The Harmonious Lobsters by Robert Reece

It has always appeared to me as a remarkable fact that the practice of Music does not promote amongst its devotees the harmony which is its own very gist and soul. The "concord of sweet sounds" is not reflected in the good fellowship and friendly cohesion of musicians; and the spiritualising power of the divine art seems too often to evaporate with the notes produced, and leave with its professors the hard residuum of an exact science and a mechanical art.

The rivalry and jealousy so noticeable amongst musical people is peculiar to them; and, though you may with impunity neglect to demand from the actors, poets, painters, sculptors, preachers, physicians, surgeons, or lawyers an exhibition of their skill in their respective arts, you will make a foe for life if you omit to ask the musician to perform.

We all know the "musical people" at parties; how cordially we welcome the production of that fatal waterproof roll, with its diabolical contents of "pieces" and "ballads;" how enthusiastically we press Jones to "give us another song," and how cheerfully and promptly (I might almost say "hastily") Jones obliges us. It is of no use suggesting to Miss Robinson that you "are afraid you are taxing her too far." Miss Robinson has another ballad, or another "piece"—"Tricklings at Eve," or "Wobblings at Noon," ready for you.

I have belonged to several musical clubs in my time, and know something of my subject, especially the amateur section of it. I once officiated at a professional gathering to the great hurt of a very kind man. I was invited by a genial music publisher to join a "professional dinner" which he gave yearly to the principal musicians, his very good friends. The profession mustered very strongly, and did ample justice to excellent fare; on our repairing to the drawing-room, I expected, of course, to be entertained with some really good music, but I found that no one would "start the ball."

In the full glare of professional eyes I opened the piano and the proceedings myself. Before I had played forty bars every "professional" was making for the instrument. I concluded. I had "started the ball," or rather a musical "boomerang," which was to return viciously upon me and my host.

Every man present held the pianoforte in turn, and at half-past two in the morning (I had commenced at ten in the evening), there were still some unwearied musicians insisting on playing their own compositions to unappreciative audiences of rival professors. Perhaps they are still playing. I never did any business with that music publisher again.

Years ago I belonged to an amateur musical society which had its being in a fashionable suburb, and was known by the felicitous title, "The Harmonious Lobsters." To account for this name I may state that the society owed its origin to certain jovial meetings held at a friend's chambers, where these succulent crustacea were discussed (to soft music) at supper, twice a month. As the club grew, the suppers deceased; and, as the society became important and pretentious, so the original joviality evaporated.

"The Harmonious Lobsters" were as pleasant amongst themselves as the genuine uncooked articles are in a fishmonger's basket. Every member struggled to be "top-sawyer;" every artist, down to the little doctor who played the triangle regarded himself as the mainstay, sole prop, and presiding genius of the society.

We mustered a small orchestra, consisting of two flutes, two cornets, two violins, one viola, one violoncello, a drum, a clarionet, and the triangle above mentioned.

The performances of this "limited band" were more remarkable for their force than their precision; and a want of "tone" and completeness was the result of an endeavour on the part of each performer to make the instrument he played specially conspicuous. It didn't matter so much with the flutes, violins, and clarionet; but the two cornets were a serious nuisance.

Gasper and Puffin (both "first" cornets, of course!) were deadly rivals, implacable foes. Each aspired to be the ruler of the club, each regarded himself as the performer par excellence. The flutes were not friendly, and the violoncello was crabbed and unpleasant, but those cornets were insufferable.

We all felt that a crisis was at hand, and we all devoutly wished it; for while Puffin and Gasper asserted themselves, we others were, to a defined extent, hiding our light under a bushel.

The catastrophe was foreshadowed by a stormy meeting convened to arrange the programme of our fourth and last annual concert.

"Of course," premised the First Violin, who was also Secretary and Librarian, "we have all a solo!"

There was no doubt of that, except as regarded the "doubles," viz., the two flutes and the two cornets. The first couple had so far coalesced as to submit to the prowess being displayed in a duet, which was destined to be less flute than elaborate flatulence.

"Let's begin at the beginning," said Gasper. "No. 1: that's an overture for tutti; say, 'The Caliph of Bagdad.'"

"I don't mind," responded the Secretary. "It's easy enough, and there's lots of show for the violins."

"The question now arises," jerked in Puffin, "who is to be the first soloist? I won't."

"Nor likely to be," sneered Gasper.

"I understand your narrow-mindedness, Gasper," retorted Puffin; "but I shall choose my own place and my own solo."

"So shall I," announced Gasper; "go on."

The Secretary proceeded.

"Shall we say: Solo (Clarionet)—Mr. R. Lipsey."

"Anything for a quiet life," said Lipsey. "I'm not afraid."

So it went on for four more items, when it became obvious that the "best place," in the first part of the programme was open to competition.

"My solo," said Gasper, "comes in here."

"Thank you," replied Puffin; "I claim it myself."

"Do you?" grinned Gasper; "I stick to this point."

"So do I," said the undaunted Puffin.

"No, but really, you know," argued the Secretary, "it must be settled: let me cut the knot. I'll play my solo here."

A howl of opposition now arose. Every performer, exclusive of the Drum and the Triangle, had decided to "go in" for the "show place" in the programme.

"I leave the Society if I do not play my solo here," said Gasper. "I have no more to say!" and he sat down.

"So do I," echoed Puffin, "and get on with 'The Caliph' if you can without a second cornet."

This was clinching matters with a vengeance.

"Look here," interposed the Doctor. "I don't play a solo, so I speak impartially, I hope. Let Gasper play his solo in this part, and Puffin his solo in the best place of the second part of the programme. That'll settle it."

There was a tumult immediately; everybody seemed to be multiplied by ten.

"Don't be a fool," whispered the Doctor to Gasper. "Stick to your right place in the first part; all the swells look for that. They'll be gone before Puffin gets his turn."

Gasper was quiet in a moment.

The Doctor, winking at me, got hold of the stony but still excited Puffin.

"Let him have his blessed solo early, my boy," said the Triangle. "The big people won't have taken their seats by then. You'll have it all your own way."

To this day I believe the Doctor had a professional impulse in this advice.

During a lull Puffin spoke.

"Let Mr. Gasper have his solo in the first part. I flatter myself I can face the inferior position without any fear."

"You are so modest," retorted the delighted Gasper. "Put it down, Basscleff. Solo (Cornet) 'The Wind from the Sea,' Vulvini—George Gasper, Esq."

"That's my solo," shouted Puffin; "and I'll play it!"

Spare me the recital of the ensuing scene.

"Listen to me," said the Triangle, maliciously. "We must come to hard facts, I plainly see. The truth is, the difference between Mr. Gasper and Mr. Puffin (both admirable performers) has assumed the aspect of direct rivalry; I may go so far as to say, antagonism. Laudable, so far as art is concerned; lamentable for the ill-feeling promoted. I suggest that, for the setting at rest of the unfortunate dispute, and the better spirit of the Society, it be arranged that the two gentlemen do play the same solo at the same concert."

Loud shouts, of varied sentiment, followed this daring speech.

"A moment, please," cried the Doctor; "as Treasurer of this Musical Society I may state that our financial condition is not so satisfactory as it might be: if this competition gets wind—I mean, of course, if people get to know of it, we shall have an enormous house."

After some disputing, it was agreed that there was cogency in the Doctor's suggestion.

Other members were appeased with situations in the programme more or less prominent, but when the twenty-four items had been satisfactorily arranged, and the club separated, the general feeling was that the interest of the concert, and the stake at issue, were the competitive performances of Messrs. Puffin and Gasper.

The evening of the concert arrived: so did Doctor Martel at my rooms: the little man was suffused with delight.

"My dear fellow!" he chuckled, "it'll be the funniest thing you ever saw. I've been running to and fro all the week. Now to Gasper, now to Puffin. 'You should hear Puffin phrase that passage about the 'wind moaning,' said I to Gasper, 'it's tiptop,' and Gasper grinds his teeth. Then I go to Puffin and say, 'Gasper's devoting himself to making a hit, old man; the way he imitates the surge of the wave in the passage 'The wild wave answers the winds,' will 'fetch' them, and no mistake!' and Puffin turns pale."

"What does it all portend?" asked I.

"Wait and see, my lad," said the sly Doctor. "Wait and see."

Eight o'clock! and I meet Puffin as I enter the "Artists' Room." I play the violino secondo. I am nobody.

"Well," say I, "how do you feel?"

"Never mind," says the astute Puffin; "I bide my time! Only (mark my words), Gasper won't score as heavily as he expects." With these dark words he vanishes.

The next moment I am face to face with Gasper.

"How do you feel?" I ask of him.

"Don't worry about me," replies Gasper. "I'm not afraid that Puffin will cover himself with glory, after all." And Gasper retires.

We had a wonderful "house" that night. The "competition" had been noised abroad, and the wily doctor's surmises were fulfilled. There was a Puffin and a Gasper faction ready to do battle for its respective champion when the clarion of defiance rang out from the platform.

I pass the overture, a solo on the clarionet, which reduced the pug-nose of Lipsey to a severe aquiline during its performance; a flute and violin duo, and etc. The time had come for "The Wind from the Sea" (George Gasper Esq.). The favourite performer was hailed with shouts of delight. The Puffin faction smiled silently.

The opening bars of the symphony were played by the pianist.

Gasper advanced with a half-restrained smile of self-satisfaction, and after some singular contortions of his lips began to play the scena for the cornet.

But no sound followed his laboured effort! Again, and again, red in the face, and furious, he essayed to produce a note from his silver instrument. It was dumb!

Not so the Puffin section of the audience; the titter soon became a laugh, the laugh a shout, and finally with a stamp, and a diabolical expression, Mr Gasper gave up the game, and retreated amidst a howl of displeasure.

Meanwhile where was Puffin? Never mind.

Slowly went on the programme, till the item for which Mr. Puffin was "set down" arrived in its place.

More sensation in the audience. Puffin section cock-a-hoop. Similar symphony on the part of the pianist, and the placid Puffin, a foregone victory shaping his lips into a half-concealed smile, put his cornet to his mouth, and——

Well! while the audience was fighting its way out, half hysterical with laughter (for the performance of Mr. Puffin had only reproduced Mr. Gasper's failure), I was the unwilling witness of a "set-to" between the rival cornet-players, who, having discovered that each had, respectively, placed a cork up the principal tube of his opponent's instrument, so far agreed, as to differ as to the justice of the process. From the appearance of their upper lips, I am sure no solos were to be apprehended for weeks to come. But, before our next club meeting, Messrs. Gasper and Puffin had retired.

I don't belong to any musical clubs now.