Poem Without a Title 16


闻道阊门萼绿华,wén dào chāng mén è lǜ huá
昔年相望抵天涯。xī nián xiāng wàng dǐ tiān yá
岂知一夜秦楼客,qǐ zhī yī yè qín lóu kè
偷看吴王苑內花。tōu kàn wú wáng yuàn nèi huā

Towards Chang Gate, it is said, where lived Liu Hua,
For years I gazed, as though from the ends of the earth afar.
I wish I had just one night in the Chin Tower
To steal a glance at King Wu’s inner courtyard of flowers.[1]

At last Brahms replied. He was willing to meet me, no preconditions. I, Li Shangyin, would interview the last greatest composer of the classical tradition…for Playboy magazine. Johannes Brahms was notoriously difficult to get to and a famously difficult subject for interviews. His last interviewer had been depicted as a foul-mouthed shrew in his great opera Mephisto in Love[2]. It had taken me the better part of a year to get in contact with him and share the significant advantages of interviewing with our magazine. In the first place, we would introduce him to a whole new group of readers, including the musically semi-literate yuppies of upper New York, the new wave of MBA’s that thronged our newsstands every Friday, and, of course, folks who breathe classical music. In addition, those already familiar with his work would learn more about a habitually reclusive man whose trenchant wit and unrelenting modesty had made him an object of myth in our times.

Just before the meeting, however, the magazine received a phone call from Herr Brahms. The news was bad. He had doubts about whether he should go ahead with the interview. Too often, he said, he had been misrepresented by the press (He still remembered Sir Bernard Shaw’s trenchant criticism), and was wary of being bitten again.  He demanded, therefore, that the interviewer have sufficient credentials. These so called credentials were: that the interviewer not be a Brahms scholar (he had problems with bogus experts, so he said), that one have a working acquaintance with all of his works, and, finally, that the interview be presented frankly, word for word, even profanity for profanity et al. Finally, the interviewer would have to meet his personal approval. To this end, he demanded a brief meeting in which he would assess my competence. Put in a cold sweat by all this, but confident that my love of and experience performing classical music would tide me over the difficult times ahead, I prepared to meet him with gusto. I frenetically reviewed every work by Brahms that I had ever heard of, and cross-referenced numerous facts about his life with those of other composers, wishing to leave absolutely no stone unturned. After I had burnt the midnight oil and slept feverishly for several days, the fateful date arrived.

Brahms’ home was now in Seattle, to where he had moved after the notorious fracas with the University of Vienna twenty years ago. He claimed he loved the city’s scenic charm and the absence of the Brahmsian and Wagnerian hordes that used to drive him to distraction in Vienna[3].

Soon I was at a little apartment hidden within the arborous surroundings of an affluent neighborhood. A tiny little woman (apparently his maid) welcomed me into the simply furnished house. Apart from a few antiques, most of the interior evinced a contemporary atmosphere, with a few tasteful black metal chairs and a mahogany coffee table starkly visible in an otherwise totally white interior. In the center of the living room in which I waited for the master sat a monstrous Bosendorfer Grand. A small bust of Beethoven frowned down at me from the glossy lid.

Soon a man shuffled into the room. He wore a pale green sweater, baggy black pants and a pince-nez nestled upon his ruddy nose. A huge shaggy gray beard, uncombed and streaked with dark lines ran down and around his neck, even over his neatly rounded pot belly. An intensely shrewd pair of brilliant blue eyes stared up at me above a drooping, unlit cigar that limply extended from his mouth. Glancing at me and the cameraman for only an instant he then shuffled over to a small recess in the wall which housed an elegant and very expensive stereo system. He plugged in his Samsung Galaxy cell phone. The burnished sound of a string quartet enveloped us. “Well, what is this piece?” Brahms demanded in a thick Austrian accent. I correctly replied that it was the third movement of Op.60 of Beethoven. With an almost imperceptible and grudging nod of the head, he then slipped in another CD. What sounded like the Grateful Dead suddenly pounded the walls of his abode. “And this?” said Brahms. This time my answer was incorrect. He started pawing his feet in silence. At that moment I began to think of a new job at Esquire, or even returning to the imperial capital of Chang’An. He quickly looked up, gave a great beaming smile from ear to ear, walked up to me and said, “Fine, that’s very good. You do not know them. Very good. Be back in a week for the interview”. He walked out of the room, we were shown out, and that was my first meeting with Mr. Johannes Brahms.


About the Calligraphy
Figure 23闻道阊门萼绿华,昔年相望抵天涯。Towards Chang’men, it is said, where lived Liu Hua, For years I gazed, as though from the ends of the earth afar.
(2 rows, 14 characters, Cursive Cao Script)

[1] Liu Hua (also known as Green-calyx Blossom) was a goddess who taught her earthly lover the art of being immortal.

[2] A rags to riches story of the rise and fall of a garment worker in Bangladesh, in which Brahms also reveals his social and environmental activism.

[3] A man of many contradictions, the final straw was when he led a student protest against American tobacco companies, while chomping on his Cuban cigars. “These are special!”, he declared, before resigning his professorship during the media uproar.

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