Maurice Albert and Anna Sussmeyer were the only two new recruits for the Viennese Orchestra that September, 1937. For each of them it was their first employment as professional musicians. They were regarded as a couple right from the start by their colleagues, partly because they were both at least ten years younger than any of the others and partly that they were to share a desk at the back of the violins
Maurice and Anna were initially a little wary of each other. Maurice felt a little upset that Anna was assigned the lead in their pairing. It piqued his Gallic pride. But the more he heard the quality of her playing the more he was forced to acknowledge her superior musicianship. As for Anna, she felt that Maurice was too competitive. They were, after all, meant to be working as a team. Gradually, however, as they began to settle into their new roles and got to know each other better, the wariness gave way to liking then flamed into love. Whenever the busy schedule and Anna’s family commitments permitted, they spent their time together. Anna revelled in sharing with Maurice the delights of her home city of Vienna, the ancient stylish buildings, the museums, the cafes. Maurice, in turn, would paint vivid, witty stories of his childhood on a French farm. Autumn, Winter, Spring flew by in the pleasure of shared discovery.
All too soon it was approaching Easter and, with it, the end of the ’37/’38 season. The orchestra was actually on a month’s tour of Belgium and Holland when, in March, the Germans annexed the State of Austria. Many of the players were delighted at the news, one or two disregarded it completely. Those who took more note of international affairs were rather disturbed and wondered whether it might be the harbinger of darker machinations. Maurice and Anna, being so absorbed with each other, fell between the later two categories.
The very final performance of the tour was to take place in Amsterdam after which the players would disband to their various summer homes and occupations around Europe. Maurice had been engaged to spend the term teaching French and violin at a private school in Kent run by his English uncle. After that he was due to return to Poitiers to help his parents with the wine harvest. Anna was to return to her former life: helping in the family business during the day, entertaining tourists with music in the evenings. There would be no way of the two being together again until the resumption of the orchestra in September. So they decided to steal four days for themselves in Amsterdam.
The day following the last concert, as their colleagues departed, Maurice and Anna booked into a small hotel. For both of them it was an idyllic interlude. The nights were spent making love, the days wandering hand-in-hand along the streets, making plans for a future together. One more season with the orchestra in Vienna and then marriage and a move to America where there should be greater opportunities and freedom.
It was on their last day that Anna saw the pair of candlesticks in the window of a small, second-hand shop tucked away in a backstreet off the city centre. They provided a green shimmer of colour amidst an otherwise muted display of opaque glass and white china. Anna loved them at sight: flecked jade and blue green tipped with gold which highlighted a slender delicate form. Although Maurice teased her for what he called her bourgeois taste he nevertheless entered the shop with Anna to enquire the price, negotiate a deal. In the end they bought one apiece for, as Anna said, they would light a candle every evening they were apart until such time as they would be reunited again; the candles would be a symbol of their love for each other.
But by July it was apparent that European events would extinguish any individual plans. This was confirmed when all the orchestra’s members were notified in writing that their contracts were cancelled. Increasingly, in his letters to Anna, Maurice tried to exert pressure on her to leave Vienna and join him in France. But Anna felt that she couldn’t leave her parents who, in turn, would not leave her disabled, housebound grandmother. Gradually communications in and out of Austria became spasmodic, dwindled, then ceased altogether as the Germanic anti-Semitic machine gained greater and greater momentum.
A few weeks ago I was sent by my employers, Palmers Fine Arts and Auctions, to the former home of a Mr Albert. I was to value and assess which items we would auction and which were only worth sending to charity. The sales proceeds, I gather, were to be donated to the Musicians Benevolent Fund.
It was said that the old gentleman had been in the French Resistance during the War before becoming well-known as a musician, particularly in America and here in the UK. I don’t know if that was true or not, but there was certainly a fine-looking Austrian violin on the premises. As Palmers were not specialists in musical instruments, I decided to send that to a certain Auction House in London where it would be more likely to fetch a good price. There were also some rather nice pieces of antique furniture and bric-a-brac which should sell well in one of our own auctions.
However, the item which caught my personal interest was a single candlestick. Bearing a part-used, golden coloured candle, it had been placed on one end of the mantlepiece, a green jade luminescence against the surrounding white walls and woodwork. The candlestick wasn’t worth anything of course and we placed it, plus a large box of spare candles, with the other items destined for a charity shop. But the image of it haunts my memory still: that solitary candlestick, out of balance somehow. Waiting.