ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"May Hill," a story by Robert Wexelblatt

           When Sarah Sala was eleven years old her parents took her to the Cheltenham Festival in Gloucestershire.  Though it was March, damp and chilly, Sarah insisted that they climb May Hill.  Her mother, who felt a cold coming on and wanted to attend a piano recital, declined, but her well-read father was all for it.  As they began the ascent, he recited a verse from Ivor Gurney: May Hill that Gloucester dwellers ‘gainst every sunset see.  Sarah said she liked the rhythm but there was something odd about it.  Her scholarly father, a lecturer in Romance Languages, had the knack of being droll and pedantic at once. He told Sarah the oddity was because of Gurney’s outlandish sentence structure.  “It’s Teutonic because you have to wait so long for the verb.”  His own family was Italian, not German.  Sarah’s Sala grandparents had emigrated from Milan before the war.  Her other grandparents, the Jewish Blumfelds, were also an immigrant family.  They arrived two generations before the Salas.  As for Sarah’s parents, both were thoroughly English, right down to their inoffensive agnosticism, but Sarah may have been the most English of all.

            When she was little, Sarah often asked to hear the story of how her parents met.  She liked hearing both her parents’ versions.  They agreed that their relationship began by a lucky mischance in the Michaelhouse Café where the undergraduate who would become Sarah’s mother stumbled in her haste to join some friends and spilled hot tea over the graduate student who would become her father.  His version emphasized the temperature of the tea and the brand-newness of his herringbone Harris tweed.  Sarah’s mother’s version was more amusing because she used the story to explain the distinction between schlemiel and schlimazel.  “I was the schlemiel,” she would say at the end of the story then wait for Sarah’s jubilant response: “And dad was the schlimazel!”

            Sarah’s mother was a talented pianist who offered lessons to the children of Cambridge.  She began Sarah on the instrument when she was barely three. It quickly became obvious that Sarah was a prodigy.  She had perfect pitch, played beautifully, and was a whiz at sight-reading.  Moreover, her appetite for music was insatiable.  Her favorite thing to do was to lie on the carpet, drawing pictures and listening to her mother’s collection of vinyl disks and CDs.  One rainy afternoon, her mother played her Jacqueline du Pré’s recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto and told the story of the cellist’s life and early death.  Like Sarah, du Pré was English but had a foreign name.  She thought du Pré glamorously tragic, a romantic heroine, a worthy idol.  Sarah’s instrument would not be the piano.

            Sarah’s Englishness was rooted in the Cambridgeshire countryside of her childhood and her visits to London concert halls, both of which were embodied in the music she loved best, the string compositions of Holst, Butterworth, Parry, Bridge, Britten, and Vaughn-Williams.  In her teens she conceived a particular affection for the instrumental works of Gerald Finzi who, like du Pré, suffered an early death.  She shared with him a Jewish background and an Italian surname and thought him unjustly neglected.  When she learned from a biography that Finzi’s ashes were scattered on May Hill she was deeply moved.  She remembered climbing the hill and it deepened her bond.  When she was asked what she wanted for her fifteenth birthday, Sarah begged for another trip to Gloucestershire to climb May Hill again.  She told her parents she wanted to pay homage to Gerald Finzi.

            Sarah attended the Netherhall School and studied cello privately, first with Helen Knox-Thompson and then Nigel Threlkeld.  Her father arranged for her to audit two music history classes at the University.  She was happy almost all the time. 

            Then, suddenly and to Sarah’s horror, everything went topsy-turvy.  Her father received an offer of a professorship from the University of Pennsylvania with a good prospect of tenure.  Sarah’s whining objections felt selfish and flimsy, even to her.  Her mother told her about Philadelphia’s excellent Curtis Institute of Music and said she was confident Sarah would be accepted there with a letter from Threlkeld and a successful audition.  And that is what happened.  Sarah took some solace in the high praise of the Institute’s panel.

            The family settled in the suburb of Cheltenham, chosen for its Gloucestershire name, which somewhat appeased Sarah.  That it reportedly had many Jewish residents made her mother, appalled by the brutal rhetoric of America’s politics and the violence of its films, feel safer.  After a quick adjustment and a good year, Sarah’s parents decided that they would stay and become citizens.  Her father said jovially they would make it a family event.  “In four years, we can submit our N-400 forms together, in a bunch.”  Sarah bridled until her father explained dual citizenship, that being American didn’t mean she had to give up being English.

            Sarah excelled at Curtis was soon performing regularly with the Institute’s chamber groups.  Her father arranged for her and her mother to play three of Beethoven’s cello sonatas at the University, and Sarah was asked back to perform three of Bach’s suites.

            Sarah’s sentimental education was limited but instructive.  Some boys were drawn to her seriousness, others captivated when she said things like different to and not different from.  She liked the idea of appearing exotic, like the vivacious oboist from Brazil and the morose violinist from Croatia.  Then she figured out it was something a little different. When she spoke up in class, everyone quieted down and paid attention, even the teacher, just because of her pronunciation.  She amused her parents by observing that the American Revolution had done away with British rule but evidently not the colonial authority of an Oxbridge accent.

            Though her adolescence was hardly a social whirlwind, it was not without heartbreak.  Like any other school seething with teenagers, Curtis was a hormonal hothouse.  Sarah had one serious romance.  She even cultivated two girlfriends just to talk to them about Randolph, a brilliant composition student two years ahead of her.  Randolph was intense in how he looked and spoke, in all he did.  He had broad tastes.  He idolized Alban Berg but admired Francis Poulenc.  He talked fast, speed-read Mann, Dostoyevsky, and Unamuno.  It was as if he was always facing a deadline.  Randolph too was charmed by her accent, but he was also attracted by a seriousness that matched his own.  Then he graduated and secured a scholarship to study in Paris.  He phoned Sarah three times, texted four, and that was that.  The tatters of her old Cambridge accent couldn’t compete with a fresh French one.  “C’est la vie,” she said to her worried mother.  And then she graduated, too.

            At twenty, Sarah’s future was uncertain.  No manager stepped forward; however, a retirement opened a position in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and her teachers at Curtis encouraged her to apply.  Sarah was keen though feared it might be overreaching.  Her parents weren’t encouraging because of her age.  Not wanting her to build her hopes too high, her father shared some research.

            “The average age of an orchestra member in this country is forty-six.  It’s even older in Europe.” 

            Her mother was gentler but even more anxious, afraid that her only child, who had known nothing but success, might be crushed.  But thanks to the influence of Curtis, Sarah was granted an audition.  Despite their doubts, her parents rented her a better cello.  She chose Bach’s Sixth Suite and practiced like mad on the new instrument. 

            Sarah’s father asked her how she liked the fancy cello.

            “Like it?  It’s how I imagine driving a Bentley would feel.  Thank you, thank you, thank you, Papa.  Grazie mille volte!”

            The panel was impressed.  One member, the concert master, asked if she felt prepared to play something more.  She smiled, nodded, took a deep breath, and played the Forlana from Finzi’s Five Bagetelles in her own arrangement.  It was the Finzi, she believed, that closed the deal.  When the phone call with the good news came that she would be offered a one-year probationary contract, Sarah only grinned at her parents, not out of arrogance, but to keep herself from jumping up and down and screaming I told you so.

            Sarah was not only a rookie but of a different generation from her colleagues.  Many were charmed and supportive, but quite a few were neither.  The latter were pleased when a visiting conductor, a notorious tyrant, halted a rehearsal to correct her timing.  The stickler corrected several other players too but Sarah felt humiliated and was out of sorts for a week.  She buckled down, mastered her parts, paid strict attention to tempi and, in general, was a good soldier.  As she said to her father, “I keep my knees apart and my head down.”  At the end of the season, the orchestra’s music director asked to see her privately and told her what a good job she had done.  Even if it was patronizing, Sarah was nonetheless pleased.  It meant that she wasn’t being let go.

            When the schedule for the next season was announced, Sarah was thrilled.  A renowned Swedish soloist, a man whose playing she admired, had asked to make a change in the program.  Instead of the Dvorak concerto, he wanted to play Gerald Finzi’s.  The conductor explained to his troops. 

            “Mr. Bengtsson thinks the Finzi concerto is an underappreciated masterpiece and far too infrequently performed.  I asked Fred to check and, sure enough, our orchestra has never performed the Finzi.  In a sense, it will be a premiere for the audience, especially our subscribers, all of whom already know the Dvorak.  My point?  We’ve all got important work to do before our guest arrives for rehearsals.  And, by the way, I think he’s right about the Finzi.”

            Bengtsson was tall, even for a Swede, not blond but with a straight, dignified posture and a handsome if rather narrow face.  His salt-and-pepper hair was close-cropped.  He reminded Sarah a little of Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal.  She found him livelier than his photographs suggested; that is, when he was playing.  When he was not, he appeared as distant and cold as a fjord.  He played well, but in Sarah’s view with more correctness than feeling.  But this was just in rehearsal when restraint is to be expected.  The performance was yet to come.

            But then it didn’t.  It seemed Bengtsson had eaten something he shouldn’t or had picked up a stomach bug.  The day before the first of the three scheduled concerts, he cancelled.  Like everybody, the conductor was disappointed, though not so sorely as Sarah.  He said they would be substituting Mozart’s Prague Symphony which they had performed that summer for the traditional free concert at the Mann Center.  He added that a few of the subscribers might be unhappy, but in his opinion most would be content to swap unfamiliar Finzi for tried-and-true Mozart.

            Sarah didn’t give what she did after this speech any thought at all.   Raising her hand with the bow in it, she turned herself into a human exclamation point.

            “I can play the Finzi.  I love the concerto.  I know it by heart, Maestro.”

            There was a moment of shock, then derisive whispering followed by some barely muffled laughter.  Sarah heard a word her mother sometimes used disapprovingly, chutzpah.  The conductor just stared at her.

            In the ardent grip of her idea, Sarah began to play the Andante Quieto and, slowly, quiet spread from the strings to the woodwinds, to the brass, and all the way to the percussionists.

            The A-minor Cello Concerto, Opus 40, was Gerald Finzi’s last significant work.  It was commissioned for the 1955 Cheltenham Festival.  Finzi had been diagnosed with untreatable Hodgkin’s disease four years earlier and given up to ten years to live.  He got only half of that, dying fourteen months after his concerto’s premiere.  To Sarah, the concerto conveyed many meanings, but one of these was a farewell to music and to life, ein Abschied.  To her, the cello was an autobiographical character.  In effect, it bore the soul of Gerald Finzi. 

            With only two days to prepare, Sarah lacked the time to think of anything but the concerto, to master the score and reassure her conductor.  She ignored her parents and thought only of Finzi and the music’s meaning, how it expressed his love of his wife Joy and of rural England but also his despair.  Listening is done from the outside, performing from the inside.  She thought of Finzi’s need to get away from his native London to the countryside, though it was in the city that he made his career, his marriage, and his best friends.  Finzi composed the concerto in Gloucestershire, home to Cheltenham—the real one, Sarah couldn’t help thinking—within sight of May Hill.

            As always, Finzi wrote lyrically, even in the roiling first movement.  He gives the cello an extended cadenza that slowly mourns and soars but is no virtuosic showpiece.  He makes the cello sing like an alto with a three-octave range.  In the end, though, the ominous tones of the orchestra bludgeon the singer into silence.

            As she performed in the first concert, Sarah’s heart swelled.  She played better than she ever had before, better than Bengtsson had, especially in the andante quieto, her favorite movement, to her, the quintessence of the composer.  It is lovely, peaceful, romantic.  Sarah filled it with her own nostalgia and longing, with the ineradicable Englishness she felt she shared with Finzi.  When she closed her eyes she pictured the green countryside, the narrow lanes, and the swell of May Hill.  When the movement ended, some in the audience began to applaud, which isn’t supposed to happen.  Then others joined in.  The conductor turned around and, with a broad and sympathetic smile to the hall, gently motioned for quiet.

            Sarah played the last movement in an altered state imagining the spirits of Finzi and du Pré standing on either side of her.  When it was over, the audience stood and cheered.  A triumph.

            The headline of the Inquirer’s review read “A Star is Born.”  During the following week there were requests for interviews, including one from a network morning show.  The Sunday Times ran an article with her graduation snapshot from Curtis.  A management company called.  There were invitations to perform the Finzi concerto from Cleveland and San Francisco.  Both conductors phoned personally, and one flattered Sarah by saying she might be to Finzi what du Pré was to Elgar.  Teachers from the Institute sent flowers, and the Director asked her to consider a part-time position working with the younger students and, of course, the cellists.

            Her parents rejoiced for her, but they did so discreetly and offered no advice.  The exaltation lasted hardly more than a week, worn away by all the attention and too many options. Alone late in the night, Sarah gave herself up to the compelling nostalgia she had felt while playing the concerto.  She felt Finzi’s longing for the country, his displacement.  On an impulse, she contacted the Cheltenham Symphony, also the Newent and Gloucestershire orchestras, all semi-professional.  She sent an inquiry about a teaching post to the Gloucestershire Academy of Music.  Then, raising her sights, she wrote formally to the City of Birmingham Symphony, the Hallé Orchestra, and the London Philharmonic.  Even without a secure position, Sarah was determined to move back to England.  

            It took her parents some time to absorb and process the shock of their daughter’s decision.  They were surprised by her rejection of so many opportunities, perhaps disappointed, already missing her.  Her mother especially needed time to ease her way to resignation.  But it seemed like acquiescence when she prepared a traditional Sunday dinner of roast beef, Britishly overdone, with sprouts and Yorkshire pudding.  Little was said about Sarah’s choice, but over the apple crumble her father began to reminisce about their trips to May Hill.  It was typical of him to make it literary.  He wistfully quoted two lines from Masefield.

                        I’ve marked the May Hill ploughman stay
                        There on his hill, day after day. 

            “Is that it?” he asked rather shrewdly.

            “Yes.  In part.  Don’t, please, get me wrong.  It’s been good here, very good, but I want to go home.”

            “Home?” said her mother sharply.  “Isn’t this home?”

            “I’m sorry, Mum.  That came out wrong.”

            Her mother picked up the plates and vanished into the kitchen maybe to wash, maybe to weep. 

            Sarah’s father grimaced and motioned Sarah toward the living room.  They sat opposite each other.

            He posed a few practical questions, all of which Sarah answered rather vaguely.  Then Professor Sala, master of the lingua franca of literature, asked her whether she knew Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.”

            “I don’t think anybody in Philadelphia gets out of high school without reading it, Dad.”

            “Really?  Well, yes, that’s good.  Do you happen to know where Frost wrote it and why?”

            “Nope, but I expect you’re going to tell me.”

            Her father took a deep breath and spoke softly.  “Frost lived in England from 1912 to 1915.  One of the friends he made there was the writer, Edward Thomas.  The two liked taking walks together.  One day they happened on two roads.  Thomas couldn’t decide which they should take and later mentioned to Frost that he regretted not taking the one they didn’t.  Shortly after, Frost returned to New Hampshire and sent Thomas a copy of the poem that everybody in Philadelphia has to read in high school.  Some think it was Frost’s poem that led Thomas to enlist.  He was killed two years later, in Arras, just after being sent to the Front.

            “No, I didn’t know all that.  Where did Frost live in England?  Where did he and Thomas take that walk with the two roads?”

            “In Gloucestershire, my dear.”

            Sarah sighed then smiled.  “So, maybe the road they took led to the top of May Hill?”

            “Maybe.  Or perhaps it didn’t.”

Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published eleven collections of short stories; two books of essays; two short novels; three books of poems; stories, essays, and poems in a variety of journals, and a novel awardedthe Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction.  A new collection of stories, Love Without His Wings, will be out early next year.

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