by Anatoly Belilovsky
September 1, 1870
Most respected Feldmarschall von Moltke,
I wish to thank you for giving me the opportunity to put my theories to the test in the taking of Sedan. They were, of course, entirely correct, and our clear tactical victory I am happy to be reporting.
Die Grosse Bertha worked to perfection; we were able to play Bruckner’s Zero Symphony at half steam while the technicians adjusted all their valves and levers. Steamwinds worked perfectly on the first try, and though of course strings needed to be tuned, of the steam tympani there was never any doubt. I have perhaps been harsh on occasion in my estimation of Herr Bruckner’s work, but for making the listeners run away screaming I should say his symphonies are without rival.
The French did put up some feeble resistance; approaching Sedan, I became aware of an odd syncopated rhythm off in the distance. Upon opening the window I was able to ascertain the nature of the music.
“Toreador!” I exclaimed. “The fools! They think to defeat me with Bizet!”
It is not yet time to unleash my the fruit of my genius, the Secret Weapon, as old and tried music is proving adequate to the task. Anton Bruckner has cleared the way to the French capital; I swore that I should only unleash a composition of mine own when I wish for the adversary to fall to his knees and surrender to its sublime harmonies on the spot, and Paris has witnessed many such occasions. My own procession under the Arc de Triomphe is some thirty years overdue, but should taste all the sweeter for that.
I am sure that somewhere ahead the French are working on their defensive fortifications. No one is worried. What do the French have? Obsolete Berlioz? Hastily updated Gounod?
I am sure this war will end quickly in our complete victory.
After the battle, a portly man in uniform came to me on the train. He wore a cap with the word “Conductor” emblazoned in gold. Many a times have I guest conducted a philharmonic without ever noticing the permanent conductor, but this was the first time anyone tried this diligently to be noticed as such. He brought me bedclothes and a glass of tea, which I thought was quite hospitable
I cannot be as kind in my estimation of his musical erudition; the fellow looked at me with a most bemused expression when I attempted to engage him in a conversation about chromatic scales. Must be an Austrian.
On to Paris!
Your obedient servant,
September 28, 1870
My dear von Moltke,
A near disaster was averted today! I brought out the Secret Weapon on approaching Paris, conducting Ride of the Valkyries just as the towers of Notre Dame and the hill of Montmartre came into view. An ominous silence met us, making my heart quite uneasy. The events proved my misgivings to be well founded, but it all came out well at the end.
I ordered the Kriegszug stopped at Gare du Nord. As the soldiers silently deployed to guard the platform, quite suddenly plaintive chords rang out. After only a few bars, soldiers and technicians began to collapse, crying.
“Mein Gott!” I exclaimed. “I forgot about Halévy! It’s La Juive! We’re done for!”
More and more of my men were falling hors de combat: the collier, the string tighteners, the brass polishers. Timpanenführer Schmidt sobbed on my shoulder, the Rotznase. The fires went out under the boilers, and Big Bertha fell silent.
The situation seemed quite dire when, suddenly, the unseen orchestra stumbled and ground to a cacophonic halt. As our soldiers rose and straightened their uniforms in embarrassment, a little Frenchman ran to the train carrying a dagger and a blood-spattered score.
“Monsieur Wagner!” he exclaimed. “Mon Dieu, you are arrived! It is just in time to save my beautiful France from — ” he turned, furtively, and whispered: “–them…”
“Them?” I asked.
The little man nodded. “Them,” he whispered. “Jews. Halévy. Others. They are everywhere, hiding in plain sight. We don’t even know who all of them are, but we know Halévy.”
I long, my dear von Moltke, to be back in our civilized Germany, where such views are not tolerated. Hidden Hebrews, indeed!
We got Bertha stoked in no time at all, the Valkyries resumed their flight, and Napoleon III brought me his sword and the keys to the city shortly after that. I put the little traitor in the same prison cell as the Emperor. It should be sufficient punishment for both.
December 24, 1870
Best friend von Moltke,
It was not my idea to send the Wartrain on a goodwill tour, and it is no fault of mine that it did not end well.
Herr Krupp’s brilliant machine was met with cheers throughout France, it played to anschlag audiences in La Rochelle, Toulon, Marseilles. I did not think it was wise to cross into Italy after playing in Nice, but at the urging of a certain Rotznase whom I shall not name we did so all the same.
We were met by a tremendous crowd in Genoa. Die Walküre was no longer a secret weapon, but it was still our best, and we played it well. At the first buzzing bars of the Flight the crowd was neither cowed nor awed. In fact, moments later I became aware of soft oboe-like humming. Its volume grew; I looked about for a hidden orchestra, but there was none to be found. It was the people, as I soon realized. The crowd was singing a capella. It was singing without words. It was singing…
No, it was HUMMING the Triumphal March from Aida! I had seen Verdi’s score, the first page was all piano, but as it went on there would be forti and fortissimi, and the crowd was still growing, as was my unease. It was incredible, but in no time at all my Valkyries were all but drowned out. I signaled my technicians to cut the steam. The crowd grew silent, too.
One man came forward in the silence. He sang a capella as well, but he sang alone.
Vesti la giubba —
Put on your motley —
E faccia in farina —
And powder your face —
I did not know why the aria did not start at the beginning; and then I saw: after the next —
— La gente paga, e rider vuole qua.
–The people paid, the people wish to laugh —
there was a pause.
Bah! Sei tu forse un uom’? Tu se’ Pagliaccio!
Are you a man? No; you’re a clown.
“Fire up the boilers!” I shouted.
It took some time for my technicians to stop sobbing. “W-what shall we play, Maestro?” the Timpanenführer asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “I was referring to the locomotives. We are leaving. These people are unconquerable. We must find an easier target.”
“Such as?” the technician asked.
A damned good question, isn’t it, Moltke? So much of difference between a triumph and a flop is determined by the choice of venue. I have given it much thought. I think I shall go to Russia. They haven’t got any composers worth mentioning.
About the Author
Anatoly Belilovsky is a Russian-American author and translator of speculative fiction. He was born in a city that went through six or seven owners in the last century, all of whom used it to do a lot more than drive to church on Sundays; he is old enough to remember tanks rolling through it on their way to Czechoslovakia in 1968. After being traded to the US for a shipload of grain and a defector to be named later (see Wikipedia, Jackson-Vanik amendment), he learned English from Star Trek reruns and went on to become a paediatrician in an area of New York where English is only the fourth most commonly used language.
His original work appeared or will appear in the Unidentified Funny Objects anthology, Ideomancer, Nature Futures, Stupefying Stories, Immersion Book of Steampunk, Daily SF, Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk, and Genius Loci anthology, and has been podcast by Cast of Wonders, Tales of Old, and Toasted Cake; his translations from Russian have sold to F&SF, Year’s Best SF #32 (edited by Gardner Dozois,) Grimdark, and Kasma. He blogs about writing at loldoc.net.
About the Narrator
Hans Fenstermacher was born in front of the Iron Curtain in Munich, Germany. He grew up in the crosshairs of the Cold War in Berlin. With that kind of provenance, what else could he do but study Russian? Despite the tutelage (read: learning swearwords) from his T.A., Anatoly, and after a stint really deep behind the Iron Curtain in Leningrad, Hans managed to graduate with a degree in Russian. He went on to a lengthy career in localization (if you have to ask what it is, you don’t need it) and language-related exploits.