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Introduction: The novel opens in the beautiful Bergl Rooms at Schönbrunn. This was a set of four rooms—its walls covered in lush scenes painted by the Bohemian landscape painter, Johann Wenzel Bergl—that Empress Maria Theresa used in her later years. Although work on the apartment started only in 1769, a year after the novel opens, I couldn’t resist using it as the setting for the first scene.
“Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach,” the Empress said, her eyes riveted upon the gold-embossed letter in her hand. “You are acquainted with him?”
Her voice recalled Kapellmeister Joseph Haydn’s attention from the gardens outside, blanketed in snow, to the small study where he sat opposite Her Majesty, Empress Maria Theresa. The lush bounty of leaves, melons, and pomegranates painted on the walls by Johann Wenzel Bergl’s hands formed a startling contrast to the bleakness without.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach—C.P.E. Bach? The name had dropped like a bolt of lightning from Her Majesty’s mouth. What could she possibly want with Herr Bach? Had Her Majesty received a letter from the great Bach himself?
Haydn straightened up in his chair, waiting for the explanation that must surely follow.
But none was forthcoming. The Empress raised her head and glanced across the table at him. Her blue eyes, still sharp despite her age and her recent bout with illness, regarded the Kapellmeister closely, awaiting his reply.
“Only with his music,” he replied, unable to conceal his surprise. Surely an enquiry into his associations was not so pressing as to require his presence in Her Majesty’s apartment.
The coachman she had sent to the Esterházy Palace on Wallnerstrasse had urged such haste, Haydn had hurried out without so much as a word to his employer, His Serene Highness, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy.
That task was left to Luigi Tomasini, Haydn’s Konzertmeister. Haydn had only just remembered his wool coat, his gloves remaining forgotten on the hallway table at the Esterházy Palace.
The Empress nodded, dipping the edge of her toast into her soft-cooked egg. “I did not think you were, but it is such a small matter, I would not have thought it worth the lie.” She returned her gaze to the letter.
“We have corresponded,” Haydn hastened to add, unwilling to allow Her Majesty to think so ill of a composer he himself held in such great esteem. The letter in her hands must be from Herr Bach. If only the composer had apprised Haydn of his application to the Empress.
Haydn dipped his own spoon reluctantly into his silver egg cup. He had never seen the point of soft-cooked eggs.
Why trouble with cooking an egg at all if one were going to leave it almost entirely uncooked? But the Empress had insisted on serving it to him. The white, at least, was set firm. He sprinkled some salt on it and brought the spoon to his mouth.
“I have not, however, had the fortune of meeting him in person,” he continued once he had swallowed the morsel.
Why had Herr Bach lied about such a trivial detail? It was a fact easily put to the test and was hardly likely to win him a position at the Habsburg Court. Haydn rubbed his frozen hands together. The long drive to Schönbrunn had chilled his fingers to the bone. And although he sat by the fire, they still felt numb.
“If Your Majesty wishes to hire him, I can recommend no one more suited for the position or more capable. As a performer, he is incomparable. As an educator, few could be more gifted or learned— ”
“He has apparently expressed a strong desire to meet you, Haydn.” The Empress raised her eyes again, her pale blue irises fastening themselves upon the Kapellmeister.
“He will be visiting Vienna?” Why had Herr Bach not mentioned the matter to him?
“No, Haydn, it is the King of Prussia who requests your presence in his court.”
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