For Those Who Love Music

Author: Axel Munthe

I had engaged him by the year. Twice a week he came and went through his whole repertoire, and lately, out of sympathy for me, he would play the Miserere of the Trovatore, [Footnote: Miserere of the Trovatore. Trovatore is an opera by Verdi.] which was his show piece, twice over. He stood there in the middle of the street looking steadfastly up at my windows while he played, and when he had finished he would take off his hat with an "Addio, Signor!" [Footnote: Addio Signer: "Good-by, Sir."]

It is well known that the barrel-organ, like the violin, gets a fuller and more sympathetic tone the older it is. The old artist had an excellent instrument, not of the modern noisy type which imitates a whole orchestra with flutes and bells and beats of drums, but a melancholy old-fashioned barrel-organ [Footnote: A melancholy barrel organ. What does the author mean by this?] which knew how to lend a dreamy mystery to the gayest allegretto, [Footnote: Allegretto: lively, a musical term to denote the tempo of a composition.] and in whose proudest tempo di Marcia [Footnote: Tempo di Marcia: marching time.] there sounded an unmistakable undertone of resignation. And in the tenderer pieces of the repertoire, where the melody, muffled and staggering like a cracked old human voice, groped its way amongst the rusty pipes of the treble, then there was a trembling in the bass like suppressed sobs. Now and then the voice of the tired organ failed it completely, and then the old man would resignedly turn the handle during some bars of rest more touching in their eloquent silence than any music.

True, the instrument was itself very expressive, but the old man had surely his share in the sensation of melancholy which came over me whenever I heard his music. He had his beat in the poor quarter behind the Jardin des Plantes, [Footnote: Jardin des Plantes: the botanical garden.] and many times during my solitary rambles up there had I stopped and taken my place among the scanty audience of ragged street boys which surrounded him.

It was not difficult to see that times were hard—the old man's clothes were doubtful, and the pallor of poverty lay over his withered features, where I read the story of a long life of failure. He came from the mountains around Monte Cassino, [Footnote: Monte Cassino: a monastery on a hill near Cassino, Italy, about forty-five miles from Naples.] so he informed me, but where the monkey hailed from I never quite got to know.

Thus we met from time to time during my rambles in the poor quarters. Had I a moment to spare I stopped for a while to listen to a tune or two, as I saw that it gratified the old man, and since I always carried a lump of sugar in my pocket for any dog acquaintance I might possibly meet, I soon made friends with the monkey also. The relations between the little monkey and her impressario [Footnote: Impressario: the conductor of an opera or a concert.] were unusually cordial, and this notwithstanding that she had completely failed to fulfil the expectations which had been founded upon her—she had never been able to learn a single trick, the old man told me. Thus all attempts at education had long ago been abandoned, and she sat there huddled together on her barrel-organ and did nothing at all. Her face was sad, like that of most animals, and her thoughts were far away. But now and then she woke up from her dreams, and her eyes could then take a suspicious, almost malignant expression, as they lit upon some of the street boys who crowded round her tribune [Footnote: Round her tribune: a curious use of this word, which means a pulpit or bench from which speeches were made.] and tried to pull her tail, which stuck out from her little gold-laced garibaldi. [Footnote: Garibaldi: a jacket which took its name from its likeness in shape to the red shirt worn by the Italian patriot Garibaldi.] To me she was always very amiable; confidently she laid her wrinkled hand in mine and absently she accepted the little attentions I was able to offer her. She was very fond of sweetmeats, and burnt almonds were, in her opinion, the most delectable thing in the world.

Since the old man had once recognized his musical friend on a balcony of the Hotel de L'Avenir, [Footnote: Hotel de L'Avenir: literally, "Hotel of the Future."] he often came and played under my windows. Later on he became engaged, as already said, to come regularly and play twice a week,—it may, perhaps, appear superfluous for one who was studying medicine, but the old man's terms were so small, and you know I have always been so fond of music. Besides it was the only recreation at hand—I was working to take my degree in the spring.

So passed the autumn, and the hard times came. The rich tried on the new winter fashions, and the poor shivered with the cold. It became more and more difficult for well-gloved hands to leave the warm muff or the fur-lined coat to take out a copper for the beggar, and more and more desperate became the struggle for bread amongst the problematical existences [Footnote: The problematical existences. Explain this expression.] of the street.

Now and then I came across my friend, and we always had, as before, a kind word for one another. He was now, wrapped up in an old Abruzzi cloak, [Footnote: Abruzzi cloak. Abruzzi is a division of western Italy including three provinces.] and I noticed that the greater the cold became the faster did he turn the handle to keep himself warm; and towards December the Miserere itself was performed in allegretto.

The monkey had now become civilian, and wrapped up her little thin body in a long ulster such as Englishmen wear; but she was fearfully cold notwithstanding, and, forgetful of all etiquette, more and more often she jumped from the barrel-organ and crept in under the old man's cloak.

And while they were suffering out there in the cold I sat at home in my cosy, warm room, and instead of helping them, I forgot all about them, more and more taken up as I was with my coming examination, with no thought but for myself. And then one day I suddenly left my lodgings and removed to the Hotel Dieu to take the place of a comrade, and weeks passed before I put my foot out of the hospital.

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  • Reviewed by ashley james  on  October 31st, 2013

    good story


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