Behind the heavy curtain, Max Bruford waited backstage at the Royal Albert Hall. A deafening chorus arose from the audience, impatient for him to return to the stage for the second half of the evening’s performance. The chanting reached a crescendo, as did the excitement within the auditorium. He was exhausted and exhilarated, having just played one and a half hours. Going back onstage would sap every last ounce of his energy.
He stepped forward, but the stage manager blocked his path with an outstretched arm, signalling to let the audience wait another thirty seconds. Max counted down the seconds, listening to the audience getting louder.
The stage manager gave him the thumbs up and he took a deep breath and pushed through the gap in the curtains. As he made his way to the front of the stage, a spotlight momentarily blinded him. The crowd rose to their feet, ecstatic at his return. Max raised his arms and bowed to each side of the audience.
The volume from five thousand pairs of stamping feet thundered towards him. He was overwhelmed. He knew what he was about to play was what the crowd had waited four years to hear, his magnum opus.
He let the crowd have their moment and waved his violin bow, enjoying the reception. It had taken him a long time to accept praise. He remembered how this reaction used to make him feel embarrassed. Older now, he’d learnt to accept and enjoy the experience as much for the audience as for himself.
Raising his arms, Max hushed the crowd. Row by row they sat like an inverted Mexican wave. He signalled to them to settle down and bowed to the orchestra and choir, who had performed wonderfully tonight.
Max then nodded to the conductor, Hans Demonte, who stood, waiting to play the finale. Hans had handpicked each performer and Max relished having such a talent collective coming together to play his music. This must be at least the tenth time he had collaborated with Hans. As a conductor, Hans was the best; as a friend, Max avoided him because of his mood swings.
As Hans raised his baton, the words of the critic, Alfonso Mienstroff, floated through Max’s mind. Earlier that week, Mienstroff had written The Lighthouse Keepers was ‘an intricate musical tapestry, woven from the soul of God.’
First Movement – Reaching New Lands
Max struck his bow hard against the strings with a ferocity few musicians could achieve. The orchestra came racing in behind him, surrounding him in a wall of sound. Duelling musicians complemented each other as the string section fought hard against Max. He cut through, his violin racing over the top as the orchestra quietened into the background, leaving his melody suspended in mid-air. The strings danced while the harpist swept her hands over and over, creating a swirling effect around the theatre. Max hoped the audience would experience his music the way he intended.
As the orchestra settled into the rhythm of ‘Reaching New Lands,’ the tempo progressed to a tantalising, foot-tapping pace, daring the audience to get to their feet. The crowd were out of their seats for the few minutes it lasted.
Max turned to the orchestra and signalled to Hans, who brought the pace back down to a long, slow, lilting movement. The music grew louder, swaying back and forth as Max introduced his melody of the waves rolling back and forth, the orchestra in their long black evening wear flowing and moving in time as they played, mimicking the movement of the River Clyde, the stormy body of water in Scotland Max once travelled as a boy.
As he cast his mind back, he could see the water become choppy and changed tempo to that of a sea shanty. Darkness fell like a curtain over the auditorium, the faces in the crowd disappearing one by one until there was nothing left.
Max had experienced this phenomenon many times before during his performances. He ignored it and kept playing, feeling slightly nervous, even though he knew what was coming.
Across the full width of the theatre, the river in Scotland appeared before him, looking exactly as it did when he first wrote this movement. Dark and foreboding, he watched it rise and fall while tossing the ferry he stood upon. The stage felt as if it were moving with its force, the musicians present at the edge of stormy waters facing danger ahead. He watched the scene before him, the waves crashing over the bow of the ferry and flooding the deck, the water rushing towards his feet.
Max closed his eyes as the music flowed through him. It was comforting being at one with the waves. Softly, the swell dropped, leaving behind a calmness. As he looked out into the darkness, a single ripple appeared. He followed it as it made its way across the theatre.
The orchestra was barely audible behind him, playing at a whisper. Only a solitary marimba could be heard, repeating a pattern like raindrops dripping into a pond and fading out to close the first movement.
Second Movement – First Love
Max surfaced, relieved, from the unique place his music had taken him to. The darkness was gone, and the audience were in front of him again. He prepared himself for the second movement, ‘First Love’.
The movement began playfully with an oboe chasing a flute with bright, staccato phrases. The flute responded in short bursts, their tones intermingling with the higher pitches of a xylophone. Images of butterflies, flitting from flower to flower in search of nectar came to Max as he played. The introduction faded, leaving only him and the lead cellist playing the main theme.
As he played, he felt himself fall back, deep into the music again. He wanted so much to resist, but the chance to relive his memories drew him in again as both a reluctant and willing participant. Just to see her again, one last smile, her laughter and playfulness. He knew it would be difficult, but the chance would be worth every painful moment to see her for perhaps the final time.
It was a challenge not to break down as he played his heart out. The repeating melody brought him back to his meditative state and to his first love. The audience faded to darkness again as he teased Lily’s melody out from the core of his violin. Her song was forever a part of his instrument.
Peering into the darkness, Max saw the campfire ablaze on the beach. He knew he was playing with the orchestra but felt distant from them. A couple danced around the fire, barefoot in the sand, moving in perfect rhythmic unison to his music. They came towards him, their bodies holding artistic lines the way only dancers can. He watched as they tangoed, their movements strict and sharp, yet fluid.
He saw Lily and himself through the darkness. She was, as ever, playful, her mischievous grin and then her laughter as she threw her head back, her neck beautifully lit by the firelight. Her eyes sparkled as she played games with him. The melody observed every detail. Her hair and how it covered her face. How she pushed a strand back behind her ear. Her lips soft and pink, curled in an innocent smile while all the time she teased him. Every tiny crevice of her lips, the wetness, all magnified as Max focused closer in. He wanted to reach forward and kiss her.
They mirrored each other’s movements. His own image faded, leaving Lily’s face taking up the whole of the darkness; his playing was hypnotic, not coming from any script. He was sure he could feel her breath on his face, warm and sweet. Her eyes locked with his and the moments of shared love came back to him. He was back with her: every touch, every caress, the smell of her perfume, her blue jeans and cheesecloth shirt, her hair soft against his face. He lifted his bow and waved to her; she smiled and returned by blowing him a kiss. It felt real, like that first time he remembered so well. It was magical: the first touch of their tongues, so warm and wet, the softest of kisses he would never forget.
He tried to control his emotions, but couldn’t. Tears slowly dripped from his cheeks as he finished playing; his love of yesterday had disappeared into the darkness again.
She was gone.
Max felt empty.
The orchestra came back into focus and he could hear his melody building again.
He wasn’t sure he could summon the courage to play this movement ever again. The pain ripped at his heart more severely each time he ventured there. The audience could see his tears and connected with him emotionally: they knew this was the reason he hadn’t played his beloved tune for four years.
Taking charge of himself, Max changed pace for the final time to bring the movement to an end. He was immersed so deeply in his work he hadn’t noticed the audience reappear.
A beam swept across the stage, illuminating the faces of the audience in front of him. He knew this was no stage spotlight.
Third Movement – The Lighthouse Keepers
The orchestra opened the third movement, allowing Max some breathing time. The timpani rumbled in the background, sending thunder rolling around the theatre.
And then silence.
A single note rang out, long and low from the baritone sax, the sound of the foghorn. It blew again, fell silent and repeated.
Once more the horn blew.
The audience sat still, some forgetting to breathe out.
Max looked up to see a thick fog rolling in over the top of the audience. His eyes searched for any movement. A pinprick of light pierced through, willing him forward. He watched as it swept past. This was no theatre spotlight, but the beam from a lighthouse.
The dark, foreboding shape of the lighthouse appeared through the fog, towering over the stage. High above from where Max stood, the beam circled. Slowly, the fog cleared, revealing a night sky lit by a thousand stars.
The foghorn fell silent.
The lighthouse dominated the theatre. Two figures looked down from the top. Max was transfixed as light came sweeping across the orchestra and choir, then out over the audience.
Flutes led the haunting Lighthouse melody, introducing a sense of danger. The woodwind section, ever steady, was building in the background. Max felt the players’ energy as their harmonics melded with the choir’s heavenly chorus. Without warning the brass section struck, bringing a sharpness to the auditorium. The strings and woodwind sections grappled with each other like some medieval jousting competition. Soprano voices resonated like angels rising with the power of the light, while the baritones brought darkness and danger from the depths with a menacing chant.
Max’s violin soared ever upwards, matching the sopranos note for note. Coloured lights fired off above the audience from the distant stars and he watched as they streamed towards him, reflecting from distant planets, before coming to rest by the two mysterious figures atop the lighthouse. The orchestra settled deep into a repetitive sequence. Max cut through their mantra with his solo, lifting the spirit of everyone present as the night sky filled the dome of the Royal Albert Hall.
His stance changed, and he let his bow hang by his side. His body swayed to the melancholic melody building from the cellos. The sounds were begging him forward, towards the fourth movement, ‘The Emptiness Within’. He desperately wanted to go there, and yet he felt frightened to do so.
Caught out by his own composition, he looked to the orchestra for help. Hans waved his baton, raising the tempo.
Max stood, unmoving. His gaze was fixed on the lighthouse, as it circled from dark to light. The beam slowed to a stop and settled on him, his body illuminated. He believed in its power. His senses trembled to the same vibrations as the music. Every cell of his being tingled, announcing to him he was alive. Finally, the light moved on.
Re-energised, Max faced the orchestra and nodded. It was his turn to take them to a place they may only have dreamt of, somewhere far beyond the comfort zone of their own musicianship. He had to lead them towards greatness, help them take the necessary leaps of faith. Their fear was what usually held them back.
He guided them to a lilting middle section. Almost in slow motion, the sound resonated around the hall and came straight back at him.
Max played an intricate pizzicato, fingers dancing up and down the fingerboard, note perfect. The audience followed, knowing every note by heart. The virtuosos in the crowd, and there were many, scrutinised his every move. These were the few who really understood the complexity of this master musician’s ability. They often referred to his ability as intuition, sparring with intellect, to delight the initiated.
Max fell back to the slow, repetitive melody, his body once more moving with the sway of the music. The orchestra followed, slowing down, into line, to match him note for note. It was a perfect union, a hypnotic repetition, repeating over and over. This rhythm took the audience closer towards meditation. It reminded Max of the chanting of Buddhist monks when aligning themselves with nature.
A true state of wonder happens rarely in one’s lifetime. Max knew he could deliver it and that the audience would be confused as to what had happened to them, but they would think back on it over many years, trying to understand what it was they experienced. With the mantra playing over and over, their mind state was now in a similar place to where an enlightened master would place himself for meditation. Max wanted to give his listeners the same experience: overwhelming feelings of peace and love and, most importantly, the feeling of coming home.
Behind him, the low rumble from the timpani felt like a train hurtling towards him. The thrill for Max was never to play The Lighthouse Keepers the same way twice. Each orchestra he worked with knew the individual parts of each movement. However, they were never allowed to practise the completed symphony.
Max had planned it this way with Hans to keep his masterpiece fluid. There was no place for musicians to be casual or relaxed, as he needed them to taste the fear as music should always be alive.
Max went off on a tangent and watched the fear in the eyes of the musicians. The audience stiffened at every stroke from the racing strings. Their sound surrounded Max, placing him into the centre of a tornado of music. The sounds swirled around him, their many colours and textures exciting him.
The brass sped up with the percussion hammering faster and faster. Max entered at lightning speed, caressing and swashing his violin, lost in a cadenza of hope. He was moving closer to the highest of high notes.
Like an out of control demon, the frenzied orchestra played every note in perfect time with Max. From the background, the choir broke through, their voices the heavenly sound of angels. The audience gripped the arms of the theatre chairs tightly.
And then it happened. Without warning, the music stopped.
Max looked round in confusion. He could see Hans waving his arms, the orchestra playing and the choir singing, and yet there he stood, somewhere in the middle of this wall of silence.
Had he failed somehow? Yet Max knew instinctively everything was okay because of the warmth the silence was giving him. He spun round and could see himself playing, in full flight, in tune with the universe. He stepped back and watched himself as he mastered the violin and interacted with the orchestra: this was exciting and something he never got to see while deep in play.
What was happening to him? Had he died? Was this enlightenment?
He looked out into the crowd, who hadn’t seemed to notice what had happened and remained transfixed by his performance. Then, throughout the rows of faces, one person was highlighted, staring straight at him. Alfonso Mienstroff. The critic raised his hand towards Max, who waved back. Were they both alert to some sound that no one else could hear, or was there such a thing as silence within the music?
The moment broke as quickly as it had arrived and Max fell back into his playing armed with this new knowledge.
The sound from the choir was spiritual; Max changed direction three times, testing both Hans and the orchestra’s ability to use their intuition. At last, all the musicians fell into place, each playing the same melody. With a clash of cymbals, the third movement drew to a close.
The crowd breathed out. Knuckles white, they slowly released their grip on the armrests as the conductor took them towards a musical waterfall. The music faded to little more than a whisper.
Fourth Movement – The Emptiness Within
The fourth and final movement fell into a familiar rhythm as the harpist repeated her mantra from earlier. It reminded Max of the tinkling waltz that played on his mother’s jewellery box when he was young. He used to watch the ballerina spin in the tiny mirror stuck to the red velvet lining. The clarinets melded with the harp and a hypnotic wave filtered through the audience beyond just their ears. This rhythmic repetition entered their minds, moving deep within their hearts, the choir’s angelic harmonies bringing calmness.
Max knew what they were going through. Every time he listened to the harp playing this section he witnessed different parts of his life. His experiences, the heartbreak, his broken love and the profound sense of loss, and all traded for what? He could see the audience were living every emotion with him. Written from a position of purest love, the music carried it to all who heard it.
Max knew he had one last job to do as he came out from the spell of the harp. It was time to reach through to the souls of the audience and take them and his musicians beyond the notes. He considered them all willing prey, many of them perfectly aware of the boundaries they would soon cross. His music was both art and poetry in a different dimension.
He played his melancholic melody once again. As he played the same notes over and over, he felt like a musical hypnotist in complete control of all around him. He could make his audience do whatever he requested through the power of his music, and it was up to him to bring them with him, emotionally.
As the spotlight shone down on him, his memories took him back to the lighthouse keepers as they offered him fame. He saw himself, a young boy, holding a glass bottle filled with dazzling light. He inhaled it and was sure he could feel power racing through his body.
The spotlight moved off him.
Mournful cellos twisted at his core, and his heart felt the deep pain of loss. He glanced across the theatre. Black clouds churned towards him, enveloping him in dark fog, pulling him into a well of sadness. His pain was real. Each time he played this he wanted to die. Max cried openly as he played, overwhelmed with grief. His fingers found notes that didn’t exist to most players.
There was Lily, her arms reaching out towards him, pleading with him. He had sold her out, for the price of fame. He saw himself walk towards the spotlight with his violin, never looking back. Lily’s face faded into the darkness, tear-stained and distraught. The orchestra played through their own grief, everyone affected by this music. Max pushed them to stay within the mantra, taking them to a depth they have never been.
Walking forward into the abyss, Max knew no love existed within its depths.
Life was cruel. Spent, he was vulnerable and knew he couldn’t stay at the bottom of this deep well too long, the pain being unbearable. Each time he performed this movement, his understanding grew of what he had lost in his quest for success. Each time he went deeper, but this time it was a step too far. The audience also felt the pain, their emotions in tatters. Max couldn’t let them suffer much longer. This view into the void, which every human being has, was difficult enough for him, having experienced it many times.
The conductor knew he had to help Max to come back up to the surface; this was deeper than either of them had ventured before. Hans felt himself succumbing to the pain and understood why Max had to revisit this nightmare every few years. He waved his baton to the orchestra to let the repetition go to lift the spirit of the music.
As he did so, Lily’s face disappeared and the lighthouse came back to the fore. Max played his final run away from the sadness towards a bright, uplifting melody. He was in unison with the choir, the orchestra playing his central theme, elevating the mood. Together they ended the suite with everyone holding the last note for ten seconds. Hans kept his baton mid-height.
A deadly silence followed: an important four bars of silence Max had written into his music, a space for reflection. People remained still, eyes closed, some clutching their hearts. The majority had a hint of fear on their faces, not knowing what had moved them so much. At last, Max nodded to Hans, who dropped his baton and bowed.
The crowd leapt to their feet, their clapping and cheering a deafening roar to all those on stage.
Max waved his bow towards the conductor, orchestra and choir. The head of each section came forward and they all bowed together. Max accepted a bouquet of flowers. Again, they took their bows time after time, each one deeply affected by the emotional journey.
The crowd continued to clap, they wanted more, but there was no more. Max was finished. He had triumphed once again, or had he? He looked to his peers, the virtuosos who filled the second and third rows. Many nodded and bowed to him; Alfonso Mienstroff gave him a victory salute.
The lighthouse still shines, he thought, as he took his final bow.