Wilhelmina gains The Grand Duchess’s offer of patronage. Frederick Chopin has agreed to work with her. The stage is set for an illustrious career as a concert pianist. But readymade happiness is not to be. Pressures brought to bear by the social and political state of the country along with the opportunities of migration to faraway New South Wales and the memories of the French Revolution only fifty years before bear heavily on Wilhelmina’s father.
Disappointments and hardships follow, further tested by her loving but wayward husband. Through it all, Wilhelmina’s indomitable faith, forgiveness, tough love and courage see her through the trials, giving her the strength to fulfill her dreams in a totally unexpected way.
GENRE: Historical: Australian ISBN: 978-1-920972-47-9 ASIN: B003Z4KBUW Word count: 89, 019
The grand duchess’ offer
THE GRAND DUCHESS STOOD STILL, her head tilted to one side, listening. “Who is that, Maria? Who is that playing the piano?” She paused, listening intently. “Not since Mr. Chopin visited us have I heard such music. The notes are like drops of water falling into a still pool – so clear they are crystal like.”
“I believe, Your Grace, it is the younger daughter of Colonel Johann Gerhardt, Wilhelmina,” her companion replied.
“A young girl?” She was silent again. “Her music is so touching – so much feeling!” They walked out into the courtyard. The afternoon was balmy and the notes wafted across from the music room.
“I fancy she is playing some of Mr Chopin’s compositions, Your Grace. I know she greatly admires his music.”
The two women sat down beside the fountain. The grand duchess did not often venture into this wing of the castle. It was occupied mostly by the army officers and their families. As the court was now in session with the grand duke and duchess in residence, there were many occupying this section. It was a close court, the grand duke knowing his officers by name. There was almost a family feeling.
The music came to a climax and the notes drifted away into silence.
“Maria go. Fetch the girl to me. I wish to speak to her.” Maria rose and hastened away, entering the building by the door near the ceremonial arch.
The sun was warm. The courtyard, now such a delight with the exquisite gardens ablaze with colour and perfume, would soon be clothed in autumn foliage preparing for winter’s sleep and blankets of snow. The fountain sparkled in the sunlight and the drops of water tinkled into the pool.
The grand duchess sat musing: a young girl to play like that! What maturity! What understanding! The feeling expressed in her music drew out a response in the listener. Her own heart had swelled with emotion: pain, yet delight. She must encourage such talent – extend it – bring out the gift this girl possessed.
She would offer her patronage, give her the opportunity to fulfil her potential. She would make her a protege. How exciting it was to discover such a one! She could even build a concert hall here in Heidelberg. It would be to honour this gifted artist if she excelled under her patronage. It could become famous throughout Europe; the world.
Already the university was rapidly gaining a reputation as a world famous institute of learning. This was thanks to the grand dukes of Baden who, after a period of decline of the university during the period of the Thirty Years’ War, had granted their patronage and involvement in its affairs.
Now, if she could be a true patron of the Arts, building a superb concert hall and taking under her patronage this girl, Heidelberg could gain a reputation as a centre of musical excellence. And it would be her own project. She smiled. ‘The Grand Duchess of Baden Music Hall’. ‘The Heidelberg Grand Duchess Music Hall’. She would have to think about the name. It would carry on for many years, long after she was gone from this earth.
She must talk to the grand duke, then the architects at the university. What a project! It would keep her happily occupied for some years.
Maria waited outside the music room. Wilhelmina had begun to play again. As the last notes died away she entered, moving swiftly across to the piano where the girl sat absorbed in the pages of music she was studying.
She jumped when Maria spoke. “Good afternoon, Wilhelmina. Come with me, please. The grand duchess wishes to see you.”
The girl looked up in alarm. “The grand duchess? Is anything amiss? Should I perhaps not have been using this room today? Have I disturbed her?”
“You will see,” Maria replied. “Come at once. We must not keep the grand duchess waiting.” She turned and went quickly towards the door.
Wilhelmina rose and followed hastily. Why ever would the grand duchess send for her? Her mind raced. Where had she been this morning? What had she done? Was there any point of courtesy or protocol she had transgressed?
She ran a few steps to catch up to Maria. They turned down the long corridor, their footsteps echoing from the walls and lofty ceiling.
As they emerged into the courtyard, the sun was bright after the dim corridors. The grand duchess was still seated by the fountain. She turned when she heard the approaching footsteps.
So this was the girl. What a striking face! Her broad forehead was surmounted by thick dark hair which was caught high on the crown of her head with a wide ribbon bow and fell in a cascade down her back. The eyes were wide, observant, yet had a dreamy depth – a deeply intuitive and sensitive girl, thought the grand duchess. Yes, she could believe she was capable of such emotion in her music.
She held out her hand. Wilhelmina moved forward and curtsied. Her Grace did not look annoyed. Perhaps she had not displeased her, after all. What then?
“Come here, my child,” the grand duchess said, smiling. “I have been listening to your music.”
“I trust I did not disturb Your Grace with my playing. It was such a beautiful afternoon and the light was so clear in the music room. I sat down to play. I did not stop to think I may be disturbing the quiet.” She lifted apologetic eyes.
The older woman was looking at her with interest.
“You like to play, Wilhelmina?”
“Oh yes, Your Grace. That is the trouble. I begin to play and I forget everything else. I do not mean to be rude or annoy. It is just that everything else goes out of my head. There is just the piano and me and the sounds we make together.”
“You speak as though the piano has an entity of its own,” the grand duchess said. “It only produces the sounds you determine with your hands.”
“Yes, Your Grace. But it is like a child or an animal. It is the way you approach it, the way you handle it that makes the difference. If you treat it with love and caress it, if you speak to it with your fingers, then it responds. The beautiful sounds come back to you. There is an empathy.” She paused, hoping she had not spoken too much. “You make it together, the piano and the pianist.”
What depth this child had. What age would she be? Perhaps fifteen: almost a woman – and mature: mature for her age, yet still with the innocence of the child in her eyes.
“I see you love the piano, Wilhelmina. Do you have a piano of your own at home?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“And you practice diligently?”
“It is not a task, Your Grace. I do not think about playing as practice. I just like to strive till I get the sounds I feel the composition calls for. It is not always achieved quickly – I am afraid I sometimes become so involved I lose count of time and I may be annoying those within hearing.”
The grand duchess gave a little laugh. She held out her hand again and patted the seat near her. “Sit down here, Wilhelmina. I have not been annoyed. I was delighted by your music.”
The girl’s heart gave a leap of joy. She had delighted the grand duchess with her music. Wait till she told Mama and Papa. How pleased they would be.
The grand duchess was speaking again. “Was that one of Mr Chopin’s compositions you were playing just now?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“You admire Mr Chopin and his music?”
“Oh yes, Your Grace. There are so many wonderful composers, but Mr Chopin loves the piano, too, and his music speaks from the heart of the piano.”
“You are a discerning, perceptive little soul, aren’t you? I do believe you are right, even though I would not have expressed it so poetically. I believe Mr Chopin is a genius. Even Mr. Schumann states such. Mr. Chopin is an unchallenged master in his field. No-one speaks through the piano with so rich and varied a language!”
There was silence for a few minutes, broken only by the birds in the trees and the bees buzzing in the gardens. “Would you wish to devote yourself fully to your music, Wilhelmina?”
The dark eyes swept up in surprise. “I do devote a great deal of my time to my music, Your Grace – as much as ever I am able.”
“I mean, Wilhelmina, would you wish to make a career of your music – become a concert pianist – give your life to the piano?” She hastened on. “This kind of life, if you are successful, brings great fame, great prestige. You may have Baden, Germany, Europe, the world at your feet, begging to hear you play, crying for more and more and more. You could be feted, given accolades, be at the pinnacle of the world.
“But it would be you and your piano. There would be no room, no time for anyone or anything else. You would belong body and soul to your public. Would you wish to do this? To devote yourself wholly to the piano?”
A puzzled expression had creased the girl’s brow. What was the grand duchess saying? What was the meaning of all this? “It would be very wonderful to do this, Your Grace, to give my whole time and attention to my music. When Mr Chopin was here, my tutor, Mr. Rhyngold, secured a short time with the master for me. He seemed pleased with what I achieved in the time spent with him.”
“You played for Mr Chopin? You say your tutor arranged this?” the grand duchess exclaimed in astonishment. The girl’s tutor must believe she had great potential. If only she had discovered her while Mr Chopin was here! Never mind. She would invite him again.
But first she must ensure the girl’s dedication to the demands entailed. She was young yet, but not too young.
“Yes, your Grace. I was working on some of Mr Chopin’s compositions. Mr Rhyngold believed time spent with the composer was of great value. Mr Chopin is a great teacher as well as a great composer and pianist. I was very lucky to have such an opportunity.”
This girl obviously had no idea of her potential – or what I believe is her potential, thought the grand duchess. Neither did she have any idea of what the grand duchess was leading up to.
“Wilhelmina, if you had the opportunity to study under the great masters, to devote yourself wholly to your music, to become, as I said, a concert pianist of the highest order, would you take that opportunity? Or would you think the demands too great?”
Thoughts, possibilities raced through Wilhelmina’s mind. What was the grand duchess suggesting, asking these things? Oh, how wonderful it would be to do as she suggested. But what of Mama and Papa? What would they say?
Her heart thudded against her ribs and she felt her pulse searing through her veins. What a dream! To study under someone like Mr Chopin! But how silly she was to get excited like this. It was just that the words awakened untold dreams.
But dreams they were. The grand duchess was speaking hypothetically. She had enjoyed her music and flattered her by sending for her to discuss her music. How gracious of her.
“Well Wilhelmina, what would you do?”
“Oh, Your Grace. If I had such an opportunity as you describe – I don’t know how that could ever be, it is just a dream – but if I did, I would find it no burden to lose myself in my music. It speaks to the very soul. I would not think the demands too great.”
“Then, my dear young lady, I intend to invite Mr Chopin to visit us again presently. I want him to spend time with you. I shall ask him if he is willing to accept you as a pupil with the view of grooming you for a career as a concert pianist. You could become famous.”
She watched as amazement and incredulity suffused the girl’s face.
“In other words, Wilhelmina, I am offering you my patronage. What do you say?”