Tribute to a Musician

I remember Harry Bentick. Now he is dead. There are those who mourn him as son and brother - I mourn his music. He was master of no instrument - he could not sing. Yet all his life, music swept and shook him and pleaded to be born. Simple music, but expressive of all the living passion he felt about him, yet was unable to share.

To Harry, his songs were as tangible as a stack of completed canvases to a painter, but he struggled through his short life with little success, to make them real for other people.

He never said, "listen I want you to hear this." Instead he would say, "Look, I want to show you this." He would go to the piano, the instrument he wooed with most longing, his big plain face and heavy melancholy mouth hanging intently over the keys, while his thick fingers stumbled to "show" me.

If we were alone he often succeeded - he could indeed show me - he could manage to convey a little of the harmonies that haunted him. Sometimes he could play his melody right through - sometimes only an inarticulate jumble of broken phrases. At such times as these, he would let his hands fall from the keyboard and sit for a time in silent bafflement, his small eyes flickering rapidly from side to side as if panic were only a breath away. Then, quite suddenly, they would become blank and still, and in a moment, he would try again. Always he tried again.

We met him first when he was about eighteen, a clumsy speechless boy with a big shiny face and ugly red hands. If I think of him now, I remember him on leave, an awkward figure in thick khaki and great orange boots, his face raw from the winds of Puckapunyal, scarcely able to spare time to say hello before clumping eagerly to the piano.

He had no musical education. His parents were unable to afford such extras and later, though he learned the rudiments of piano and guitar from easy instruction books, he was never able to show his music as he heard it.

Harry had a living to make for himself and his parents. He also had a dream. The dream built him a special studio in the lovely Dandenongs, his own recording equipment, his own small theatre for his own musical comedies with resident musicians and well-paid musical experts who would magically understand him, and translate him to the world.

At this time he had, with all his uncertainties and gaucheries, an absolute faith in that dream. He believed then, without question, that some day this dream would be - that some day his music would be heard. He knew of course that - to make the dream come true - he needed a small fortune.

He started a business, and all the quivering force in him, the burning desire for his dream, the longing drive for expression, was channelled towards success in this venture.

He began to make money but the more his business prospered, the less time he could find for his music. It was impossible for him to delegate authority, or even labour. His own untiring physical energy was the very core of the project.

It was never within his power to give up his music. It was as necessary to Harry as blood. As he grew older, on the brief occasions he could spare, the music he brought to show me became richer and more memorable, but also more urgent and disturbing. I remember once we talked to the early hours of the morning, planning a whole musical play - settings - wardrobe - words and music. His eyes were alive and sure with visions that night. He was able to show every melody, they were original and varied. I still have a scrap of paper with scribbled lines of lyrics and, in memory, snatches of song.

He neither smoked, nor drank, nor knew women. His one desire was his dream and it became suddenly a fever. His growing prosperity could not meet his needs in time. Suddenly his dream must be realised soon, or, he began to feel, never.

He tried to double his savings at the race track. He almost succeeded. The last time I saw him he was almost radiant, almost articulate. The studio in a jewelled setting, the sonorous pianos, the unobtrusive interpreters, were almost within reach. He had a handsome offer for his business he said, he had seen a perfect place in the hills, he had a certain winner for tomorrow.

I learned later every one of these bubbles burst. Next, he was senselessly dead. Since then I am haunted, not by the ghost of Harry Bentick, but by the remnants of his music, by the longing to recreate it, and by the sad sense that this is beyond my power to do; and by an unanswerable question - where is that music now?

Should a man be born full of songs and unable to sing? Full of poetry yet without words? Did the gifts he was frantic to give die with him, save the few ghostly phrases that still visit my memory? Are his melodies rocking in the dark waters of oblivion, like so many drowned butterflies, or are they free at last to sing and soar among the stars?

Is his liberated music perfect and complete now, implicit in every silver shiver of trumpets, in the warm honey of every harp, and in every singing cello? I want to believe that it is, so this tribute is for Harry Bentick, at last - surely - a musician.

Norah Boehme