The Muse of Music
When the Italian musician Giacomo Carissimi hears about up-time music in Grantville he sets off across the Alps to see and hear these wonders. Nothing will keep him from his dream of learning the new music and seeing new instruments, not even warring militias and the threats of plague.
He eventually makes his way to the fabled wonderland of Grantville. Carissimi thinks he’s in heaven as he discovers amazing new musical instruments—especially the piano–and meets musicians from the future. He spends hours and days and weeks and months earning the music and the techniques brought back in the Ring of Fire, burning his candle at both ends so hard he almost consumes himself. Along the way the young Italian also makes new and exciting friends.
But just as he is thinking he has it all, Carissimi discovers that both the music and the relationships are harder and more challenging than he’d ever expected. In the end, only his superb talent can sustain him.
Maestro Giacomo Carissimi to Father Thomas Fitzherbert SJ
of the Illustrissimus Collegium Anglicanum in Rome June 1633,
Very Reverend Father Fitzherbert,
How are you?
I only now have time to write you this letter before leaving tomorrow morning headed for the Holy Roman Empire first and then to Thuringia, in Germany. My final destination is the town of Grantville where I am going to learn and study.
I hope this letter will find you once back from Amalfi as I hope your residence in the costiera gave you some relief from the sickness that affects your lungs. You know I have always preferred to sharpen my quills to write music and not words, but I feel the need to share with you all the events that brought me to leave Rome.
I’m writing you in English to show you how the months you spent trying to hammer this language into my hard head have not gone wasted.
This letter and the ones that will follow are maybe another way to make my English fluent, especially if you will feel free to correct any mistakes you will find in my prose with your usual and blessed Jesuitical iron discipline.
I have been told that many inhabitants of Grantville are Germans and, grazie alla Divina Providenza, the four years I spent as master of chapel at the Collegium Germanicum made my German more than passable and I can always use some French and some Latin. If I am lucky some of them will speak Italian, too!
Anyway, with the prices of parchment these times, I’d better stop rambling and go to the point. Sometimes it seems there isn’t enough paper in the whole world to write all the thoughts and feelings, the joy and the turmoil, that are nowadays in my mind.
It’s strange to think how a single evening can change a man’s approach to life and how an encounter made a man who felt uncomfortable leaving the Aurelian’s walls (you know how much I hated my position in Assisi) travel hundreds of miles to reach a far, almost mythical town. But if there is a man who can make a lazy, contemplative man leave all behind for adventure this is Messer Giulio Mazarini.
I had never met the man before. I only knew him for his fame of being one of the finest diplomats in Europe, a man with a golden tongue and of sharp wits. I have been told that he had just arrived from a mission in Germany. So I wasn’t at all surprised once I came to know he would have lectured the students of our seminary in the latest developments in the Holy Roman Empire.
After all, the Collegium Germanicum, where I have the honor to teach sacred music and to direct the choir, has been created to prepare the German clergy to better deal with the dangers of the Reformation.
I wasn’t surprised when he attended a concert we gave in his honor in Saint Apollinare, as I wasn’t surprised when he visited me in my studio after the cantate and motets were over. Paying compliments to the author is customary and polite behavior, after all. But it was what he brought with him that shocked me.
He handed me a parchment of paper and let me unroll it. While my hands and eyes were busy opening it, he asked: “Many say you are the brightest musician here in Rome, maestro. Can you tell me what is this?”
I stared at it for a while before answering. “It’s part of a music composition, it seems. But the writing, it is slightly different; some of the symbols are more complex than the ones I use, more structured, more evolved. 1 The printing quality is awesome. Where did you get this, if I may ask?”
“Grantville. You did hear about it, didn’t you?” Mazarini walked closer to the fireplace, where I keep some comfortable armchairs.
“Of course I did. Everybody is talking about it. Yet I think most of what I heard are rumors, like the one that says they are a bunch of demons or warlocks riding monsters who spit flames.” Then I added, shaking my head, “Are they really from the future?”
“Yes, they are, and the music you hold is from a piece called the Goldberg Variations, a series of sonatas composed by an artist who will live more than fifty years from now. I think his name is Bach.”
I was completely amazed by his words. I confess that I don’t know what was shaking more, my hands or my voice.
“Can I borrow it? I want to copy it and try to play it.”
“Unfortunately, I am not sure you will be able to do it. The American lady who gave it to me described it as a transcription for pianoforte. It will need another adaptation to be played on an harpsichord or an organ.”
“A pianoforte? What is that?”
“A musical instrument from the future I listened to while in the American town. It looks like an harpsichord or a spinet but it sounds quite different: richer, fuller, less metallic. They told me it will be invented by an Italian at the beginning of the next century. But that’s not the only amazing mechanical thing these people have. You should hear their music recordings, too; it’s like . . . well, it’s hard to explain. The sound of a whole orchestra coming out loudly from a box. They call it a ’CD player.’ It can play music and sounds over and over again.”
“I’m not sure how it works, but it’s as if you play something on the organ and somebody captures this sound and writes it down on a machine like printing does with words. Then, then to listen again what you played, they only have to use again the machine.”
“It’s hard to believe. A machine that captures sounds?”
“Hard to believe, but nonetheless perfectly real. One of them told me they had been a good help in beating the Spanish army last year.”
“A music that defeats an army! Sounds like some kind of joke. That’s something I’d like to hear!”
I think he realized how much he had succeeded in capturing my interest and offered to stay longer to talk about that strange place if I had more of my questions. I couldn’t quiet my curiosity, so I went to one of the drawers and took a bottle of that smooth muscat from Montefiascone called ‘Est Est Est’ you know I love so much. I poured the wine into two pewter cups I keep at hand and lighted a series of candles to have more light in the room.
At the moment I didn’t realize it, but we must have been talking for hours. He had my complete attention, and I learned many more uncanny and extraordinary things about that remote place.
I learned how the people of Grantville allied themselves with the Swedish and the German Protestant princedoms. I learned of their skill in manufacturing things, of their religious tolerance, of their fantastic knowledge of many new subjects in matters of science and medicine. At the end, Mazarini, suddenly reluctant, told me a few things of their strange and almost utopian ideas about the government of a state.
Only when the night was beginning to turn into a new morning did our meeting come to an end. Mazarini, smiling, made his offer.
“It would be a fine thing if one of our most talented young musicians traveled there to learn more about music and maybe get familiar with these up-timers, as they call themselves. There is a lot to gain from an unofficial exchange of knowledge.”
Some way I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t the more prepared for it.
“But, Messer Mazarini, I have my job here and I’m not accustomed to travel for such a long distance.”
“I know, I know, but think about how much your natural talent can gain from such an experience. You don’t have to make any decision now, of course. Nevertheless, should you agree with me, contact me at the Basilica of San Giovanni, and maybe I will be able to help you with your travel.”
He is pretty important now but I feel like that man will have an even better career! He knew how to cast the hook, how to make the bait irresistible, and at what exact moment I would bite. A master in human behavior.
Indeed I don’t know if it was my curiosity or my love for music, but I suddenly realized that if music from the future, strange new musical instruments, and music in boxes existed, I had to see it in person no matter how much I had to travel.
The weeks that followed were full of frantic activity and preparations for this trip. I live a simple life and I earn well, but my savings were not enough to sustain myself for a long time. So the first thing was to find funds.
The Society of Jesus didn’t help with them. They had still not adopted a position about Grantville and told me to wait. If I wanted to go they would let me, without losing my job, since it is not uncommon for teachers to take a long sabbatical for study. But the only thing they could have helped with was granting me hospitality in their houses along the way. This was quite satisfying, I must honestly say. Considering the extension of the network of their houses, such an offer looks like a very relevant asset for a traveler.
Besides that, the rector of the Collegium Germanicum invited me to travel for part of the road with a delegation of Jesuits directed to Vienna. It would be safer for me, he said. But, he added, once I left them I would be on my own.
When I was not busy preparing for my trip I passed my time studying the music sheets Messer Mazarini brought me. Some of the symbols were different, but the pentagram, the notes, the clefs, and most of the rest were the same.
The more I studied the music, the more I realized how rich and amazingly moving it was. All my compositions seemed simple, elementary in comparison.
The piece of music I had in my hands was a canon whose voices were not only written at the distance of only half note (one of the most difficult forms of canon) but also they moved as if they were the freely conceived voices of a trio sonata.
And if this were something written not so far away in the future, I wondered, what about the music written in later centuries? My resolve to visit this town in Germany grew day by day.
Unfortunately my financial problems were unchanged, even with Mazarini’s help.
I applied to Cardinal Scipione Borghese for a donation of two hundred scudi, enough to live well for three years, I thought. The cardinal had always been very liberal with money when arts are involved. But it seems that any patron I could find wasn’t very much at ease with the idea of financing trips to such a place of mystery, a place whose soldiers had repeatedly whipped Catholic armies.
Besides, it appears that sponsoring something that sounds like cultural contamination is not appreciated in today’s Rome when a Protestant country is involved. Obtaining a loan from a bank was altogether impossible without some aristocrat or church institution backing my request.
So at the end I got many suggestions, but no funds.
One of the suggestions I decided to follow was to have a partner in this enterprise, someone with more financial means. Both Mazarini and my Dutch friend Pieter, the painter known as Il Bamboccio, pointed out that an instrument maker might be interested in studying musical instruments of the future. He could be talked into reproducing and selling them. Pieter told me that one of his patrons had just bought a new spinet from Girolamo Zenti, who now resides in Rome.
Girolamo Zenti is to instrument making what Caravaggio was to painting: a genius, but with an unruly and crazy life. Despite his being a gambler and womanizer, his harpsichords and spinets are among the best produced. And he is just twenty-six years old.
When I was shopping for a new spinet for the oratory I’d been told that the waiting time to have a Zenti is more than two years. I had not met the artisan previously, but I knew one of his apprentices who had come to Sant Apollinare to fix the pedal of the old harpsichord. So I knew where his shop was: Rione Monti, built in part over the old Suburra of the ancient Romans. With so many brothels and inns nearby, it was the perfect place for an unrepentant sinner like Girolamo.
Curiously, his shop is just between the two churches of Santa Maria dei Monti and San Salvatore, where another of the endless restorations and building works that are filling the town today is taking place. Even if the situation has improved since the Jubilee, I believe Romans are forever doomed to share their living space and their roads with scaffolds, bricks, and debris.
The first impression one gets when entering the Zenti enterprises is one of business. The shop occupies an entire building. I had to cross a small, sunny courtyard, full of cats and stacks of timbers protected by tarps, to reach the work rooms at ground level.
A man was idly waiting at the front door. His long hair collected in a net and the large knife and sling at his belt showed without chance of mistake that he was one of the many bravos who haunt the city today. Hired muscle, probably there to protect Maestro Zenti from unwanted visitors.
He let me into a big room where three people were working on the frames of several instruments. The place was full of sawdust and the noise of people sanding wood. Shelves were filled with tools and pieces of seasoning timber. I could recognize cypress, walnut, linden, and maybe sorb. An artisan, sitting by a desk under a dusty window, was skillfully carving a piece of ivory, while another was shaping a rosette. There was a rich smell of lakes and varnish.
“Maestro Zenti is in the next room,” the bravo told me in a very grim tone of voice, perfectly tuned by many years of threatening people. “He is giving the last touches to one of his creations.”
I hurried where told to go, and I finally saw Girolamo.
I can understand why women lose their heads for him. He is tall, with broad shoulders and a slim, muscular body that seemed more to fit a warrior than an artisan. He has long, finely cut ash-blond hair, well enhanced by a perfectly curled goatee. He was wearing work clothes, just breeches, a shirt, and a leather apron, but he seemed unusual in that simple outfit.
“Good morning, Maestro Zenti,” I began, with a small bow and my best smile on my face. “My name is Giacomo Carissimi, Maestro of Music and Master of Chapel of Sant’Apollinare. Servo vostro.”
He was sideways tuning a spinet, a magnificent one, I may add. Black, very linear, with an ivory and oak keyboard. And, dear Father, I am sure it was not for a church or an oratory, as the painting on the lid was . . . well, with all those satyrs and maidens busy in sinful activities, let’s say that libertine is an understatement.
Blushing, I asked him if it was one of his new bentside spinets.
“Yes it is, Maestro Carissimi,” he answered, obviously proud of his work. “As you can see, the strings and spine run transversely to the player and are not parallel to the key levers. The strings are plucked much closer to their center points than on a normal spinet or harpsichord. This helps in producing a strong and sustained tone. But the sound remains less brilliant than the normal spinet no matter how many variations I’m trying to do.”
He stood up, lightly touching the spinet with his hand as if to caress it, and bowed slightly.
“I’m sorry if I didn’t greet you as I should, Maestro. When working, I tend to be too much engrossed in what I do. I’m a great admirer of your work and very honored to meet you.”
“The admiration is mutual. I wish there were more artisans of your skill in this world. Now I know why many people deeply appreciate your creations and speak so highly of your work. But, if I’m not wrong, this instrument has just one choir of strings at eight-foot pitch. Five octaves compass?”
“Yes, you are right. You have a good eye. Do you want to play it? I’m just finished tuning it.”
“It would be my pleasure, but I came here to talk to you.”
“I’m sure you can do it while playing. Please! I’d love to have the opinion of such a renowned master as yourself.”
“Oh, you are too generous with my fame. I’m not Monteverdi or Stefano Landi!”
“And yet you played many times in front of His Sanctity and other important people.”
“If everything goes well, not in the next future,” I said wryly.
“What do you mean? Are you leaving Rome?”
“Yes, I am planning to take a sabbatical to make a long trip to Germany.”
“You make me curious. Why should someone like you, with such a position, risk his life to go to that unfortunate land plagued with war and famine?”
I began to play the first notes of what I had transcribed of that future rich music, and I tried to explain my reasons. I told him about my conversation with Mazarini and my intention to study the works of the great composers of the future.
Only then did I tell him about the pianoforte and how he could be the first to learn how to build one in this century and how I would appreciate having him accompany me on this trip. He looked astonished and in some way saddened.
“My dear Maestro Carissimi, I would love to go with you to visit this place of wonder of yours, and I’m really honored by your desire to have me as a road companion. But not now. My business is going so well that I don’t dare leave it no matter how much I may trust my helpers. I’ve been wandering for the last ten years; now I want to settle in one place and do my job as best as I can. Maybe in the future, yes; maybe some years from now. But please don’t despair. If you want to bring back some drawings of the pianoforte, I will be more than glad to study them with you. Or, better, you may write me, if you wish, and I will see what can I do from here.”
He must have understood my sorrow, because he walked closer and put an hand on my shoulder. “I wish you the best of luck, for traveling such a long distance won’t be easy. Try to never travel alone, especially in Germany. You would be an easy prey for brigands, deserters, and God only knows what else! But if it is meant to be, you will find what you are looking for.”
I didn’t have any further arguments to use, so after the usual courtesies I left Zenti’s shop. Before leaving I told him to send me a message at Saint Apollinare if he changed his mind. While walking back home my mood was sorrowful because I felt that, despite his terrible fame, Messer Zenti could have been a good travel companion. I felt an immediate liking for the man, no matter how different his lifestyle was from mine.
Nevertheless, my sadness never turned to despair. On the contrary, my resolve to go grew even more, if possible. I don’t know if I became so stubborn in my youth during the endless hours I spent studying music in Rome and in Tivoli.
Some way I know that Euterpe, the muse of music, is waiting for me, and I can’t ignore her call. I need to go.
It appeared that I was left with only my prayers. So I did what I could do and prayed to Saint Christopher and the newly appointed Saint Francis Xavier as I’d never prayed before. Only later did I discover that my requests had been noted and that Saint Christopher had some fun in doing so.
Two weeks had passed by since my meeting with Zenti. I was rehearsing the next Sunday’s concert in the church’s oratory with the whole group of singers and musicians when I saw, walking down the hall and using a tall cane for a terrible gout limp, the best dressed master of chapel of the whole Eternal City.
I must admit that, despite his pompousness and haughtiness, Stefano Landi is a great composer of the Stile Moderno. His second opera, Il Sant’Alessio, is an ingenious and inventive masterpiece. The opening, the poignant harmonies, and the fantastic settings made it an amazing success last year. And one needs to possess some titanic leverage to have Bernini designing the sets!
I stopped the music and moved to meet the old composer. When the favorite artist of the Barberini family comes for a visit one usually stops and listens.
“Ah, Carissimi, eccovi qua. Please find me a comfortable place where I can rest my tired legs. And—please!—let the music start again. I’m sure your musicians can play something without your help. We have to talk.” After a moment of silence and a look around, he added, “In private.”
I did as he asked, and I walked with him to the near sagrestia, the music of a cantata behind us. I asked him what brought him here.
“You know, we have a common friend in the diplomatic corps. I met Mazarini two years ago when I was preparing Il Sant’Alessio. As you probably know, he has personally taken part in the staging of the opera. What you probably don’t know is that once he was back from Germany, he asked me to go visit these Americans.”
He must have seen the surprise on my face. “Oh, don’t worry, I turned down his suggestion. I’m too old and sick to make such a long and dangerous journey. I’m rich and renowned, and I want to enjoy the fruits of my work here as long as I can. But while turning down the offer I advanced your name. It was you or Luigi Rossi, so you should be grateful.”
“Thank you, Maestro.” I confess I felt a little stupid.
“Please don’t interrupt me—and relax. I’m tired and I want to go home. Make it easy for me. It seems you are unable to find the necessary funds while I can do that easily. There are some very high born gentlemen, we may call them F. and A., who would be very interested in lavishing some money if they could remain anonymous. And I can serve as intermediary.”
“That would be wonderful. But I wouldn’t know how to repay you for your great generosity.”
“Oh, that would be easy! You see, I’m getting old and I don’t have much time left to live. So I think I can afford a little vanity to know what my fame will be in the future. I want to know what posterity will think of me. I want to know how and when I’m going to die, and I want to know what I will compose in the next years. And, oh yes!” He touched quickly his forehead with the palm of his hand, as if he had forgotten something. “If you can find these compositions and spare me the fatigue of writing them it would be even better! Probably our gentlemen patrons would like it if you would look around, observe things, and report once you are back in Rome.”
“But, Maestro, I don’t think I can be like a spy. It’s really not one of my talents.”
“Oh, no, not a spy; it’s obvious that you can’t do that. Too naïve. I just ask you to be careful in what you see around you, as I think you will be doing anyway. Besides, better doing it fully aware and reporting it willingly than being interrogated in a less pleasant way upon your return, don’t you think?”
I must have then gulped visibly, because he started a silent laugh which was almost scarier.
“This is why you can’t be a spy. You must just observe things you would normally see, learn what you can about their customs and habits, and remember them. Nothing forbidden or secret. Those who sent me don’t want you hanged, but they are curious to know more about the daily life of that place. So do you accept?”
Of course I did; what else could I do? After all, as the Pasquino’s satiric poem says: quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini.
So, Father, as this letter proves, despite all difficulties, tomorrow I will leave for Grantville, Thuringia, with sufficient funds to stay there for years.
Am I nervous? Terribly. Excited? More than ever. Scared? Yes I am. I have three centuries of music in front of me. I will see the works of people who right now exist only in the great mind of the Creator. All this unknown makes me feel frail and uncertain, but at the same time inebriated and slightly intoxicated by all the possible developments I can bring to the art of music.
There is not a day when I don’t wonder if I can deal with it.
What I have seen is just a fragment of their music, and already it seems so much more complex than what I have learned during all my life. Will I be able to understand it? How would a minstrel have reacted if, when coming into Rome for the first jubilee in the year 1300, he had to listen to Palestrina’s music or to my humble compositions? Would he be able to understand it?
These people seem to have brought a new world into our old Europe. Will I learn from them? Or will I just look like a savage to them, like one of those Indians traveling around the courts of half of Europe without really knowing what is happening? I have in front of me a great opportunity but also a great danger. Dealing with all these future compositions may enrich me but may also destroy me. What is the sense in creating new music, in experimenting with new compositions, if people greater than I have already written this music? I feel we are witnessing great changes. I want to try to ride them, but I cannot avoid fearing being trampled by them.
I am finally ready to leave. I have letters of introduction to the Americans by Mazarini and some letters of credit by my Florentine bankers. In case of misfortune, the rest of my money is hidden in secure places. I will travel light, bringing with me just a chest of clothes and my old faithful traveling spinet.
I will be with the Jesuit delegation, so hopefully safe, until Austria. Then I will be alone and may the Holy Ghost be with me!
My plan is to follow the Via Claudia Augusta to Donauworth. From there it will be less than two hundred miles to Grantville. I hope the war will leave me alone. Upon your return, you can answer my letter by addressing it to the Jesuitkirche in Vienna. They will provide a way to forward it to Thuringia.
All my best wishes and prayers for your recovery. May Mother Mary smile upon you.
Your servant and student
To Father Thomas Fitzherbert SJ of the Illustrissimus Collegium Anglicanum in Rome
From Maestro Giacomo Carissimi in Thuringen Gardens, Grantville
Very Reverend Father,
I am sorry it took so long to write you again, but a journey through Europe in these days is everything but short and comfortable. Only after I reached my final destination could I spend some time to tell you in detail of my adventures. I only hope your students and the other teachers at the Collegium will forgive me for the time I steal from your primary duty. Hundreds of miles on the road can fill a lot of pages and break a courier’s back!
I haven’t received any letter from you yet, but I’m sure I will in the next weeks. After all, the letter must cover the same distance I did, and only the Americans seem capable of traveling faster than on horseback.
We arrived in Grantville last night and are finally getting some rest from the fatigues of the trip. We are hosted in a brand-new inn that is cleaner and more comfortable than any other place where we have slept in the past weeks. We may also dare to pay a visit to the bathhouse and enjoy the too often neglected pleasures of hot water and soap. Maybe we will soon enjoy some of amenities of the twentieth century.
This town is unique, so different from any other I’ve visited. It would take too much time to describe even my first impressions, but I promise to carry out this task in my future letters.
Today we paid a short visit to the local church as soon as we arrived, but we plan to introduce ourselves in a more polite and thorough way to Father Mazzare, Grantville’s parish priest. Our goal is to make a good impression, but it’s hard to have a respectable appearance so covered in mud and dirty as we were this morning.
We need also to start looking for a long-term accommodation. The town is crammed full, but I have the feeling that some American will help us.
As you have certainly noticed, I said “we” and not just “I.” Many things happened during this trip, and I’m not alone here. I think I’m confusing you, so I’ll start from the beginning.
I left Rome on a hot day in June, very early since that was the only possible way to avoid the traffic that jams the gates of the city when many people come from the countryside to sell their products.
As I told you in my previous letter, my travel companions were three German Jesuits, all freshly graduated from the seminary and ready for their first assignments. The youngest of them, Matthias Kramer, was going to Innsbruck to teach in the local college. The other two, Dietrich Adler and Heinrich Schultheis, were directed to Vienna, where the Company has its headquarters for the Holy Roman Empire. Together with their servants, we had an armed escort of five horse arquebusiers detached from the papal cavalry. With their leader, the Cavalier Ruggero Longari, they were remaining in Vienna at the papal legation.
The coach we traveled in is a proof of the power and influence of your order, dear Father. It was entirely made of timber reinforced with bronze. Not only did it have glass windows, and not just leather curtains, but six horses to pull it. Moreover the coach was provided, I have been told, with one of those new “swan neck” suspension systems that allows the wheels to make large turning movements and makes traveling easier for the passenger. Made to fit six to eight people it was very comfortable for just the four of us, and I had planned to read as much as I could during the trip.
I brought with me a small library: a copy of Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, that small but already so famous book titled Lo Statista Regnante written by Don Valeriano Castiglione, the two volumes of the Advancement of Learning by Francis Bacon, and your recently printed translation of Turcellini’s Life of St. Francis Xavier. I also found it very appropriate to bring along also a copy of Tacitus’ Germania.
After all, Father, it is you who always said that reading a page or two in Latin every day keeps the mind keen and well trained. Unfortunately, as I will explain later, I didn’t have many occasions to read.
Once you leave Rome, the Via Flaminia follows the Tiber valley for a few miles until Saxa Rubra, where it begins its way among hilly countryside headed toward Civita. Many travelers, once on the top of the first hill, make a stop to rest in a place called Malborghetto. A very large inn has been built there, using the remains of a triumphal arc. The view from there is breathtaking. Under a blue summer sky, it looks like a Tiziano’s landscape. One can see the whole Roman countryside and the last ridges of the Apennines surrounding it. Far in the background one can see the whole of Rome, and it is still possible to recognize some of its features, like the Dome of Saint Peter, the cuppolone.
While we were relaxing under a pergola, lazily eating food from a tray full of pears and pecorino, I saw a rider hurrying up the road. He was somehow familiar, but only once he got closer could I recognize Girolamo Zenti. He was riding a very tall steed and was dressed like someone ready for a long trip. Thigh-high boots, a leather doublet, and a large plumed hat made him look very different from the artisan I met in his shop. The sword at his side and the two pistols on the saddle did nothing but reinforce the impression. My Girolamo looked like a dragoon!
Quite surprised, I began waving at him. I rose from the table to meet him along the way and told him how startled I was to see him on the very same road.
“Well, Maestro, for the moment I can just say I had a change of mind. I will explain myself later, once it is possible to have some privacy. I’m happy to have found you so soon. At the Collegium, they told me you had left at dawn. Thank God you are not rushing those horses! Besides, I’m afraid I have to ask you the huge favor of not introducing me to your friends as Girolamo Zenti. You’d better tell them I am Carlo Beomonte, a friend who needs to travel to Germany and would like to share the long journey with you.”
I did as asked, but I was eager to know more.
The same night, when we were guests at the Rocca Colonna in Castelnovo, I met him in the castle’s courtyard. He was sitting on a bench trying to stretch his long legs and watching the castle servants doing the last chores of the day. After some time, once he realized we were alone, he lighted his clay pipe and gave me an account of the latest facts.
Girolamo had spent the night before in Trastevere gambling in a tavern, a place notorious for being visited by the offspring of the Roman aristocracy.
One of them had spent hours playing dice with my friend and losing big money. This was a very dangerous and explosive situation. As you can imagine, the young noble didn’t accept losing face in front of friends and accused Girolamo of cheating.
To make his words sound truer, the young noble hastily drew his sword, probably expecting that a normal commoner would back off. Instead my companion, maybe because of having drunk too much wine, reacted by drawing his own sword.
“Probably I took more fencing classes than he did, or maybe it was just surprise, but I ended the fight quickly by putting a few inches of steel through the young nobleman’s shoulder. Nothing deadly, but enough to put me in serious trouble. It is never self-defense when the loser is the son of the Marquis Casati.
“While my friends kept the young man’s retinue at bay, I escaped as quickly as I could. While running home I realized I had only had two options left: leave town that very same day or find refuge in a monastery and take the vows. I don’t see myself much as a member of the clergy. And even if I were judged innocent by the police, I would have had to fear Casati’s personal revenge.”
Girolamo went home to change clothes and to get the pistols he kept in an hidden place together with his cash money and papers. Then he sneaked into his partner’s nearby home and explained how he was forced to go away, probably to Naples, to escape the law. He then spent the rest of the night hiding in a safe place in the ghetto.
When the light of dawn began to glimmer in the east, he went to get the horse that he kept in a stable just inside Porta San Paolo. He had already begun his escape south when he recalled I was leaving for Germany. So, with a certain apprehension, he reentered Rome and paid a visit to the Collegium. There he met Renato, S. Apollinare’s sacristan who told him of my departure for Grantville a few hours before. Relieved to know I wasn’t too far away, he went north following the Flaminia until he caught me.
I objected that even if we made it to Thuringia it could be a long exile for him.
But, quite confidently for a fugitive, he replied, “Yes, I know it can be long. But if what you have told me of these Americans is true, they will value a man more for his skills than for his birth. And that is a place where I’d be happy to live. I’m tired of licking aristocratic boots any time I want to sell one of my works. I’m tired of being unable to read the books I want or to live the way I want. I’m fed up with these aristocrats and their caprices! Considering how much I’m interested in these pianos of yours, there is no better place to go!”
I was seriously afraid he could put both of us in further trouble, but there is something in him I like. I find his careless approach to life quite enticing and his enthusiasm contagious. So I told him I was happy he would come along but that he had to be careful. More troubles and he would have to travel alone.
He promised me I would not regret my decision. Besides some minor incidents, he has been very discreet for the rest of the trip.
He had another surprise up his sleeve.
It happened just the morning after our talk, while we were getting ready to leave the castle. Three servants were loading our chests and the rest of the baggage onto the coach roof. The driver, under his coach, was carefully greasing axles and hubs, and our escort was letting the horses having a last drink. Girolamo was nowhere to be seen.
While we were about to send one of the soldiers to check if his horse was still in the castle stable, Father Matthias saw him coming from the village holding two saddled horses by the reins.
One was his courier, Rodomonte, and the other was a smaller, but not a bit less beautiful, brown mare.
When I asked him about this new addition to our party, he answered that the mare was for me, if I wanted to accept it and if I could ride her. Then Girolamo added, “Maestro, I think that once we’re alone on the road, traveling by horse will give us some advantage in speed and agility compared to renting or buying another coach.”
I pondered his words and I agreed with him. So I replied that I could ride. I wasn’t a master of the skill, but rode enough to stay on the saddle while following a coach. My bigger problem, I explained, was that I had never traveled on a horse for long stretches.
“Well, you will learn! These are the perfect conditions to do so. I can teach you some tricks, and you can always rest on the coach from time to time.”
When I asked him the price of the mare, he answered, “Don’t worry, Maestro. I plan to sell the horse once we arrive in Grantville. I have yet to see a war zone where there is not a desperate need of horses. As a matter of fact, I plan to make a profit. Also, I need to abuse your kindness again as I need another favor.”
“The problem is that I’m not very good with languages. I can speak a few words in French, but that’s it. I need to learn more English and German, and I was wondering if you could help.”
“That will be my pleasure. What’s the mare’s name?”
“I’ve been told it’s Carlotta, do you like it?”
“Could be worse,” I answered, while caressing Carlotta’s nose.
I think we both enjoyed the possibility of using the road as a schoolroom. Each of us had a lot to learn and all the time spent riding, talking, and prattling gave us the occasion to know each other better.
The more I knew him the more I felt that my early feelings about Maestro Zenti were true. He is quick of wit and tongue and has much more experience of this world than you would expect from a man of his young age.
He was born in Viterbo, where his mother’s relatives are renowned wood carvers. His father, Achille Zenti, was a soldier, a reiter in the Pontifical Army. Girolamo speaks highly of him and he must have been a good man. Unfortunately he fell sick and died in 1619, when Girolamo was just twelve. His mother remarried soon and Girolamo was sent as an apprentice in Rome to learn the art of wood carving and instrument making with another artisan, the same one who is now his business partner.
He admitted he was not the first country boy who had let himself be corrupted by the pleasures of a big town, especially one so seducing as Rome. But, despite his introduction to vice and sin, his great natural talents permitted him to keep his apprenticeship. He became a journeyman at just sixteen and a master at twenty when he produced his first harpsichord.
Since then, work and his natural curiosity had brought him to travel in other states, mostly Naples, Tuscany and Lombardy. Only three years ago, with his name already established, he came back to Rome, where he purchased half of his former master’s enterprise.
Girolamo’s father wanted him to be a soldier, perhaps an officer, so he started training at a very young age in the science of soldiering. Since then he has studied with different armsmasters wherever he went. His skill is such that, once back in Rome, he managed to be accepted in the sword combat school of one of the Alfieri brothers. They, I have had explained to me, have improved the already deadly teachings of Ridolfo Capoferro, the famous fencer, and direct some of the most important salles of the peninsula. Both his pistols and his rapier, he told me, belonged to his father.
Like his lifestyle, I am afraid to say, his political and religious ideas are quite radical.
Once, while we were enjoying the vapors of a good grappa, Girolamo’s tongue got loose enough to tell me about Naples, where he befriended one of the last scholars belonging to Brother Tommaso Campanella’s circle. Eager to learn, he has been strongly influenced by the theories of the Dominican philosopher.
Today Campanella is a free man and a trusted advisor of His Sanctity, but his students are still persecuted in the lands governed by the crown of Spain as they strongly reject the Spanish hegemony and domination in Italy.
So Girolamo, like Petrarca, Machiavelli and many others before him, dreams of an Italy free of any foreign domination and united in a league of states. It is a dream that never became true and, I am afraid, probably never will.
Discussions and gossip, riding classes and language learning didn’t distract us from our primary goal, traveling.
For the first two weeks, we were blessed by very favorable weather: not too hot, and with some scattered rains that wet the dust on the road without making it too muddy.
The traffic on the Flaminia is never scarce. Mostly it consists of merchants carrying goods and farmers bringing their animals or their crops to the nearest town. We were well aware of the chance of worse encounters along the road. Maybe because of our military escort or because of the papal insignia painted on the sides of our coach, we never met any trouble.
The road is quite large and well drained. Two carriages can pass side by side and the grades and slopes are never too harsh, even when crossing mountain ridges.
We crossed northern Latium and entered Umbria. We crossed a great Roman Bridge at Narni and slowly climbed the Somma Pass, which brought us into the territory of Spoleto.
Spoleto, once the capital of the Longobard Duchy, is a magnificent town. We stopped there to rest for a day at the guest quarters of the Monastery of Saint Luke and found the time to visit the Towers Bridge and the Cathedral. We didn’t neglect the rich food. The area is renowned for its trout and famous black truffles.
In the monastery we learned of a local legend. The locals say that Pope Innocentius III, here on a visit, miraculously made a spring of icy water gush out from the cloister floor. This spring is said to be able to restore fully the health and stamina of any weary traveler who drinks it. It is superfluous to say we filled our bellies and our canteens.
The day after, just outside of Foligno, we encountered an infantry regiment going to Urbino. The old duchy has been the most recent addition to the Papal States’ territory, having been ceded to the Church by its last aging duke seven years ago. We managed to travel with the soldiers as long as possible. Our trip became slower but even safer.
The Via Flaminia is an open air treasure for any student of architecture. Along its way it is possible to see and visit hundreds of vestiges of ancient Roman buildings: tombs, bridges, theaters, road markers, and much else.
Two of them made a deep impression on me. One is the River Furlo Gorges, where the road has been completely carved into the mountain rock, I imagine by the work of thousands. In one place, where frequent landslides made the road unsafe, the Romans carved two long tunnels into the mountain so that the road could always be kept open. The tunnels are used even now. It is an amazing show of the skill of the ancients.
One of the Jesuits, a lover of history, found it amusing to see the pope’s ragged regiment marching on such a road, the same road used by the Roman legions to crush by surprise Hannibal’s brother’s army at the River Metauro battle and by Narsete’s Byzantines to intercept and defeat Totila’s Goths many centuries later.
The other vestige is less impressive, being a simple stele placed in the market square of Rimini, the town built where the Flaminia ends and the Via Emilia begins. Simple, but of no less historical value. The stele says:
The dictator Gaius Caesar, having crossed the Rubicon, addressed his comrades-in-arms in the civil war here in the forum of Rimini.
I don’t know if the stele is real or a fake carved much later. Some claim it is fake, but I found it fascinating regardless.
Once it left Rimini, our road followed the Adriatic coastline toward Ravenna and Ferrara, in the lower river Po valley. Being so close to the mouth of the biggest Italian river, the area is filled with marshlands and swamps. It is a dreadful place, haunted by fevers of malaria caused, I’ve been told, by the terrible swamp fumes. [Pellagra is a vitamin deficiency disease, and fever is not a symptom of it.] Not even the night brought us any relief from the hot and humid weather. All the time, but especially in the hottest hours of the day, we were continuously attacked by armies of mosquitoes. Only the occasional winds from the sea brought us some relief.
After four days in such a miserable state we finally reached the nice town of Ferrara and could rest comfortably in the governor’s palace.
The next day we crossed the Po on a traghetto and finally left the Papal States. After a fast inspection at the customhouse, and after paying a surprisingly low tax, we entered the Venetian Terraferma.
It was in the low Polesine that we learned from other travelers of the destruction of the Dutch fleet in a great naval battle and of the Spanish invasion of the United Provinces. The winds of war were blowing again in northern Europe and we were traveling toward the center of the storm.
The news left us with a dark and gloomy mood that neither our fast pace on the well- kept Venetian roads, nor the security provided by the Capelatti patrols, nor the good hospitality we received in Verona, could lift from us.
The fact that we were traveling in an area full of refugees from the Duchy of Mantua didn’t help. That town was brutally sacked by an imperial army three years ago. More than one-third of the duchy’s population was murdered or died from the plague brought by the imperial conquerors. This was the same plague that spread all over northern Italy. What was once one of the wealthiest states of the peninsula was reduced to ruins. As a matter of fact, it was the sack of Mantua and the fear of another 1527 that made His Sanctity’s government hastily increase the defenses around Rome and add more troops to its armies. Venice seems the only safe place left in northern Italy. An island of peace in an ocean of war. Will it last?
We decided to stop in Verona a little longer to make some small repairs to the coach before reaching the mountains. It was then that I discovered another of the many talents of which Girolamo is endowed. It seems he is possessed of a remarkable financial shrewdness.
Over the past five years, Girolamo has used a large part of his savings to finance a portion of some Venetian mercantile expeditions in the Black Sea. While very risky, these expeditions produce high profits when the ships return because goods are sold at many times the initial price. Reinvesting the profits the same way, he managed to earn quite a sum. All this without actually touching a single coin, any operation being done in bonds secured by some of the most important Venetian banks. Once in Verona he came to know that the Nasi family has a branch open in Grantville. So he visited the Veronese branch of the same bank to exchange part of his finances for letters of credit to be used in the American town.
“This should be enough,” he told me that evening while we were crossing Piazza delle Erbe and walking back to the inn. “I think I can buy enough supplies and tools to open a decent shop in Grantville and hire some helpers. I think I know where I can find the best timbers of the whole Alps.”
The Alps! If God should choose a throne to sit while in this world, it would be there. Because there is no other place that sings more clearly of His power and of the beauty of His creation.
Once the repairs to our carriage were done and the coach ready, we left Verona on the road that we followed up to the Danube. The road follows the River Adige and it brought us closer and closer to the border. As the plains became hills and the hills became mountains, we left the Serenissima Republica and entered the Episcopate of Trento, the southernmost province of the Empire.
It took us two days of easy riding to reach the city, where we received hospitality in the Castle of Buonconsiglio, residence of the Bishop Prince. During the evening we had the occasion to admire in awe the halls where the Council sessions have taken place and to learn more about the status of the war in Germany.
The Adige valley offered us a magnificent landscape that gave us true moments of joy. The river cuts a straight, deep, dent in steep mountain ridges that are interrupted only by other, smaller valleys created by its many tributaries. Small, neat, and beautiful villages are scattered around the valley and many castles have been built to guard the road from higher ground. Our eyes feasted on the charming countryside, from the gentle slopes of the foothills covered with vineyards and chestnut orchards to the lush alpine grazing land and from the dark green fir forests to the gray rocky peaks of the mountains.
I loved the wine produced in these valleys. It’s called Welschriesling and it is dry, fragrant, and fruity, a perfect companion to wash down the dust from our thirsty throats.
The valley is quite large south of Trento, but the further north we went the closer we came to the mountains. In the Episcopate people still talk a strongly accented Italian, but, once passed the small town of Mezzocorona, we finally entered the Tyrol with its German-speaking inhabitants.
Where the Adige meets the river Eisack, we finally reached the town of Bozen and ended the first part of our trip. Girolamo and I would follow the Adige to Meran and the Reschac Pass, while our other companions would take the Brenner Pass road toward Innsbruck. The weeks spent on the road together helped the growth of a sincere friendship among us. I remember fondly the laughter and the constant good humor of young Matthias, potbellied Father Einrich’s passion for chess and Italian food, the sincere admiration and deep knowledge that Father Dietrich had for anything Roman. I hope that their trip ended as well as ours, and I plan to write them soon to learn how they fared.
The day we separated, we woke up very early to celebrate a moving mass at the beautiful Church of Saint George. We felt necessary to thank Our Lord for the safe passage He had granted us until [this point?] and to ask Him to make the second part of our trip as safe as the first. Only then, reluctantly, we separated.
The rest of the morning was spent in Merchants Road looking for two mules and two packsaddles to carry my baggage and other supplies we had just bought. Girolamo and I left Bozen in the heat of the early afternoon and reached Meran that night.
We had planned to travel to Schlanders in the morning and try to make Glurns the same day, but bad weather stopped us.
When we left, the entrance of the Schnals Valley, well protected by a grim castle, was on our right. Above the valley the sky began to turn black. Thunder and lightning started striking the mountain slopes all around us. We barely arrived in Schlanders before the squall line. Then rain, hail, and gusts of wind poured down the valley. We found refuge at the Gold Eagle Inn in the outskirts of the town and decided to stop for the day.
It turned out to be a good decision. Resting at the inn, we enjoyed a tasty amber beer and filled our bellies with some Obermoosburgkeller—a pork shin roasted on the spit that is as delicious as its name is hard to pronounce. I decided to take my traveling spinet inside and, after the meal, I began tuning it (Girolamo made the process much faster) before I enjoyed myself trying to arrange some simple tunes.
In a short time I discovered I wasn’t the only one in the inn with an instrument. Girolamo produced a flute he had hidden somewhere in his bags, and an inn employee and another customer joined us with a violin and a Venetian guitar. After a little practice, our improvised ensemble began to get along quite well and we started playing. We began with some minuets and gavottes, then we passed to some old pieces of Francesco Da Milano and other popular ballads and we went on with some simple dances.
The innkeeper kept providing us with beer and food and seemed quite happy. As news of our improvised concerto reached the rest of the town, the inn became crammed full before dinner.
So much beer had its effect on us and I realized I had drunk too many mugs of it when I began to sing and roughly translate in German some lecherous lyrics written under false name by Adriano “The Abbot” Banchieri.
I see already the disappointment on your face, Father. But it was a nice, fun and innocent night and if I must spend more time in Purgatory for that so be it! After so much road we deserved some rest, I think.
During the concert we discovered that one of the musicians was traveling to Fussen, in south Bavaria, and we decided to cross the Alps together.
His name is Johannes Fichtold and he was returning home after having finished his apprenticeship in Padua. He went to Italy to learn to build lutes and guitars the “Italian way,” with the back of the lute constructed with many narrow ribs glued together. His family owns a lute maker’s shop, and young Johannes is going to work there.
Hearing this, Girolamo smiled like the cat who ate the canary. Fussen is the place where he planned to order the timbers he wanted to use in his new enterprise.
The next day, despite our hangovers and the muddy and slippery conditions of the road after the storm, we managed to go at a sustained pace. We began a more steady climb along the Vinschgau Valley, riding in part through mountain forests and in part among cultivated fields and apple orchards. Above the village of Schluderns we enjoyed the view of the Churburg, a magnificent castle guarding the entrance of the Matsch valley.
Our morale was incredibly high, but we were abruptly sent back to the sad state of the contemporary world on our approach to Glurns. The town is a little architectural jewel in the crown formed by the Alps, but all its beauty was spoiled by a set of gallows near the east gate and by the rotten corpses hanging from them.
As we approached the gruesome scene, a group of soldiers wearing dark green uniforms and large hats told us to stop. They looked formidable with their very long muskets and an impressive array of blades.
“Jaegers!” said Johannes, as the soldiers came closer. “They are the local militia. Fiercely loyal to the emperor and incredible marksmen.”
The soldiers asked for our passports and wanted to know where we were headed and the reason for our trip. Once satisfied by our answers, one of them, who seemed to be their commander, gave us a warning: “The corpses you see hanging here are part of a band of bandits that are marauding this area. Deserters from what once was Tilly’s army. Once on the pass, watch out for your lives. Unless,” he added with a grin, “you can pay for the services of his Imperial Majesty’s hunters.”
“And how much would this service cost?” I asked.
“Three golden ducats for each one of you, two for the animals. Four expert guides will guide and protect you up to Nauders, the first town beyond the pass”.
“Sto fijo de ‘na mignotta! This is robbery!” said Girolamo, luckily in Italian.
“Please close your mouth,” I told him. “I’m sure you are more than able to defend all of us. I don’t want to have potential enemies ready to ambush us along the road and hostile militiamen behind our back. We can afford to pay and I am ready to do it. Dead people cannot waste money. That’s a privilege of the living.”
I was surprised by my firm tone of voice. And apparently so was he, because he managed to remain silent while I finished dealing with the sergeant. The next morning we would be escorted beyond the Reschen Pass.
The fact that endless people since the beginning of the world have used this road is probably because crossing the pass is not very hard. But for a small slope before the village of Reschen, the road climbs its way gently along the hills and the mountains. Even the top part of the pass is surprisingly easy, as it maintains more or less the same altitude for half a dozen miles.
At the end of the day, after the long ride among woods and meadows, we made camp in an empty barn just above the little town of Nauders. We were tired, but proud of the progress we had made.
It may have been because of the presence of the Jaegers, but nothing bad happened along the way. I was quite wary of all those horror stories about travelers left with their throats cut in some roadside ditch.
The company of the soldiers was more pleasant than expected. These are not bloodthirsty monsters. Even if widely recruited as scouts by the imperial armies, they are mostly just hunters or woodsmen who spend part of their time defending their land and families. Not only did they not rob or murder us, as Girolamo feared, but they cheered us up with their numerous hunting stories and mountain tales. I particularly appreciated a story about a holy white steinbock who lives in the area, but this is not the time to tell it. Their knowledge of the land and of the flora and fauna is also extraordinary.
From Naders the road brought us to Landeck, and from there it crossed many other valleys and small towns until, a few days later, we left the Duchy of Tyrol and entered the Bavarian town of Fussen.
Fussen, built where the River Lech meets the Via Claudia Augusta, is apparently another of those numerous small towns scattered all along the river valleys of this mountain area. They all share common features: one or two thousand souls at most, a circle of walls, a small cathedral and a small fortress. Even if the wars in Germany and in Italy have reduced the flow of travelers who pass by this town, what remains is enough to grant prosperity to their inhabitants.
What makes Fussen special is the fact that in the last fifty years it has become the home of some of the most famous lute makers of our time. The vicinity of the Alps, with their huge reserve of valuable timber and the closeness to important trade routes, make it the ideal place to build instruments that can be sold throughout Europe, from Spain to Poland, from Denmark to Sicily.
Once in town we received hospitality from Johannes’ older brother Hans, a respected member of the lute makers’ guild. The guild not only controls the sale of any instrument built in town but also very closely watches the trade in timber, making sure that the best planks of yew, oak, cherry, and fir not leave the town.
“Oh, we will see that!” Girolamo told me with a bellicose light in his eyes. “The guild member who can keep me away from what I want still has to see the light of this world.”
As a matter of fact, the bargaining must have been harder than he expected, because he more or less disappeared for the duration of our stay in town. He was busy meeting guild members and the owner of the local timber mill, pleading, flattering, threatening, whining and God only knows what else! But at the end he obtained what he wanted, a good number of planks of very good timber to be sent to Grantville in the shortest possible time. Only later did he tell me that he had been able to obtain the wood supply only by agreeing to enter the guild and to pay a huge annual sum to have such a “privilege.”
I used those days to visit the town and its surroundings. I saw from a distance the Hohenshwangau Castle, but I far more enjoyed a visit at the small Saint Anna Chapel where I was struck deeply by some wooden panels painted with scenes of a Dance Macabre. That artifact seems made to direct our thoughts toward the precariousness of life, and it seemed very appropriate for what I had seen in my first days in Germany. Here life is lived under a constant threat.
These people seem to have lost hope for the future. They seem to feel it is likely that the future will bring destruction or a violent death. This is a small, rich, town, where everybody should be happy and busy enjoying the many gifts God has given them. Instead, fear, no matter how well hidden, is the most common emotion among the locals. Fear of an army sacking and pillaging their pretty homes, fear of plague and famine. Fear of an unwanted war upon which they have no control.
After three days we left town. Girolamo was furious at the terms he had to accept to get his timber. Nothing seemed to cheer him up, not even the smart jokes of Johannes who had decided to come with us (with the blessing of his brother who saw profit in expanding his business close to the fabled Americans) and who seemed as eager as we were to visit the American town.
All kinds of rumors about war followed us all the way to Landsberg and then on to Augsburg. Somebody was saying that the kingdom of France had raised a huge army near Strasbourg and was ready to invade northern Germany. Others were saying that one hundred thousand Swedes and their fiendish allies were already across the Danube directed toward Ulm and Vienna and killing everybody along the way. Someone hinted that it was the Spanish that were coming through the Valtellina and now were in Baden-Wurttemberg, ready to defend the Catholic population to the last man. We learned to not give much credit to all these rumors. As a matter of fact, the only soldiers we saw at that time were a regiment of Bavarian troops training just outside Augsburg’s walls.
In Augsburg we had another proof of the anguish Bavarian people were living in. While we were heading toward the Jesuit Collegium, we were stopped in Maximilianstrasse by a large procession of people praying for the defeat of the Protestant forces. All the confraternities of the town, members of all the religious orders, seemed to have united for the event. The air was full of supplication; religious songs and Kyrie were sung and statues of many Saints and of the Virgin Mary were carried toward the cathedral, Dom St. Maria. Even having spent all my life in Italy, I had rarely seen such a strong display of public faith. My companions and I were so struck that we followed instinctively the procession until we saw all the statues enter into the beautifully carved gates of the church.
All the roads to and from Augsburg are full of refugees. Only the fact we were on horseback and able to leave the road in the most crowded sections let us move as fast as we did. Even so, it took us over three days to reach Donauworth at the confluence of the Danube and the river Wörnitz and to finally find the rival armies.
The town is at the border between Swabia and Bavaria and is located along the last navigable point on the Danube. At the moment, Donauworth is in Bavarian hands and the big garrison and the heavy fortifications seemed to show the will of Maximilian’s troops to remain here. However, the fact that Swedish soldiers were a few leagues away from the town walls didn’t help our passage.
Our intentions were to cross the Danube in this place, but the situation didn’t seem very favorable and we had previously agreed we should stay away from any army as much as possible.
We went straight to the wharves on the Danube to find a boat that could bring us down river toward Ingolstadt where we hoped to find better conditions. Only by paying a sum that left our purses much lighter did we managed to find a barge.
Our plan succeeded. We spent the night at the wharves and left at dawn. After a few hours on the river we reached Ingolstadt. From there we took a road that should have taken us straight into Nuremberg.
The second day along this road a squad of Swedish troops stopped us. With them was a man dressed in strange clothes who, when seen closely, looked as stolen from a forest during fall. If he is hidden in the wilds it must be very hard to spot him. The name written on those clothes, his strange German accent and his even stranger weapon gave us other hints that he was a real American.
The Swedish soldiers are probably used to causing awe and fear in civilians like us. I’ll never forget the puzzled look on their faces when we started to laugh! But we couldn’t conceal our joy.
“Cazzo Giacomo we made it!” shouted Girolamo, colorful as usual.
“Thalassa, thalassa, thalassa!” I replied, my mind following strange paths leading to Xenophon’s Greek army and its march to the sea.
We definitively had lost our decorum as we started hugging and patting our shoulders. Girolamo barely restrained himself from hugging and kissing the American on the forehead. The American stared at us like we were madmen.
Our feelings must have been contagious, because the Swedish troopers seemed less grim and the American, probably once he realized we weren’t a threat, was smiling.
I removed my hat to him and introduced in English my friends and me. Then I showed him one of Mazarini’s letters of introduction.
All this happened ten days ago. I would tell you more, but my eyes are sore, my hands tired from so much writing, the ink is almost gone, and I need another quill. Just know that the rest of our voyage went quite smoothly and early this afternoon we arrived in Grantville. While I’m writing, Girolamo and Johannes are downstairs enjoying the local brews and, if I learned their habits well, also the local women.
Now the first part of our adventure is ended, but the hardest part of our trip has still to begin. Will we manage to do what we came here for? Will we be able to build good relationships with the Americans? Will Euterpe smile upon us? I don’t know Father, but I have all the intentions to try.
I hope I am your prayers as you are in mine, always.
Your friend and student
PS: what does “dude” mean?
To Father Thomas Fitzherbert SJ, Illustrissimus Collegium Anglicanum
From Maestro Giacomo Carissimi, Grantville, USA Seventh day of October, in our Lord’s year 1633.
Dear and honored father,
How are you? I received your letter today. It was waiting for me at the Church of Saint Mary. I’m glad to know that you came back from Naples and that the Mediterranean sun and the sea breeze improved your lungs more than all the bleedings and enemas of “those damned Italian doctors.” I’m also glad Count Malvezzi di Roccagiovine is paying for the publication of your last treatise. I’m sure the Venetian printers will make a wonderful job as ever.
I knew you would be worried about my soul and my well-being, but I like to think that my soul is still in the grace of God and I am fine. Tired, yes, but very happy to be here. You must really have strong doubts about the strength of my faith if you think a few weeks in Protestant countries can damage my beliefs so much. I committed sins, true, as anybody else in this world, but for all I am learning here I’m prepared to spend more time in Purgatory. It is really worth the price.
I know my English is still a long way from being perfect, but I thank you anyway for having read those “long pages” of mine and for having given me many hints on how to improve myself. Nevertheless, every day I spend here helps to improve my language skills. Maybe, in a not too distant future, you won’t find my prose too hard anymore.
You have asked me to satisfy your curiosity about Grantville and the Americans. I plan to do so while telling you about the events of the last weeks.
The day after I wrote you my last letter we decided to begin our stay in this town with a visit to Father Mazzare, the man Milord Mazarino referred us to. So we took our horses and rode to the Church of Saint Mary.
The crowd cramming the paved roads of Grantville showed us a place teeming with activity. Do not believe rumors about uncanny magical devices. As a matter of fact, just like in the rest of the world, most of the people walk to their destination. A few, like us, use horses; others use a small iron device called a “bicycle” that uses human power to move people as quickly as if on horseback.
I couldn’t see too many of those motor vehicles now famous throughout Europe. I’ve been told that they are now only used for public service or emergencies. The ones I saw here were certainly impressive: bigger and sturdier than coaches and faster than the fastest horse.
The most impressive sights of them all, I believe, are those flying machines called airplanes. Seeing them climbing to the sky and navigating through the clouds is truly a tribute to the ingenuity of man.
Grantville is certainly a town of marvels, but not the ones a normal person could expect. You won’t find cathedrals and palaces here like in Rome, Florence or Venice. Grantville marvels are others, big and small.
I included in the letter a small example of such marvels. It is called a photograph and it is literally a drawing made using light. The device that produces it, a camera, captures the light in a series of lenses and prints it on a special paper that has been dipped in a combination of alchemical materials. As you can see, it depicts reality much better than any drawing can do. One can only wonder how many painters will be able to earn their bread with portraits when this device will be used diffusely in Europe.
I really wish the world wasn’t at war, because I believe this town is a gift of God to mankind. It should be preserved and guarded like the most important treasure we have; we could all learn. Any student of what they call their “high school” knows more about science than any member of the Accademia dei Lincei. One could live here thirty or forty years and still learn something new.
Probably the greatest marvel of all is the Americans themselves. They claim to be common people and, like common people, they don’t disdain any kind of hard physical labor. Nevertheless, their knowledge and skills are astonishing.
Even if the Americans claim to be all commoners, their government seems different from the republics of the past, because it manages to involve all the citizens and to avoid the creation of a ruling oligarchy. This is a Roman republic without patricians and plebeians, Dante’s Florence without popolo grasso and popolo minuto. Or, more accurately, this is a place where social distances are less evident than everywhere else.
Americans are strong advocates of what they call separation of powers (executive, legislative and judiciary) and they use “checks and balances” (one of their favorite phrases) to keep this separation working.
These people don’t want guidance by a king because they think every man is born with the same rights of a prince. Each of them is a ruler of his own and a potential head of state. And, just like our kings and princes, they are stubbornly attached to their own personal rights, which, they believe, are received straight from the Omnipotent. They are ready to fight and die for them as are few other people I’ve ever met in my life.
They have almost made a religion of their own personal liberties. Freedom is venerated here as if it were a pagan deity of the old times. It is a semi-official state cult, the American version of the Romans’ Capitoline Triad. They call this goddess “Lady Liberty” and I wouldn’t be surprised if in their homeland they raised statues and temples to her.
It is probably because of this passion that their laws and customs make this group of individuals able to work and live together. Each member of this nation can have a saying about how the government should be conducted. Surprisingly, this doesn’t bring chaos, but unity, and what they call “law and order.” Many of them believe that disagreements and diversity of opinion are not seen as a threat but as an opportunity to improve the wisdom of their decisions through discussion. From what I’ve learned about their history, I may say their republic in America was the most successful and powerful one since the times of Rome.
I hope my simple words may enlighten you on some American customs, but I am a musician, not a philosopher. I am sure people more entitled than me will write numerous and more knowledgeable tomes about the American society, books that will help you understand this place much better than my humble ramblings. So, instead of wasting any more paper, let me return to my adventures.
Saint Mary’s simplicity and small dimensions would surprise you. At a first glance you would think it is a very poor rural church, but you would be wrong, because in that church there are more books and knowledge than in many of our cathedrals.
Even without all the paraphernalia and privileges that are common in our clergymen, Father Mazzare is definitively a man of God, a true pastor of his flock.
He received us in his office. The room was quite simple and spare but for the huge amount of books and a wooden crucifix on the wall in front of his desk. I was captured by a large picture on the wall. It was a photographical representation of the pope who was the head of the Church in 1999. You will be surprised to know that he was—will be, perhaps I should say—Polish, the first non-Italian pope in many centuries.
Apparently the Catholic Church at the end of the twentieth century is quite healthy and spread all over the world. (They told me there are African cardinals and Chinese bishops!) But from what I later learned it has changed much from the one we know now. A council in the twentieth century stated that all the rites and the Bible must be translated in local languages and supported many other changes. Somehow the Church has become more similar to the Reformed churches. Oh, don’t worry. They are not heathens. Priests are still not permitted to marry, even if this has become an issue in many sectors of their time’s church. I know that Father Mazzare is preparing a compendium on the Catholic doctrine of the twentieth century, and I suspect that soon you will receive a copy of it from the father general, so I won’t waste more time on this topic.
After we introduced ourselves, we gave the parish priest Monsignor Mazarino’s letter of recommendation and explained our intents. There was a bit of confusion, at first, because it seems that the monsignor is known in Grantville as “Mazarini.” But once that was clarified, Father Mazzare listened carefully to our words and then suggested that the place that would offer us the better chances to learn about future music was the school. There I could find most of the material I needed, like music recordings, music sheets and modern instruments.
He asked me if I spoke Latin and if I was interested in teaching Italian and Latin at the school. I told him I had more than ten years of experience in teaching and I could help teaching music, too.
“I can do that for free, as a token to have access to such an amount of knowledge.” I added, “I have financial resources of my own.”
“Perfect, maybe we can find you a job; especially if you don’t mind not being paid. But there is an important issue here. Do you have any problems in having female students and working together with female teachers?”
He must have seen the barely contained surprise on my face because he explained another thing that makes this place so unique. Here women have the same rights as men. They receive the same education, have the same jobs and they can, if they want, enlist in the army.
“I would do my best,” I answered. “After all, if I want to stay in this town I must learn to not have any preconceptions about what I find alien and new.”
“When in Rome . . . ” Father Mazzare told me, smiling, in his very good Italian free from any regional inflection.
I must admit that, despite some moments of shyness, embarrassment and clumsiness, due mostly to my absolute inexperience in dealing with women, that later I found that many of them are better students and better musicians than their male counterparts. Here ladies like Vittoria Colonna or Artemisia Gentileschi are not the exception, but the rule.
With us still in the room, Father Mazzare used another of those amazing American devices called the telephone and called the high school principal. The telephone, familiarly called phone, someway converts voices and noises in an energy similar to the one of lightning (of which the Americans are masters) and sends it to another of those devices even at very long distances. If we both had a phone and there was a line between Grantville and Rome we could talk to each other like we were in the same room. Awesome! Or, when said like some of my students do, totally cool!
Once the phone call was over, Father Mazzare told us he had scheduled a meeting for the day after and offered to come with us to the school. Then he asked if we wanted to take a walk with him in the afternoon, sort of a guided tour to Grantville. Finally, he invited us for lunch.
“I’m quite busy with other chores this morning, apparently Tino Nobili can’t wait. But, maybe, I have something to keep you very busy with while you wait. Something I’ve no doubt you’ll find quite interesting. Please follow me.”
So he led us to his small apartment and offered us something to drink. Then he showed us one of those music playing devices Monsignor Mazarino told me about when I was still in Rome.
He pressed some buttons on it, took a small box with the name “Gloria, Music for Worship and Praise” printed on the lid and extracted from it a shiny circular mirror with a hole in the center. We finally saw a compact disc. The priest invited us to sit, put the CD in a black box and pushed another button. In a few seconds the room was filled with the notes of a composition named “Gloria” by a musician of the future named Antonio Vivaldi.
Thank God for the chairs we were sitting on. I have had months to somehow prepare myself to the richness of the music and still I was so stunned, dazzled, and inebriated that I’m not sure my legs would have been able to sustain my body.
I don’t think I will ever forget the expression on Girolamo’s face and the tears on young Johannes’ cheeks while they were listening to these engrossing and sophisticated harmonies. Harmonies created by people born in another time and in another universe. The names on the CD box said the composers were Bach, Handel, Mozart, Faure, Elgar, Bruckner and many others.
We immersed ourselves in that music for hours, playing it over and over again. There was no reason to talk among us because the music was communicating more than mere human words could ever have done.
In all this musical rapture, I felt a little worm gnawing at my mind. I could not stop worrying about how difficult it would be to adapt my knowledge, my skills, my tastes and my style to this new world. In just one CD there were hundreds of sounds, harmonies, tones, chords and instruments that I never heard before. More than ever, I understood how much study and application this research would require. Again, I felt my confidence shattering. Was the task I had given myself too Herculean for a single man?
This worry had darkened my mood enough that I was glad when Father Mazzare came back and stopped the music. Part of my gloomy thoughts vanished as if his presence had exorcised a dark spell put on me. The silence was broken, we could finally talk, and we didn’t have to remember to breathe anymore. It was time to think about more mundane matters.
It didn’t come easily, I promise. In a single morning we had seen enough marvels to keep us busy talking for a long time. We were simply overwhelmed, drunk on Grantville. Often we feel like a group of new Marco Polos exploring the marvels of the Great Khan’s Palace.
The lunch that followed, so full of answers and questions, brought us other surprises. We discovered that we didn’t have to use our forks and knives to eat as they were already set on the table as thought it was a very ordinary act. Everybody here has more than one set of silverware and uses it daily. Then we ate Neapolitan maccheroni enriched with a dense, flavored red sauce made of pomi d’oro, the vegetable Americans call tomatoes. Father Mazzare was particularly amused by the idea that we were among the first Italians to eat homemade fettuccine with a tomato sauce.
I wonder if every one of us born in the seventeenth century has the same moronic look when they see Grantville for the first time. I am prone to think it is a common reaction and the Americans are not only used to it but definitely amused by it.
In the afternoon we finally made our stroll around the town. We were introduced to many parishioners met along the road, up-timers and down-timers alike. We were shown the hospital, the town council, the other churches, the stores and the other places we could use during our sojourn. We paid a visit to the bank where we used the letters of credit we brought to open what they call checking accounts. Then, following the priest’s advice, we went to the local constables’ headquarters where we showed our papers and made ourselves known.
It was evening when we finally finished our tour and took our leave.
While we were putting the saddles back on the horses, Father Mazzare said, “Maestro, I suppose I’ll see you often in church.”
“Certainly,” I replied.
“I’d love it if you could help me with the church chorus and maybe sometimes play the organ. It’s not one of the big ones you must be used to playing, but I’d really appreciate having a professional like you offering his services to the community. Besides, this can be another useful approach to learn the sacred music composed after your time.”
“It would be an honor for me, and a pleasure. I may start at your earliest convenience.”
“Well, three days from now the chorus has its weekly rehearsal. Why don’t you come and start getting accustomed?”
“I’ll be there, Father.” I said. “After such a show of kindness it is the minimum I can do for you.”
The following day we met the priest a second time to go together to the high school. I was very tense and nervous because I knew that much of my research depended on what would happen that day.
Despite my tension, I didn’t fail to notice that Father Mazzare was carrying two large volumes: one was named The Catholic Encyclopedia, the other was The Encyclopedia Britannica. When I asked why he was carrying such a heavy burden, he made a sibylline remark.
“Oh, this is your resume, Giacomo!”
Apparently the priest’s trick worked, because, as the Americans say, I got the job.
Once in the presence of the school’s principal, Mr. Saluzzo, another American of Italian origins, Father Mazzare introduced me and explained for all those present the reasons I was there.
Mr. Saluzzo seemed interested, but he began soon questioning me about my teaching experience, my knowledge of Latin and the events of my life. One of the things he was concerned about the most was my ability to teach in English.
The principal is a serious man, very competent in what he does. I’d say that, in another world, he would make a perfect member of the Company. Our discussion was all business and I soon found myself under a landslide of questions. I had to defend my position with more resolve than Horatius Cocles on the Sublician Bridge.
Americans are practical people. When they build something they first make sure it fulfills its goal and then, if it is possible, they make it beautiful. So it is for the high school. Its buildings are plain, Spartan, almost naked for an eye used to the frippery of today’s architectural style, but they are perfectly designed to carry out the functions they are destined for, to teach and to learn.
The students have all the space they need, and an easy access to many important facilities. Everything is at hand, classrooms, refectory, theaters, fields where to exercise the body, alchemy rooms, music rooms and, last but not least, a library that seems to come out of long-forgotten myths. A fabulous place for the number and for the stunning quality of many of the books.
With such a vast amount of resources, I am not surprised that the school’s curriculum of studies puts to shame even the best Jesuit collegium. And I know, personally, many members of the Company who would give an arm and a leg to be able to use such a formidable array of teaching tools.
I believe that the prelates who are actually serving at Saint Mary are not the only members of the Company we will see around here.
Girolamo seemed particularly impressed by the physical exercise area they call the “gym.” I could see an idea was growing in his mind. So I wasn’t surprised at all when, days later, he asked the principal for his permission to start a fencing class in the school. His main argument was that having students learn the arts of self-defense would help in case of another raid, but I believe he is secretly pleased to teach fencing to people anywhere he goes. As usual, Girolamo’s enthusiasm was highly contagious, and Mr. Saluzzo accepted on the condition that Girolamo would help buy the materials needed for the class. Finally, in the late days of August, I was able to begin my duties at the school.
Teaching was easy. After all, it’s what I’ve been doing in the last few years in what is considered one of the best schools in the world. Latin gave me no problem. You start with Rosa, Rosae, Rosa and Phaedrus and, in a few years, you end up reading Augustine of Ippona. And I have the crucial help of Mr. Cassels’ Dictionary and many other schoolbooks I would be pleased to have copied and sent to you, should you find them useful.
My problems were more with the grading system and all the rules followed by the American school. Nevertheless, with the help of my colleagues, I ended up mastering that as well.
After the first few terrible, awkward days I also managed to get along well enough with the gentle sex’s students and teachers who are crowding this school.
I think Girolamo had more problems with that than I did. When he started his classes he would never have believed that so many of his students would have been women. Considering how dashing he looks and how egomaniacal he is, I wasn’t surprised when one day he confessed to me that he never felt so many eyes trying to strip him naked as in that first day of classes. He says they call him “Mr. Banderas,” but he has not yet understood why. Anyway, I believe the attention? grew on him. Now he likes to boast that he will make one of those girls the finest duelist of Europe.
I suspect that his prejudices vanished once he discovered that, in the late twentieth century, Italian female fencers are considered the best in the world with a light blade. National pride may sometimes be useful!
Next week I will begin to teach a small group of students about Italy. I really would like them to learn more about its history, its customs and its lore, its language, and its literature. Despite the fact that so many Americans have Italian origins, they don’t seem to know much about my land. To teach this class I had to do a thorough research of all the material on Italian history present in the library, which is not much anyway. In the end, I will have to use mostly my notes and some material I found in Father Mazzare’s personal library.
Apparently, in the up-time USA, Italy disappears from the map at the end of the Roman Empire, makes a small reappearance at the beginning of last century (Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael), and then simply vanishes until the mid-twentieth century. They know Dante’s Commedia, but they have almost no clue of the context the poet was writing about.
When I am not at work I spend most of my time studying, as I plan to tell you later. We managed to sell our horses and make a good profit on the sale. At the same time we rented a big house on the outskirts of town. It is an old house, by American standards, that has just been renewed. There is plenty space for the three of us and a couple of German valets we hired to attend to our necessities.
The basement of the house and a roofed space called “the garage” are big enough to let Girolamo set his temporary shop there. On a day in early September, escorted by a small group of apprentices who work for Johannes’ father, the timbers we ordered in Fussen on our way here finally arrived. The quantity was big enough to fill the basement. Since that moment, the shop has been working almost around the clock. The house is always full of noise, and we all look as busy as bees in summertime.
We aren’t the only Italians in town. The trades here employ mostly Germans and Americans, but there are a few merchants coming from Milan, Venice, and Genoa. One of them is particularly envied. He managed to sell a huge quantity of a blue fabric that is made in Genoa with Egyptian cotton. The Americans are particularly fond of it.
I believe that in the weeks we have spent here we have managed to create quite a comfortable life for ourselves. We have made a few acquaintances, built a trade, and found many interests to pursue. I don’t want to sound vain, but I am quite proud of our accomplishments.
What about the music? You may wonder. Well, this is the part of the letter I have more problems with. It’s very hard to describe the things, the sensations and the problems we have had, especially in a foreign language. But I presume this is all part of the game so I will try nonetheless in the following lines.
In my first letter I told you I felt like destiny wanted me to meet Euterpe, the muse, in Grantville. When I wrote those words I thought I was using a metaphor. But now, I believe instead that my muse is incarnated in a real woman.
It happened during our first visit to the auditorium. I remember it as if it is printed in my mind.
Imagine a large hall, the size of a medium church, the floor filled with seats. Imagine this hall empty, but for one woman playing on the stage at the other end of the hall.
Imagine a beautiful, black, large harpsichord-like instrument emitting a simple, but very expressive music. Imagine notes rich in timbre and tonality, powerful and delicate at the same time and all linked together in a way I find hard to describe.
Forget monody and basso continuo, surround yourself in strange dissonant harmonies, in an exotic perfume for the listening.
If you can do that, you will not be surprised then that, when Mr. Saluzzo began to speak, both Girolamo and I dared to show him the apparently universal sign to make silence. He understood.
The music lasted for just a few minutes. The woman on the stage seemed so engrossed in it that she did not notice us until the very moment the last note faded away and we exploded in a sincere and enthusiastic applause whose sound made her turn toward us. She giggled and blushed like a child caught in something that is very personal and, at the same time, something she was also very proud of.
She made a little bow, left the stage and came toward us. We were still completely enthralled by her performance.
Usually Americans tower over us down-timers; instead this woman was considerably shorter than me, her figure pleasantly full. The well-defined oval of her face is framed by long chestnut hair and underlined by beautiful, shiny, amber eyes. She moves with a natural grace that is very different from the affected grace of Italian ladies. That grace, especially when combined with her outstanding self-confidence, is equally impressive.
One of the first things I learned here is that outer looks are not so strictly an indicator of social status and morality as it is among us. This notwithstanding, it will take time to become used to the way women dress here. I am still uncomfortable when they wear pants or skirts short as the one Elizabeth was wearing that day. The whole lower part of her legs was visible. In Rome a view like that would at least cause a scandal. Here it is normal during warm days.
“What were you playing, Elizabeth?” asked Mr. Saluzzo.
“Two of Satie’s Gymnopedies. I found the sheets a month ago at Mom’s and I always wanted to play these pieces. They seem so simple and yet they are so incredibly expressive and touching. But why don’t you introduce me to these gentlemen, Victor? I’m glad they appreciated the music.”
“Gentlemen, may I introduce you to Mrs. Elizabeth Jordan, our music teacher?” said the principal, while Elizabeth made a small, very gracious bow.
When addressed, Girolamo answered with a very gallant bow enriched by a killer smile that he had probably used many times before. I made a fool of myself.
I have spent all my adult life in the bosom of the Holy Mother Church. I am without doubt very shy and not accustomed to talk to women, but I should have done better.
When Elizabeth stepped toward me saying “Nice to meet you, Maestro Carissimi,” I answered something like “grfzgrrrrrrr,” feebly, and looked for cracks in the floor.
I never felt so awkward in my entire life.
Girolamo’s eagerness saved me from worse shame.
“So that is a piano,” he said, speaking slowly and trying to find the right words. “The sound is . . . magnifico. Can we please listen to more music?”
“Please, milady,” I added, finally able to speak. “Forgive my clumsiness. Your performance left me completely dumbfounded, and I’m eager for more as well.”
Once we arrived closer to the piano Girolamo could not help but touch and caress its smooth lines with an intensity probably reserved only for the best of his mistresses. He was staring intently at the actions inside the lid and, I think, mentally checking the differences between this instrument and spinets and harpsichords. He suddenly stopped looking like the jolly fellow I knew; I’ve never seen him so serious. His gaze was saying “Whatever the costs, I have to learn!”
“This is what we call a grand piano,” said Elizabeth. “It is five feet long. A full concert piano is longer, usually around nine feet. In our timeline, the first piano was built in Italy in 1709, I think. But it took many years and many other innovations before it became the instrument you see right now. The main difference between a harpsichord and a piano is in the actions. Instead of plucking the strings, pressing a key makes a hammer strike them. The instrument makes possible a broader melody. A phrase can grow louder and then softer and accentuation is possible. Nevertheless, it took almost a century before pieces were composed with the piano and not the harpsichord in mind. Almost a century passed from Cristofori’s piano to the introduction of pedals.”
Looking around, she saw how carefully we were listening to her words.
“Oh, I wish all my students were like you!” she said, smiling deliciously.
“I think you will find plenty of theory in our books in the library, so let’s be done with it. I’m going to play a classic piece. The very one almost any beginner learns how to slaughter in the first year of his studies. It’s called “Für Elise” and was composed by a German named Beethoven. If you really want to learn about our music, Maestro Carissimi, you will have to deal with him. If you like it, I will then play another piece by the same composer, the “Moonlight Sonata.”
“I am eager to begin, Milady,” I managed to say.
And so, after a short pause needed to reach the opportune concentration (a gesture that apparently is common among artists of any time and place), she began playing again. I couldn’t stop watching the way her hands moved skillfully on the keyboard. The sound was so strong and clear that Girolamo had to restrain himself from putting his head into the soundboard.
I had the impression that learning how to play a piano would not be too hard. In a few months, I felt, I should be able to play it as well as any other instrument I mastered. After all, I’m quite a virtuoso with organs and harpsichords. The biggest obstacles will be learning how to use the pedals, getting familiar with a seven octaves keyboard, and learning how to control my touch, as in a piano the way one uses the keys affects the sound much more than in any instrument I played before.
The more I listened to the music, the more I began to understand how much this instrument could impact the way music is composed.
When using harpsichords, one has to be true to certain forms. Creation is limited by well-defined boundaries. Using a piano instead gives the composer the opportunity to use many more combinations and harmonies. The richness of those legati and arpeggi! The ways chords escaped from the instrument and seemed to fill the hall reminded me of the flocks of starlings that pass through the sky of Rome every autumn. The power of this music is outstanding. Mastering this instrument will give any musician a creative freedom I thought impossible before.
Someone aware of my prejudices against female musicians may laugh when he discovers how much Mrs. Jordan helped me. But probably one cannot have a good learning experience without having to set aside many of the ideas they had considered a given.
Mrs. Jordan, Elizabeth, has surprised me almost every day since the first time we met. She is a good natured, intelligent, ironic woman; a woman of profound faith, even if not Catholic, a talented musician and a very good teacher. Once the initial embarrassment was gone, music brought us together, and I am proud to say we have become very good friends, as close as decorum permits.
Her husband, a high ranking constable in the city guard, works as liaison with the constables of the other United States towns. So he spends most of his time out of Grantville. I don’t know how much this bothers Elizabeth, because up to this moment I never felt comfortable and close enough to ask, and she doesn’t talk much about it. But, sometimes, I had momentary glimpses of how much she misses her husband.
They have two young children, Daniel and Leah. They are very lively, spirited, and curious, as any child should be. They are clearly a big part of her life and the sound of their games has been a pleasant background in the many afternoons I spent studying at Elizabeth’s.
As you may have guessed already, Elizabeth has become my guide, my mentor, my teacher. I am not sure what I would have done without her.
I am not the only musician who is trying to learn something about the new music. Not truly surprising, considering what a treasure up-time music is. One of Mrs. Jordan’s previous students, Miss Marla Linder, is teaching a group of German musicians, all very skilled I must add, and she let us borrow some very useful notes.
If the Germans are very good, Miss Linder is simply surprising. She has the flame, and I believe she will become famous very soon. She is still a little rough in some passages, but her talent is unmistakable and, being so young, she has huge opportunity for improvement. With the right exercise and care, her voice will shine like gold.
We met for the first time during an August afternoon in the school choir room. Elizabeth invited me to participate in a discussion that Miss Marla was having with her German friends. The topic was mainly “tempering.” You see, temperament of keyboard instruments has changed a great deal in the course of history.
Many methods have been used in the attempt to produce pure octaves, and pieces of music written in different eras have different intonations. So, knowing the differences between the mean intonation we use now and the others is crucial for us.
Most of the music from the middle of the nineteenth century until the Ring of Fire was written with equal tempering in mind, and most of the music written in the eighteenth century was written using “well tempering.” If one changes the original intonation, they necessarily change also the composition’s harmonic organization, thus producing something different from the original music.
I appreciated how clearly Miss Linder touched such fine points in music theory. I believe she will make a fine teacher in the future, a rarity among great performers.
I didn’t say much at the meeting. I just pointed out that as things are now, there are no standards in music, not even in pitch. The pitch I am used to is higher than the pitch of the twentieth-century instruments and much higher than the pitch mainly used here in Germany.
I tried to explain that, for the moment, we cannot expect standards, and we should do what we down-timers are already used to: a lot of transcribing when our music is played in a place whose habits are different from the ones of the place where the music was originally written.
In the following weeks I went to other meetings, and, with time, the ice was broken. Music helped create a true camaraderie of musicians. Sometimes we simply escaped the many stresses of modern music and spent many evenings playing the notes we knew better, exercising in what our teachers call “Baroque jam sessions.”
Even though Marla Linder played the first note, it was Elizabeth Jordan who took the brunt of my musical education. She set a very strict program of studies. From Monday to Friday after school we study piano for two hours, then I have my class of music theory and history. On the weekends I have to spend hours doing my “homework,” exercising, studying and listening. Any Monday I have to be well prepared and pass a test on what I have done the previous week.
Since I’ve begun, I’ve read many books and have listened to hundreds of recordings. We decided that the best way to understand the evolution of music without being overwhelmed by so many authors and styles was to follow a strict chronologic path: late Baroque, Classic, Early Romantic, late Romantic and Modern periods.
The names of the many giants that should have lived after me are imprinted in my memory just like my daily rosary: Albinoni, Corelli, Geminiani, Johann Sebastian Bach, Lully, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Handel, Pachelbel, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, Debussy, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Faure, Mahler, Smetana, the Strauss family, Tchaikovsky, Bellini, Bizet, Cherubini, Leoncavallo, Rossini, Puccini, Verdi, Wagner.
For each one of them I have to learn the different styles of their compositions: fugues, concerti grossi, sonate, symphonies, symphonic poems, waltzes, overtures, and so on.
Some nights I dream I am in the center of a storm with music sheets twirling in my mind like leaves blown by a gale. I can only hope that when the wind stops blowing the leaves will fall in a pattern I can understand.
Three weeks ago, after an afternoon spent trying to make sense of Chopin’s Opus 64, when I was feeling more frustrated than the dog chasing his tail the Polish composer was trying to depict, I asked Elizabeth why she was sharing this gargantuan task with me.
“See, Giacomo, when I first met you, I am ashamed to say I didn’t know who you were. After you left I had to go look for your name in my college schoolbooks and in the library.”
After a short pause she smiled and said, “I know you don’t want to read of what your future would have been in the timeline I come from, but at least I can tell you that you had an important role. Without you, the music I know and have loved since I was a child would have been different. I feel that I owe you a great deal. I also realize that, with you, I had to set the bar high, very high, so high I was afraid I couldn’t even reach it. It was a challenge I could not resist.”
Looking me straight in the eyes, she kept on, “I am new in this profession, Giacomo. I became a full-time teacher only after the Ring of Fire. I had to know what I was capable of and you were, are, the perfect challenge for me. Like your friend, Girolamo,” she smiled again with that subtle smile that warms my heart, “I never leave a challenge go untouched. And believe me, no matter how hard it is trying to teach something to that stubborn head of yours, working with you has always been a pleasure.”
I believe I became as red as Father Mazzare’s tomatoes in August. But her resolve gave me another reason not to give up. I want her to be more proud of me every day.
After the invention of those devices that make it possible to listen to somebody play or sing even if they are long-time dead, one can listen to music in two ways: recorded music and live music.
Even if I’ve had my share of the first kind, I’ve always preferred the second, because seeing who is playing with my own eyes makes my down-timer mind much more comfortable. Luckily, I found plenty of live music in the town of Grantville.
One may think that together with all the things they are busy producing, with the reorganizing of the German political structure, and with a war about to be declared, these Americans would barely find the time to sleep. Instead, they love to make music. And they do it plenty and well: music of all kinds, from the sacred hymns they play in their churches to the ballads sung by the common people. They have many genres: rock, blues, jazz, folk, country, soul, and many others. Honestly, I am not able to describe my reactions the first time I heard that awful music called hard rock. But after that concert at the Thuringen Gardens, I understood perfectly how the hardened Spanish soldiers at the Wartburg could have been terrified by it.
Put a hard rock band behind me and even I, Giacomo Carissimi, your most peaceful musician, would gladly march to battle against any enemy just to put that noise far behind me. Some of the oldest Americans are sure that rock musicians adore the devil. I am prone to agree with them.
One of my favorite activities is listening to the high school band, what I call Mr. Wendell’s kingdom. This is for the skill that this teacher has in dealing with his young students.
Their existence is a proof that the Jesuits were right in making the study of music such an important subject! The band students are simply spectacular. They use mostly wind instruments that are very different from what we are used to. These instruments use a device called a “valve” that regulates the flow of air in the instruments. This permits the players to play in all keys and to produce richer sounds compared to what we are used to. I do believe, though, that the sounds are more apt for a battlefield than for a church. Nevertheless, seeing so many boys and girls learning how to play and making so much effort to be able to play together in harmony makes the teacher in me feel very happy.
Not many of them will become professional musicians, but, whatever the path they will take, the study of music will enrich their lives and will give them tool with which to see the world.
Since the moment of my arrival, I have come to enjoy the relative peace of each moment I spend in St. Mary’s. Any time my busy days permit it, I try to find refuge and consolation inside its holy walls. When not in prayer or meditation, I have long and useful conversations with Father Kircher SJ, whose reputation in the Company I found to be very well deserved. I recommend to you this man of rare insight, logic, savvy, wisdom and compassion.
I found a subtle pleasure in using my experience as master of chapel for the people of St. Mary, and I deeply regret not to be able to spend more time helping with the sacred music during the different services.
When I began participating in the choir rehearsals I was afraid that my arrival might cause some jealousy, but I was proven wrong. Both Mrs. Linda Bartolli, the organ player, and Mr. Brian Grady, the director of the choir, did their best to make me feel at ease and part of the community.
In the end, I think that, when working with them, I am receiving as much as I am able to give. I treasure the opportunity to learn more about the sacred music written in times and places that weren’t my own. I have also learned to appreciate the mechanical wonders that are up-time such as organs whose mechanical and pneumatic parts are all powered by electricity. It’s incredible the kind of tonal flexibility one can achieve with such a small case.
Many of the people who believe that after Pretorius’ Syntagma Musicum the organ cannot be improved will be seriously disappointed. Linda once told me that the greatest honor for an organist is to play on an instrument built by an artisan named Silbermann whose organs will possibly be built more than fifty years from now. I am sure it is true, but I am well satisfied to play the one they have here in St. Mary.
Just recently, we decided to stage a concert for Saint Stephen’s day with a program of down-time and up-time music. I look forward to the event.
While I was busy with my music studies, Girolamo and Johannes didn’t remain idle. Their plan was first to learn all they could about pianos and then to restore a few of them. Only at that point, once they had learned where they could get all the materials they needed, would they start building new ones.
Pianos come in different dimensions and shapes: there are the upright pianos, whose soundboard and strings are in a vertical position, made to be used in normal or small places. There are the baby grands, similar in shape and dimensions to an harpsichord, which require, for a perfect sound, a larger room, and then there is the non plus ultra of instruments, the concert grand, whose sonority makes it perfect for concert halls.
Girolamo bought a few upright pianos, some of them in very bad shape, and two baby grands. People had begun to realize the value of those unique instruments, and even if buying them was a true bleeding I never saw my artisan friend pay such a sum so gladly.
Quite unexpectedly, he managed to find a grand piano in a place called the High Street Mansion. This villa, which used to belong to a rich family here in Grantville, is the closest thing to a palazzo the Americans have, and it’s now used as the administrative center for the region. The piano was left abandoned just before the Ring of Fire when the last member of the Bowers family died.
Buying the pianoforte has not been as easy as Girolamo believed. Some of our German friends have decided to start making modern instruments, and the grand piano was a terrific asset for them as well. The purchase became a ferocious bidding between the two parties. I was afraid Girolamo was about to have an apoplexy when he paid the final sum, but, thanks to the glory of Venetian ducats, still the best coin in Europe, he managed to bring the piano home.
The piano must weigh at least eight hundred pounds and is made by an American craftsman called Steinway. It is totally black, made in walnut, spruce, birch and poplar. The harp is made of iron and the strings are of the finest steel and brass.
The piano had been visibly neglected in the last years. The frame was scratched and dented, one of the legs was broken and clumsily patched, some of the actions were broken, and some others (together with a few of the precious strings) were missing. Despite this, the instrument was a sturdy one, and Girolamo is still very optimistic about giving it a second life.
The night the piano arrived at the shop Girolamo seemed very concerned. He was worried about an inevitable rise in costs brought by a competition on all fronts with Hans Riebeck. So, that same night, he invited all the partners of Bledsoe and Riebeck to the Gardens and tried to convince them to form a commercial alliance or, at least, to “divide the cake” to use a very colorful American phrase.
Girolamo’s offer was to cooperate to acquire all the materials they might need instead of fighting for them. He was adamant about the rightness of his idea and spent all night trying to talk his competitors into it. The Germans did not agree right away, but they looked very thoughtful when we left. I am sure that they will see the sense of it.
Since then Girolamo has been working frantically. I’ve seen him disembowel uprights and lay all their components on the huge table in the large garage. I’ve seen him taking parts from one piano and working on them until they fit on another. I’ve seen him studying manuals until late night, manuals in a language he is still have problems mastering. He was grateful, he said, to have been able to purchase a set of up-time tools. They are so much better to work with than his old ones, and in some cases absolutely necessary.
Surprisingly, Johannes was the first to produce a profit, and with the simplest idea.
Up-time cellos have a pin at the bottom of the instrument that permits the players to keep them upright without holding them tightly between their knees. This simple innovation saves a sensible amount of the musician’s energy and permits him to focus his attention completely on his performance, improving it drastically. Johannes sold the whole idea to the guild in Fussen, and, at basically no cost, was able to earn the first hard money for the company. I would not be surprised if they will start making cellos with the long pin very soon.
Ten days ago, when I was about to come home after a long day of musical studies, I heard Girolamo calling me from the garage. I hurried up, and, as soon as I entered the room, he invited me to sit in front of one of the uprights—the one that was in the best shape when acquired. I could hear the excitement that was barely contained in Girolamo’s voice.
Even if the frame didn’t have the rich ornaments and paintings that are Girolamo’s signature, I could proudly read “Pianoforti Zenti” beautifully carved on a small silver plate just above the keyboard.
“So you fixed it,” I said, in Italian.
“Si, I think it’s done. Tuning it was a pain in the ass, and I would never have done it without the kind assistance of Hermann Katzberg, but I really think you should try it. It is my special present to the man who will change the musical world. This way some of your future glory will ooze back to me.”
I stood still for a while, speechless and sincerely moved by such a present. Then my hands almost moved by themselves and started playing a composition I had written for organ a few years before and I just recently transcribed and enriched for piano with Mrs. Jordan’s help.
While the notes were flowing from my hands to the wooden keys I felt something grandiose growing in me. All my fears and doubts of the months before were vanishing from my soul, and a sense of strength and determination were digging their way into the deepest part of my heart.
I think that was the first time I played the piano without committing any mistakes.
In all this turmoil of events I had completely forgotten about my patron, Stefano Landi. Well, he didn’t forget me, because he recently sent me an irate letter asking me if I had found something about him and his works. It’s not very Christian of me, but I can say with a certain satisfaction that I haven’t found much. In the universe where the Americans came from Maestro Landi was probably too busy fighting with his sickness or enjoying his glory to compose anything worth being archived here in Grantville.
For a few days I wasn’t sure if I should have written him the truth, but then I’ve had another moment of luck that gave me the idea for a small ruse. Apparently, just before the Ring of Fire, in a part of the U.S. called Michigan, there had been a revival of French Baroque opera. The artists of this century will be known as barocchi by our posterity, even if I would much rather be called contemporary or stil novista. After all, as my American friends would say, I am a plain guy and I hardly believe someone may consider me bizarre. Too bad we cannot control the opinion history will have of us.
Anyway, the music and the libretto of an opera named Les fêtes de l’été, written by a composer named Monteclair, somehow made it here to Grantville before the Ring of Fire. I bought them, together with other music sheets. I plan to have it copied and send it to Rome.
Even if the style is different from Landi’s, I can always explain that this opera was considered to be a revolutionary piece, a true advancement in composition and style. Considering the vastness of Landi’s ego, that should soothe any of his doubts. Besides, I suspect the Barberini will appreciate having an opera in French played in their theater, and Landi loves whatever makes the Barberini happy.
I know it’s not very honest of me and, I confess, it gnaws at my conscience. I can only hope that this Monteclair, somewhere in another universe’s heaven, would be glad to know that his opera will be staged again.
In recent days, people here have been very nervous. We see more movements of troops, and everybody is waiting for a move from one of the many forces that are putting Gustavus Adolphus’ lands under siege. Just yesterday, Girolamo was almost caught in a brawl at the Gardens with some of the Scottish soldiers stationed here. I am glad he managed to remain calm and simply walk out unscathed. He is saying he wants to go to Magdeburg to scout the place. I hope he does it soon; being on the road again should calm him down.
I am worried, Father. Today there is something in the air that doesn’t smell good. A few minutes ago, the town became silent. There is no trace of the strong background noise that fills our lives night and day. I need to interrupt my writing and ask what is happening. Is it another raid on the town?
I am just back with the direst of news. What everyone dreaded has just happened. The League of Ostend has attacked Wismar and war is upon us. It seems that the attack has been repelled, but some young soldiers, loved by the people of this town, have been killed.
Pray for me, for us, Father, because we need it more than ever. I look forward to receiving another of your letters should they make it here.
Your humble servant and student