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The first time I heard the name Franz Liszt, I didn’t think much of it. Eavesdropping on my boarders’ conversations while I cleaned was a constant pastime: they went out into the world and brought back exciting tales to liven up what was then my fortieth year of drudgery. Gone were the questions about why I hadn’t married, why I hadn’t ever left Leeds. All that was left was the dusting and the sweeping and the laundry and the old house creaking its way through the years. So one evening as I was tending to the fireplace, I overheard a young woman, who claimed to work as a seamstress but worked much more distasteful hours than that would suggest, describe his music as an excitement which pierced her very bones. She gushed to another boarder, an old journalist, that “Franz” would be performing on Friday and urged him to attend. The journalist retorted that Liszt’s music was designed to agitate the female mind, and that he wouldn’t enjoy it. I wanted to hear more, but the conversation ended and it would’ve embarrassed me to admit to my eavesdropping.
At the end of the following week, I found myself bothered by the lonely sound of my fingernail tapping against the armrest of my chair and remembered that Franz’s concert was about to occur. I ventured out in search of the agitation my boarder had mentioned, certain it would be better than another lonesome night. Nervous as I was to have arrived alone– though I commonly arrived alone to events, I have never been able to free myself of a bit of shame about it– I hurried to my seat, forced to pass through the crowd of excited faces. The chatter in the air sounded like a cacophonous music in itself. Like a thousand birds chirping over each other. Then, without warning, the concert began with the appearance of Franz Liszt.
As Liszt strode out to the piano I held my breath. His long legs carried him across the stage, each step not making a sound, as if the floor rose up to meet his foot softly, perfectly. Everyone around me screamed. They were begging him to begin playing before he was even halfway across the stage. With just a glance toward us, he sent the women around me into a wordless frenzy, and my own heartbeat quickened. Who was this man? When he sat at his piano in profile the crowd grew quiet in contemplation of the strong curves of his nose and chin. The woman to my left, whom I’d seen earlier striding through the foyer the picture of confidence and poise, hunched forward with her hands near her mouth and her eyes pulled wide as if by some force outside of herself. She trembled, and the concert hall was so silent I could hear her breaths, hot and shallow and anticipating the sublime.
He played the first note. Surely there were also further notes after that but my recollection of that moment, of the beginning, is a searing light that began with the first note. It was a chime, a buzz, a clarion, a vibration ripping through my body and flaying my flesh from my bones and reconstituting me as heat and muscle and something bursting from its seams. When the impact of that first note faded the first thing I noticed was my own breath, heavy and constant as though all of the air had been squeezed from my torso by a corset tied far too tight. Did the woman next to me feel the same way? I wondered if some poison gas had found its way into the air, and thought to check on the woman to my side. But my head would not turn away from the man pounding away at the keyboard, every stroke of the keys a culmination of all of nature’s force, how such intense movements could produce the elegant sound I heard mystified me. Again I would have liked to consult with one of my neighbors, but the music held me in place. Softly, gently, inescapably. A silk ribbon tied tight around my neck and shoulders.
Why was this music having such an effect on me? I knew I was acting strangely. Such knowledge, however, did not come with permission to stop. Franz, his music implored me to think of him as Franz, as the beloved friend who had given me this gift, stamped his foot on the ground and flung his hair back. Sweat glittered in the air and tears escaped my eyes. A terrific bass pulsed out from the piano, stopping my heart and silencing my mind and once again I no longer had a body. Every note hit me and scattered me and just as I pushed my head above water for a breath another one pushed me down until the conclusion was obvious and I couldn’t believe I could never think of it before, before, before I was deep in this water I must simply not breathe and this onslaught would transform into tranquility. I tossed around in this strange ecstasy for some time, I can’t determine how long. At one point I heard screaming, the kind one would expect from a woman who saw death before her, from all around me, and perhaps was making the same noise myself. But I can’t know if I was. Any of the women who could answer were presumably in London a month later.
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