Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1184
Melchior Krafft was a virtuoso, his father Jean Michel a famous conductor. It was no wonder that Melchior’s son, Christophe, should be a musician.
Louisa, Melchior’s wife, was a stolid woman of the lower class. Her father-in-law had been furious at his son for marrying beneath him, but he was soon won over by the patient goodness of Louisa. It was fortunate that there was a strong tie between them, for Melchior drank and wasted his money. Often the grandfather gave his little pension to Louisa because there was no money for the family.
Melchior by chance one day heard his three-year-old Christophe playing at the piano. In his drunken enthusiasm, Melchior conceived the idea of creating a musical prodigy. So began Christophe’s lessons. Over and over he played his scales; over and over he practiced until he was letter perfect. Often he rebelled. Whipping only made him more rebellious, but in the end the piano always pulled him back.
His grandfather noticed that he would often improvise melodies as he played with his toys. Sitting in a different room, he would transcribe those airs and arrange them. Christophe showed real genius in composition.
At the age of seven and a half, Christophe was ready for his first concert. Dressed in a ridiculous costume, he was presented at court as a child prodigy of six. He played works of some of the German masters and then performed with great success his own compositions gathered into an expensive privately printed volume, THE PLEASURES OF CHILDHOOD: ARIA, MINUETTO, VALSE, AND MARCIA, OPUS 1, by Jean-Christophe Krafft. The grand duke was delighted and bestowed the favor of the court on the prodigy.
Before reaching his teens, Christophe was firmly installed as official second violinist in the court orchestra, where his father was concert master. Rehearsals, concerts, composition, lessons to give and take—that was his life. He became the mainstay of the family financially, even collecting his father’s wages before Melchior could get his hands on them. All the other phases of his life were neglected; no one even bothered to teach him table manners.
When Melchior finally drowned himself, his death was a financial benefit to the Kraffts, but when Jean Michel died, it was a different matter. Christophe’s two brothers were seldom home, and only Louisa and her musician son were left. To save money, they moved into a smaller, more wretched flat.
Meanwhile, Christophe was going through a series of love affairs which always terminated unhappily because of his unswerving honesty and lack of social graces. In his early twenties he took Ada, a vulgar shop girl, for his mistress. Because of gossip, he found it much harder to get and keep pupils. When he dared to publish a criticism of the older masters, he lost his standing at court. He had almost decided to leave Germany.
At a peasant dance one night, he protected Lorchen, a farm girl, from a group of drunken soldiers. In the ensuing brawl, one soldier was killed and two were seriously injured. With a warrant out for his arrest, Christophe escaped to Paris.
Once in France, a country he greatly admired, Christophe found it difficult to acclimate himself. He met a group of wealthy and cynical Jews, Americans, Belgians, and Germans, but he judged their sophistication painful and their affectations boring. His compositions, although appreciated by a few, were not generally well received at first.
After a time, with increasing recognition, he found himself alternately praised and blamed by the critics. Nevertheless, he was noticed, and that was the important thing. Although he was received in wealthy homes and given complimentary tickets for theaters and concerts, he was still desperately poor.
At the home of the Stevens family, where he was kindly received, he instructed Colette, the coquettish daughter, and the younger, gentler Grazia, her cousin. Without falling in love with Colette, he was for a time her teacher and good friend. Grazia, who adored him, was only another pupil.
One night a blushing, stammering young man of letters was introduced to him. It was Olivier, who had long been a faithful admirer of Christophe’s music. Christophe was immediately attracted to Olivier, although at first he was not quite sure why. Olivier’s face was only hauntingly familiar.
It turned out that Olivier was the younger brother of Antoinette, a girl whose image Christophe cherished. Before he left Germany, a Jewish friend had given Christophe tickets for a box at the theater. Knowing no one to ask to accompany him, he went alone. In the lobby, he saw a French governess who was being turned away from the box office. Impulsively, Christophe took her in with him. The Grunebaums, the girl’s employers, had also expected to be invited, and they were angry at the fancied slight. Antoinette was dismissed from their employ.
As she was returning to France, Christophe caught a glimpse of her on the train. That was all the contact he ever had with Antoinette. Now he learned that she had worn herself out by supporting Olivier until he could enter the Ecole Normale. When he finally passed the entrance examinations, she had already contracted consumption, and she died before Christophe came to Paris.
Finding a real friend in Olivier, Christophe took an apartment with him. The house was only middle-class or less; but in that house and its inhabitants, and with Olivier’s guidance, Christophe began to find the real soul of France. Away from the sophisticated glitter of Paris, the ordinary people lived calm and purposeful lives filled with the ideal of personal liberty.
Oliver became a champion of Christophe and helped establish his reputation in the reviews. Then someone, an important person, worked anonymously on Christophe’s behalf. In a few years, he found himself famous in France and abroad as the foremost composer of the new music.
Olivier’s marriage to the shallow Jacqueline separated the two friends. In his eventful life Christophe made many more friends, but none so dear as Olivier. He did, however, discover his anonymous benefactor. It was Grazia, no longer in love with him and married to a secretary of the Austrian legation.
Jacqueline left Olivier, and he and Christophe became interested in the syndicalist movement. They attended a May Day celebration which turned into a riot. Olivier was fatally stabbed. After killing a soldier, Christophe fled the country.
During his exile in Switzerland, Christophe went through an unhappy love affair with Anna, the wife of a friend, and the consequent sense of guilt temporarily stilled his genius; but with the help of the new widowed Grazia, Christophe spent ten fruitful years in Switzerland.
When he returned to France, he was sought after and acclaimed. He was vastly amused to find himself an established master, and even considered out of date by younger artists.
Although Grazia and Christophe never married, they remained steadfast and consoling friends. Grazia died in Egypt, far from her beloved Christophe. He died in Paris. To the end, Christophe was uncompromising, for he was a true artist.
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