Aws Alherbish is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine, specialized in Cardiology and Critical Care at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. His main interest outside medicine is in Classic Literature and History. He published "Takamori's Head", a short story in the Magazine of History and Fiction, Winter 2019.
The prattle of the noblemen became noticeably loud and hysterical when the name of the next palace guest was rumoured. Frederick the Great sat arrogantly on his royal chair wearing a colourful Baroque suit and his face was covered by a yellow unilateral smile. Nobody, however, believed the news. No one has seen him for years and his despise for those aristocratic gatherings was common knowledge. “Did they capture him and drag him forcibly to the palace?” they wondered. Silence suddenly fell, as nobody wanted to miss the scene, when the usher finally announced:
- Johann Sebastian Bach.
Despite being silent and vigilant, they all, including Bach’s son Carl, predicted that nobody would show up. They thought if someone enters, it would probably be a fake person or it might be Bach if dementia had overtaken him. Long time passed with nobody appearing and that comforted people for some reason. Just before they gave up, a phantom of a man of mid height and wide squared shoulders wearing a white wig and a shabby black suit emerged from the distant gate. They remained unsure that it was really Bach until they saw his reproachful glare, which eliminated all doubts. He kept a distance from the king and didn’t approximate further. The king stood up and walked closer until he confronted him directly. Bach gave a subtle welcoming gesture that Frederick failed to notice. A very peculiar conversation followed between the two. Because it started as if it was an addendum to a previous debate while people knew for a fact that the two had never met before. Frederick started:
- Then what is Art?
- Art is a small offering of inspiration and the rest is driven by imagination.
- How disrespectful. Does it rely on the recipient’s imagination?
- Those who don’t have imagination can’t appreciate it.
- Art is an independent scheme with conditions and laws. There is nothing in it to be derived from recipients. You have failed miserably if all you did was tickling their emotions while leaving the rest for them to shape.
- Human minds have tendency towards indolence. Many beautiful emotions and genius ideas were lost due to the failure in persisting to solve those mysteries. My music stimulates minds to endeavour in solving those puzzles.
- You are offensive to Art and music.
- His highness knows how stubborn the old man had become. But I will be surprised if that’s the reason I was summoned.
- In fact, I wanted to show you where creativity and invention had taken us and I will be interested in witnessing the transformation of your opinion.
Frederick rotated swiftly and his suit tail wiggled in the air. He pointed towards one corner of the palace arrogantly, like a director giving an order for a play to start. All eyes were directed to the corner, curious to see what’s about to unfold. A piece of cloth covered the surprise object. Two soldiers ran to lift the cloth off and people recognized the object to be a new musical instrument. “The Piano will start a new era and prove the fallacy of your theory” Frederick commented while striding towards the instrument. He slickly jumped to the seat in front of the instrument and started playing. He played a modern fast piece that was perceived by Bach to be artificial and pretentious. The old man’s eyes glowed and it used to do so when he ridicules something. Frederick noticed that and understood its meaning. When Bach turned around and started walking away, Frederick ordered him to stop. He wasn’t prepared to let the meeting end in this humiliating manner.
- I did not mention why your attendance was ordered.
- I am always in the service of his highness.
- I made a music theme that I want you to compose and perform in two months.
- His majesty recognizes our different visions and opposite tastes. In addition, your new instruments seem to have the capability to produce absolute beauty.
- It is the king’s desire.
- Two months are not enough to compose my own theme!
The king did not respond but his anger was easily felt in the tense air. Bach tried to continue walking but a soldier caught up and delivered the music theme to him. He stopped and after thinking it over said: “the music will be performed in the Fortress of Kustrin”. He departed before hearing the answer.
Neither of the two was expected to come. Frederick was in the midst of the most ferocious battles and Bach was waiting for such a chance to sneak out of the affair. Rain was pouring steadily, thus only few people made it to the fortress: Those who had to arrange the event and those with a curiosity that governs their actions. Two rows of chairs were lined up centered by the royal chair in the dim humid fortress. People were astonished when Bach showed up on time and headed silently to his seat. He sat on a tall chair positioned on the side in front of the humble audience. Long time passed afterwards heralding a slim chance for the king’s appearance. However, Bach’s face remained expressionless and didn’t seem to care about the whole affair. Furthermore, his musical preparation was humbler than a Sunday ceremony. The instruments comprised an organ, a flute and a violin. Loud noises and horses neighing suddenly interrupted the silence. Frederick stormed the fortress riding his horse followed by his generals. His face displayed extreme tiredness, which attested to an arrival straight from the battlefield. “The Austrians were defeated in Hohenfriedberg. Long live our nation” he triumphantly declared in the middle of the fortress hall. He jumped from his horse, passed the bridle to the soldiers and walked to his seat while looking at the humble arrangement indignantly. Bach stood up and gave a deep noticeable bow. His moments of admiration towards the king were rare and mainly restricted to the glorious national affairs. Without much delay, he ordered the music to start.
The Musical offering ensued. Ricercar a 3 started with its short interrupted tones. The combination of exhaustion, sitting and music sprouted certain memories in Frederick. He reclined his head on his seat’s edge and saw small sculptures of the crucified Christ hanging on the dome. The scene provoked a peculiar sadness within his heart. The music captured his soul again and as memories were rolling, he closed his eyes and started talking to himself:
“Hans, here it is where your soul departed this unfair life. Your head was taken for a treason you did not commit. My head wasn’t enough to fulfill my father’s desire to punish his son. It needed to be something exceedingly cruel like taking your head in front of me. It wasn’t your punishment but mine. Would there be a crueler way to avenge me? You didn’t even want to escape. In fact, you tried to stop my indiscretion but your obedience stemmed from love and loyalty. Your forgiveness is my ultimate hope. If you had died once, your friend had died a hundred times.”
Ricercar a 3 ended and people started to converse in the intermission but Frederick froze in his seat like a corpse. Bach approached the king to congratulate him for his victory. However, Frederick was not listening and it was clear that he was daydreaming. When his awareness returned, he looked at Bach as if he had just woken up from a prolonged coma and said “I wish sometimes during moments of mental fatigue and despair from existence to surrender to the imagination world. In that world, there is liberation from responsibility and absolute freedom. There is astonishing beauty in its countless outcomes and wide horizons. You can float astray in its unlimited probabilities. Nonetheless, it brings an elusive fear from the occurrence of the unexpected; which may drive a desire to return to the reality world pursuing the shelter of its limitation”. “The nation beseeches the king’s mind and wisdom” Bach responded coldly and returned to his seat.
The Musical Offering restarted again and the king returned to his memories. The long sequential tones of Ricercar a 6 this time appeared to be narrating to him a story. He didn’t believe it but it was the story of Hans Hermann Von Katte. “This is how history will be telling your story my friend. It is within this musical piece. History will never forget you. Hail to you eternity” he whispered to himself. Sleep defeated Fredrick, so he submitted to it and dreamt:
He was standing in front of the window in the fortress jail room. He saw the soldiers leaving the main gate dragging the chained prisoner who abstained from resistance. A couple of soldiers broke into his room and lead him to the front yard. They tied him up in front of the prisoner who knelt and lowered his head below the guillotine. Their eyes met and he was struck by the carelessness that he noticed in Katte’s eyes. He cried and begged “Please forgive my dear Katte, in God's name, forgive me”. Hans lowered his eyes to the ground as if he had surrendered to his destiny, but that gaze also carried reproach and blame in Frederick’s view. He mumbled with almost unnoticeable voice “No need to beg forgiveness, I die for you….”.
The king woke up in shudder for what he saw. He tried to run what followed in his mind without success. The end of the music piece seemed to be ambiguous and incomplete to him. When the piece came to an end, he jumped on his feet protesting about it. He ordered Bach to finish the incomplete music. Bach noted that this piece is concluded but the composition is not. He requested from the king another week to finalize it and perform it to him in the church of Wust. The king was furious, yet had no choice but to accept. He felt that his feeling stopped inappropriately in the middle somewhere and he had an urge to take it to an end.
Time crawled slowly for the king and the gift of sleep departed his tortured soul. His attempts to recall the old concealed events went in vain and only added to his misery. Dark clouds mudded his mind and left him disabled from running the affairs of his kingdom. Therefore, anger grew in him and he expressed a desire to bear the full responsibility on Bach.
The week finally passed by and the king arrived with a very small entourage to the church. He found Bach sitting in its front yard beside a small mausoleum prepared to start. The king sat furiously in his seat and fires seemed to blaze from his eyes. The music started with no delay. It started with some beautiful Canons that melted down Frederick’s anger and prompted him to relax. His eyes fell on the mausoleum and he thought that he read on it from a distance the name of the Katte family. His heart pounded. The sonata of Largo followed carrying with it the secret path to eternal relief. Frederick’s eyes watered and he found himself in a state of mourning. He was suddenly able to remember his friend’s last look under the guillotine. He thenclosed his eyes and envisioned the soldiers about to decapitate his head. However, just before they released the rope, a soldier asked Hans:
- You know that the mad king did not specify whom to be executed. The decree read: “The head of the traitor is to be decapitated in front of his comrade”. We all know from the mad king’s frantic decisions that he meant to kill the crown prince in front of you. Why do you and some of the king’s advisors insist on reversing the two?
- I die for our nation’s hope to live.
The guillotine descended on Hans Herman Katte’s head and separated it from his body.
Frederick awoke terrified from what he saw. The Musical offering had come to an end long ago. He stood petrified in front of his friend’s tomb. He finally noticed that Bach remained behind him. He talked without turning his head:
- The mind is bizarre. It brings unexpected people in unknown places in the dreams of night and day. They claim that these are precipitations buried in it. But if we assume they are, should it not recognize them after they surface up? Are our minds kidnapped sometimes to unknown places or there are hidden forces controlling them? Was the Music about Hans Herman Katte?
- Do not forget that it was your own theme. As for me, I only wanted it to be an inspiration for beauty.
- You probably know that I lost consciousness during Katte’s affair for three days and that I never asked about the details afterwards. It is unclear to me if I was awake but chosen denial or if I was completely unconscious. I am not even aware if people know the details of what occurred. Do you know what happened?
- I do not. But I know that your imagination touched upon the truth.
Frederick’s heart was filled with solace and gratitude. His eyes followed the aged man heading confidently towards the wrong direction. The king realized only then that blindness had completely afflicted the stubborn elderly without anybody noticing.