Chamber Music: A Novel

Chamber Music: A Novel

by Doris Grumbach

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In her later years, a woman reflects on her marriage, her stifled passions, and her life 

At age ninety, Caroline Maclaren, widow of the prominent composer Robert Maclaren, finally decides to tell her own story. “Perhaps the time was not right to do it before,” she remarks. But now she takes pen to paper, reliving her sheltered girlhood…  See more details below


In her later years, a woman reflects on her marriage, her stifled passions, and her life 

At age ninety, Caroline Maclaren, widow of the prominent composer Robert Maclaren, finally decides to tell her own story. “Perhaps the time was not right to do it before,” she remarks. But now she takes pen to paper, reliving her sheltered girlhood, her chilly marriage to a brilliant man, and—perhaps above all—the melancholy solitude in which she has lived nearly all her life. It was only when her husband fell ill that Caroline found fulfilling companionship with Anna, Robert’s caretaker.

This masterful tale of loneliness and of passion late in life is widely considered to be Grumbach’s finest work. Bittersweet, touching, and profoundly resonant, Chamber Music is captivating.

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Chamber Music

A Novel

By Doris Grumbach


Copyright © 1979 Doris Grumbach
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-7670-1


Part One


I have decided to write this account because, long as my life has been, it has given me no opportunity before this to say what I wish to put down here. Perhaps the time was not right to do it before.

When I was young, and even into my middle years, a scrim of silence surrounded what really happened in our lives. If there was talk, it was quiet conjecture about the little discreet adulteries, the attic madnesses, and the pantry drinking of our friends and neighbors. Rumor and gossip were conveyed in whispers. Secrets were surely no better kept than they are now, but they lived quietly, under the breath. They never appeared in public print or were reported by professional gossips on the air waves. They were confined to the inner coils of the private ear, a foot away, perhaps, no farther. We closeted our secrets, or forgot them. This we called decorum, and we lived securely under its warm protection.

But now the Maclaren Foundation, which I headed for so many years, almost fifty by now, wishes to have a permanent record of Robert's life, and mine. Ours together, to put it more exactly, and mine alone with the Community, after his death. The government has become interested, they tell me, in "the arts." There is a chance that, with its financial help, in some place, the Community will be restored to life.

My initial reluctance to accede to their request is a matter of personal habit, I suppose. I am an old woman born in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, with all that decent age's love of a calm surface to our society. It was then the custom to have a regular, uniform pattern to our lives, to present the historian with only those facts which would contribute to an orderly picture.

So I am not equipped to write a confession in the modern sense. Whether what I remember here will be useful as a record to the new Foundation I cannot say. I am of an age not to care, almost ninety. My hearing is defective, my bones seem to lie upon each other like dry kindling, my skin falls away in slack little pinches of flesh. I am dry and brittle, I strain and break easily. Rarely any more do I insert my two rows of teeth; few persons bother to visit.

I write this description of myself not because I want pity—who pities the very old?—but to explain my unaccustomed openness in this account. I have nothing to lose that extreme old age has not already taken from me, and no time to gain. The way the world thinks of me may well change, but even that, if it happens, I will not survive. The Foundation promises me that it will be some time before the history of the founding of the Community can be completely collated and that it has no plans to publish it. I will not be here to witness the astonishment of the reader. I am comforted by the realization that there is no one I know alive to be surprised at me.

For the representation of truth, old age is a freeing agent. No one should write of her life until all the witnesses and acquaintances, family and lovers, are dead. In addition, it helps to outlive the mode of one's time until it has changed beyond recognition. Then one is left alone with what was. The wrinkled, spotted hand writes of a time out of the memory of everyone alive but itself. So what one tells is unavailable to verification or correction.

I write this, then, because I am freed by my survival into extreme old age, and because I write in the air of freer times. Whether this air is entirely salutary, whether the old must of chests, of closets, bell jars, and horsehair sofas is not a better climate for the storage of the private life, I do not know. But I tire very quickly these days and must speak openly, for once. I am now free. Extraordinary for me, and for one of my time, I intend to put down extraordinary truths.

My birth coincided with the year of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. In May my parents traveled for two days down from Boston to be present at the great crush when the Brazilian emperor Dom Pedro and General Grant opened the fair. Later in the week my father pushed my mother, who was seven months pregnant, in a wicker chair to see the Corliss engine, a gigantic 1,500-horsepower structure that seemed to him to represent the promise of the future. He took her past the English paintings and the Italian sculpture in the huge Agricultural Hall, remarking on what a strange name it was for a place housing such cultural treasures.

My mother remembered it all. Over and over she told me of the wonders she had seen. Later, in New York, she purchased a number of pieces of furniture made in the manner she had seen at the fair. They were of bent wood, rockers and a sofa of profoundly uncomfortable contours, as I remember. She told me about a gigantic grapevine, twelve thousand feet in all, which had been brought from southern California and replanted outside the Horticultural Hall. She and my father sat under one of the great arms of the vine, resting from the effort of traversing the long narrow halls of the art exhibit. They drank cold water from the Temperance Fountain and ate soda crackers given out at the Adam Exton of Trenton, New Jersey, exhibit. As a child, in bed at night, I heard so often about the two white whales that P. T. Barnum had placed in a tank forty feet high and wide and brought on a special train to the Exposition.

My childhood was composed of these stories of oversized glories. I believe that summer was the zenith of my mother's life, alone with my father, before I was born, in the presence of great marvels. My father at that time was full of plans for their future and mine. He thought it might be possible to apply the principle of the Corliss steam engine he had seen in Philadelphia to the automatic operation of knitting machines, which at present were worked by hand and by foot pedal in his small mill. But he died suddenly when I was nine without accomplishing that difficult reduction.

My mother was bereft. She sank down into a grief I have never since seen take such complete possession of anyone, the absolute despair of a mourner for a beloved husband. The Centennial became united in her mind with early love, her memory coalesced the Corliss engine with her proud, handsome, inventive husband. She paired my birth, I think, with the great umbrella of the Santa Barbara grapevine. Perhaps I, too, have symbolized that time, for the bentwood sofa is still downstairs in the music room, or at least it was the last time I was able to go there.

I grew up always living alone with my mother, regretting in a mild way the loss of my father but not mourning his absence as she did for the rest of her life. I remember his smells, of mustache wax, of the leather of his gloves and hatband. I can still smell his hands as he held me, the odor of acrid coke, the material with which he tried to power his experimental engine. He carried a cane topped with a silver knob. At my level, close to that knob, I could smell his hands and the oiled wood and the polished silver of the cane. He remains in me through the solid scents of his manhood. I cannot recall his voice. His face must have been too high and too often turned toward my mother and away from me for me to remember his eyes or the shape of his nose. His pictures show his mustache curling in a small thick arc around his upper lip, a waxed brush whose smell has followed me for eighty years: that, the bentwood sofa, and the memory of my mother's mortal loss of love.

After his death my mother's only interest was in my future. Left with a little money invested, through the advice of her brother, who was a clerk with J. P. Morgan in New York, in railroad stocks, she still dressed me well. She had educated herself in the fiction of romantic novelists and learned from them that a presentable-looking daughter was usually marriageable. I read her little collection of ladies' novels when I was fourteen, recognizing that the fanciful inventions about life they embodied were only wishful. All the same, I entered into them all. I cared very little about taffeta skirts and full-bodiced, lace-edged shirtwaists, soft, high-buttoned kid shoes with small, high heels and felt at the tips, elaborate coiffures that required an hour's construction each morning and another hour of reconstruction in the evening. But I submitted to them all because my mother's interest and future were involved, as well as my own. I was her investment, the promise of her old age, and had I rebelled it would have meant the end to her hopes for our security.

My only rebellion was music. I had often watched and listened while a school friend practiced the piano. I pleaded with my mother for the use of a little of the money she had put aside each year for habiliments. I wanted to learn to play the piano, that noble, formidable instrument, to stroke those soft ivory strips, each with its slight lip, and the rounded edges of the black keys. The beauty of the piano bench which opened upon paper music collections, the fine, deep string-and-felt odor that came from the piano's interior as the harp-shaped cover was raised, the ease with which the stick fitted into its hole, the lovely, easy machinery of it: I loved it all.

Mother, who was tone-deaf and oblivious to every sensation but her grief, finally agreed. The lessons began in a tiny studio on Dartmouth Street, not far from Commonwealth Avenue where we had our rooms. I had no piano on which to practice, my mother being of the conviction that we had very little room in which to put one, "very little" being for her a relative term. She remembered clearly the wonderful Steinway pianos she had seen at the Centennial, where William Steinway had filled his exhibit with inlaid instruments, a piano decorated to represent the Parthenon, a delicate grand piano mirrored to look like the furniture at Versailles. She could not conceive of a piano that was small and upright and still able to perform properly. The large open spaces in the sitting room, almost devoid of furniture, for we owned very little, had to be kept free for breathing, she said. She believed that the fresh air in most rooms was consumed by the plush of sofas, the linen covers of chairs, the mahogany of side tables, and the porous, colored-glass panels of lamps.

I was delighted to go to my lessons, and to walk the long blocks every other day to practice there. I started when I was eleven and continued, almost without interruption, until I was seventeen. Mrs. Seton, my teacher, had been a Peabody, it was said by my mother to her acquaintances, as if to excuse by lineage her adult indulgence in harmony and composition. A Peabody. I never understood what that emphatic, raised-tone designation, which always followed Mrs. Seton's married title, always after a pause, implied. Was it a connection to the Salem family, or was there a connection to the Philadelphia musical persons? I never knew, or even heard from her, if that was her maiden name, for she was a woman given to gestures, not speech.

I remember that my lesson was at three on Friday afternoon. Mrs. Seton would open the door for me, bowing her head and smiling her slow and then quickly obliterated smile, wearing her hat. I don't remember ever seeing her bareheaded.

After she had smiled her greeting, she would lock the door behind me. I would start up her narrow brown varnished stairs, hearing as I went the sounds of the other two locks being turned. The last, a rolling bolt, took much doing and I was usually in the music room before she had managed it. Her floors always seemed freshly varnished and the leather of my soles stuck a bit to them, making a sucking sound. The room was small, windowless, and dusty—every beam and cornice of that room comes back to me even now—just large enough for her upright piano, her wicker chair placed to the left of the piano seat, and a lamp, its squat gold base nudging the metronome that peered down at me like a tirelessly blinking eye.

At lessons she always sat, her face shaded by a large, broad-brimmed hat. The hat perched on her head evenly, as though she were balancing it, while she played passages in the pieces she was teaching me. She apparently never felt the desire to explain. Her method was to illustrate how notes should sound, her long, delicate fingers hardly lifting from the keys. Accompanied by the undeniable force of the square-set hat, her playing took on a didactic power that I could not withstand.

Mrs. Seton would gesture to me to be seated. When I was settled, a ceremony which, in the first years, involved arranging a stack of Century magazines under me to raise me to the proper height, she would point to the piece of music I was to begin playing. I was expected to extract it from the pile, open it, smooth it carefully, and wait. Using an ivory corset stay, Mrs. Seton would then point to the place where she wished me to begin. I would play. Her disapproval (very often it was disapproval that followed my efforts) would be indicated by a light tap on the back of my right hand (or the left: whichever was the greater offender) with the long, supple stay, not to hurt but to arrest. My hand would freeze—and lift. Hardly pausing, Mrs. Seton would then raise the stay to the music, pointing with the sharp tip to the mistaken staff. Wrong: one tap at the place, begin here, again. Two taps were hard to bear. They signified despair at my repeated stupidity and begged for my close attention the next time I attempted the passage.

I was puzzled by her unbroken silence. Did it suggest a distrust of the spoken word, a faith in gesture and facial expression as more direct, less open to ambiguity than speech? As I think back, I assure myself that she must have spoken at times, perhaps to greet me when she let me in for my practice hours. Surely she had addressed my mother, but never that I can remember did she say a word to me during a lesson, or to fellow pupils whom I whispered to in a corner of the room at her teas. To each of us she gave thirty-five minutes of her expressive pantomime. We learned to play Schubert and Schumann correctly, or at least as well as her indicative fingers holding the stay, the dismayed bend of her head backward, could suggest to us. We heard no words of praise. She would nod yes two or three times, emphatically. For me that was almost enough.

I put all this down about Mrs. Seton of Dartmouth Street, her unbroken silence, her triple-bolted door, because it was in her sitting room that I first encountered Robert Glencoe Maclaren, to whose life I was for so long to join my own. I remember the occasion, perhaps because all of Mrs. Seton's gatherings were occasions. Twice a year she invited her pupils to visit her, to meet each other and a few of her musical friends. We came in response to tissue-thin, pink- paper invitations sent to us through the mail. Somewhere downstairs, I think, I still have one of them I saved. It measures about six inches square and is folded in half over her minuscule spidery writing. It reads:

Come at four. Tea. Biscuits. Friends Amelia Seton

There was no provision for refusal. The delicate invitation had the weight and strength of a command. No address was included, on the theory, I'm sure, that only those who knew the way were invited, and the exact day seemed somehow to have been known to us.

Some years later, Robert, who was one of the "friends" she proposed to serve with tea and biscuits, told me that Mrs. Seton had never changed her dwelling. Her elderly parents had brought her as a young child with her upright piano to those rooms. Mr. Seton, of whom I knew nothing, had come to live there upon their marriage, I later learned, and had died soon after. Just before the Great War, my friend Elizabeth Pettigrew told me, Mrs. Seton died in her sitting room. She suffered a stroke when she was alone and lay there, it was conjectured, for three nights and three days unable to rise from the figured rug. Had she then used her voice? I wondered. Pupils who came to her door found it locked (three times?), there was no answer to their knocks, and so they went away. She was found by a neighbor who had grown curious about the continued darkness in the upstairs music room and broke a window to find her. Her body lay straightened like the stone effigies on tombs in Westminster Abbey, her eyes opened upon a final silence. Only her hat was misplaced. It lay some distance from her head, having been knocked away by her fall, I believe.


Excerpted from Chamber Music by Doris Grumbach. Copyright © 1979 Doris Grumbach. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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