Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Game Pitches

Open your eyes. You are Magnus Ahlquist, a young Swedish symphonist of the 1930s. You are standing in the Berwald Hall in Stockholm; before you stretch the expectant faces of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, instruments poised like weapons from a distant, long-dead culture. In less than two months time, Germany will invade Poland and World War 2 will begin.

You are here to conduct the premier of your new symphony, which you have entitled "The Sallow Dove." It is a fraught, anxious work; you drew inspiration from Sibelius' Fourth. The hall's 1300 seats are all occupied, and a successful performance tonight will propel you into the ranks of Europe's most eminent living composers. Not that it makes much difference, because in less than a year you will be in Munich, living under a new identity and passing secrets to the Allies.

You try to calculate how much time has passed since you took to the stage. Have you waited too long? Are the audience becoming restless? It is impossible to tell; the room and everything in it justs hangs there, as though it were a sophisticated network of marionettes, with you standing motionless at the strings. I am powerful, you think. Then you feel ashamed and absurd. Your 31st birthday is two weeks away; a month before your 33rd, you will be shot dead in the street by an agent of the Gestapo. His name is Walther Fuhrmann. You wonder if you should have reduced the dynamic in the opening brass passages of the fourth movement.

You wonder if the choral in movement two should be faster. If the string scoring is too thin, too frail. How many people in the audience will cry? When and why? If more cry than don't, have you written a good piece?

When you were a child you fell from a tree on to a rock, and now the scar on your back is beginning to tingle. The bullet that kills you will pass through this scar; hot metal will triumph where cold stone failed. If you knew about this now, would it change how you will feel about helping with the war effort? About fate? (Is the scar, which sits over your heart, a warning to guard that heart from grand causes?) How many more symphonies might you have composed, had you lived to old age? How many would it take to annul that beautiful and confused sacrifice, whose worth neither you, your superiors nor even the Gestapo will ever be able to calculate?

The baton twitches in your hand without warning; you wonder whether you are just another marionette, after all. A message comes on screen: "Press A to begin conducting the debut of Magnus Ahlquist's 5th Symphony." You wait for a stranger's thumb to fall.

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