Cavaradossi’s Bullets

by John Broening (April 2013)

“Are you familiar with Tosca? We were in Professor Shulman’s office on the second floor of the music building, in a room just big enough for a metal desk and a Steinway baby grand. Professor Shulman sat bolt upright at the piano. He was, I suspected, putting off having to comment on my submission for the week, a setting for clarinet and voice of a short piece of self-pitying juvenilia by Philip Larkin.

“In the second act, Tosca is pleading with Scarpia, the villain of the opera, to spare the life of her lover—what’s his name?—Cavaradossi. Cavaradossi is due to be shot by a firing squad at dawn. So Tosca agrees to give herself to Scarpia and, in exchange, Scarpia promises to have the firing squad use fake bullets. Typical Italian melodrama, right? But that’s not where Puccini’s genius comes in.

“Here,” Professor Shulman, who was well under five feet, slid partway off the piano bench to reach the damper pedal with his foot. He began to play a lush, ominous series of notes. “Throughout the scene, Puccini uses this six-note motif. Professor Shulman released his foot from the pedal. His playing became harsher and more menacing. 

“But we know, as Tosca does not, that, while Scarpia plans to sleep with her, he has no intention of honoring his promise and sparing Cavaradossi’s life. How do we know this? Professor Shulman smiled to himself. I could almost picture him at my age, an odd-looking, undersized young man protected from the cruelty of the world by his extraordinary talent.

“Because the music tells us. The motif gets progressively more staccato, more percussive—like the sound of real bullets, you see?

This was my second composition tutorial of the school year. The previous semester, I had taken one with Professor Cadwallader. Professor Cadwallader was as different from Professor Shulman as two people could be. Whereas Professor Shulman was tiny, laconic, neat and eerily self-possessed, Professor Cadwallader was tall, gregarious, disheveled-looking, with a serious gourmand’s well-developed belly. He seemed to be animated by an almost pathological kindheartedness and appeared to love everything I showed him. The most critical thing Professor Cadwallader had ever said to me was, in response to some dubious musical notation I had made, “you’ve done something here that’s either very sophisticated or very naïve.”

There were, as far as I could tell, two camps of professors at the college. There was the more progressive group, shaped by the Sixties, who saw any kind of creativity as a wonderful thing in itself, who invited their students to interpret their assignments as loosely as possible.  So a student, given an assignment by a progressive professor to discuss Beloved with reference to Jamison’s historicism, might instead submit a free-verse “Poem for Toni Morrison,” –and would invariably receive a 4.0. I wondered at the time, if, behind their beaming and non-specific approval, lay an avoidance of the unpleasant business of confrontation and of the painstaking work needed to instill basic competency in their students.  

The other group was made up of old-fashioned pedagogues who emphasized the rules necessary for the mastery of their subject. If you submitted, as I did more than a few times, something “creative” in place of the given assignment, you were failed or asked to rewrite it.

Though I secretly wanted the approval of the old-fashioned professors, I was lazy enough to end up taking most of my classes with the progressive group.

Professor Shulman played my composition one more time. I had long ago stopped writing any new music and was simply dusting off and resubmitting pieces that I’d shown Professor Cadwallader.

What was my stuff like? It was a bit like Berg– if Berg had the skills of a second-year piano student, could barely read music, and wrote in only two styles: slow lugubrious funeral marches and high-strung atonal waltzes.

We sat there in silence for a few minutes. Professor Shulman cleared his throat. He turned in my direction. “Think of music as a ladder with a series of rungs. He drew two long vertical lines in the air and linked them with a series of short horizontal lines. “Learning to read music. That’s the first rung.

His finger ascended this imaginary ladder. “Developing basic competency on an instrument. That’s the second rung. Learning by heart the works of the great composers. That’s the third rung. Mastering counterpoint, harmony, and orchestration by studying the greats. Another rung. Then perhaps you may start to develop your own style.

His finger had reached as high as it could. He looked at me briefly, as if for the first time. “You,” We both watched his finger dive downward and begin describing circles in the air, “You are still circling the ladder.”

Real bullets, I thought.

I looked out the window. I could see the fruit on the gingko trees that were everywhere on campus. The appearance of these foul-smelling berries signaled the end of spring, and, for me, the imminence of my own graduation.

I rarely touched a piano after that day. But I think of Professor Shulman often, and almost with affection.

John Broening is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado. His writing has appeared in GastronomicaDepartures, The Baltimore Sun, The City Paper, The Faster Times and The Outlet and his article on the Noble Swine Supper Club was featured in Best Food Writing 2012

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