Waltzing Mathilde, Letters to a Little Girl

I have wanted to tell my grandmother’s story since I was a child and would sit and listen to her tell tales of love and sadness about her time in Germany living with her Grossmutter. In 1890 when Mathilde was twelve, her happy life, full of music, came to an end. Grossmutter thought she might die soon and she sent her grandchild across the world to live with her prosperous art dealer son Willy Aldenhoven. Only he wasn’t so prosperous and Grossmutter lived for another six years. Mathilde embellished her story and I have tried to find out the truth with very little to go on except some forty letters in German which I had translated. Armed with these, and subsequently two previously unseen diaries from passengers on board Mathilde’s ship, I began my story a decade ago which has taken me also from Hannover to Sydney. I hope you enjoy it.

Waltzing Mathilde, Letters to a Little Girl

by ROSALIE HORNER

‘to waltz Mathilda’ is to travel with a swag containing all one’s belongings wrapped in a blanket; derived from the German term ‘auf der waltz’ to travel in a circular fashion.

PROLOGUE

An elderly woman in a dark coat walks along Hohenzollern Strasse. She crosses the road and goes into the Eilenriede Woods. Along the path she stops and picks up an acorn. She looks at the smooth oval nut in the palm of her hand and places it in her coat pocket. She sits on a bench nearby and begins to write.


1 October 1950, Hannover
My darling ones,
I suppose you have
already had my first letter from here so you know I have arrived safely. Hannover has already been very much rebuilt to get the tourist trade. The state has allotted a great deal of money to rehabilitate the centre of the city and has done up buildings such as the Opera House. The Cafe Kröpke is very gay and just as I remembered it, but when you get further away it is terrible to see the devastation. Every place I ask for is gone; the Market Church is only a shell, also the Leine Schloss where I went today.
I located Friesen Strasse seventeen where I lived with Grossmutter. All the other houses on that street were standing but numbers sixteen and seventeen only had part of the walls left.
I am now in the Eilenriede. They tell me it is unsafe to go too far in as there are so many rough people. I am sitting where I can see the path. I take care of myself. The 1st October I left here, I remembered today.
I shall be very glad when I’m safely on my boat sailing towards you, never to leave again. Australia is the best for us. I am happy that I have seen it all.
Goodnight, my love to you.
Your loving mother

PART ONE

CHAPTER 1

Mathilde Plate thinks Georg Strasse is the grandest boulevard in Hannover. Each week she walks down this wide well laid out street and gazes into its fine shops, their windows full of expensive clothing, jewellery and exclusive wares. Today it is freezing and there is snow on the ground. In the window of the Magis department store Mathilde sees an elegant straw hat, crowned with white tulle. How lovely it would be to walk down Georg Strasse on a warm summer’s day wearing a hat like that she thinks. She shivers and turns away towards the Opera House on the opposite side of the street. That’s where her future lies, not wearing a silly pretty hat. She hugs her leather case to her and hurries off to her music lesson with the Witt sisters, Heddie and Martha, the hat forgotten.
Mathilde can’t be bothered to wait for the lift and runs up the stairs to the apartment on the fourth floor. She arrives hot and out of breath. She takes off her coat and sits on one of the gilt chairs in the heated wood panelled entrance hall; her knitted woollen stockings itch her dry skin. She stares impatiently at the closed door in front of her. Leaden sounds of Schumann’s Fremder Mann twenty-nine can be heard. Plonk! Plonk! Plonk! If only that door would hurry up and open so she could begin her lesson and stop having to listen to Jutta Ehrmanntraut banging away on the keyboard. How is it possible to make such lovely music sound like a frog plopping about in the mud? Mathilde wonders why she bothers.
A whirring sound and a click indicate that the lift has arrived at the fourth floor; a clatter and a judder and the lift doors open. Mathilde hears someone getting out. The scent of Frau Ehrmanntraut’s eau de Cologne arrives first. ‘Good afternoon, Fraulein.’
Mathilde jumps up, nearly knocking her chair over. ‘Good afternoon, Frau Ehrmanntraut.’ The large woman dominates the confined space; Mathilde thinks that even the chairs seem to shrink from her, when one receives her wide corseted rear it groans as its velvet upholstery is crushed under pounds of flesh.
Mathilde hears the final D major chords of Jutta’s lesson. They are followed by the scraping of the music stool and heavy footsteps crossing the parquet floor. Heddie opens the door and Jutta, an expanding girl of fourteen, stands there. She sees her mother and does not smile. Heddie beckons Mathilde into the music room and goes out to have a brief word with Frau Ehrmanntraut. There is an indistinct sound of voices. Mathilde hears phrases such as ‘little more practise,’ ‘perhaps next year’ and ‘be ready for the concert.’
Heddie comes into the room and closes the door. Mathilde is waiting at the piano. She has adjusted the stool and placed her music in front of her, eager to get on with her lesson.
‘It’s always a pleasure to see you, Tilli.’
Mathilde feels like one of the family. Heddie and Martha always make a fuss of her, after the lesson they bring her hot chocolate and ginger biscuits. When Mathilde plays the Witts’ grand piano she likes to pretend she is performing in a concert hall; her large hands with their wide reach move effortlessly over the keys and take possession of the instrument.
‘I heard the Frog plonking about as usual.’
‘I am sorry to hear you talk like that, Mathilde,’ says Heddie. ‘Jutta may surprise you one of these days. You are talented but you still have much to learn.’
Mathilde is angry. Everyone knows that Jutta has turnips for fingers and potatoes for eardrums. She’ll show Heddie what a proper pianist sounds like. She raises her hands and they bang down on the piano; today her fingers have a will of their own, each one trying to outdo the other, scrambling for a place, any place, on the keys. Mathilde turns red.
‘Stop! Whatever is the matter?’
Martha puts her head around the door. ‘I thought Jutta left ten minutes ago!’
‘Martha!’
The two sisters burst into laughter.
‘Shame on us,’ says Heddie.
Mathilde looks apprehensive. She doesn’t want to upset Heddie again.
‘I think we need a change today. What do you think, Tilli?
The Witts teach singing and piano at the City Daughters’ School and have encouraged Mathilde to sing lieder in the school choir. Last year Mathilde felt honoured when they suggested she sing Heidenröschlein as a solo at the end of term concert, she felt proud to be singing Goethe’s words about the little red rose. Even Aunt Lina said she had a lovely voice.
‘I’ve decided to become an opera singer,’ she announces.
Heddie and Martha look at each other.
‘You’re still very young for your voice to be trained.’
‘I’ve been practising Agathe’s love song from Der Freischutz at home, it’s Grossmutter’s favourite.’
‘Let’s hear you then,’ says Martha. ‘But first some warm up exercises to relax your throat. Every great singer has to begin this way.’
Martha launches into ‘vee, vee, vee, vee, vee’ and ‘brrrrrr, brrrrrr, brrrrr’ and tells Mathilde to sing ‘bella signora’ a hundred times. She explains about ‘the battle against misused muscles’ and what Mathilde must do with her mouth, apart from opening it. She should open it as if smiling, show her upper teeth a little; they should be slightly separated from the lower ones. Good note placement will always depend on the mouth position, Martha says. If she opens her mouth too wide, it’s as bad as closing it too tightly.
Mathilde’s eyes glaze over. She wants to sing. Surely all she needs to do is to let the notes come out as she does when she sings at home. She can’t believe those singers at the Opera House do ‘brrrrr, brrrrrrr, brrrrrr’ every time they perform, they’d sound like bears about to bite someone.
‘It’s important to take a deep breath, right from your diaphragm.’ Martha places her hand on her rib cage and breathes in deeply. ‘Stand up straight, don’t raise your chest too much. Open your mouth, avoid a stiff jaw because it affects the tone quality and the smooth blending of notes. And try for good head resonance. Let’s start with some scales.’
Mathilde is fed up but does what she is told. If this is what it takes to become a singer, then this is what she will do.
‘Your voice is like a flower that grows slowly and needs nurturing and understanding. Remember that, Tilli. There is plenty of time for you.’
Mathilde prepares herself to sing Agathe’s song accompanied by Martha on the piano. When she has finished Martha and Heddie are silent. The colour has gone from Mathilde’s face and her bottom lip starts to quiver. She stands as straight as she can manage but she starts to sway. Heddie rushes over to her. ‘That was wonderful,’ she says.
‘You think Grossmutter will like it?’
Martha gets up and gives her an enormous hug.
On her way home, Mathilde walks through the formal gardens that surround the commanding three-tiered Opera House and looks at the statues of composers and poets on the façade. One day, she promises herself, she will sing on the stage of the Hannover Opera House. See if she doesn’t!
Absorbed in her thoughts, Mathilde is surprised when she finds she is home. Grossmutter always loves to hear about her lesson; Mathilde can’t wait to tell her her plans.
At the top of the stairs Mathilde hears voices. She pauses. Through the half-open door she sees Aunt Lina. What’s she doing here?
‘Mother, you’ve got to tell Tilli how Johanne died.’
Mathilde gasps and presses herself against the wall.
‘Something always prevents me, a bitter pain grips my heart and I cannot bring myself to talk about it.’
‘You have to, you know there isn’t much time. It happened a long time ago.’
‘To me it’s like yesterday, always fresh in my mind. I can never forget that morning, her dear mother lying dead in bed.’
‘I loved my sister but she should never have had any more children. The doctor said it would kill her.’
Mathilde crumples to the floor.

— ROSALIE HORNER

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