I was cleaning house just now, with the radio turned up, when the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto swung into its finale, and I stopped everything because of my late ex-husband and Harry Belten.
It might have been even before we were married, but certainly not long after, that my late and ex asked me whether I had ever read Barry Targan’s story “Harry Belten and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.” I see on the title page of the collected edition a copyright date of 1975; he had seen it in Esquire magazine, which included the story in an anthology that we eventually ran to earth in the county library.
My late-and-ex treasured this story as much as anything he had ever read. Harry Belten is a duffer, a wage slave whose dream of performing on the violin can’t conquer his utter lack of anything like real ability; year after year he practices, and finally he decides that he’s not getting any younger, and he’s going to perform the Mendelssohn, goddammit.
If you know it — or if you’re already listening to the Perlman clip above — you know the piece is a technical broadside, requiring a fluency of fingering and bowing that’s right up there with composing triolets in Old French while skiing a slalom course and expounding quadratic equations. And it’s not just about skill, either; the piece is a fountain of aerobatic joy, a distillation of that rare experience when you are running and weigh nothing and can’t put a foot wrong. At least, that is how it comes out for a virtuoso of the violin; then there are the Harry Beltens of the world.
“How do you know the Mendelssohn?” Karnovsky asked him. His tone was tougher. A fool was a fool, but music was music. Some claims you don’t make. Some things you don’t say.
“I’ve studied it,” Harry answered.
“How long?” Karnovsky probed. “With whom?”
“Eighteen years. With myself. Ever since I learned how to play in all the positions, I’ve worked on the Mendelssohn. Every day a little bit. Phrase by phrase. No matter what I practiced, I always saved a little time for the Mendelssohn. I thought the last forty measures of the third movement would kill me. It took me four-and-a-half years.” Harry looked up at Karnovsky, but that innocent man had staggered back to the piano bench and collapsed. “It’s taken a long time,” Harry smiled. No matter what else, he was enjoying talking about his music.
“Eighteen years?” Karnovsky croaked from behind the piano.
“Eighteen years,” Harry reaffirmed, “and now I’m almost ready.”
Harry has saved up three thousand dollars, for a coach to help him prepare his concert, to rent a hall, to pay a symphony orchestra. His boss thinks he has cracked up. His wife is ready to have him declared mentally incompetent. His coach tries to talk him out of it, the orchestra tries to renege on the contract, but then there is the oldest member of the symphony board, a plaid flannel geezer with a dim view of what Is And Is Not Done:
“Do you know Turkey in the Straw?”
Harry nodded and played. Stennis was frantic. As Harry finished, he stood up. “Mr. Knox. I must insist on order.” He looked around him for support, and, much as they were enjoying the music, the old ladies nodded, reluctantly, in agreement-Board business was, after all, Board business. But Stanley Knox slapped the table for his own order.
“Quiet,” he commanded. “Let the boy play. Play The Fiddler’s Contest,” he ordered Harry.
“Mr. Knox!” Stennis shouted.
“Quiet!” Knox shouted back. “Let the boy play.”
Stennis hit his hand to his head and rushed noisily from the room.
One by one the old ladies tiptoed out, and then the treasurer left, and then Morgenstern, who walked by Harry and neither looked at him nor smiled nor frowned. Harry played on.
“Let the boy play,” Stanley Knox roared, pounding the table. “Let the boy play.”
Harry plays. His coach sticks with him, the orchestra sticks with him, his wife sticks with him and in the end, even the audience sticks with him. It isn’t good. But it is. The story is a love-song to music, the flip side of the cynicism of Shaffer’s Amadeus, in which the bitterness of being only mediocre drives Anton Salieri to murderous scheming against Mozart’s genius. Harry isn’t even mediocre, but the privilege of channeling Mendelssohn, just once, is something for which he’s willing to pay and sweat, and to my patter-singing ex-husband — who had a decent voice and a hammy stage style and soldiered through every performance of his life, even if he went blank and had to fake the lyrics — he was a totem.
“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly,” says the epigraph of Targan’s story. I am a perfectionist, and twenty-five years ago the notion was laughable to me. But it has grown on me with time.
Even before Morgenstern had looked at him (and with the first real emotion Harry had seen on that man’s face), Harry had heard the pitch drop on the D string. Only his motor responses formed out of his eighteen years of love carried him through the next three speeding measures as terror exploded in him. He had time to think two things: I know what should be done, and Do it. He did it. It almost worked.
Harry Belten played the worst finale to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto probably ever played with a real orchestra and before the public, any public. But it was still recognizably the Mendelssohn, it was not too badly out of tune, and if he was missing here and there on the incredibly difficult adjustments to the flatted D string, there were many places where he wasn’t missing at all. Besides Karnovsky, Morgenstern, and Glickman, nobody in the tiny audience in the Coliseum knew what was going on. What they knew was what they heard: to most, sounds which could not help but excite; to the more knowledgeable, a poor performance of a great piece of music. But what Karnovsky knew made him almost weep in his pride and in his joy.
And then, in that wonder-filled conclusion, violin and orchestra welded themselves together in an affirming shout of splendor and success.
You can find a .PDF of the whole story here.