She was playing something of Schubert's—Isabel knew not what, but recognised Schubert—and she touched the piano with a discretion of her own. It showed skill, it showed feeling; Isabel sat down noiselessly on the nearest chair and waited till the end of the piece. When it was finished she felt a strong desire to thank the player, and rose from her seat to do so, while at the same time the stranger turned quickly round, as if but just aware of her presence.
"That's very beautiful, and your playing makes it more beautiful still," said Isabel with all the young radiance with which she usually uttered a truthful rapture.
"You don't think I disturbed Mr. Touchett then?" the musician answered as sweetly as this compliment deserved. "The house is so large and his room so far away that I thought I might venture, especially as I played just—just du bout des doigts."
"She's a Frenchwoman," Isabel said to herself; "she says that as if she were French." And this supposition made the visitor more interesting to our speculative heroine. "I hope my uncle's doing well," Isabel added. "I should think that to hear such lovely music as that would really make him feel better."
The lady smiled and discriminated. "I'm afraid there are moments in life when even Schubert has nothing to say to us. We must admit, however, that they are our worst."
This is the scene in which Madame Merle (oh, the viper!) first makes her appearance in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady. But in earlier editions of the book (like the edition that's online at Bartleby.com), James used Beethoven, not Schubert, as the composer. (I've read that the Jane Campion film adaptation included Schubert in the soundtrack, but I don't want to see it. I would have vetoed most of the casting choices [Nicole Kidman as Isabel - too cold; Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle - too old, too beautiful; John Malkovich - superficially obvious and therefore wrong; and no one, but no one could truly embody my beloved (and adored!) Ralph Touchett], and I would sooner spend those two hours rereading the book.)
But back to the music. I've been given to imagining the piano pieces that could have been used for this scene, first with Beethoven, then as revised to Schubert. With Beethoven, I think of the third movement of the piano sonata no. 7 in D major (Op. 10, no. 3, with a one-minute sample at #6 here). Beethoven wrote this piece around the time Schubert was born. It's a light, melodic Menuetto that pretends in a brief moment to brood before moving onto trills and pirouettes. It's short enough to be readily included in an amateur's memorized repertoire, and appropriate for drawing-room entertainment.
Schubert wrote his Allegretto in C minor for piano (D915, with a one-minute sample at #1 of Disc 2 here) in the year of Beethoven's death (and a year before his own). I imagine the Allegretto being played instead here, and in the Allegretto I hear a brief echo of the Menuetto's melody, now inverted and mutated, haunted and anguished. But it almost doesn't matter which piece (if any piece) James may have had in mind in revising this passage; switching out Beethoven for Schubert makes perfect sense in any case. With Schubert, the music that's played as Touchett the elder lays dying prefigures what we'll find when we return to Gardencourt at the end of the book. Whatever the piece might have been, it's the music written by a young man who's staring death full in the face. As to the character that I consider the book's hero, Ralph Touchett, it's playing his song, as they say.
The relentlessly curious will find, in the extended entry below, a blacklined version of the passage above showing James's revisions from the "Beethoven" to "Schubert" versions. The revisions are fascinating (well, to me anyway), although I've held off on blacklining the entire book (for now!). But prospective online readers should know that the death scene in the edition that's online at Bartleby.com is
all wrong inadequately realized. Read the (definitive) version at www.online-literature.com instead.
She was playing something of
Beethoven’s—Isabel knew not what, but she recognised Beethoven—and she touched
the piano softly and discreetly,
but with evident
skill . Her touch was that of an
artist; Isabel sat down noiselessly on the nearest chair and
waited till the end of the piece. When it was finished she felt a strong desire
to thank the player, and rose from her seat to do so, while at the same time
the lady at the piano turned quickly
round, as if she had become aware of her
presence. “That is very beautiful, and your playing makes it more
beautiful still,” said Isabel ,
with all the young radiance with which she usually uttered a truthful rapture.
“You don’t think I disturbed Mr. Touchett
, then?” the musician answered , as sweetly as this
compliment deserved. “The house is so large , and his room so far away , that I thought I might venture—especially as I played just—just du bout des doigts.” “She is a Frenchwoman,” Isabel
said to herself; “she says that as if she were French.” And this supposition
made the stranger more interesting to
our speculative heroine. “I hope my uncle
doing well,” Isabel added. “I should think that to hear such lovely music as
that would really make him feel better.” “I am afraid there are moments in
life when even Beethoven has nothing to say
to us. We must admit, however, that they are our worst moments.”