Study Guide

Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories Wunderkind

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  • Frances arrives for her lesson, lugging her schoolbooks and music bag.
  • She pauses, listening to a piano, and a violin being tuned.
  • Mister Bilderbach asks if that's her, calling her the pet name Bienchen.
  • She says yes, taking off her mittens.
  • Frances can hear Mister Lafkowitz and Mister Bilderbach speaking in the other room, and thumbs through her books while she waits, then takes her sheet music from her bag.
  • She tries to give herself a little pep talk, wishes that her lesson will be as good as they used to be, as Mister Bilderbach opens the studio doors and approaches.
  • He tells her she is early, that Josef—Mister Lafkowitz—is working, and she says that she'll wait and listen. He says there's some cake and milk, but Frances says she'll wait.
  • Mister Lafkowitz emerges from the other side of the studio doors, and asks how her work is going. He seems distracted. Mister Bilderbach goes back into the studio. She confesses that things aren't going well.
  • Mister Bilderbach calls Mister Lafkowitz back into the studio, and before he leaves he asks her whether she's seen the picture of Heime in the magazine on the table.
  • The music begins again in the studio, and Frances picks up the magazine to look at the picture of Heime who looks serious, and much the same — if a little thinner — than he did when she last saw him six months ago.
  • Heime Isralesky is a fourteen-year-old wunderkind of violin, the caption says.
  • Her reading is interrupted by a memory from this morning, when she had practiced for two hours until her dad made her eat breakfast, which was a sunny-side up egg that made her want to cry, just looking at.
  • Looking at this picture makes her feel the same way, so she puts the magazine down.
  • She's momentarily preoccupied, listening to the music from the studio, but then she begins to think more about Heime and his success.
  • It was as if Mister Bilderbach, watching her just a moment ago, knew that she would never be as good. The word "wunderkind" repeats over and over in her head. The memory of the music she's been practicing clangs in her head, and she feels tired and dizzy.
  • Once, she had felt good about her playing, and she remembers the joint concert she and Heime played. When she first started taking lessons from Mister Bilderbach, he had called her a wunderkind.
  • Mister Bilderbach had a Dutch violinist as a father, and a German mother, and spent much of his life in Germany, and this made Frances feel like her own background (Ohio) was not as glamorous as it could be.
  • The first time Frances came to Mister Bilderbach, he taught her that music was not only cleverness, but also work. She worked super-hard, coming after school on Tuesdays and on Saturday afternoons, staying for dinner and taking the streetcar home the next day.
  • Mrs. Bilderbach made the dinner. She seemed sweet but dim. Though she had once been a singer she didn't seem to sing anymore.
  • About a year after she first started her lessons, it occurred to her that the Bilderbachs didn't have children.
  • After starting lessons, music became her life and her only friend was Heime. Heime worked with Mister Lafkowitz and the two children often listened to the two teachers playing together.
  • Heime, the "wunderkind" had been playing violin since he was four, and was tutored at home instead of going to school. He was a bit absent-minded, too.
  • Frances had started having nightmares about their joint concert after she had learned how unsuccessfully she had played, and how much they had praised Heime.
  • Frances wondered why she hadn't done better at the joint concert: if Heime was better because he was better suited to the composition, or had started earlier, or…
  • Once, on command, Frances had played some Bach for Mister Bilderbach and Mister Lafkowitz. After she was done, Mister Lafkowitz told her she had played too coldly. Mister Bilderbach had been upset at the criticism and argued in German with the other teacher.
  • When Frances had graduated junior high, Mrs. Bilderbach had asked her what she would wear to the ceremony. Frances said she would wear a hand-me-down evening dress, and Mister Bilderbach joked, insisting she wanted something else.
  • The next he had taken her shopping and bought fabric for Mrs. Bilderbach to sew into a new dress. He felt magnanimous, Frances thought, when the lessons were going well.
  • The music is all that matters, and as her lessons have gone more poorly, Mister Bilderbach has seemed to dull.
  • Frances wonders what has happened to her. She thinks is must be adolescence, something she thought she might avoid because she's a "wunderkind."
  • When the teachers are done, Mister Lafkowitz comes out of the studio and Frances speaks to him a bit to avoid having to begin her lesson. But once she walks him to the door, she has to go to the studio.
  • Mister Bilderbach welcomes her by saying, basically, "Let's forget how things have been going lately. Let's make a new start."
  • He instructs her to begin. She is about to start when he stops her, telling her that all she has to worry about right now is the music.
  • The way he sits behind her (sitting backwards, straddling a chair) always seems to have a good impact on her playing, Frances thinks.
  • She begins again, and he stops her again, questioning her reading of the music. She tries again, and he stops her again, asking her to feel the "tragedy and restraint." She tells him perhaps if she's allowed to begin uninterrupted it might turn out better. He agrees.
  • After she finishes — flawlessly, she thinks — he criticizes her playing and she goes on to play more, feeling as if her fingers refuse to translate the emotion she's attempting to put into her playing.
  • Mister Bilderbach shuts the music book and rises, talking about how she used to play so many things so well. He tells her to make it "happy and simple."
  • But Frances can no longer summon the will to play. Upset, she bolts from the studio.
  • She catches sight of his hands, "relaxed and purposeless," as she leaves.

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