Monday, August 18, 2003

When I attended a summer music camp during my high school years (and later as a counselor during my college days), there was a guy there who each year would tell a long and involved "Ferdinand Feghoot"-style tale* that was somehow musically-relevant. Here, with apologies, is one of the ones he told:

:: Once upon a time, in a small village in the Italian Alps, there was a small village orchestra that was the pride of the village. This small orchestra gave several concerts each year, and every concert was attended by hundreds of people from villages all around, even though the orchestra was one of those where the quality of playing wasn't so much the point as was drinking wine under the stars and listening to the lovely music. Well, one year, the orchestra's conductor, a kindly old man, decided to celebrate the orchestra's hundredth anniversary by taking on an immense challenge: they would perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Nothing so grand had ever been attempted by this orchestra, and a chorus was hastily put together for the performance, but everyone was thrilled beyond compare with the idea of performing one of the very greatest masterpieces of all time. It would be the greatest event in the history of this tiny village since one of Hannibal's own elephants had stopped in the local stream to take a drink. Hours upon hours were spent in rehearsal, with the old conductor shaping his not-terribly-talented but incredibly enthusiastic ensemble into one capable of giving a grand performance of the Ninth, whose four movements require more than an hour to play. And as the day of the concert drew near, everyone in the village and all the other villages in the valley became more and more excited.

Everyone, that is, except for the orchestra's two double-bass players, Meriadoc and Peregrin.

You see, Beethoven's Ninth is a terribly demanding piece for the entire orchestra and chorus - - except for the basses, who only play the first few pages of the first movement, and then must remain silent until the very last page of the last movement, when they finally rejoin their mates. This, of course, made for an excruciatingly boring series of rehearsals for these two men, and the concert would be worse: they would simply stand there, on stage and with nothing at all to do, for more than an hour.

Thus was born, in the minds of Meriadoc and Peregrin, a Plan.

"What we'll do, Pippin, is this," said Meriadoc - - for "Pippin" was Peregrin's nickname. "We can't just stand there on stage; we'll go mad with boredom. So we'll slip away right after we're done with our stuff at the beginning, and have a beer or two backstage. Then, we'll just slip back onstage at the end for our last bit."

"But Merry," said Pippin, "how will we know how to come back? Especially if we drink too much?"

They thought on this for a time, and what they came up with was this: Merry would get a piece of string and tie together the last two pages of the Maestro's score. Thus, when he reached that point in the concert, he would find himself unable to turn to the last page of the Ninth, and therefore he would have to stop the orchestra whilst he untied the bound pages. Then he would take up the baton again and lead the concert to completion. Merry and Pippin, of course, would notice the stopping of the orchestra, and slip in for their final moments on stage.

"A perfect plan!" they cheered, and indeed it was.

So on the morning of the concert, Merry and Pippin followed the Maestro around until just the moment when he set down his score to the Ninth; this they grabbed, and used a bit of twine to tie together those last two pages. And then, undetected, they slipped away. And at last the concert came around, and Merry and Pippin took their position at stage left, behind the cellists, and awaited the Maestro's downbeat. They had already hidden some bottles of beer behind the concert pavilion, and they grinned at each other as the hundreds of people gathered on the lawn applauded the concert's beginning. Down came the Maestro's baton, and so began the strains of Beethoven's Ninth. And just one minute into the great seventy-minute work, Merry and Pippin were done until the end. So they set down their great double-basses and slipped out backstage and thence to the spot where their beers awaited. These they drank in a great hurry, five apiece, while the heavenly strains of Beethoven's greatest symphony echoed around them and through the Italian Alps.

But then, as the last movement came near its close, the Maestro reached the bottom of his score and tried to turn his last page - - and found that he could not. Someone had tied the last two pages together! Not knowing what to do, he signaled for the orchestra to stop, and they did; the crowd became confused at the stoppage, and the Maestro fumbled with arthritic fingers to untie the dolorous knot.

"I think - - hic! - - it'sh time," Merry drawled from backstage, hearing that the music had stopped.

"Yesh," agreed Pippin. "Hic! We should get back on shtage."

Both men liked to drink, but five beers in an hour, on an empty stomach no less, had taken its toll. As they made their way back to the wings of the pavilion and out onstage. But as they picked up their giant double-basses, they hit each other on the head and fell forward, into the midst of the cellists. Two of these poor cello-playing fellows, sadly, were very close to the edge of the stage, and the impact of their bass-playing friends behind them was all they needed to fall off the stage and onto the ground, hitting their heads together and in the process knocking them unconscious. And even worse, a cello - - being hollow - - makes a loud banging noise, when dropped from even a small height; and hearing this BANG, someone in the audience screamed, "A gunshot! A gunshot!" At this, everyone began screaming at once and running every which way, trying to get out of the park lest they take the imaginary bullets in the heart. And in the middle of it all, the Maestro stood, trying to work the knot that was too tight.

"I don't think - - hic! - - the plan worked," said Merry.

"Of courshe it did," replied Pippin. "Jusht look - - hic! - - at the crowd!"

Now, we must step back to place this scene in perspective for the reader:

The crowd's gone wild, because it's the bottom of the Ninth, two men are out, the basses are loaded, and the score is tied.


(* A "Ferdinand Feghoot" story is a brief tale which is simply a giant set-up for an incredibly lame pun. A properly-spun Feghoot will make its audience groan in near-agony. Oh, and by the way, the bit about the double-basses not playing for almost the entirety of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is pure license. In reality, they play as much as the rest of the strings.)

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