I hope you're well, and I hope you won't throw away this letter as the scribblings of the wastrel that you think I am. But I'm writing on the strictest orders from Jo, so I dare not disobey. She was very insistent that I look after you, and concerned about your happiness. Isn’t that just like her?
I am in Vienna now, and so of course I have been thinking of Mozart a great deal. I thought that hearing a performance of his Great Mass would cheer me, with its floating soprano line in the Kyrie that he wrote for his beloved Constanze. Did you know that Constanze was Mozart’s second love, after he had been rejected by her sister Aloysia? The soprano solo is sublime, like the sun coming out after a storm, or a bird flying over the ocean. But I kept dwelling on the storms that come before: the rumbling of the low strings, the heavy waves that keep trying to pull themselves out of a minor key but can’t help sinking back down.
My own compositions have been all storms as well, and nothing seems to make sense. I’ve made a few beautiful measures, but nothing that connects into a whole piece.
Do write back, for hearing of the sunshine and olive groves will bring a bit of brightness.
Do you think you’re an ornament to society yet, mademoiselle?
* * *
When I saw your handwriting on the envelope, I almost thought myself back home, getting a note from you in the funny little post office we set up between our houses. Do you remember?
Would it be too childish to admit that I wished I were back home? Which is not to say that I don’t like Nice. You've seen how lovely the city is, and how glorious the light is here: it’s clearer somehow, and sharper, so everything always looks as if it had just been washed clean by rain, or suddenly revealed by the lifting of the fog.
But somehow I have still been feeling rather homesick and blue. I wouldn’t dream of saying anything of the sort to Aunt Carrol, but I don’t mind at all saying it to you, and especially don’t mind saying that your letter has done what Jo hoped it would in comforting me.
We can comfort each other, then, even though our letters have a bit farther to travel than they would in our own post office back home. I’m very sorry that you have been blue as well. I hope that you have some sort of activity to keep yourself busy. Composing music, perhaps?
I do not think that I have quite made myself an ornament to society yet. Certainly I have made things that I hope will become ornaments – I’m quite proud of my watercolor of a sunset seen from the hilltop overlooking the sea. But making ornaments is not the same thing as being one, and I don’t know yet how to be one.
I enclose another sketch I made, that I call “Young Man Asleep.” Perhaps you can see why I thought of you when I made it? Not that you would ever wear a hat like that, of course; yours are much more fashionable.
* * *
Don’t be ashamed at all of missing home! I’ve had more than my share of that as well in the last few weeks. Europe is grand, but I don’t feel as if I belong to it the same way that I belong to home, and it certainly doesn’t belong to me.
Since I received your letter, I’ve moved on to Paris. The streets are narrow and twisting, and everything looks gray, and yet somehow it is always glowing, too: with people, with joy, with music, and with light. You’d be able to capture the way the light looks, I think: sudden bursts of bright against gray, and the blazing glow at night of thousands of streetlamps and cafes.
Composing isn’t helping at all at the moment, and you’re absolutely right about why. I’ve tried listening to music and I’ve tried playing it and I’ve tried writing it, and all I can think of is that I can’t measure up.
Did you know that Mendelssohn wrote his first symphony when he was fifteen? That’s what genius is, I think: not just knowing that you have a symphony in you and having to get it out, but having it be a miracle even when you’re fifteen. The more I listen to it, the more I know that I don’t have that kind of genius.
You might laugh at my hands now, to see them all inkstained with the Requiem and concertos that I’ve tried to compose. I’ve written and re-written, plinked out endless notes on the piano to try to hear a theme, to try to get some of the music of the spheres, or something even a little close to what I get when I hear Mendelssohn. None of it is quite right, and I can tell.
I’ll never be Mendelssohn, and certainly not Mozart. That kind of genius may be gone from the world forever. And even if it isn’t, it certainly isn’t in me. So I suppose I just have to be Laurie as hard as I can, and as well as I can. But I still don’t know what that means, or how I can do it.
Do tell me more about the sunshine?
* * *
[enclosure: a sketch of a stalwart knight]
You asked to hear about sunshine, and so I shall tell you about the gardens at Valrose.
First, they are full of palm trees, which makes it seem as if we are in an even sunnier and more exotic spot than we are. The trees line broad walkways of stone, and deep green lawns stretch between them. I have been trying to capture that particular shade of green ever since I saw it, but I think I must give up on it. Like the sparkle of sun on the sand, or the changeable blue-gray-green of the ocean on a stormy day, it is something that we can see only with our eyes.
There is also an immense rose garden, with arched trellises heavy with all colors of flowers: red, yellow, pink, and white.
There’s a spot on the white marble terrace that affords a beautiful view of the ballroom and gardens at the same time, so that you can sit there and hear the music from inside while looking at the deep vibrant green below – and if you tilt your head just so, you can see the blue glitter of the ocean beyond, and perhaps even catch the scent of the roses on the breeze.
I have been spending more and more time on the terrace in the past few days. The other night, the musicians – not the full orchestra, just a quartet – were playing Mozart, which made me think of you. Do you know the quartet called “Spring”? I thought it was quite fine, but you would know better than I. There was a lovely moment where the music rose up in a beautiful swell of joy, and then dropped away all of a sudden into quiet.
And after that, there was dancing, but for some reason I did not want to dance, or to be around “the social whirl,” as they call it, or even to paint or draw. I simply wanted to be – out under the sky, looking at the gardens and palm trees below. The sky seemed simply immense, and whenever I got a glimpse of the ocean, I was reminded of the vastness of that, too.
I sat in the quiet of nature, reading a few pages of the little Book that Marmee gave me all those years ago, for it is with me always, and thinking: “The sea is His, and He made it, and His hands formed the dry land.”
And, I do understand about Mendelssohn. After I went to Rome I couldn’t bear to even think of my old sculptures and paintings that I’d done back home. They seemed so foolish and small compared to what I was seeing before me. It used to flatter me when people called me “little Raphael,” but I knew then for certain that I could never even come close to Raphael or any of them.
But I admire that you’re working hard, and that you’re making something, no matter what. I’ve sent along a sketch that I hope will remind you of what it means to be steadfast, and of the honor that comes from that.
* * *
[enclosure: a small ebony cross on a black velvet ribbon]
Thank you for your letter, and the sketch, and especially for all of the words of understanding. You seem to know better than anyone what I’m feeling right now. I hope that that means that I have some understanding of you, too.
I’ve sent along a gift in return, that I hope you like. I was out walking yesterday and found a little curiosity shop high up at the top of a hill on a twisting cobbled street all overhung with picturesque balconies. The shop was packed full of trinkets, figurines, jewelry, music-boxes, even some busts and sculptures. I’m sure that you would have been able to tell exactly what great artists each figurine-maker was copying – or maybe some of the figurines were authentic works of art? Yet somehow, this little ebony cross I found was the piece that made me think of you. Something about the simplicity reminded me of the way you spoke of that evening on the terrace: the darkness of the night, and the simple divinity of nature.
I found a copy of that Mozart string quartet that you mentioned hearing, and I played it through as best I could on the piano. I hadn’t heard it before, so I was glad of the chance to discover a new piece, and playing it made me understand why it affected you so – that sudden shift in mood at the beginning, and the dancing fugue at the end.
For the first time in weeks, playing the piano made me feel better, too. Which was absurd when I thought about it, because it was another one of those times when I couldn’t measure up. I can’t be a string quartet any more than I can be Mozart himself. But playing the piano still eased my soul. It made me think of all of those evenings that I heard Beth playing downstairs, and the gift that Grandfather gave her – both the gift of letting her play our piano, and the gift of her own piano later on.
(I’ve had letters from home too, so Beth is on my mind a great deal. You didn’t say so, but if that is why you are in such a quiet and contemplative mood, I would understand.)
And I thought of you as I played, and how you had sent me on this new path. Is that an art in itself, I wonder – helping others find their way, and finding just the right word to guide someone else towards creating something wonderful?
I had a letter from Frank Vaughn, and he mentioned that his brother Fred was on his way south. Is Fred stopping in Nice for very long? I thought you must be happy to see Fred again – you always got on so well with him.
* * *
[enclosure: a sketch of a man and woman descending the staircase to a ball.]
We are off to Switzerland in a few weeks, so I shall send you the address of where we can be found. Aunt Carrol cannot bear the heat, and it will be cooler in the mountains.
Fred Vaughn was not here long, for he did not have much reason to stay. He’s off to Egypt now, where I hope he will be well. I don’t think he will be back.
Thank you for the gift of the little ebony cross. I do wear it, and think of you when I do.
You asked if inspiring others is a gift, and I think that maybe it is. I used to think that if I could not be a great artist myself, then I should become a teacher, so that I could instruct others on how to become great artists. That was what one did: musicians and composers and artists all taught lessons while they made their own creations on the side. There’s an art to being a teacher, though, that needs its own sort of genius just like making art does – or, at least, a genius of temperament that gives you the patience to teach! I don’t have that, and I’m not at all ashamed to admit it.
Before I thought I wanted to teach art, I thought I wanted to be an artist, and before that, I just thought that I wanted to be rich. But that isn’t enough, of course. Shouldn’t money be put to work too, like our minds and bodies are? It can help other people reach their destinations. We remember Michelangelo, but we remember the Medici for encouraging and inspiring him. There’s something grand in that, too.
You said a few letters back that you couldn’t be Mozart, and so you had to work on being Laurie as best you can. Well, if being Laurie means that you can see genius for what it is, and that you want to work hard to bring something worthy into the world, and that you can seek to comfort others even when you are in pain yourself, then I think that being Laurie is a very fine thing indeed.