Koln Sonata

I studied the back of my new record. There was no backside. The image was just a collage of other singles I might care to buy, but they did not look nearly as interesting as the one in my hand. There were songs by German singers, a song by a cowboy, and a song by the Supremes, which I knew but didn’t appreciate at the time.

I could hear the two of them talking in the living room.

“Papa, why were you so stern with him?” Mama asked. “He’s only a boy. All he wanted to do was listen.”

I could hear Grandpa sighing. He was probably taking off his glasses to rub his large nose. “I just want him to become a good young man. At his age, things are so delicate.”

“But you don’t need to crush his only interest.”

“Interest in music is sacred. He should be interested in real music, though.”

There was a silence, then the click of a button. Someone was switching on the turntable.

“And please don’t bring up his father like that.” I could hear her voice wavering, then, after more silence, a sniffle.

“I’m sorry. Oh, come here my little girl.”

“His papa wouldn’t have minded.”

He must have been consoling her. I heard her footsteps as she went to the bathroom, then to her room. I waited for silence, but I heard the turntable’s needle crackle as it hit the vinyl, so I got out of bed. I had forgotten that tonight was a full moon.

From our apartment on the sixth floor, we could see the immense twin spires of the cathedral. Grandpa opened both latches of the window and let the breeze swing it open like a spectre. Whenever there was a full moon he sat and gazed at the sky. Tonight he would watch it rise from behind the black silhouette of the cathedral, which illuminated it in a ghostly halo. The pale light reached into our living room, past the window sill, the curtains, then the rug, and tinted the walls a blueish gray. It looked as if the room had been stripped of color, despite the full light. We were figures on a black-and-white film set. He said he couldn’t sleep with this much light in the house anyway.

All the while, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” spun around and around. He watched the moon like this every month, for the first movement of the piece. Then, as the tone changed to a happier one in the second movement, then to a feverishly paced one in the third, he would spread jam on his two pieces of toast and quietly eat them, while keeping his eyes fixed on the moon and the cathedral. The sonata is a quarter of an hour long. He would play it once, sometimes twice, sometimes until the moon faded from view and the pale light receded from the room.

I would watch from around the corner in the hall. That night he saw me peeking.

“Little one, what are you doing out of bed?”

I froze.

“Come and listen with me.”

I crept over to him and watched as he brought the needle back to the beginning of the song.

I sat on the floor next to him and we watched the cathedral together. It dwarfed the freshly built apartments, offices, and shops all around it. It was the only thing hinting that there had been another city here, when Grandpa was younger. The moon now hung above the cathedral, and threatened to ascend until it moved past our eyeline. It reminded me of a balloon which Mama had tied to my wrist, but not tightly enough. I was running around the park, and felt the twine tickle my wrist. The balloon was already far above my head. My neck ached from watching it shrink in the blue sky. Maybe Papa was there. I was too young to remember him.

The piano finished with a final flourish and two staccato chords.

“Go and get your song, little one.”

I looked up to him. I was sure he didn’t mean my song, my only song, the one he wouldn’t hear.

“The one I bought today?”

He laughed heartily. “Of course. But play it quietly, so we don’t wake your mama.”

I jumped up and ran to my bed, where it lay waiting. He must have realized how harsh he’d been, and wanted to make up for it. Or, more likely, talking with Mama changed his mind.

That was the first time both of us heard it. It was everything I hoped for — modern, unlike Cliff Richard, Roy Orbison, or the others I constantly heard on the radio. They were almost like the Beatles or the Beach Boys, but unique. Intricately jangling guitars, voices in perfect harmony, and of course, a tambourine, which was the only clue I had as to what the sound would be. The words were simple—“Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me”—but I remember feeling like they meant something. My comprehension of the English language wasn’t great, but I could understand the beginning. The rest may as well have been gibberish, especially since the singer, whoever he was, didn’t come through as clearly as I’d liked. But that kept the sense of mystery this 45 had created.

“What do you think?” Grandpa asked.

I was in awe. “It’s wonderful.” I paused. “What do you think, Grandpa?”
He stroked his chin pensively. “I didn’t think it would be much. In fact I thought it would be wild and crazy, even terrible. But you know what, little one? I rather enjoyed myself. But who is Mr. Tambourine Man?”

I shrugged.

The moon was somewhere above our heads. The room had become much darker, but we stayed up late and chatted a while longer, Grandpa on his armchair with me beside him.