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Clement's Corner: The Erlking

After singing Schubert's heart-rending work The Erlking Leslie Browne encounters an old man in the deserted Opera House - a man to whom the work has a very special meaning.

Owen Clement tells a tale in which sadness turns into companionship.

The recital over the recharged Opera House audience slowly made their way to the exit. When the noise had quietened, Leslie Browne, ecstatic with the reception he received to his rendition of Schubert’s heart-rending The Erlking returned to the stage to collect his accompanists’ sheet music.

To his surprise he saw a lone figure hunched over in the front row. Alarmed, that the old man was either seriously ill or had died, he jumped down from the stage and tentatively approached the still figure while looking out for an usher.

The man raised his head, his expression one of great sadness. Leslie sat beside him.

“Are you alright?”

The old man nodded slowly.

“Can you wait a moment while I get someone?” Leslie asked.

Tears began to flow as the man gripped Leslie’s arm, “Give me a minute,'' he croaked.

Leslie heard someone clumping down the aisle. A matronly woman bustled up to them. Leslie patted the old man’s hand before rising to face her, “He’ll be out soon.''

Noticing his determined expression, she strode off.

When Leslie sat down the old man said, “I’m afraid I’m being a nuisance.''

“No – no, it’s fine. You had me very worried though,'' Leslie said, smiling with relief.

The old man nodded.

“My name’s Leslie Browne.”

“I know. I’m Arthur Howell. It was your “Erlking”. You see my wife and I love both Goethe’s words and Schubert’s musical interpretation.”

“It is a wonderful piece. For the first time I think I managed to convey some of the unutterable heartbreak of a father losing a child.” He paused, “Your wife you said?”

Arthur Howell sighed and began to rise with difficulty. Leslie, realizing she must have died, helped him up and said, ”I’m so sorry, I didn’t think.''

“It’s alright lad. I’m okay now.” He shook Leslie’s hand, smiled and without saying another word began to move up the aisle. The usherette came down and escorted him out. As they were about to leave the hall he turned and waved.

Leslie noticed that Arthur had left his program on the seat and picked it up.

Later in the dressing room he jotted down “Arthur Howell” on the back of the program. He changed into his street clothes, and packed away his dress suit and music along with Arthur’s program, vowing that somehow he would return it to the old man.

To his surprise he saw Arthur outside apparently waiting to be picked up. Leslie walked up to him holding out the program, “Mr. Howell, you forgot this.”

“Oh! Thank you, you are very kind. In the state I was in, I’m afraid I forgot it.”

“Do you have transport?”

“I’m waiting for a taxi.”

Leslie knew that in the bun-rush after the performance, younger and fitter members of the audience were the first to commandeer the convoy of waiting cabs. People like Arthur Howell were forced to wait for the next wave making it very late at times.

“I could give you a lift if you like? Where are you headed?”

“Don’t you worry about me young man; you must be pretty tired yourself.”

“I’m fine. I’d be happy to drive you.”

They discovered to their surprise that they lived in adjacent inner suburb up-market apartments rebuilt from Sydney’s renovated wool stores.

As Arthur was about to leave the car he asked Leslie to autograph his program.

The next morning Leslie saw Arthur breakfasting al fresco at a nearby café and asked if he could join him. He was pleased to see him looking brighter. They enjoyed a very pleasant meal chatting easily about their favourite choices of music. Leslie was amazed with Arthur’s breadth of knowledge. He was also surprised to hear that, like him, Arthur loved jazz and had a large eclectic collection going back to the Tin Pan Alley days. After their meal Arthur took Leslie to see his collection. Every record and CD was catalogued and cross-referenced with the name of the piece, the artist and the style. In the Classical section Arthur proudly showed Leslie the three CD’s that Leslie had recorded.

Leslie saw a very different man to the previous evening. Gone was the frail old man, here was an alert, clear-eyed man with a broad knowledge, not only of music but of life itself. Leslie was invited to call in whenever he wished.

As he was about to head off on another overseas tour, he was unable to see his new found friend for another three months. He promised, however, to send postcards from the places he visited and keep Arthur up to date with how the recitals were going. Once being an inveterate traveller while his wife was alive Arthur had little difficulty visualizing being in the audience at each of the major cities where Leslie performed.

His tour over, Leslie contacted his friend Arthur on his return and they spent many an evening in each other’s company discussing the recent tour, music and their personal history.

During this period Leslie discovered that Arthur and his wife had lost their only child, a son, from Spina Bifida complications. Arthur went on to describe how the boy, not yet in his teens, had, like the boy in The Erlking, died in his arms.

Soon Leslie was off on yet another tour. This time when he sang the Erlking, he did so with genuine sensitivity and compassion.

© Clement 2006


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