How to describe the indescribable? I am an old man now, yet if I close my eyes and listen carefully, I can hear the music still; or rather the ghost of the music, and I am transported back to my tenth year.
I remember that day well. It was a bright clear day in late summer. It was my Saint’s day and my father had given me a new set of crutches, which he had carved out of ash and shod with metal. I was very proud of them, and spent the morning practicing. They were a little big for me – ‘To allow for growth ‘ – my father had said, before he and my mother hurried off to the town meeting.
My elder sister was in the kitchen, clattering pots and pans when I heard the first notes. They were a tantalising sound, at once both strange and familiar. They teased the memory like a forgotten name, a name you know well but can’t immediately recall. The sounds were faint but compelling. They came from the direction of the city square.
“Can you hear the music, Anna,” I called. The only answer I got was an angry thumping as she pounded the dough. Music was rare in my youth, real music that is. It was a great day for us if a detachment of soldiers marched through the town, and all the children would follow them, marching and dancing beside them to the sound of their fifes and drums. Sometimes, even, there would be a bugler, and once, as an escort for a mighty nobleman, there were trumpeters with golden trumpets, and glorious banners in silver and blue, with little golden eagles on top of each staff.
The music grew louder, and I could hear a babble of voices. Children were singing, each somehow improvising words to the lilting tune. As fast as I could, I hurried to the door, the unfamiliar length of my new crutches causing me to stumble.
The crowd was passing my door before I could leave the house and I only caught a glimpse of the strange fellow at their head. To a ten-year-old, all adults are tall, but this man seemed almost a giant, his height accentuated by his thinness. He was dressed in garish clothes of red and yellow, such a far cry from the browns and greys favoured by the burghers of our city.
He was playing a strange instrument. It was not a flute or a fife, its sound was more eerie than theirs. I think it was some type of shawm. As an instrument maker in my later years I strove to reproduce the sound that haunts my mind. By using two reeds in the mouthpiece I have sometimes approached the longed for tone of my childhood memory, but I fear that complete success has eluded me. Just as well, perhaps!
By the time I got out of the house I was only able to join the tail of the procession, a raggle-taggle of small children and toddlers scarce able to walk. But somehow the music lifted us up, sweeping us along. The pain in my withered leg was forgotten and the rhythm of the music and the chanting banished fatigue. I could see now why soldiers the world over need their fifes and drums.
Once again, I am faced with the task of trying to describe the music. Even if I can remember part of the tune, and it is true that certain musical phrases tease me endlessly, leading nowhere but to their beginning, and to utter frustration, even then the description would be incomplete, and a mere shadow of my experience that day. I would still have to capture the tone of the instrument, the timing of the phrasing, and the virtuosity of the musical genius playing it.
It can best be described, I suppose, by the feelings it evoked. I have lived my three score years and ten, and have loved and lost. I have experienced great happiness and sorrow; have known the madness of war and the gentle contentment of peace. I have known pride, and the bitter shame of humiliation. I have felt a most unmanly tenderness as I held my firstborn, and wept at the graveside of my wife. I have lived a full rich life.
Yet somehow, miraculously, all of these feelings, all of these experiences, were purified into a single stream of music which poured from that wonderful pipe. Imagine, if you can, the effect of this torrent of feelings on the mind of a ten-year-old child. Or on a three-year-old! The little children hurrying beside me had a strange exalted light in their eyes, their cheeks were glowing red, and their hands reached out before them as if they could somehow capture the musical notes in their hands.
And so we hurried on, dancing like puppets on a string, as we left the town behind, heading north-east towards the mountains. Looking back now with the eyes of an adult, I find it difficult to believe that we covered the distance in such a short time. But what is one more miracle in such a day of strange happenings.
In truth, we didn’t really achieve the mountains proper. We reached the foothills. Prominent among these was a strange round hill, a subject of tales and legends. We knew it as Erlkonigsberg, and we would scare each other in the night with stories of the strange folk who lived within.
As we drew near, a great door opened up in the side of the hill, and the tune of our piper was augmented by a glorious sound of music, as if the golden trumpets of the nobleman had multiplied a thousandfold. Keen clear voices lifted high above the sound of instruments, promising the delights of health and happiness, of love and caring. I knew that if I could only enter the hill, my leg would be made well again, and I would once again run and jump with the other children.
I was so eager that I grew careless. My right crutch struck a loose rock and I fell. The little children beside me hurried into the hill, and, as I scrambled to my feet, the great door closed, but not before I glimpsed inside.
Time has mercifully dimmed my recollection, but my heart still leaps when memory fragments visit my dreams with pictures of perfection. The sweet sounds of birdsong, the scent of spring flowers on a gentle breeze, haunt me with a gentle nostalgia.
The people of the town found me there, weeping on the bare hillside. They were strangely silent as they carried me back to Hamelin.
H.St.V.Beechey. August 1993.