hear us."

 "Young lady, if you don't answer me in three minutes, you'll regret it."

Footsteps crunched on the path and stopped near Therese's hiding place. Then her mother went further along the path and disappeared over a rise. Suddenly Gigons leaped from Therese's arms and sprinted away among the trees.

"Gigons! Wait, come back!" Therese gathered up her heavy skirts and waded through the knee-deep leaves.

 "Gigons! Oh, please come back, you mean dog," she panted. Sweat trickled into her eyes. She brushed her damp curls from her forehead. The woods were suddenly silent. Her dog seemed to have vanished entirely. She wondered where her mother had gone as well.

She stepped over a fallen branch and pushed through a stand of dry birches into a clearing. A man was sitting amid the fallen pine needles, his back against a tree with peeling bark. His shabby green coat was missing several buttons, and leaves clung to his baggy trousers. His shaggy black head was bent over a sheaf of papers as he scribbled rapidly with a thick red pencil, uttering strange noises that almost sounded like singing.

Therese gasped. Suddenly a hairy form came hurtling past her, barking loudly.

"Gigons! Wait!" But the dog headed straight for the man in the clearing, who looked up, startled, and leaped to his feet. Gigons barked and danced around him. The man shouted and tried to fend off the dog with his papers.

Therese smothered a giggle. Gigons always chased after the fish peddler because he didn't like that individual's peculiar odor, and this peasant obviously reminded her dog of him. But what was a fish peddler doing out here in the Vienna woods, so far from town?

The man glanced up and saw Therese half-hiding behind her tree. "Is this your dog?" he yelled in a hoarse voice between Gigon's yelps. "Schnell, schnell - get him off me at once!"

 "Come, Gigons! Come, boy!"

The tramp waved his papers threateningly. Gigons growled, and his fuzzy ears went back on his head. He bared his teeth. Therese leaped forward and caught his leash, tugging with all her strength.

"Go away!" she gasped at the man. "Hurry, before he bites you." Much to her relief, the strange man hurried away, grumbling loudly that all dogs ought to be chained up in cages.

To her relief, she saw her mother waiting for her on the path, her hands on her hips. Frau Malfatti frowned. "Honestly, Tesi, you're such a child! One would never know you're eighteen years old!"

"Oh, Mama, we just met the strangest man. Gigons didn't like him at all." Leaves clung to Therese’s dark curls, and her face was smudged with dirt. "Please, Mama, let's stay a little longer! I'm so tired of being cooped up in the house."

Her mother clucked her tongue impatiently. "Must we go through this every time we come here? I know you love nature, Tesi, but enough is enough. My feet are sore and we must hurry back to town. We're having company tonight."

Therese perked up at once. "Oh, who is it this time?" She wrapped Gigons' leash around her wrist and they started back towards the carriage.

"A friend of your uncle's," said Frau Malfatti, reaching to pluck a stray leaf from Therese's hair.. "I want you to be polite to our dinner guests tonight."

"Of course, Mama. I always am." Therese turned wide innocent eyes on her mother, who wasn’t fooled.

The Malfatti house stood on a quiet street with trees and spacious gardens between the houses.

The visitors arrived promptly at nine. Dr. Malfatti was a bachelor and often took his meals with Therese's family. He often brought his colleagues or students along, for there was always a bountiful spread.

The doctor introduced his companion. Therese gasped. It was the strange man from the woods! He was wearing a fairly neat black coat now, but his hair was just as wild. Therese lost her nerve and ran into the kitchen, nearly crashing into their cook

“Mind yourself, Miss Tesi!” The cook set down her tray of dinner rolls and wiped her forehead with one broad arm.

Frau Malfatti hurried into the kitchen. “Tesi, what are you doing in here?”

"Oh Mama, it’s the man from the woods. He has terrible manners, and now Uncle has brought him to dinner.”

“Well, you can’t stay in here. Now stop being a child and go greet our guests.”

Therese dragged herself out to the foyer. Her father turned and brought her forward.

“Herr van Beethoven, this is my eldest daughter, Therese.” She forced herself to curtsy. “Therese, this is Herr van Beethoven, the distinguished composer.”

This unkempt clod was the great Beethoven? His ruddy face appeared unshaven, and she wondered if he ever bothered to comb his unruly hair. He was hardly any taller than she was. His small dark eyes gazed at her intently, seeming to pierce right through her, and she looked away. Suddenly he laughed loudly. Everyone jumped.

  "I know you!" he exclaimed, adding slyly, "I hope you've tied up your dog." Therese blushed and didn't answer.

"What? You've met before?" cried Anna, and Herr Malfatti chimed in, "Yes, what's this about the dog?"

 "Oh, never mind," Therese muttered rudely. 

"I hear you're very musical," the composer interrupted, as if he hadn't heard what they were saying.

 "No, no, I'm - just a beginner," she stammered, desperately wishing the floor would swallow her up.

 "Play for our guest, Tesi," urged Anna mischievously.

 “Yes, do, Therese,” urged her father.

Therese sat down. "I - I haven't practiced today," she said,

Beethoven came over to turn pages for her. She edged away and plunged into the piece she'd chosen, Mozart's set of variations on "Ah! Vous dirai-je Maman", which we would recognize today as "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." It was the most difficult piece she knew.

Her sister clapped wildly, and her parents smiled proudly, too dignified to applaud. They all looked towards Beethoven and waited for his opinion. 

"You have talent," he said seriously to Therese. "But the music must have feeling. Like so..." and he took her place at the pianoforte, his burly shoulders hunched over the small keyboard as if it were a cobbler's bench. Under his touch, the lighthearted variations took on rich shades of sound and meaning, now wistful and delicate, now brilliant and full of fire. Therese stood watching him in astonishment.

"Your legato must be smooth, each note leading to the next," he shouted over the music. His thick stubby fingers flew over the keys, the notes falling like a string of pearls. "And pay attention to dynamics," he went on, clearly enjoying himself. "The fortes must be loud." Thunderous chords came crashing from the frail instrument. "The softs must be - pianissimo..." Now the notes were no more than a breath of sound.

The group sat spellbound as Beethoven began to improvise on the Mozart piece, embellishing it with bold countermelodies and dazzling changes of mood and color. The ungainly figure at the keyboard seemed larger than life, a wizard weaving magical spells and calling up dancing spirits. It baffled them that someone so strange and clumsy could produce such beautiful sounds.

At dinner, Therese found herself sitting next to Beethoven. He ate with great gusto, talked a lot, and when he smiled, they could see he had sparkling white teeth, a rare sight in those days. But his laugh! It was like a lion’s roar that hurt everyone’s ears.

Anna asked him to name his favorite poets. Goethe, of course, he replied instantly, and Shakespeare in German. Therese looked up at him with new interest - she loved Shakespeare too.

Beethoven glanced at her. "Do you know why I call myself a tone poet?" he asked abruptly. Before she could answer, he went on, "Shakespeare holds the answer. 'But music for the time doth change his nature/the man that hath no music in himself...'"

  "Which play is that from?" asked Frau Malfatti.

Therese ventured a guess. “’Othello?’”

Beethoven shook his shaggy head. “It's The Merchant of Venice,' act I, scene II.’ How about this one, Fraulein?" 'And what love can do, that dares love attempt.- ' "

"'Romeo and Juliet!'" Therese clasped her hands to her heart and declaimed, " 'Romeo! Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and hide thy name...'"

"You are fond of poetry, then," said Beethoven. "I will lend you some of my books, if you like."

“Oh, we have lots of books in our library,” Therese said casually.

"What did you say?"

 "We have lots of poetry books in the..." Her voice trailed off. Beethoven was leaning uncomfortably close to her. She edged away nervously. And then it dawned on her - she vaguely remembered her father mentioning that the composer was very hard of hearing, but too proud to admit it. So that was why he sounded so loud and angry all the time!

Therese touched his arm timidly and offered him one of Pepi's honey-glazed pears. Beethoven gazed down at her warily for a long moment, then broke into one of his dazzling smiles and accepted her offering, his big white teeth biting into the fruit with gusto. When he asked for another, she laughed and passed him the whole dish. 

One spring morning, the composer turned up at her home unannounced, strolling in their garden When she went up and touched his sleeve, Beethoven started violently.

 "I was just admiring these roses," he explained hastily. "Although wildflowers are my favorite. I can roam for hours in the country. Every tree, every rock, every flower gives me inspiration. No one can love the country as I do!" He drew a deep breath and sniffed the fresh morning air.

Therese had never seen him look so happy. She said, "I can't wait to go to our country house. The woods there are very beautiful."

 "You are fond of nature?" he asked. 

 "Oh yes! Mother scolds me for running about in the sun like a wild animal. But nothing keeps me indoors in the summer." She went on cheerfully, "I think that's why I love your Pastoral Symphony so much. It brings back my favorite sounds of the country - the brook and the birds, and the rainstorm."

 "We are kindred souls, then," he exclaimed as they strolled along the path. "Every summer I look forward to going away to the country. Without nature's uplifting beauty close at hand, I always feel as if I would go mad."

 "Then you must come and visit us next month," Therese cried. "I'll show you my favorite paths."

"I would like that very much."

Therese could hardly believe that this pleasant, well-dressed gentleman was the loud, irritable, unkempt man in the woods from last fall. On their way back along the path, she stopped to pluck a bright pink rose. She gaily presented the flower to him, saying, "You may have one of our first blossoms!"

Beethoven accepted the flower as if it were a rare jewel. "'A rose by any other name...' he murmured. "I will treasure it always, as a reminder of your beauty, Tesi.”

Inside the house, he offered to give Therese a lesson.. She said, "My teacher said I must practice my scales every day."

 "Bah! There's more to good playing than scales. Listen." Beethoven sat down and began to improvise a flowing melody in the key of A minor. It was very simple but beautiful. "Remember what I have told you," he exclaimed as he played. "It's the feeling that counts."

He began to embellish the short theme, turning it into a torrent of sound, now sad, now playful, now teasing, now lightly drifting back to the original melody like a leaf falling from a tree.

 "What beautiful music!" she exclaimed. "It's such a shame it's lost forever."

"No," said Beethoven. "It's not lost. I can recall every note." And he repeated the entire piece exactly, note for note.

 "Oh, that was wonderful!" cried Therese. "Could you write it down for me?"

He smiled at her indulgently. "Certainly, Therese. This is my rose for you."

Note: This piece is perhaps the most famous piano music ever written. Originally entitled "For Therese," the copyist misread Beethoven's sloppy handwriting and it was published as "Fur (For) Elise." Though it's the bane of nearly every piano recital, it shines with Beethoven's characteristic drama and beautiful melodies when played well.

January 31, 2022 23:15

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Annemarie Wall
13:01 Feb 10, 2022

I enjoyed your story. I especially like the interplay of music and Shakespeare’s words.


Swan Anderson
13:39 Feb 10, 2022

Thanks for your kind comments, Annemarie! I'm glad you enjoyed the weaving of Shakespeare and Beethoven's music. He was inspired by Shakespeare and often quoted from numerous plays. He nicknamed his piano sonata no. 17 "The Tempest" after the play. Also, he really did prefer the name "tone poet" as opposed to "composer."


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