The Long-Awaited Judge

“He is coming?”

“Soon.”

“He is coming–soon, you say?” The eyes of the organ builder grow wide in fright.

The other man nods. His air is one of importance and pomposity. “If I seem impatient, Hildebrandt,” he intones with warning in his voice, “then my father is infinitely less patient,” he says, folding the parchment in front of him. Even though Hildebrandt is taller than Wilhelm Friedemann, he seems to shrink in stature at the mere mention of the famed organist making the journey to inspect–and hopefully approve of–his instrument.

“I assure you, Herr,” the organ builder says nervously, inclining his head slightly, “the final touches are being completed as we speak. I predict that within the week, the instrument—“

He is cut off. “You do not have that much time,” Friedemann interjects.

“What?” Hildebrandt asks, his face growing ever more pale.

Friedemann sighs with impatience. “Two days, at the latest. Less than a day, at the earliest.” It seems that it takes all his willpower for Hildebrandt to not faint. “You may rest assured that should your creation please him, then the reputation you have will be untouchable, and your name and craft will be heralded in all the land,” Friedemann says in a comforting tone. Hildebrandt noticeably brightens, but he pauses for a moment.

“And…and if not? If the instrument that I and my crew have prepared over the past few years is not satisfactory?” he inquires, his brow furrowing in a disquieted way. Friedemann looks solemnly at the organ builder. Without another word, he turns and walks out of the church.

The news seems to be digesting in Hildebrandt’s mind for a moment. Slowly he turns to his crew, who watch him. His eyes glance over workers near him o the floor, as well as above on the balcony, where the facade of the great organ looms. “My good crew,” he says hesitantly, “we have a mere day ahead of us before…he…arrives,” he finished nervously. A pause. “You have all worked your hardest and I applaud you. By this time tomorrow evening, perhaps a day later, our labours will be judged and graded. For now, let us leave for the evening. To our lodgings, lads!”

The general mumbles and grumbles ensue as the crew places their tools and equipment in sturdy sacks. Candles are blown out before the light of the sun fades from the windows, glancing off the pipes of the organ which lay dormant like a great sleeping beast. “Until tomorrow, then,” Hildebrandt says quietly as he closes to the doors to the great church.

The next morning, Hildebrandt rises from his sleep in the room at the inn where he is staying. A cup of wine and a plate of eggs with a hearty sausage is his breakfast. Sighing, he rinses his face, looking into the mirror as the wrinkled visage greets him back. “On with it, you old mule,” he orders himself. Donning his wig and coat, he leaves the inn shortly thereafter.

Bad weather today; I can feel it, he thinks as he makes his way to the massive church. Indeed not before he sets foot in the door the thunder rumbles and rain begins to pelt the ground. He is pleased to see that the crew is all here; candles are lit but they’ll need more. “Good morning,” he says and they respond in kind. “The weather outside…” he gestures vaguely as thunder booms. “There’s little chance our inspection will be today. So! Today we will polish this instrument, literally and figuratively,” he adds as someone coughs lightly nearby. “Let us begin,” he says, and up the stairs he walks.

While he has been responsible for the construction of many organs throughout the region, Hildebrandt feels he stands on the precipice of his career. To have your work deemed worthy or unworthy by such a lauded organist–it was any builder’s dream! But also, any builder’s nightmare should your instrument fail to be up to ‘certain standards.’ The three manuals greet him, as do the various stops which are housed amid a blue background. The pipes are poised above his head. “I need two men at the bellows please!” he shouts at the men gathered below him, failing to realize he’d been accompanied up the steps by two young lads. Ah my hearing, he thinks wearily.

Soon enough, air is pumped into the lungs of the instrument. He tests one stop, and then another. The action of the keys is firm but not ridiculously so; the coupling-action may prove difficult–or perhaps it’s the dryness of his joints. He lacks the coordination to play the pedals; according to his ears, the action was good and the sound was better. “Cease!” he calls, and the fellows pumping air to the bellows cease their labor.

He crawls into the belly of the great organ, inspecting what he can in the dim daylight. There are no issues; none that he can see or hear. He wipes his brow with his handkerchief, dabbing at the sweat. A short bout of coughing overtakes him. Must be my nerves, he reasons silently.

“Herr Hildebrandt? Herr Hildebrandt?” a voice calls from below. Glancing out from the balcony, he beholds a young boy. “Yes, what is it?” he asks the youth. “No, wait–I cannot hear you from up here. Wait a moment,” he says and begins to descend the rickety white steps. The cool breeze of fall enters through the door.

The lad is uncertain but bows oddly. “He will not arrive until this evening, but at that point he will be too weary to inspect your creation,” the boy says. “I have word which orders you to be here no later than nine o’clock tomorrow morning,” he states curtly. “Ah,” Hildebrandt answers. “Ah.” He claps his hands together, grasping them. “Well, then. What time is it?” he inquires.

The boy pauses. “It is just two hours past noon,” he informs the organ builder. “Oh! Time has slipped away,” he says wearily. “It feels as though I’ve been here all morning,” he says with a slight smile. “But sir,” one of the workers says, “you’ve only been here for an hour or so.” A gasp from Hildebrandt as he turns—do they take him for a fool? “I–I slept in?” he asks, bewildered. The young boy chuckles and Hildebrandt waves a hand at him. “Off with you,” he commands, and the boy runs out into the rain.

Turning around once again, he looks at his crew. “Well, tomorrow morning it is, then,” he says. “I alone will be here; you all have the day off,” he continues, feeling the relief that passes through the men. “Has…has anyone met him before?” he asks nervously.

The men glance from one to the other. “No,” one says. “He hardly ever leaves his home in Leipzig,” he finished. “It’s true!” says another. “He has not left in perhaps two decades.” More voices intone their agreements; more voices add snippets of his temper, his reputation for flawless playing, and his harsh standards when it came to organs. Hildebrandt blanches at these stories, but half-believes others.

“Well, enough–enough!” he barks when the voices become too much. “The day is over. The organ is excellent! My crew, my crew,” he says, shaking his head solemnly, “I’m sure that the craft we have built will be lauded. Again–only I will be here tomorrow, bright and early at nine o’clock!” The crew brighten at the news of having a day off. “Lets us be off; enjoy a fine meal and some wine. Offer a prayer, perhaps, that he will be merciful,” he finishes and bids them good evening. They all walk out. Candles are extinguished, and once again he regards the great organ with its silver pipes and gold-and-white facade glaring back at him. Even with no one at the keyboard, the instrument feels alive; awake and foreboding. If looks could kill, he would be dead.

On arriving back to the inn, he bids the innkeeper well. “Have someone wake me after dawn,” he says. “I must be up bright and early,” he adds. Settling into his room, he washes his face quickly and gulps down a cup or two of wine. Soon enough his dinner is brought up, and he sits at a small table, eating by both the light of candle and light of the moon. Below, a horse whinnies in protest as its carriage is drawn to a halt.

Is that him? Hildebrandt thinks. His heart races as he settles into bed. But sleep escapes him; his thoughts flit about like flies around a corpse. Eventually he falls into slumber because the sun pierces through the window. A chill is in that air. His door opens and a servant enters with some wine and breakfast. “Pleasant morning, Herr,” the servant greets but Hildebrandt is too drowsy to respond. “A gorgeous day outside; not a cloud in the sky! Birds everywhere, and that red sunrise is lovely!”

The organ builder gives not a single care for the cloudless, red sky, nor the birds or various other pleasures which the servant bleats on about. “Thank you for my meal,” he says, sitting at the table and beginning to eat. “Let me know when it is quarter past eight in the morning,” he orders lightly, and the servant bows and leaves his room.

His belly roars with hunger but soon it is full of eggs, sausage, and wine. He is grateful too for the hunk of bread, which he uses to mop up the runny yolk. Birds call back and forth outside; the chill bites at his skin less. I have perhaps an hour or so to myself, he thinks, and studies the wall in front of him. A beetle scurries across the floor near his bed.

The sound of footsteps is heard, and his door opens wide in a rush. “My apologies, Herr,” the young servant gasps, clutching at the apron on their waste. “It is well past eight, and you must be on your way!”

Jumping from his chair, he brushes the crumbs on his shirt. “Indeed I must!” With a quick splash of water on his face, he buckles his shoes, adjusts his wig, and pulls his coat over his thing frame. My joints…aren’t what they used to be, he thinks slowly. Shuffling down the stairs, he enters the busy street, making his way to the church as fast as possible.

From a ways away, he sees, curiously, that the doors are open and a lone figure stands. It is a man, his eyes wide and full of anticipation. Momentarily Hildebrandt shields his eyes from the sun; on a second glance, the figure is gone. The door remains open, swinging in the wind. Who could that be? he thinks with a pang of fear in his heart. He enters the church, which is only illuminated by the sunlight.

The great organ looks down at him; despite creating it, he cannot help but feel small and insignificant. His breath seems too loud, and his heart beats too quickly. How icily the white facade looks, paired with gold around the casing; how bright the silver pipes—

Footsteps are heard, creaking on the staircase. Upon a glance, Hildebrandt sees the lone figure, clad in a dull yellow coat, who beckons with a hurried motion of his hand. Hildebrant is just about to inquire if the man is him when a sudden noise is heard; but it is not noise, it is music, and it is music unlike that which Hildebrandt has ever heard in his life.

A flurry of notes in the high octaves of the organ–of his organ–is heard; the motion is repeated, descending the keyboard in a flash–and suddenly a blast from the pedals erupts all around his ears. What music is this? he asks himself, too stunned to voice the question out loud. More notes in the upper registers are heard for a few moments; what hands could be capable of this fast, virtuoso playing? With a crashing chord and a rumbles of pedals, followed by more chords, the music ends, and it echoes off the white halls for what feels like forever.

And then, silence.

It seems the only sound in his ears now is his own heartbeat. But then an old, loud, impatient voice booms across the walls. It sounds ancient and worn but powerful nonetheless. “Hildebrandt!” it commands. “Hildebrandt, come forth so that I may judge you and your creation.” With a nervous swallow, he adjusts his wig and coat and begins to ascend the staircase to hear the words of Johann Sebastian Bach.

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