The Thomas Cantor

Along the frost heaves and icy crust that rut the road from Dresden to Leipzig, a carriage bears two passengers north. One, awake and unhappy, is Imperial Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, Baltic German by birth, Russian ambassador to Saxony, loyal to the czarina, as he was to her father before her. The other passenger is asleep. He is Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, dark haired, age fourteen, a piano prodigy, native of Danzig, von Keyserlingk’s ward of four years. Day wanes early on these travelers. The year 1741 is still new.

While Johann Gottlieb has been eager for this trip, the count, in his old age, would prefer to remain in Dresden. Only dull matters of diplomacy await him in Leipzig, and the journey, some 120 landmeile, is unpredictable once there’s snow. As the count had dreaded, the bridge at Grimma was impassable and delayed them by a day. Though the truth is, he dislikes Leipzig in any season. Whatever matters he negotiates there fare badly. He dislikes the city center and the haughty town fathers. Also, the bread always smells faintly urinous to him. The mere thought of it makes his stomach turn. There must be something in the wheat, he reasons, staring out at the frozen fields. And at least this mundane business will afford him a chance to visit the Thomas Church and its cantor, in whose musical career he has taken an interest.

The carriage crests a hill and rattles like a peddler’s cart as they descend to the city’s outskirts. Soon they will be at the castle, though this knowledge brings little comfort. The count knows all too well what awaits him there: the drafty room above the kitchen gardens, which are noisy from morning until night; worst of all is the curtained bed, where he will try but fail to fall asleep. He cannot recall the last time he slept peacefully. Even at home, his sleep is tenuous. On the road, the nights have become torture.

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