(Jules Verne, 1893)
Now it is the Offertory, and an admirable prelude by Master Effarane, with diapasons and the flutes supporting the doublets. It was magnificent, that had to be admitted. In its harmonies, with their inexpressible charm, the heavens are rejoicing, and the celestial choirs seem to be chanting the glory of the Divine Child.
This lasts five minutes, which felt to me like five centuries, for I had a presentiment that the turn of the children’s voices would come at the moment of the Elevation. It is for this that the great artistes reserve the most sublime improvisations of their genius. . .
But indeed I am more dead than alive. I feel that never will a note come from my throat, dried up as it is by the horror of having to wait. But I was reckoning without the irresistible blast which would inflate me, when the key which brought me into action would sink beneath the organist’s finger.
At last it came, that long-dreaded Elevation. The bell can be heard with its shrill ringing. A silence, that of meditation, reigns throughout the church. The heads bow low, while the two acolytes support the priest’s chasuble. . .
Well, although I was a pious child, I’m in no mood for meditating. All I can think of is the storm about to be released under my feet! And then, very softly, so that nobody else can hear me: “Betty?” I say.
“What is it, Joseph?”
“Look out, it’s going to be our turn!”
“Oh, Jesus, Mary!” exclaims the poor little thing.
I have made no mistake. A dry noise can be heard. It is the sound of the regulator which directs the flow of air into the wind-chest connected to the register of childish voices. A melody, sweet and piercing, flies up beneath the vaulted roof of the church at the moment when the Divine Mystery is accomplished. I can hear the soh of Hoct, the lah of Farina; then it is the Me flat of my dear next-door neighbour, then an air-current inflates my chest, a current skilfully controlled, which carries the Ray sharp out of my lips. I want to be silent, but I cannot. I am nothing but an instrument in the organist’s hands. His touch upon the keyboard is like a valve opening in my heart. . .
Oh, how excruciating it is! No, if it keeps on like this, the sounds that we emit will be no longer musical notes, they will be cries, cries of pain! . . . And how can I depict the torture I feel when Master Effarane plays with his terrible hand a chord of the diminished seventh in which I take the second place, doh natural, ray sharp, fah sharp, lah natural. . .
And as the cruel, the merciless artiste prolongs it interminably, I fall into a faint, I feel that I’m dying, and I lose consciousness. . .
And this means that this famous diminished seventh, now devoid of its Ray sharp, can no longer be resolved according to the rules of harmony. . .
One of the creators of the literary genre that would come to be known as science fiction, Jules Verne is well-known for his stories of intrepid adventure, such as Around the World in Eighty Days and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Verne was keenly interested in music, and his most famous character, Captain Nemo, was often heard brooding over his pipe organ deep in the bowels of the Nautilus. The idea behind “Mr. Ray Sharp and Miss Me Flat” may have arisen from Verne’s study of the theory of tonality, which is evidenced in the humorous last sentence of the excerpt. (The story’s title is a pun on the musical solfege syllables for D sharp and E flat.)
Verne’s story centers around two young children in a small village near Lake Constance in Switzerland. The town is visited by a mysterious Hungarian named Effarene, “at once artiste, tuner, organ vendor, and organ builder.” The village elders are grateful when Effarene offers to replace the recently departed church organist, but we soon learn the macabre details about his proposal to outfit the organ with a specially built register of children’s voices. The story mines a deep thematic vein in Romantic literature, in which advancing technology threatens to elide the distinction between the natural and the artificial. To be an instrument, Verne suggests, is the very opposite of being human.
Text: “Mr. Ray Sharp and Miss Me Flat,” in Jules Verne, Yesterday and Tomorrow, translated by I. O. Evans (Westport, Connecticut: Associated Booksellers, 1965), 125-153. Original version: “M. Ré-dièze et Mlle Mi-bémol,” written in 1893 and published in Hier et demain (1910)
Image: Georges Roux, “Pas un son ne s’échappe…” from the first edition of Hier et demain. Online at The Illustrated Jules Verne.