January 1, 2008
An unexpected thought interrupted the sentence I was reading in the morning newspaper, followed by several other thoughts in quick succession. I had just remembered last night’s dream:
My wife, Dorothea, and I were riding on a bus in a foreign country. Through the window we espied an open-air flea market with an array of attractive-looking wares. We nudged one another and rushed off the bus. Wandering from stall to stall, we admired beautiful old lamps, mirrors, furniture, trinkets, etc. Suddenly she looked at her watch and said, “Oh my God, I almost forgot. It’s time for our appointment.” We rushed out of the market place, climbed the stairs to the second floor of an adjacent building, and knocked on one of the doors. A middle-aged man in a business suit ushered us in and asked us to sit down. The walls were decorated with framed medical degrees, from which I deduced that he was a psychiatrist. Only then did I realize that we were there for some kind of consultation. “Good afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Steinhardt,” he said. “Thank you for coming. Let’s not waste any time and get right to work.” With that, he opened a closet door and brought out a heavy metal stand from which hung a giant plastic replica of a strawberry. The strawberry was well over a foot in length and impressive in its realism, all the way down to its green stem and dimpled deep-red texture. The psychiatrist pointed to the strawberry. “Now then, you first, Mr. Steinhardt. In your estimation, what key is this strawberry in?” The question didn’t seem odd to me, but I was stumped anyhow. What key does a strawberry actually come in? After considering for a moment, I somehow concluded that the strawberry must be either in the key of A or A-flat. The psychiatrist had a sly look that made me think he might be trying to pull a fast one, that this was a trick question. I decided to outfox him. If the correct answer were A, then I would say A-flat, if A-flat, I would say A. The trouble was that I couldn’t make up my mind. The psychiatrist tapped his foot impatiently. Finally, I took a guess. “A,” I blurted out, looking uncertainly to see what his reaction would be. The psychiatrist merely nodded his head slowly and then turned to Dorothea. “And now, Mrs. Steinhardt, your turn. What key do you think this strawberry is in?” “Why, A-flat, of course,” she said without a moment’s hesitation.
Thinking about my dream over a last cup of coffee, I had to smile. A strawberry in A or A-flat? Ridiculous.
Not long after, I ran into my old friend, the pianist Lincoln Mayorga. Something in our conversation reminded me of the dream. I told it to him thinking he would be amused. “What nonsense,” I concluded. “Imagine a strawberry making a sound much less being in any key! Any idea what this could mean?” I asked sheepishly, almost as an afterthought.
Lincoln looked at me oddly. “You don’t know?”
“No, I don’t know.”
“You haven’t a clue?”
“Listen,” I said, “I’m not a Jungian analyst, I’m a fiddle player.”
“True,” he replied, “but I think you’ll find your answer in the story you told me just recently about Edvard Grieg’s C Minor Violin and Piano Sonata.”
At Lincoln’s utterance, the story came back to me. Not long before, a student of mine had played the Grieg Sonata at a lesson. She was only at the seventh bar when I held up my hand for her to stop. “You’ve played not one, but actually two wrong notes just now,” I said rather patronizingly. I ambled over to the music stand and pointed. “You’ve played an A-flat and B-flat here when in fact it should be a…a…good grief!” The student had played the right notes. It was I, to my great consternation, who had played the wrong ones, an A followed by a B, in well over a dozen performances, culminating in the recent recording of the Grieg Sonata with Lincoln as pianist. My wrong notes were now preserved for all eternity. Lincoln had been amused when I told him about my careless ways and the humiliation of having a student “teach” me. “Don’t feel badly,” he had said. “The right notes, the lowered sixth and seventh of the scale, are more typically Grieg, but your wrong notes actually fit into the harmony very nicely.”
The interpretation of dreams is far from an exact science, but as far as I was concerned, Lincoln had solved the riddle of the notes. The dream’s oversized strawberry still perplexed me, however, so I prodded Lincoln further. He thought for a moment. “Remember how I practiced the Grieg at my mother’s house before our recording sessions? Remember that she lay terminally ill with cancer in the next room. I began to work on the second movement, the slow movement, one of the most ardent and touching pieces of music I know. I thought it would comfort her. I practiced the long, winding opening piano solo with its unexpected harmonic shifts over and over. Suddenly, mother called out from the other room: ‘Please stop.’ I rushed into the bedroom thinking she had taken a sudden turn for the worse. Mother was close to tears. ‘Please stop,’ she said once again. ‘I can’t bear it. The music is too beautiful, too painfully beautiful to think of leaving it forever.’ ”
“You remember, don’t you?” Lincoln asked me.
Of course I remembered. How could I forget Lincoln’s description of that tremulous moment in which his mother, Nancy, drifting ever nearer to death pushed aside all the sweetness of earthly beauty as embodied in the Grieg. In a sudden rush, the conversation that followed about the Grieg Sonata itself returned to me. Lincoln and I had agreed that it represented the very essence, the epitome of the Romantic Movement. We spoke about its breathtaking beauty, its heart-on-the-sleeve ardor, but especially about the qualities of its slow movement. “Like the ripest fruit imaginable hanging seductively on the vine,” one of us had mused.
“That’s it!” I exclaimed. “That’s the answer to my dream. The oversized strawberry must represent the ripe, succulent fruit that all of life is, a fruit that your mother found too beautiful in her waning moments to bear.”
“It could be,” Lincoln nodded in agreement.
“Let’s see,” I continued in a rising tide of enthusiasm. “The foreign country Dorothea and I were in must be Grieg’s homeland, Norway. The lovely, old flea market we wandered through could be a stand-in for his late nineteenth-century musical idiom, and…and… a-ha! Climbing to the second floor of that building, why, that must signify our arrival at the sonata’s second movement!”
I looked triumphantly at Lincoln who responded with amused skepticism. I had provided an all-too tidy and simplistic interpretation. Was the foreign country Grieg’s homeland, the flea market his music, the second floor the Sonata’s second movement, the oversized strawberry in the psychiatrist’s office the Romantic Movement itself? Come to think of it, what did the psychiatrist represent? And why was my wife in the dream?
The Talmud states that a dream not understood is like a letter unopened. I wonder whether I will ever be able to truly decipher my dream’s meaning. Certainly, making the connection between the oversized strawberry and Nancy Mayorga’s rejection of earthly beauty has darkened its character. I try to imagine the last, waning moments of my own life. Will I listen to the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and even Grieg covetously for one last time, or, like Nancy, will hearing those sweetest fruits of life be too much to bear? I have no answer. I’m only a fiddle player, after all.
A video of most of the second movement with Lydia Artymiw, piano, can be seen on YouTube.com (here).
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