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Music Teacher

(from Ivan Turgenev’s A House of Gentlefolk, 1859)

Christopher Theodor Gottlieb Lemm was born in 1786 in the town of Chemnitz in Saxony. His parents were poor musicians. His father played the French horn, his mother the harp; he himself was practising on three different instruments by the time he was five. At eight years old he was left an orphan, and from his tenth year he began earning his bread by his art.

He led a wandering life for many years, and performed everywhere in restaurants, at fairs, at peasants’ weddings, and at balls. At last he got into an orchestra, and constantly rising in it, he obtained the position of director. He was rather a poor performer; but he understood music thoroughly. At twenty-eight he migrated into Russia, on the invitation of a great nobleman, who did not care for music himself, but kept an orchestra for show.

Lemm lived with him seven years in the capacity of orchestra conductor, and left him empty-handed. The nobleman was ruined, he intended to give him a promissory note, but in the sequel refused him even that—in short, did not pay him a cent. He was advised to go away; but he was unwilling to return home in poverty from Russia, that great Russia which is a mine of gold for artists; he decided to remain and try his luck.

For twenty years the poor German had been trying his luck; he had lived in various gentlemen’s houses, had suffered and put up with much, had faced privation, had struggled like a fish on ice; but the idea of returning to his own country never left him among all the hardships he endured; it was this dream along that sustained him. But fate did not see fit to grant him this last and first happiness: at fifty, broken-down in health and prematurely aged, he drifted to the town of O——, and remained there for good, having now lost once for all every hope of leaving Russia, which he detested.

He gained his poor livelihood somehow by lessons. Lemm’s exterior was not prepossessing. He was short and bent, with crooked shoulders, and a contracted chest, with large flat feet, and bluish white nails on the gnarled bony fingers of his sinewy red hands. He had a wrinkled face, sunken cheeks, and compressed lips, which he was for ever twitching and biting; and this, together with his habitual taciturnity, produced an impression almost sinister. His grey hair hung in tufts on his low brow; like smouldering embers, his little set eyes glowed with dull fire. He moved painfully, at every step swinging his ungainly body forward. Some of his movements recalled the clumsy actions of an owl in a cage when it feels that it is being looked at, but itself can hardly see out of its great yellow eyes timorously and drowsily blinking.

Pitiless, prolonged sorrow had laid its indelible stamp on the poor musician; it had disfigured and deformed his person, by no means attractive to begin with. But anyone who was able to get over the first impression would have discerned something good, and honest, and out of the common in this half-shattered creature. A devoted admirer of Bach and Handel, a master of his art, gifted with a lively imagination and that boldness of conception which is only vouchsafed to the German race, Lemm might, in time—who knows?—have taken rank with the great composers of his fatherland, had his life been different; but he was born under an unlucky star!

He had written much in his life, and it had not been granted to him to see one of his compositions produced; he did not know how to set about things in the right way, to gain favour in the right place, and to make a push at the right moment. A long, long time ago, his one friend and admirer, also a German and also poor, had published two of Lemm’s sonatas at his own expense—the whole edition remained on the shelves of the music shops; they disappeared without trace, as though they had been thrown into a river at night.

At last Lemm renounced everything; the years too did their work; his mind had grown hard and stiff, as his fingers had stiffened. He lived alone in a little cottage not far from the Kalatin’s house, with an old cook he had taken out of the poorhouse (he had never married). He took long walks, and read the Bible and the Protestant version of the Psalms, and Shakespeare in Schlegel’s translation. He had composed nothing for a long time; but apparently Lisa, his best pupil, had been able to inspire him, and for her he wrote a cantata.

The words for this cantata he had borrowed from his collection of hymns. He had added a few verses of his own. It was sung by two choruses—a chorus of the happy and a chorus of the unhappy. The two were brought into harmony at the end, and sang together, ‘Merciful God, have pity on us sinners, and deliver us from all evil thoughts and earthly hopes.’ On the title-page was the inscription, most carefully written and even illuminated, ‘Only the righteous are justified. A religious cantata. Composed and dedicated to Miss Elisaveta Kalitin, his dear pupil, by her teacher, C. T. G. Lemm.’ The words ‘Only the righteous are justified’ and ‘Elisaveta Kalitin’ were encircled by rays. Below was written: ‘For you alone, für Sie allein.

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