Sunday, July 16, 2023

“The Sound of Music” • by Anatoly Belilovsky

Editor’s Note: In 1721, in an alternate timeline, the crowned heads of all the great and not-so-great powers of Europe, appalled by the constant carnage and expense of the Thirty Years’ War, the Nine Years’ War, the War of Spanish Succession, the Great Northern War, the War of the Quadruple Alliance, the Russo-Persian War, and all the other wars large and small that filled the calendars both Gregorian and Julian of the 17th and early 18th centuries, finally decided it was time to get together and do something about it. In that year their envoys met in Brandenburg, then the Kingdom of Prussia, to hammer out a treaty that would avoid all the failings, pitfalls, and loopholes of all previously broken peace treaties. After months of strenuous negotiations they emerged with the Brandenburg Accords, an agreement breathtaking in its brilliance. No longer would the powers of Europe resolve their disputes and ambitions with cannon, sword, and gun. Now, instead of using their martial skills, they would compete by demonstrating their cultural superiority.

For nearly 200 years, the Brandenburg Accords kept the peace—until the early 20th Century…


“The Sound of Music”
by Anatoly Belilovsky

Dearest Mummy:

Oh, if only Father were alive today, he would be so proud of me!

Entire swarms of Prussians have been buzzing about Marine-Akademie for weeks, auditioning all the cadets to within an inch of our lives, but it is over now and guess whom they picked—me! I am packing now and will be on the train to Berlin tonight. This is so exciting, Mutti, I can hardly stand it!

It was the most fierce competition; the Kommandant had tears in his eyes as my friend Walther sang Mozart’s Dir, Seele des Weltalls, and even the Prussian officers kept twisting their mustaches as if they could wind their pocket watches that way, but then it was my turn, and I sang “Edelweiss,” just as we used to sing around the campfires, and would you believe it—after the first chorus, the Prussian Großadmiral whispered to his adjutant, the adjutant ran out of the room—I never missed a beat—and then he came back with a Kellner bearing a tray with beer mugs—and all the Prussians just sat there rocking side to side, sloshing half their beer and swilling the other half, and let me tell you they were half in the bag by the time I finished!

The Prussians all made out like they are favoring us lowly Austrians with their visit, but Walther says they came hat in hand because their naval weaponry is totally obsolete. Last year Siegfried, their ship-of-the-line, tried to push past a British squadron at Gibraltar with a full symphonic performance of Wagner’s Parsifal, and the Brits laughed in their faces, and played Water Music just to rub their noses in Handel’s defection. They must have heard the Prussians’ teeth grinding all the way to Malta.

The Prussians, Gott knows why, also tried to examine us on precision marching but gave it up rather quickly. I don’t know why they even bothered; even our Army has trouble with the goose-step, and as for us Naval cadets, I doubt you could get us to march in step if you whacked our backsides with conductor’s batons.

Your affectionate son,


PS: Rumor has it I may be assigned to a submersible. Can you believe it? Me, on an underwater ship? How I wish Vati were here to see it!


Dearest Mutti:

Und so here I am in Berlin; the coffee here stinks, the pastries are barely adequate (I dream of nothing but crisp Apfelstrudel), and I can barely understand the language they speak, allegedly Hochdeutsch but I am keeping my own counsel on that score.

We were supposed to have boarded the train to Bremerhaven this morning, but there’s been some frightful fuss, some Engländer apparently stole some very hush-hush secret papers before boarding a steamer to America. The Prussians are worried because they think this Engländer went to see a man named John Philip Souza who is supposedly a composer of some note, and an inventor of musical instruments, and this is making people very nervous.

I thought I’d know by now to which ship I’ll be assigned, but it seems to be a hush-hush secret too. In fact everything about the Prussian Kriegsmarine seems to be hush-hush; the only thing they are really forthcoming about is their disdain for k. u. k. Kriegsmarine of the Österreichisch-Ungarische Monarchie. I must have heard them lecture a hundred times how Prussia led the civilized nations of the world in the signing of the Brandenburg Concordi in 1721, and how ever since then they have been committed to resolving their differences through art and music rather than blood and fire. From what I hear, though, I think their history books aren’t the same as ours. I got a blank look when I mentioned how Ludwig van Beethoven changed sides in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, depriving Bonaparte of once certain victory, and no one remembers the uplifting story of the single Hungarian sloop that bottled up the entire Russian Black Sea Fleet in the Dardanelles with a marathon rendition of a Klezmer medley. Even the War of 1870, in their eyes, ends with Wagner’s victory at Paris and the premiere of Die Walküre—not with his ignominious retreat from Brest-Litovsk with a Russian mounted orchestra playing Night on Bald Mountain in hot pursuit. No wonder they have such high opinions of themselves. None of which, of course, explain why it wasn’t us Austrians who came to Berlin looking for help, but Prussians, to Rijeka. So there.

Please do not worry about me, dearest Mutti! I’ve always longed for adventure, to do the things I never dared. It could be so exciting to be out in the world! Would you rather I stayed near home, high on a hill, a lonely goatherd?

Your loving son,



Dearest Mutti:

I am so excited I can hardly write!

I arrived in Bremerhaven to find the place in a total tizzy. A man named Gordon Steadwater Biggleton, of the British Ministry of Extraordinary Weaponry, has indeed stolen the plans for the Prussian secret ship—and it’s the ship on which I shall be serving! And, even better, now that the secret isn’t secret anymore, I can tell you what the secret is. Are you ready?

It is indeed a submersible!

Can you imagine—a ship that sails under the sea, just like the Nautilus, but for real! Oh, it has no portholes, and the Kapitän has to steer by dead reckoning underwater and by standing out in the open while surfaced, so I hardly think I’ll see all the fish Herr Jules Verne writes about in his wonderful book, but still. They call it the Unterseeboot, or U-boat for short. Mine is the U-2.

I met the other sailors, and they seem a decent lot, for Prussians: the Timpanen-Gefreiter, the Oboe-Oberst, and the Violoncello-Matrose, an apprentice about my age. He has not had much training, and is having considerable trouble with his solfège. I made up a mnemonic to help him remember his notes:

A, the stuff in donkey feed,

B, that buzzes in the air,

C, the words so you can read,

D, und also Das und Der...

He’s been following me around like an affectionate puppy, every morning brings me tea with jam and bread. A good fellow; he’ll go far. In fact they are all splendid performers, especially Konzertmeister Grimm, the executive officer. It would not surprise me if U-2 ends up in the musical history books.

U-1 is likely to end up in the papers first, though; it went missing today, failing to rendezvous with Königin Maria Theresia off Crete, and there were the damned British just over the horizon. Could they be using banned weapons? That would be terrible. That would mean war, the old-fashioned way. People could get hurt, and not just their feelings!

I have confidence in the new weapons of Austro-Hungarian provenance that we are taking on board the submarine. Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal music, which no one but an Austrian has ever been able to play and live to boast of it, induces violent mal de mer in French and Italian crews at over a hundred furlongs, while Emmerich Kállmán’s czárdás and Josef Strauß’s waltzes force British sailors without fail to pair up and dance on deck while gazing with affection into each other’s eyes, rendered hors de combat for the duration of the performance. And, of course, the Russians can always be counted on to turn tail and run at the first bars of “Hava Nagila.”

I’m off to pack a few of my favorite things, and then I report on board. It may be a while before I write again.

Salaam, goodbye, auf Wiedersehen, adieu...




Dearest Mutti:

I’d say you are simply not going to believe this, except it will in all probability be in the papers by the time you get this, and you’ll use up all your disbelief on the news articles and have none left for my letter.

I have been promoted and decorated! And by Prussians, who would have been happier singing “La Marseillaise” with one finger up their nose than admit to have been shown up by me, an Austrian, a boy of sixteen, soon to be seventeen. Then again, lots of nonsense has been written about the incident, so here’s the real story:

Approaching Korfu at periscope depth, we encountered a picket line of British destroyers. Konzertmeister Grimm ordered his weapons officer to prepare to surface, and for the crew to prepare to execute a symphonic attack, but before this was accomplished we ourselves were detected and attacked. Der Kriegsmusik we experienced must be heard to be believed! It was a march that shook the very bulkheads of the U-2; it was not only loud, but expertly performed. So much so that, before long, the crew of the U-2 lined up behind Konzertmeister Grimm and started marching back and forth along the deck in perfect goose-stepping formation. This must have been detected by the hydrophones on the British ships, because quite shortly another march played, slightly up-tempo, and this time the sailors came quite close to the resonance frequency of the boat itself, as the deck, the bulkheads, and the pipes all shook and shuddered, several small leaks springing around hatches and in the engine room. Another small change in tempo would sound the trump of doom for all of us!

I did the only thing I could think of, Mutti, and it turned out well. I sang “Edelweiss!” As soon as I got to “Tiny bloom, crisp and white,” the marching stopped, Violoncello-Matrose ran to get beer, Timpanen-Gefreiter poured it in everyone's coffee-mugs, and we sang chorus after chorus of “Bless Urheimat forever” while the boat rocked gently, its crew swaying in the Teutonic drinking fashion, oblivious to the march. I had surmised, correctly, that only a drinking song could take precedence over a march in the Prussian Weltanschauung, and saved the ship thereby.

And if you think that’s incredible, just hold on to your hat: the Prussians actually admitted that it was I who saved their Wiener Schnitzel! Based on the Konzertmeister’s recommendation, I have been presented with an early promotion to Vokal-Matrose and had a Military Merit Cross pinned on my tunic.

Well, you know me, Mutti: I am not one to rest on my laurels. A drinking song may have saved the day but I hardly think this is a satisfactory permanent solution, as it incapacitated the crew for a good week. The entire journey back to base I spent contemplating a better countermeasure to Souza marches played on a hydrosouzaphone, but found myself at a loss.

And then it hit me!

This is what I wrote to the Imperial Admiralty:

Meine sehrgeehrten:

“I have the solution, and it is simplicity itself!

“In order to prevent destruction of U-boats, you must at all cost avoid using all-Prussian crews. Train some of my Landsmänner to take their places, people from Dalmatia and Trieste and Moravia and Transylvania. We are a brave and loyal people. We can operate machinery, we can follow orders, and Gott knows we can sing! Our one disadvantage that has now turned a positive boon is that we couldn’t march in step if our lives depended on it.”

If they have a shred of intelligence in their heads, they will positively fall all over themselves in their hurry to implement my suggestion, and that will mean more honors and promotions for me. I am still, and I know I always will be, your little Schatzi, but in my dreams I see the day when I can sign a letter to you as:

Your loving son,

Korvettenkapitän Georg Ludwig Ritter von Trapp,

k.u.k. Kriegsmarine




Anatoly Belilovsky was born in a city that has changed owners six or seven times in the last century, the latest crude attempt at adverse possession being in progress even as we speak. He was traded to the US for a truckload of wheat and a defector to be named later, learned English from Star Trek reruns, and went on to become a SFWA member in spite of a chronic cat deficiency by publishing nearly 100 pieces of original and translated prose and poetry, much of it collected in Halogen Nightmares and Other Love Stories. He tweet occasionally at @loldoc. (Come for the puns, stay for the punditry.)

Anatoly has been a recurring contributor to Stupefying Stories since his story “Picky” appeared in issue #1. We are delighted to be bringing you “The Sound of Music”—

And be sure to come back in two weeks, when his Brandenburg Accords story cycle continues with, “The Cool War.” 


Karin Terebessy said...

What an intricately woven tale! This piece is just so rich with music, history, language, countless "Sound of Music" allusions, humor, and wonder. It looks at a devastating epoch of history through such a hope filled, optimistic lens. Exquisite!

Made in DNA said...

Damned clever, sir. DAMNED clever!

Anonymous said...

Thank you! Any relation to my old chemistry teacher at Brooklyn Tech?

Anonymous said...

(Anatoly Belilovsky)

Anonymous said...

Thank you! Anatoly

ApoGrypha said...

Also available:

ApoGrypha said...

And: Perils of Bonaparte

Karin Terebessy said...

Anatoly Belilovsky, yes, I am very much related to your old chem teacher from Brooklyn Tech. John Terebessy is my father :-)

Karin Terebessy said...

Anatoly Belilovsky, I just texted my father this exchange and he remembers you. He thinks you were in his chemical engineering class. He also mentioned he liked you.

Karin Terebessy said...

Yes! He’s my father 😁

ApoGrypha said...

YES! Industrial chemistry! I really liked him too, a great teacher!