A Christmas card in brass

How long the sound went on before I even became aware of it, I don't know. It was a dark early-winter afternoon, and I was immersed in yet another Tuscan memoir filled with sunshine.

When I finally heeded the sounds coming through my window, I realized they were the honeyed tones of a French horn. Since I lived within walking distance of a major symphonic hall and three music schools, practicing musicians are commonplace. But a French horn in the present won over memoirs of Tuscany.

I raised the window and looked down to see who was serenading. But no one was there. Yet the tones went on - do fa, do fa, do fa. Those were among the solfège tones a music student learns in order to identify musical intervals. And one quickly learns that the upward "do fa" is the opening interval of "O Christmas Tree."

When the horn at last started a real piece, I put on a jacket and headed down to the street. Where was this coming from? And then I laughed at myself - did the Pied Piper perhaps have a French horn?

I walked the length of the street before I located a slightly open window. By then the horn had been joined by a trombone, a trumpet, and another instrument I couldn't quite identify. But when they segued into a fusion piece, I left so I could retain my holiday spirit.

When I was back in my comfy chair, my thoughts unexpectedly drifted back to a "Christmas card in brass" I had forgotten until then.

One winter I was living in Denmark, in a small town just a brief train ride south of Elsinore, the site of Hamlet's castle, Kronborg. I felt the need for some holiday spirit. Since Elsinore is also home to one of Denmark's notable culinary attractions - Mollers Konditori - I cycled down to the train station and betook myself to Elsinore.

A konditori, which is similar to the German word Konditorei, is a pastry shop. But Mollers was far more; it was one of the places to celebrate life's special events.

As I left the train station, to the left were the cheery streets of the historic center, where the glow atop lampposts and the twinkle of colored lights in shop windows punctuated the early dark.

I entered the konditori to find myself in a spacious room with a crackling fire on the hearth and tables set with white linen cloths and fine china.

In its homeland, a Danish pastry - the noble counterpart of the doughy variety we often call a Danish - is an artwork of buttery flakes that dissolve at the mere lift of a fork. And so, with a fruit pastry, served with a silver pot of hot chocolate, I imbibed the spirit of the season. And then I noticed the sounds.... As the patrons came and went, letting in little eddies of chilled air, the warm tones of a French horn gradually wafted indoors. I paid my bill and went searching for the music in the cold and dark.

I didn't have far to go. At the next corner I found the source - a brass quartet. The four players wore long woolen robes and matching turbanlike caps: one man in emerald, one in ruby, one in blue, and the last in gold.

I stood there - enchanted by the vision and the stately, sonorous outpouring, most of it wholly unfamiliar to me. A metal stand beside them, with its array of CDs, indicated they were from Moscow, and much of their repertoire was medieval Russian.

When they finally took a break, I rushed up to thank them profusely in Danish - only to find that they understood no Danish but could converse quite fluently in English.

They related they had already performed the day before in Copenhagen, and the next day they would leave for the Danish mainland for a performance in Arhus that would conclude their European tour.

When the performance ended, I longingly looked at several of the CDs, and then purposefully did not buy one: I wanted to walk away content, leaving Kronborg, the konditori, and the concert as a lovely memory. And so it returns as my neighborhood horn player has brought back the mood - that vivid blend of sonorous tones, the rich brass of the instruments capturing the glow of street lamps against a veil of snowflakes.

The scene arrives as an unexpected Christmas card, one to cherish on the mantel of memory.

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