The Duchess’ Tune

Narrated video

Video with tuba quartet

(A Burlesque)

The Duchess was one of the most beautiful boys in the University, with his flowing chestnut hair and his thin-lipped lascivious smile.

He was called “the Duchess” because, though very camp, he did not have quite the regal regard of a regular royal queen, and also because one of his old boyfriends was a real duke, if you believe the stories they tell in the city’s student pubs.This duke had presented him with an antique grand piano as a parting gift, before leaving our shores forever, under a purple haze, and disappearing somewhere in the region of Tibet, where he was last heard intoning with the best of the bassi profundi in a monastery there.

This piano, then, crowded out the Duchess’s less than spacious college room, but he could not bear to part with it: more because of its sentimental value than its musical beauty.He spent many an essay-weary hour tinkling aimlessly over its dusty keys, trying to think of something outrageous to write about Flaubert or Pirandello.

One evening, however, his tinkling bore strange fruit: a short seven bar melody struck him as unusually attractive, in an angular, irregular way, and he played it over and over again before rushing to get a piece of paper and writing it down.He tried to harmonize it, but no harmony seemed to satisfy it. It swallowed up every attempt and begged for more, just as obsessive and dissatisfied as the Duchess himself… Nothing could complement either him or his tune and he found himself playing it louder and louder each evening throughout the term, getting more and more frustrated, despite complaints from the neighbours. Rumours of his eccentricity spread through the college until they reached the ears of a young blond violinist, who went to see this madman in his ivory-keyed tower, taking his violin with him.

Through the oak panels he could hear the strain of the melody, so he quickly tightened his bow and improvized a counterpoint from the other side of the door.It was love at first cadence.

The tune suddenly took on a warm fullness and, once it had been played in this manner, the Duchess flung open the door and they fell into each others’ arms as if they had known and loved each other for years. They disengaged and went once more to their instruments to play the tune over and over again, the piano taking over the counterpoint and adding to it, while the violin played the original tune in thirds and fourths. The awkward obsession of one had become the full-bodied darling of two.

Gradually they built up a repertoire for concert programmes, always ensuring that the Duchess’s tune rounded off the performance.They built up a reputation for their fine music-making and were always glad to give concerts for charitable causes all over the country.The streets of the town they had played in were humming the tune and trying in vain to dance to it – This, by the way, was impossible, due to the irregular rhythm: most attempts ended up with the dancer cross-legged with one hand stuck firmly down the back of his collar.

Nevertheless, it was well loved and helped to raise funds for the most unlikely event, including, on one occasion, a madcap gay expedition to the Himalayas.

The mountaineers came to the concert, of course, and were greatly moved by the playing. Half of them fell in love with the chestnut-haired beauty at the piano and the other half followed the violinist’s fingers intently, not wishing to miss a single note.They invited the duo to a pre-expedition dinner and took the opportunity to ask about the origins of the Duchess’s tune.The Duchess rhapsodized about the duke who had left the dusty old piano to him and the violinist spoke lovingly about their very first “transportal” counterpoint. Thus inspired, the mountaineers set off for the East, singing and humming the tune as they went.

After a few week up the mountainside, the guides became totally fed up with the incessant humming of these mad Westerners and crept back downhill to their families, one night, leaving our people to wander about hopelessly lost in the snow!The mountaineers headed downhill for two days, with no idea where to find the first outposts of civilization, but eventually they heard a long low sound as if of a thousand snoring Yeti. There was a monastery – and they were welcomed in to join the hard but peaceful life of the monks.

Several days passed before they felt inspired to go to religious lessons, but, as these were to be provided by a pale-faced monk of curiously familiar beauty, they soon decided it would be a worthwhile experience.The lessons progressed slowly, however, and, in a fit of distraction one day, the leader of the mountaineers found himself humming the Duchess’s tune instead of meditating on the sound of one hand clapping… The monk stiffened and went a shade paler.He asked in an unaccustomed and clear aristocratic English where that tune had come from.The leader described the Duchess in loving detail and told the whole story, just as he had heard it.

The monk became pensive for a while and then laughed with a shrug of his shoulders. “I knew I should have had that piano tuned before I left”, he chuckled, as casually as he could…

© D W Solomons 1979 rev 1996

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