Sarah picked up the envelope and sniffed it. She had an especially sensitive nose, and something about the thick stationery was odd.
“I think it’s a letter,” said Bailey, with whom Sarah shared a tiny office on the top floor of Exeter Hall. They always gave the music grad students the worst offices. This one was unheated in winter, stiflingly hot in summer, and smelled faintly of mice.
“I can see it’s a letter,” said Sarah, moving Bailey’s troubadour bobblehead an inch to the left, knowing this would drive him nuts. They enjoyed finding ways to outmaneuver each other. Bailey was an expert on madrigals, while Sarah’s recent work at Thoreau College in Boston focused on the emerging field of neuromusicology. Sarah had spent most of last week wondering about the differences in the brains of musicians and non-musicians when it came to pitch perception, and whether pitch was something that non-musicians could conceptualize. She had forced Bailey to listen to her musings. It was only fair, since he had been playing a particularly annoying madrigal, “Hail the Buds of Spring,” over and over on his recorder.
Sarah ripped open the heavy brown paper envelope, and slid its contents—a thick wad of paper neatly tied in brown string—onto her lap. Bailey picked the discarded envelope up off her desk.
“It’s from Lobkowicz Palace, Prague, Czech Republic.”
“I can read, Bailey,” Sarah said, untying the string. “And it’s pronounced: LOB-ko-witz.”
The name was intriguing. In the early 1800s a Prince Lobkowicz had been a patron of Haydn and Beethoven, who had each dedicated a number of works to the prince as a thank-you. She hadn’t realized that the Lobkowicz family was still around, if these were the same ones.
Sarah looked down. The wad of paper looked like . . . money. Her jaw fell open and she looked more closely.
“Czech crowns,” said Bailey, leaning over her shoulder. “You know, it’s illegal to send cash through the mail.”
Sarah examined the inch-thick pile. A curly bearded king stared intently at something just below the left edge of the banknote.
“What’s a hundred worth?” Sarah asked Bailey, who quickly googled the answer. “Five dollars and fifty-seven cents,” he said.
“Oh,” said Sarah, who had been hoping the crown was worth a bit more. “But there are a lot of them here.” She unfolded a letter that had accompanied the currency.
“Well?” prompted Bailey. “What’s it all about? Are they trying to smuggle out their money?”
“No,” Sarah said, still reading. “They’re offering me a job for the summer.” Europe. Sarah had never been to Europe, although she had optimistically kept an up-to-date passport since she was sixteen. No one in her family had ever been to Europe, at least since they had fled the great famines of the nineteenth century. She looked up from the letter.
“This is just cab fare from the airport to the palace. They’re offering me two hundred thousand crowns for the summer.”
“That’s almost twelve thousand dollars!” Bailey exclaimed.
Sarah blinked. Her fellowship only covered the basics, which left her in the usual state of doctoral-candidate poverty. She hadn’t grown up with money; she was the first person in her family to go to college, let alone pursue a PhD. Twelve thousand dollars sounded to her like a million dollars.
A trip to Europe. To Prague.
Prague. It was too bad it wasn’t Vienna, since she had mastered German as an undergrad and Vienna was where Sarah’s personal and professional hero, Ludwig van Beethoven, had largely lived and worked. She might be able to finagle a side trip though.
“What do they want you to do?” asked Bailey. “Not that it matters, because you’ll do it.”
Sarah read further. “It’s about a museum the Lobkowicz family is opening,” she reported. “They have a huge collection of art, musical instruments, weapons, ceramics, books. A trove of handwritten scores: Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven. Letters and other documents to do with music. They need help sorting, deciding which things should go on display, which need restoration work.” Sarah leaned forward and started typing at her computer.
“Are you looking up Lobkowicz?” Bailey asked. “’Cause I’m already there. One of the oldest Bohemian families, princes of the Holy Roman Empire, knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece, enormous fortune, politically powerful. Joseph Franz Maximilian, 7th Prince Lobkowicz, was a patron of Haydn and Beethoven, who dedicated—”
“Yes, I know about him,” Sarah interrupted.
“Hereditary titles were abolished in 1918,” Bailey rattled on. “So they’re not really princes anymore. That sucks.”
“Maximilian Lobkowicz,” Sarah said, reading, “1888 to 1967. He was a patriot and a supporter of the newly formed Czechoslovak State. He fled the Nazis in 1939 and they seized the entire family fortune.”
“So they lost everything,” Bailey said, picking up the story. “Until 1945 when the family returned after the war and got everything restituted back to them! And then . . . oh. Oops.”
“And then the communists confiscated it all again in 1948,” Sarah said. “The family was forced to flee a second time. It looks like everything stayed lost until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The family has been gathering up the stuff since then, I guess. And now they want to open a museum.”
“Well, that’s all clear enough,” Bailey said. “But why do they want you?”
Sarah didn’t take offense at the question. She knew herself to be a gifted student, exceptional even, and she had experience with archival work. But she wasn’t a world-class musicologist—not yet. She had been a student of such a person, which was how she knew she wasn’t at that level.
Dr. Absalom Sherbatsky’s “Music Cognition” seminar was by far the hardest class to get into in Sarah’s graduate program. In fact, Sherbatsky had been known to cancel his course altogether if there were no applicants he deemed worthy to receive his wisdom. (He had refused to teach at Harvard after a class there had “failed” him.) When it was announced that Dr. Sherbatsky would be leading a special series of lectures with the disarming title “Beethoven: In One Ear and Out the Other,” Sarah was intrigued.
For the first class, Sherbatsky strode in with a boom box circa 1985 and popped in a tape of Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture, op. 72.
“You’ve heard it before?” Sherbatsky smiled, all mock innocence. “Really? You know this one?” He folded his arms and tucked his chin into his Brooks Brothers shirt, closed his eyes. A few of the more sycophantic students copied this pose. Sarah leaned forward, intent on recognizing the recording. Hans Knappertsbusch and Munich’s Bavarian State Orchestra most likely.
Sherbatsky played the overture through to the conclusion and then asked for a student to write out the French horn passage in the second theme of the allegro on the chalkboard. Several hands shot up eagerly.
“So you’ll all agree?” Sherbatsky asked, when this was done. “This is correct?” Nodding all around. “This is what you heard?” More nodding.
“No,” said Sarah. Sherbatsky shot a look her way. “It’s what it should be,” Sarah said. “But it’s not what’s on that recording.” Sarah approached the chalkboard and made a quick adjustment to the second measure. “The second horn made kind of a silly mistake. The recording is live, obviously, but not performance. Dress rehearsal, I’m thinking.”
“Obviously, the presence of the audience changes the sound,” someone said. Sherbatsky turned to Sarah.
“Well that,” Sarah said. “Yeah. But also the musicians wear different shoes for rehearsal. Sounds like the first violin has on boots. A rainy day in Munich maybe?”
That had been pure invention, that thing with the boots, and she was pretty sure Sherbatsky knew it, but she was right about the second French horn player making a mistake.
Many of the seminars had involved strange “empathic listening” exercises, where you had to play something of Ludwig’s later period on the piano or violin while wearing giant sound deprivation headphones. Sherbatsky had made recordings of “simulated noise” as well, his attempts to guess at what Beethoven had been able to hear of his own work at different periods of his life, and different places. The composer had actually had moments, even near the end of his life, where the ability to hear had returned in brief flashes. Sarah was entranced, and became Sherbatsky’s star pupil.
For their final project, Sherbatsky had simply said to the class, “Surprise me.” Sarah called a friend who worked at Mass General, and the girl had snuck Sarah into her lab and done a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan of Sarah’s brain while she thought through the entire Ninth Symphony. When Sarah presented the printout to Sherbatsky, he had wept.
Last winter she asked him to supervise her PhD thesis, even though he was known to loathe overseeing student work. He surprised her by agreeing eagerly, saying that he thought Sarah had exceptional sensory abilities. He actually hugged her brain, which had been awkward but flattering. But, Sherbatsky said, they would have to begin in the fall. He was off on sabbatical for the spring semester. He was vague about his destination, which was not unusual. Sarah wasn’t sure if Sherbatsky knew where he was most of the time. She hadn’t heard from him since he left in January.
So why hadn’t the Lobkowiczes hired someone like him who was recognized the world over as the man who knew Beethoven better than Beethoven knew Beethoven? Or some acknowledged expert from the Royal College of Music or someplace like that?
At the bottom of the letter was an e-mail address. If Sarah accepted the offer, she was to send an acknowledgment at once to Miles Wolfmann, head of the Lobkowicz Museum Collection. Travel accommodations would then be made. She should be prepared to leave immediately.
Sarah decided that a brief acceptance message was best. She could have pretended that accepting meant canceling equally glamorous plans, but why bother? However, she needn’t tell Miles Wolfmann that the only people she’d be disappointing by her absence this summer were the members of Boston Sports Club, where she moonlighted as a spin-class instructor.
How had the Lobkowicz family even heard of her? True, she had published, but only in academic journals. Had Sherbatsky himself recommended her? That was plausible, and Sarah decided to accept it as the most likely explanation.
She left the office and biked quickly back to the tiny Porter Square apartment she shared with a roommate. Adrenaline and excitement kicked up her pace, and she beat her best time by forty-five seconds.
Sarah knew she should call her mother and tell her the news. Actually, the person she really wanted to tell was her father. Even though it had been thirteen years since his death, she still wanted to tell him things.
Sarah felt a weird mix of dread and resentment when she thought about what her mom’s reaction would be to Sarah gallivanting off to Europe for the summer. Her mom, Judy, had grown up very poor and dropped out of high school when her own mom died and she was left to take care of younger siblings. Judy was cleaning houses for a living when she met Sarah’s dad, an electrician she let into a fancy mansion on Beacon Hill so he could fix the crystal chandeliers for her employers.
Sarah’s dad had been delighted that his daughter loved reading and school. Her mom said all the right things (“We’re very proud of you”), but even when Sarah was very little she had the sense that with every book she read, she was somehow distancing herself from her mom. This news wasn’t likely to improve matters.
Sarah sighed, stowed her bike away, and climbed the stairs to her apartment. Alessandro, her roommate, greeted her at the door, clad only in a towel and carrying two raspberry-colored cocktails. Sarah accepted one gratefully.
“Campari and pomegranate juice,” Alessandro purred in his thick Italian accent. “You will adore me forever.”
None of Sarah’s friends could believe that Sarah wasn’t sleeping with Alessandro, who was hot in both the classical Renaissance sense and in a totally cheesy vampire movie one too. Sarah, who took a scholarly interest in her own healthy libido, could only explain it as a matter of pheromones. When it came to sex, she simply followed her nose, and her nose never led her to Alessandro. “You’re spoiled,” her friends said. Which was probably true, since Sarah never seemed to have any trouble finding a suitable partner for the mood, and the mood occurred frequently. “What about common interests, intimacy, trust?” other friends said. “Don’t you want that?” At this point, Sarah usually had to hide a yawn.
Now she followed her roommate into their cramped but immaculate (that was Alessandro’s doing) kitchen and showed him the letter from Prague.
“The first thing you must do when you get there,” Alessandro said, “is visit Il Bambino di Praga, and say a prayer to him.”
Sarah rolled her eyes. Alessandro was a scientist. He was studying yeast, although Sarah wasn’t totally clear on the specifics. Mostly because the way Alessandro pronounced the word “yeast” always cracked her up. She knew his work had something to do with brain functions, but in a way that didn’t seem to overlap at all with her own interest in music and the brain.
“What’s a bambino of Praga?” she asked.
Alessandro shook his head in mock despair. “What kind of a nice Catholic girl are you?” he asked.
“I’m not,” said Sarah. That, too, had been a showdown with her mother. The day she had decided that she wasn’t going to mass anymore.
“It’s an ancient statue of Gesu Bambino, the baby Jesus, that has magical powers when you pray to him.”
“This from the man who stares into an electron microscope all day.” It never ceased to amuse and perplex her that Alessandro, a neuroanatomist, freely switched from evil eyes and the magical abilities of saints to Einstein’s unfinished unified field theory in a microsecond.
“Sarah,” Alessandro said, sternly. “There is much more to this life than what we can see even through an electron microscope. You will learn, when you go to Prague. There is magic there.” He crossed himself. “Dark magic. Prague is a threshold.”
“Prague is a city,” she said firmly. “A place where, just like here, the rules of science apply.”
“Rules of science,” Alessandro shrugged his elegant shoulders. “And what are those? We don’t even know how this works.” He pointed to his head. “Eighty-six point one billion neurons. And glial cells surround neurons—eighty-four point six billion glia. For over century, cento anni, we know glia are there, but not what they do. Now we know they modulate neurotransmission. But how? We don’t know. And universe? Ninety-six percent of the universe is dark matter and dark energy. What are they? Chissá? No one knows. I tell you, rules of science are molto misterioso.”
Sarah downed the rest of the Campari. The doorbell rang.
“One of your lovers?” Alessandro raised an eyebrow. “I thought you say no sex till you finish paper on pitch perception in the brain?”
Sarah shook her head. “I’ll see who it is,” she said, and handed Alessandro her glass. “If we’re going to talk about dark matter I think I need another drink.”
Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from City of Dark Magic © Magnus Flyte, 2012.