December 6, 2022
they called it fever
At a concert hall in 1841 Berlin, 30-year-old Franz Liszt is unaccompanied. He doesn’t know it yet, but he will never be able to discard a cigar on a midnight street again without someone scuttlling after the stub.
A piano in his hands delivers veritable insanity.
He sits down at the Grand and stretches his right fingers across one and a half octaves. The audience is not yet wearing his cameo on brooches, but there’s a woman in the first row whose body is wound like a spring. Before he starts, he smooths his hair back, and the room breathes a collective sigh.
His touch vibrates through the lilac perfume resting above seat five, and then splits a violet plume of cigarette smoke ten rows back perfectly in two.
This first note is his beloved countessa in Lake Como as she peers into the street. She looks left, then right. Satisfied, she beckons to their children that it's safe to come out and play. A trick, for each note that follows is a thief.
The sharps relieve the audience of their mother's pearls and grandfather's wristwatches. The flats rob others of their taste for Earl Grey and Brut Champagne. They come in droves, swift and pregnant with distraction, all atomic vibration. Together, they morph from vapor to frost and curl into a weighted haze overhead.
He snaps a piano string. Someone screams. Five people faint.
In 1843, a Munich newspaper will report on the contagion that sweeps every city Liszt visits. Even with that warning, the enraptured come. These pilgrims of Lisztomania overrun him, vials outstretched to capture dregs of his coffee as if he spits sheet music.
Now, though, his sweat beads from his forehead and patters onto the keys. Slowly, and then all at once, the piece crystallizes in a singular wave of sound.
No one moves, but with a swift ring, the sculpted composition shatters.
He looks up and sees it all. Not the music but the aftermath. How their ears peel with rhythmic apparition. How the audience watches the airborne notes for a moment longer than they deserve.
The applause that follows is thunderous. His fever breaks as theirs begins.
Salena Casha's work has appeared in over 50 publications in the last decade. You can find her most recently published pieces at trampset, Pithead Chapel, CLOVES, and Full Mood Mag. She survives New England winters on black coffee and good beer. Follow her on twitter @salaylay_c