June 16, 1936.
Something miraculous happened today.
I was in Herr Steiner’s waiting room, about to be admitted for my nine o’clock class when Frau Steiner remarked that I should tend to my belongings. I had brought nothing with me and was confused until she pointed at a violin on the floor by my chair. It was a quality instrument in excellent condition, yet it was placed so carelessly as if it was unwanted. Perhaps a spoiled pupil had discarded it in a fit of frustration. If I had an instrument of my own—which I couldn’t afford even working in uncle’s Isaak’s shop six days a week—I would show it the respect it deserved. I picked it up—just to investigate—when Herr Steiner asked me in. He, too, assumed the instrument was mine, and I had no choice but to use it in class.
And this was when it happened. In all the months that Herr Steiner tutored me, I showed steady but slow progress. Today was a much-needed breakthrough. I only needed a glance at the notations to produce the right sequence. I didn’t have to supervise the position of my wrist; my fingers knew what to do. My mind was free—free to feel the music. Never in my life had I played so well. Even Herr Steiner had noticed; if he was indulging me before, today, I became prospective.
Oh, I wish I could keep the violin, but Torah prohibits taking a lost object. I left it where I found it, grateful for a glimpse of my true abilities.
September 21, 1937.
I have decided to stop letting my guilt impede my progress. How can one return lost property if there are no identifying traits, and no owner came forward to claim it? For months, I was just borrowing that violin; I never took it home, keeping it in Herr Steiner’s house. Never until today.
Herr Steiner has arranged for me to perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major for the opening of the biannual assembly of the Austrian Physical Society next month. I can do it, I know I can. I’m not the same boy who repeated the notes in his head and looked at his fingers when he played. I’m good, but only when I play that particular violin can I produce the right undercurrent of hope and elation. My technique is constant, but no other instrument makes my music as alive and vibrant as that violin.
March 13, 1938.
Yesterday was my first solo performance at the Konzerthaus.
I can’t explain what happened. The programme was set, the public gathered to hear Mozart. Yet when I came on stage, I knew with unexplained certainty it wasn’t the 25th Symphony I was going to perform. I managed to warn the accompaniment I’d be playing Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns before an overwhelming force took over.
I played as I had never played before. As Death called forward the dead from their graves, and skeletons danced until dawn, new, genuine emotions seeped through the strings I triggered. Fear and excitement, disturbance and disbelief filled the familiar piece: I was scared for my life—shaken, terrified, shocked—and couldn’t believe it was happening. Death was closer than ever, looming but still distant and unreal until that final, inescapable touch.
I finished to a menacing silence, battered and bone-tired. Rationality came back to me, foretelling the end of my career. But as the light flooded the hall, I saw the pale uniform faces. Shaken, terrified, shocked.
Enigma—the papers called me. Emotions flowed from the instrument through young Joseph Neumann, they said. And they were right: I am a conduit, channelling something out of this world, possessed by someone more talented than I can ever be.
August 22, 1938.
I am convinced my violin is haunted. It isn’t me who plays it. The moment I touch it, I become someone else. And that person, whoever he was, is suffering.
Ever since my triumphant debut, I could only play heartbreaking parts. Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor or Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel was effortless. My music was poignant and celebrated. Press called me the Weeper; it said I gave the public the jolt it didn’t know it needed. Lulled by sixty years of peace, people grew used to the sense of safety. My renderings shook them out of their comfortable numbness. It brought them closer to death to remind them they were alive.
None of it was my intention. All I wanted was to play and play well. My violin made it possible, but it did not obey me. Any attempt to recreate joyous pieces left me on my own, my performance suddenly dry and emotionless. The tormented soul trapped in my instrument responded only to music that expressed his pain.
I have no choice but to play along.
November 11, 1938.
I’m going mad.
Two days ago, I woke in the middle of the night, compelled to pick up the violin. I’ve learned to succumb to such urges: if the ghost to whom I owed my success demanded to manifest, who was I to refuse my benefactor? I recognized the piece he wanted me to play: it was the obsessive repeat of In The Hall Of The Mountain King. As the maddening tempo rose, I found myself unable to stop. I played and played, compulsively and urgently, until Frau Auer came in to ask if I wasn’t ill. Seeing my struggles, she tried to tear the instrument from my hands. I pushed her away. The look on her face said it all: I was out of my mind.
But it wasn’t me who was so horror-stricken and frantic, it was the Weeper. His need to speak through me was pressing. He wasn’t just a lost soul trapped in a musical instrument—his emotions were too immediate for a captured memory. He was as real as I was. The violin was our synchronizing link, a bridge joining two contrasting worlds. On my side, my Vienna slept peacefully; across the barrier, his city was sucked into perilous riots. In the looping hypnotizing fragment, I heard shattering glass and cries for help. I heard an approaching war.
I played for two days straight. I was overpowered. Insignificant. Disposable. People gathered outside my window, drawn by this disarranged and chaotic rendering. I couldn’t stop playing until a doctor came to give me an injection.
I’m afraid I’m losing myself.
October 14, 1939.
After a well-received national tour, I think I finally understand the Weeper. He doesn’t just represent himself; he speaks for thousands of sufferers like him. I’ve felt his pain, I carried his fear of extermination. So many have been already lost, life slowly evaporating from the once-rich channel. Every time I pick my violin—now scratched and worn-out despite my best care—I’m terrified to find I am left unaided. Talentless. But as the bow touches the strings, and the familiar presence takes over my performance, I’m ashamed of my selfishness.
Does the Weeper need me as much as I need him? Does he play in his world, broadcasting my emotions? Can my safe, predictable living be an anchor for his tormented reality? Can my music soothe his audience just like his performance disturbs mine?
July 5th, 1943.
My critics call the last three years of my career oversaturated. They say the emotions my music produces are an exaggeration. They can still feel them, I know they can, but they no longer recognize them as real. The emotions I relay are too extreme for our sheltered reality.
People no longer want to hear me play. I can’t blame them. No one wants to be near death for so long. This prolonged proximity is transforming: the fear and pain become numbness. Where hope used to be, only tired indifference remains. Instead of an opportunity to feel alive, my music brings desperation. My career is over unless I do something: put my violin aside, start anew, become conventional.
But I can’t abandon my alter ego. I can’t destroy the bridge. It isn’t my world who needs my music.
I come to Stadtpark after sunset to play to the night sky. The Weeper is only comfortable with minimalist composers these days. I play Satie.
I know how it could end. One day, I will touch the strings, and my counterpart won’t be there to take over, meaning the crunching machine of terror on the other side has won. But if I’m persistent, if my music in his world has any power, maybe we can pull through—together. And one day, I’ll feel my fingers playing Mozart again, celebrating liberation.
Before it happens, I let the slow, sad sounds of Gymnopédie No. 1 fill the summer sky.
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