ur https://www.albany.edu/offcourse
 ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Philharmonia," by Robert Wexelblatt

            In the middle of rehearsing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Augustin Bäcker, one of the second violins, suddenly leaned forward and whispered into the right ear of Bernd Eichel, a first violin. Eichel spun around, upsetting his chair, and delivered a riposte so blistering that Bäcker’s face turned red. Alois Labernz—who, years later, would have a von added to his name in recognition of his role as founder, director, and conductor of Marburg’s well regarded orchestra—was too far off to hear what either man said; but the tone was unmistakable and he could guess the cause.  The uproar among the strings became general when Bäcker leapt to his feet, holding out his violin like a shield, wielding his bow like a sword, while Eichel grabbed his music stand and wheeled around with a curse.  Labernz banged the podium with his baton.  “Gentlemen!” he shouted.  At the same time, his veteran Concertmaster, Matthias Urster, rose and turned.  “Basta!” he cried, then, still louder, “Genug!”  He ordered the other violinists to separate the two before they could really lock horns.  He then glowered toward the woodwinds where Julie von Kibenau, who had just executed the oboe solo in Berlioz’s Second Movement, regarded him with an equable smile, as if entirely unaware that she might in any way be implicated in the commotion.

            With order restored, Labernz hastened through the rest of the symphony, keeping a sharp eye on a grumbling Eichel and scowling Bäcker, both of whom sawed away like lunatics in the Dies Irae and Witches’ Dance.

            Afterward, Labernz, feeling irritated, retreated to the office he kept up by the attics.  It was a long room that might once have been used to store lumber.  Labernz had furnished it with a dark Turkish rug, a hard wooden chair and small desk.  On the long wall to the left was an old leather love seat and a spinet.  To the right, behind the desk and on either side of a small fireplace, two walnut bookcases reached to the ceiling.  There were a few books on the top shelves but mostly musical scores spilled from them.  Because of its shape and all the things in it, the room, though hardly small, felt crowded and decidedly masculine. When the University, which for many years owned but neither used nor maintained Rheinach Hall, granted his orchestra a lease on good terms, Labernz had chosen this room to be his personal lair. He particularly liked the high arched window at the narrow end of the room, furthest from the door.  It looked out over Rheinach Square with its market stalls and steep-roofed houses.

            In the eighteenth century, Marburg was a neglected and underfunded university town governed by a ruler of little account.  It missed out on first baroque and then neo-classical renovations, a medieval leftover that remained irretrievably out of fashion until cultural developments at the start of the new century gave the Gothic a new cachet.  In Marburg gathered the distinguished circle that included Friedrich Savigny, Achim and Bettina Arnim, Clemens Brentano, and the Brothers Grimm.  For a time, Marburg could justly claim to be the epicenter of German Romanticism.  Therefore, the cramped square on which the conductor could gaze from his window looked no different from the way it had when Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm escaped to the University and probably much the same as when Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were first being set in movable type. 

            After the rehearsal broke up, the exasperated concertmaster pursued the conductor to his den and demanded a serious conversation, as Labernz feared he would.  Urster, always stiffly correct, a great respecter of rank and deeply grateful to Labernz for his appointment, nevertheless found it impossible to hold his tongue.  He was proud of the five years he had played with the orchestra in Mannheim, even if that ensemble had fallen a long way from the glories of a century before. He tended to cherish his grievances and sometimes perturbed Labernz by trying to exercise even more authority than he was entitled to by his position. Now, leaning aggressively on the conductor’s desk, he made his case. He had to make it to Labernz’s back, as the conductor had taken refuge by the window.  He watched as three men, two women, four children, and a three-legged dog crossed the square.  This was not the first time the conductor had listened to his concertmaster on the subject of the oboist.

            “That I was against her appointment and how it came about you already know, Maestro, so I won’t trudge back and forth over that road. I’ll just remind you of my warning that that hiring the girl was likely to have consequences for the orchestra.  It’s not just the fracas we saw today with Bäcker and Eichel. That was merely a flame flickering from the fire that’s eating away the timbers.  Last month, it was Rothbauer pining away and missing his cues.  And, just to remind you, Heiner Knochenmur, that talented if hotheaded boy, had to be sent away when he challenged poor Salzwedel to a duel.  It’s not just that she’s twenty-one and pretty.  She’s a coquette as well—a coquette at best.”  Urster paused to catch his breath.  “At Mannheim, there were no women.  Nor are there any in Berlin or Leipzig.  None in Vienna.  There’s a sound reason why women are not permitted on naval ships and it’s no different with orchestras.  The girl’s become a threat to our work, Maestro, and just when your fame is starting to spread.”

            Urster, a widower, was conservative in his social views yet enthusiastic about the new music and personally fond of his conductor.  The concertmaster was devoted to the orchestra and to Labernz, who could tell he was sincerely distressed.  With a shudder at his own temerity, Urster pushed his point as far as he could.  “Mark my words, if you don’t get rid of this girl, she’ll end by destroying your life’s work.”

            Labernz turned from the window with a smile.  “My dear Matthias, you know how much I value your opinion and your work. I can’t deny there may be something in what you say.  I don’t wish to appear pig-headed and I respect your advice, which I know is well meant.”

            “With respect, then why not take it?”

            Why not?  Perhaps it was because Labernz really was pig-headed, because Fraulein von Kibenau was gifted, because he was proud of the innovation that had led to her appointment, because he felt dismissing her would be an injustice.  Alois had been raised Catholic and learned from the priests about occasiones peccati, the occasions of sin.  He understood them as traps that would rob him of his virtue, peace, and liberty.  He had made a point of avoiding them all, including women.  Yet he bore in mind that it isn’t gold or pretty girls that are at the root of evil but greed and lust.  Attractive, even alluring things are not to blame for our evil-doing but rather our excessive attachment to them. 

            Julie von Kibenau was young and pretty, just as Urster said.  Apparently, she liked to enjoy herself.  He had heard she enjoyed good food, wine, and dancing with young men.  But did any of that mean she wasn’t innocent?  Could she really be the coquette Urster accused her of being?   Did she deliberately provoke his young musicians to fall in love with her, one after another?  Labernz, with his Jesuitical conscience, decided the fault lay with the men and not the Fraulein.  After all, she had never flirted with him.  And even if she had, wasn’t he immune to her charms?  His love was for his work, for music, for his orchestra.  Though he loved these things passionately, it never crossed his mind that any of them might also be an occasion of sin.

            At the start of the previous summer, Florian Zelleger had left Marburg to visit his nephew in Genoa.  While he was in that port city, it suffered one of its occasional outbreaks of cholera.  The oboist caught the infection and died.  In a letter addressed simply to The Philharmonia, Marburg, Hesse, Zelleger’s nephew explained that he himself had only been spared by the constant smoking of his pipe.  He had urged this precaution on his uncle, but was rebuked:  “My late relative rejected my advice and chided me. He said that the smoking of tobacco was not only an expensive vice but certain to harm his breath-control.”

            So Labernz was in need of a good oboist, and quickly.  His autumn programs included the Mendelssohn Third, Mozart’s Jupiter, and Beethoven’s Pastoral, all of which featured oboe solos.  Decent violinists were hardly rare and passable percussionists easy to find.  If his orchestra had required one of these, Labernz might not have conceived the notion of holding an open audition. But he liked the idea.  To advertise such an audition might create a stir and bring the orchestra’s name to the attention of a wider public. Then another idea struck him, one inspired by his summer reading of his favorite Grimms’ folk tales.  He would make the audition a blind one. That is, the aspirants would be placed behind a curtain so that nothing but the excellence of their playing could be considered.  It was not just an idea from a fairy tale, but a dramatic one, as drama is built on concealment followed by revelation.  There would be suspense.  Would the winner be an old hand, someone of reputation, or a talented tyro?   

            Urster opposed the whole notion from the start and expressed his objection in what was, for him, the most emphatic way:  “It’s too democratic,” he said.  “Reputation matters, Maestro.  As do connections and proper recommendations.”  But Labernz had fallen in love with his fairy tale and was not to be moved.  He ordered advertisements to be placed in newspapers throughout Hesse and even beyond. 

            In the nearby town of Siegen, Julie von Kibenau was longing to escape from her narrow-minded parents and excessively respectable and rather stupid brothers.  The von Kibenaus were a Pietist family of local consequence, minor landowners, devoted Pietists, and, in their daughter’s estimation, every bit as stultifying as the market town of Siegen itself.  Julie was a musical child.  She took to the piano like a bird to the sky and loved singing anything but hymns.  When she was thirteen the family entertained a house guest from Bonn.  After dinner on the first night of his stay Julie was asked to sing for him.  Accompanying herself on the piano, she performed Schubert’s lullaby, Schlafe, schlafe, holder süßer Knabe.  The guest, a cultured bachelor, was enthralled and remarked that her voice reminded him of an oboe.  For the rest of his stay he playfully addressed her as “my shepherdess” and, after his departure, Julie begged her father for an oboe.  Herr von Kibenau gave in, but only on the condition that she would continue her lessons on the piano and promise to sit still in church and stop gossiping with her friends.  As she adored music, Julie acceded.  She kept her word with respect to the piano, but not so much with the church.  Meanwhile, she applied herself to the oboe and improved from one day to the next. 

            In her eighteenth year, Julie began to receive offers of marriage from the scions of the local gentry.  The best of these proposals was from the rich and good-looking Ewald von Böhler, a blond boy who loved two things, shooting birds and the Prussian army.  But Ewald unwisely gilded his offer of marriage by laying out for Julie the joys she could expect as the mother of the six or seven children he expected her to produce for him and his parents in whose big house they would, of course, reside.  Her own parents wanted grandchildren too and saw nothing at all wrong with Ewald, his family, or their mansion—quite the contrary.  They pressured Julie to accept the offer.  So, when she came across the announcement of the blind audition for the position of oboist in Marburg, she resolved to run away and try her luck.  She was a spirited young woman and had saved up enough money for the adventure.  Marburg might not be Paris or London but it was still a big step up from Siegen.  Marburg, she knew, was awash with university students and had plenty of establishments that catered to their love of dancing, good food, and strong beer.  Above all, the town possessed an orchestra, a good one.

            The auditions took place on a sultry day in August.  The room Labernz chose, though large, was also stuffy.  An old red velvet curtain had been retrieved from the attics and was draped over a rope strung from one wall to the other.  The panel of judges were to sit on one side; the applicants would enter by a door on the other.  The room was provided with an oak chair with a cushion and a music stand that could be adjusted for height.

            Labernz could hardly exclude his concertmaster from the panel but, to make a third, he appointed the fifty-year-old clarinetist Karsten Voss. Voss had emigrated from Leipzig to join the new orchestra a decade earlier.  Labernz could count on him; after all, he too was a Leipziger by birth. Frau Voss, a round, cheerful woman, volunteered to organize the contestants in an antechamber she was pleased to call the salle d’attente, make a record of their names, and admit them one at a time, after cautioning them not to speak. The plan was simple.  The contestants were to perform a piece of their own choice.  A second piece would test their sight-reading.  After consulting with both his colleagues, Labernz settled on the solo from Rossini’s La Scala di Seta.

            Julie arrived in Marburg the day before.  She found lodging in a respectable house recommended by the retired professor of philology with whom she had shared the public coach.  Her landlady was welcoming but could not conceal her surprise at having a young woman, pretty and unaccompanied, inquiring about a room.  Still, her attitude was polite and, when she heard that Julie’s surname had a von in it, deferential and protective.  Julie was ravenous.  She asked the landlady to suggest a decent restaurant.  “You should go to the Atschel.  It serves good Hessian food, nothing that might upset a young lady’s stomach.”  The Atschel, an old timbered inn, was brightly lit, cordial and unpretentious.  Julie ordered veal chops with breaded cauliflower and fried potatoes, all washed down with a carafe of Moselle. Thanks to the wine, she didn’t wake until almost nine the following morning.  She dressed quickly, swallowed a cup of tea, took up her oboe case and asked the landlady the way to Rheinach Hall.

            Frau Voss’s salle d’attente quickly overheated and so she had everyone move outside under the shade of two linden trees.  When Julie arrived, there were at least two dozen men already lined up, all clutching oboe cases.  Frau Voss was making a list of their names, assigning each a number.  When she saw Julie join the queue, the good woman asked if she had made a mistake.  Was she perhaps looking for the baker’s or the butcher’s?

            “No, Madam. I’m here to audition.”


            The men who overheard this exchange scoffed.  One tried to make a joke: “Just look,” he said.  “The dear creature’s far too pretty to play the oboe well.”

            Julie rounded on this fellow and quoted Goethe’s penitent Gretchen.  “Just look,” she mocked.  “The new light blinds him so.”

            “Oh, ho,” said the man, looking at his fellows.  “Mademoiselle, the audition may be blind, but the Maestro is not a fool.”

            “So much the better,” she retorted.  “Then he has the advantage of you.”

            “But,” interrupted Frau Voss, genuinely puzzled, “you’re a woman.”

            “Yes, Madam, like you.  As I understand, the audition is open.  There were no conditions.”

            “Well, yes, but—”

            “Then you may write down my name with the others.”  She moved closer, looked at the long list.  “Julie von Kibenau.”

            “Oh, von,” sneered her antagonist, winking at the others.

            The day had grown still muggier and the wait wasn’t brief.  The men sat on the grass or leaned against the lindens, waiting to be summoned.  Julie stood apart. The musicians who preceded her had come out dripping with sweat, but she remained as cool as a marble statue in her cotton frock.  When, at last, Frau Voss let her into the audition room, Julie took her seat and three deep breaths. 

            She had chosen to play a Bach piece which she knew by heart, as it was her own transcription.  When she finished, a deep voice came from the other side of the drapery.  “That was good.  Very good indeed.  Now, if you please, play us the music on the stand.”

            La Scala di Seta.  Julie knew the solo and, though unable to play it from memory, didn’t drop a single note.

            There was no disagreement over who had been the best oboist.  However, when Labernz summoned Frau Voss and gave her the number of the winner, the good woman put her hands together and turned anxiously toward her husband.

            “What is it?” he asked

             “You’d best see for yourselves.”

            “Many thanks for all your help, Frau Voss,” said Labernz.  “You’ve made everything go smoothly.”

            The woman heaved a sigh.  “Very well, sir.  I’ll fetch number twenty-eight.”

            Frau Voss drew aside the dusty drape, went out the door, and returned with a beaming young woman who began speaking at once.

            “Oh, thank you, gentlemen.  I’m so grateful.  And, if you’ll permit me, what a wonderful idea you had to make the audition not only open but blind—like Lady Justice herself.”  Having delivered this analogy, she curtsied and went right up to each of the men and introduced herself.

            “Very well done, Fraulein,” said a stunned Labernz.  The others offered only little bows.

            After Julie left, Voss said he would defer to the Maestro, but Urster was adamantly opposed to the appointment. As for the maestro, though it was his inspiration to make the audition blind, he had never imagined it being won by a female. He was shaken yet his exacting sense of fairness prevailed.  Should she get the post?  Yes, she should.  She had earned it.

            “It will be all right,” he said soothingly to Urster.  “Besides, she’ll soon marry.”

            The Concertmaster was not mollified.  He predicted that this young woman would wreak havoc on their orchestra.

            “Calm yourself, Matthias.  Think of Vivaldi and his Ospedale.  A whole orchestra of young women.  It’ll be fine.  Really.”

            Urster grumbled.  “I feel like Cassandra.”

            “Another woman,” Voss cracked.  Neither of his colleagues smiled.

            For Matthias Urster, the Philharmonia was initially a refuge from his troubles in Mannheim:  an abrasive marriage, an unsatisfactory relationship with the music director, carping in-laws, too many debts.  The same winter his wife died, he learned of the new project in Marburg and applied to join the orchestra.  Labernz saw in the man just what he needed in a concertmaster:  a dependable violinist, a veteran who was no musical reactionary, a man who could project the kind of authority needed to manage young players, one with the sort of practical experience that could be of real help to him.  And all this proved true.  Urster quickly proved his worth and devoted himself to the orchestra, though he could not love it so much as Labernz.  The concertmaster was a doting uncle, the conductor the adoring father.

            Alois Labernz could fix precisely the moment that determined the course of his life. As a boy in Leipzig, he was taken to the Gewandhaus to hear Felix Mendelssohn conduct.  It seemed to him that all his senses were shaken awake that evening.  The glittering chandeliers, the immaculately groomed men, the coiffed and perfumed women, even their coughs and sneezes—it all excited him.  And then there was the unforgettable entrance of the Maestro—so slim and modest yet commanding.  Because Mendelssohn hadn’t yet done anything, Alois was surprised that he was met with loud, prolonged applause; however, the way Mendelssohn acknowledged it with just a slight inclination of his curly head took his breath away.

            The concert began with Beethoven’s overture, Consecration of the House.  The five great chords of the opening thrilled Alois.  He had heard music before, plenty of it at his mother’s musical soirées—recitals by pianists, fiddlers, singers, even an amateur string quartet; but this was his first experience of a symphony orchestra.  After those attention-grabbing chords came the first theme, a dignified melody stated with unexpected tenderness by an oboe behind which the propulsive power of the orchestra seemed to wait in high tension. The overture was an ocean and he was a cork, tiny but buoyant and unsinkable.  Beethoven’s brilliant variations delighted him.  They came like waves, the same but different, full of energy, rushing him toward a shore where all the instruments’ strength would be released in a majestic detonation.  The false endings teased, augmenting all that accumulated power, delaying, delaying its full release.  Alois was in love.  And up there, commanding it all, was Mendelssohn, the hero on whom the audience and the musicians all focused their gaze, the pin in the magnificent pinwheel—the great Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who, though his name meant happy, would be dead at thirty-eight.

            It was for the sake of the city’s Romantic connections that Alois decided to matriculate at the University of Marburg.  His father argued for his own alma mater, Heidelberg, was even willing to accept Wittenberg or Tübingen.  But Alois stood firm and got his way by promising to study law rather than music.  Nevertheless, from the moment he heard those five great chords, his heart belonged to music and his ambition was to conduct.  He was already an accomplished pianist but at Marburg he took up woodwinds, brass, and strings; he pored over scores of scores.  In his second year, he organized a chamber music society, in his third expanding it to a chamber orchestra large enough to perform his own reductions of Mozart and Haydn symphonies.  The public began to attend his performances at the University and Alois earned a local reputation.  He was taken up by the local nobility and the wives of Marburg academics and burghers.  After completing his law degree, he stayed on, though the town was still a backwater without either industries or political significance.  That would change after 1866, when the Hessian prince backed the losing side in the war between Prussia and Austria.  This miscalculation proved beneficial for Marburg, however.  Though annexed by Prussia, it remained effectively independent and Berlin chose to make Marburg the region’s new administrative center.  But long before this, while the Prince still ruled, at the urging of his wife he recognized Labernz’s cultural contributions by conferring on him the right to add von to his name. This distinction reconciled Alois’ father to his son’s refusal both to practice law and to return to Leipzig.  In short order, Labernz elevated his amateur chamber orchestra into the Marburg Philharmonia.  Subscriptions sold well and he recruited good young talent as well as securing the lease on Rheinach Hall and carrying out the needed renovations.  The inaugural concert of the Marburg Philharmonia began fittingly with Beethoven’s Consecration of the House and concluded with Mendelssohn’s final symphony, the Reformation.

            Alois lived simply, in two rented rooms, where he went only to sleep.  He took his meals at a workmen’s restaurant and was at the Hall almost all the time. All his affection was bestowed on music and his orchestra. He was proof against every effort of the local ladies to arrange a marriage for him.  At last they threw up their hands. 

            “The man’s an ascetic, a musical monk,” they said disapprovingly; but they all renewed their subscriptions.

            Julie von Kibenau’s family knew where she had gone; for on the day of her escape she left on her bed a letter informing her parents of her intentions.  After the successful audition, she wrote to say that she would be staying in Marburg and had been asked to join its celebrated orchestra.  She was healthy, pleased with her new surroundings, and had no intention of returning to Siegen, let alone marrying one of its inhabitants.  She was, she wrote, of age, free, independent, and employed.  “Please don’t think me ungrateful or unnatural,” she concluded, knowing this was precisely what her Pietist parents would think.

            Julie attracted a great deal of attention in Marburg and not only from the young musicians of the orchestra.  Docents and doctoral candidates were also drawn to her, likewise registrars and councilors, visiting virtuosi as well.  She did not exactly flirt with all these men, but neither did she discourage any but the most unprepossessing.  She simply did not regard her relations with them as a serious matter, not compared to music, to her work with the orchestra.  This ambiguous attitude frustrated some of her admirers but inflamed others, especially the musicians who saw her so often and imagined they were competing with one another rather than with something they too loved.

            “It’s a scandal,” the local women declared, and their husbands would have to agree, though for most of them observing Julie von Kibenau was the chief benefit of escorting their culturally ambitious spouses to the orchestra’s concerts.

            One Tuesday in January, following a rehearsal, Julie came up to Labernz at his podium and asked permission speak to him.

             “Of course, Fraulein von Kibenau,” he said.  Alois had seen his oboist almost every day for months, but never from so short a distance.  He noticed that she appeared to be distressed and found this upset him, as if whatever was troubling her were contagious.

            She glanced around and whispered, “Might we speak privately?”

            This request did not please Alois; nevertheless, he replied positively.  “Certainly.  We  can go up to my office.”

            Julie had never before been to the Maestro’s sanctum.  Under different circumstances, the room’s dull colors and masculine clutter would have amused her.  She might even have been drawn to the long arched window, if she were not preoccupied.

            “Please,” said Alois, indicating the love seat.  Julie sat while he strode to his desk and remained standing beside it.  “Now, what’s the matter?”

            “It’s my family, Maestro.  Or, at least, my brothers.”


            “Yesterday, I received an urgent message from a friend in Siegen. That’s where I’m from.”

            “Siegen.  Yes, I know.”

            “You do?”  Julie looked at him quizzically then went on.  “Well, my friend happened to learn that my brothers are coming here to Marburg.  They mean to persuade me to return with them, but if they fail—as they will—then, according to my friend, they’re determined to abduct me.”

            “Abduct you?  But why?”

            Julie looked at Alois more closely, and saw that he really did need the matter explained to him.  She began slowly.  “My family is very religious and terribly respectable.  They live in the eyes of others; that is, the eyes of the people of Siegen.  When I came here and was so fortunate as to win a place in the orchestra, I expected they would be content to disown me and never to mention my name again.  And perhaps they would have done so, if only others had also forgotten me.  But it seems my brothers have been teased about me once too often—chided or mocked or ridiculed.”

            “I’m not sure I understand.  Why would people tease your brothers?”

            Julie blushed and spoke haltingly, trying to spell things out.  “My being here, here on my own and unmarried—don’t you see?—it’s led to talk in Siegen.”

            “Your home.”

            “No.  In Siegen.  My home is here.  If my brothers come they’ll have to take me away by force and against my will.”

            For a moment Alois thought how pleased Urster would be if this pretty creature really were to be whisked away, restoring harmony to the Philharmonia.  But then Alois’ conscience rebelled against the thought and he said, “We can’t allow that.”

            Julie beamed at him as she had on the sultry August day of her audition.  “Oh, I’m so relieved to hear you say that, Maestro.  I’m very happy here.”

            “Much happier than in Siegen?  Yes, I can see that.”

            She nodded.

            “But,” he began with no clear idea of where he was heading, “but, um, no doubt you’ll recall the matter of Heiner Knochenmur, not to mention Bäcker and Eichel?”


            “What I mean is that your, er, your situation, that it’s a problem here too, Fraulein, here in Marburg I mean, and with the orchestra.  You must know there’s been talk.”

            Julie blushed and raised her hands almost like a supplicant.  “My situation?  Am I to blame for people’s gossip, for their childishness?  Is my situation an unforgivable fault?”

            “No, of course not; but there have been complaints.  Herr Urster in particular is most upset.  The men. . . they do fight over you. The concertmaster says—”

             Julie stuck out her chin.  “Then you would prefer a different oboist?”

            “No, no.  Your playing is more than satisfactory.  In fact, it’s excellent.”

            “Then I am—what?—inconvenient?”

            Now it was Alois who blushed.  He turned toward the arched window, speaking to it rather than Julie.

            “Let me think things over and decide what’s best to do.”

            “You know that my brothers may show up at any time?”  

            “Yes, I understand.”

            There was nothing more Julie could say.  She rose to her feet, took a step toward him, and said, “Thank you, Maestro, for listening to my worries.”  She held out her hand.  Alois took it awkwardly in both of his.

            “Tomorrow,” he mumbled.

            Then, with a quick curtsey, she was out the door.

            Labernz spent the rest of the afternoon in his office.  He went out briefly for a light supper then returned.  He couldn’t face spending the cold night in his chilly rooms.  Urster always made sure there was wood in the office’s fireplace.  Alois lit a fire, sat before it, stood and paced, looked out through the long window onto empty Rheinach Square.

            He certainly did not wish to lose his fine oboist; moreover, he flattered himself that taking on Fraulein von Kibenau aligned him with society’s progressive elements.  Yet he knew that he was claiming credit for a course he hadn’t taken.  Hiring her had not been an act of political daring or moral courage.  She had simply won a blind competition.  Perhaps Urster was right to have advised against such a thing.  Nevertheless, Alois believed in the young woman’s right to choose her own life, and the idea of her being removed by force from both Marburg and his orchestra revolted him.  On the other hand, Urster hadn’t been wrong about the effect on the young men of placing an attractive unmarried female among them.  Then there was the gossip in the town.  And now he’d learned that her family suffered from the same thing.  At least her brothers did.  Alois felt some sympathy for them, albeit not very much.  It was a long night.

            At nine the following morning, Concertmaster Urster climbed the stairs of Rheinach Hall.  There was a tricky passage in Schumann’s Fourth Symphony he wished to go over with the Maestro. When he knocked, the door was flung open and Alois stood before him red-eyed, unshaven, and disheveled.

            “I’ve reached a decision, Matthias,” he burst out before Urster could say a word.


            “Don’t ask me.  I can’t tell you about it.  No.  I’m sorry.  At least not yet.  No, not yet.”

            “Are you unwell, Maestro?”

            “I don’t know.  Perhaps a little feverish. I’ve scarcely slept.  Look, when Fraulein von Kibenau arrives, please send her to see me. To see me here.  I’ll be waiting.”

            Urster rejoiced.  So, he had carried his point at last.  The final straw had fallen and the disruptive weed was to be extirpated from the garden of the Philharmonia.

            “I’ll be sure to do so,” he said with an almost jaunty bow.

            Within the hour, Julie knocked at the open door and saw that the conductor was in a state. There had been no abduction during the night.  She wore a yellow pinafore and looked fresh as a daffodil. 

            “Will you please sit down, Fraulein.”

            She did so. He paced back and forth in front of her.

            “As I promised,” Alois began, “I’ve given thorough consideration to your situation and the orchestra’s—also to your family’s.  Your brothers object to your presence here and, as you know, so does our Concertmaster.”  He paused.  “I myself do not,” he said with particular emphasis.  “Nevertheless, I can see that the status-quo is untenable, that it has created a strain on you, your people, and also on us, on the orchestra.  After careful thought, I believe I’ve found the only and also—at least from my point of view—the best solution.”

            Julie looked up at him with bright eyes. 

            Alois Labernz appeared to collapse at her feet but his voice was firm.

            “Fraulein von Kibenau,” he said, “will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”


Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published the story collections Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal, and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of journals. His novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction. His most recent books are The Artist Wears Rough Clothing and Heiberg’s Twitch. The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein, a collection of essays, is forthcoming.

His stories have appeared frequently in Offcourse.

For a related poem see http://www.verse-virtual.com/robert-wexelblatt-2016-march.html


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