I was invited recently to a musical evening, and I got dressed up (as the invitation bade me to do) in black tie and pumps. The address was close to Gramercy Park in New York, a brownstone house in the city where most of the denizens have taken to dwelling in stacked apartments. Henry James would have felt at ease. The curtained windows gave on a street where life still seemed to move quietly, as if a horse-drawn carriage might at any moment come rattling by. The high-ceilinged rooms were colorful with Oriental rugs and damasks. The guests, as they began to arrive, were evidently costumed in their best - the ladies in sweeping skirts and rich shawls.
It was an evening in late March and the weather had been passing through all the variations the season provides. ''We have everything but snow,'' I remarked; and just then a handsome figure entered and was introduced as Mr. Snow. So now we really were complete, I thought. After light refreshments - for it was evident we should be eating rather late - we were ushered upstairs, where small chairs were set out in rows, in a room that must have seen much of life passing within its walls: the joys and sorrows, the ceremonies and celebrations, of long generations. We were now to hear the music for which we had been invited.
The quartet was composed of four young musicians, all of them in their early twenties, precisely at the point where the student and apprentice passes over the line that separates them from the master-player. They were graciously introduced by our host; and then, through vibrant passages of Mozart, Beethoven, and Bartok, they led us upon those wings of enchantment which great music at its best ensures. I am not myself of an ear sufficiently discriminating to follow critically all the nuances of such a performance. I was confirmed in my judgment by those better qualified than I, however, that this was indeed musicianship of the highest quality, by skilled players at the top of their bent.
Many years before, at a school I attended, I recalled a concert of chamber music making itself heard with difficulty over the squeaking chairs of an ancient auditorium and the restless shufflings of four hundred boys. In a moment of relative silence the rector had leaned over to me and in the stentorian whisper he commanded said, ''Heckscher, the kind of music I like is loud music.'' I was rather intimidated by the thought - almost everyone was intimidated by whatever that daunting man proclaimed; and it has often occurred to me through the years that he may have been right. But on this occasion, with chamber music played in the conditions for which it was created, in that high room amid dear friends and elegant acquaintances, I felt the enjoyment which courtiers and their ladies must have found long ago.
The youthfulness of the musicians rendered the occasion doubly charming. There is a perfection achieved by the seasoned artist, a maturity of touch and an instinctive judgment, which those who are embarking on a field of high art cannot pretend to. But for compensation the young have freshness, vigor, the delight of suddenly finding themselves heir to a tradition they have long cultivated in solitary practice. The irrepressible sense of their own surprise communicates itself to the understanding listener. The fruits of their devotion fall like so many benedictions on the small assemblage.
Afterward a number of laden tables appeared as if by magic where only a few moments before the music had held sway. I found myself seated by one of the players and took pleasure in the chance to question him upon his commitment to the life of art. He was twenty-five; the impressive violin player was his wife; and he told me proudly they were the parents of a son. How astonishing, I thought, that whereas a relatively few years ago nobody seemed to be having babies, this young couple with all their high purpose and relentless dedication to work had crowned their joy in this immemorial way.
Presently the guests began to leave. I said goodnight to our generous host and hostess; I said goodnight, among others, to Mr. Snow; and then I walked out into the unexpectedly warm airs where a touch of spring seemed to have been laid upon that unchanging neighborhood. It had been, I thought, a lovely evening.