• Published 28th Sep 2014
  • 4,002 Views, 190 Comments

Duet in the Folk Style - Pascoite

Big McIntosh's unique way of experiencing music fascinates Octavia, and he'd love nothing better than to satisfy her desire to get in touch with her earth pony roots. They could learn so much from each other.

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Chapter 1: Overture

“Oh please, all of you are still getting ready?” Rarity asked as she emerged from Carousel Boutique’s back room. She made a beeline for the front door and clutched the knob, a rear hoof tapping against the floor. “I thought everypony would be dressed half an hour ago! Our coach awaits!”

“Umm, could you…?” Fluttershy said. “Eep.”

“Aw, don’t pop nothin’, sugarcube. I just finished my chores. ’Sides, we’ll make it in plenty o’ time,” Applejack said. She tugged her hat this way and that before snapping a nod at her reflection.

Rarity’s grip on the doorknob tightened. “A lady. Doesn’t. Pop. I’m merely a bit—” she circled a hoof in the air “—flustered, as we simply mustn’t arrive late! The ushers won’t seat anypony after the curtain rises.”

“Uh, could somepony please…?” Fluttershy squeaked.

“No prob,” Rainbow Dash said, her forelegs crossed and her nose turned up. “I’ll zip ahead and make ’em hold off a minute. It’d look bad for them if they started before I got there, bein’ a celebrity and all.”

“Did somepony say ‘celebrate’?” Pinkie chimed in from her nonstop bouncing orbit of the showroom’s periphery. “Just give the word, and I’ll whip up a party like you’ve never seen, with cake, balloons, streamers, and pin the tail on the pony, or on the dragon! We’ve never done a dragon! Oh, that would be cool—no offense, Spike—but now that it’s in my head, it’s my most favoritest thing in the world, and—”

Rarity held Pinkie’s head in the viselike grip of her magic and stared her down. “The concert hall will provide a reception afterward,” Rarity said through clenched teeth. She leaned in even closer. “And it will be low key. Low. Key.”

“Okie dokie, low key!”

Rarity shook her head and sighed, but she couldn’t keep a smile from creeping into place. Something about all this just felt right.

“Please, if you don’t mind…” Fluttershy said. “That is, if you have the time…”

“Is that everypony now?” Rarity scanned the room quickly and frowned. Somepony was missing. “Where did Twilight Sparkle go?”

“Oh, she scheduled the coach to get here at six-thirty sharp,” Spike answered, brushing some lint off his tuxedo jacket. He hooked his thumbs into the lapels and puffed his chest out. “She’s been sitting in it ever since it arrived.”

Rarity glanced at the clock—ten minutes until seven. A frosty jolt shot up her spine. “Ten minutes until showtime! Out, out, everypony out!” she shouted, waving her hoof toward the door.

“Actually,” came Fluttershy’s voice from behind Rarity. And from considerably closer to the floor. “I need a little help. W-with my makeup. Or not… It’s okay. I can just go without…”

“Nonsense, Fluttershy, but in the coach, now, now!” Rarity jumped behind her and shoved her out the door. “I’ll do it on the way!”

“All aboard, y’all!” cried Applejack as she helped the last of the passengers up and through the narrow door into the carriage.

Big McIntosh groaned from his spot in the corner, wedged onto the end of a bench meant to hold only half as many ponies. “Aw, AJ, why you gotta drag me to this?” He gritted his teeth and tugged at his bow tie. “Not the kind o’ collar I’m used to wearin’.”

“Look, Rarity got these tickets as a gift for her help at the theater in Manehattan. It’s an honor to go, and you could use a bit o’ culture anyhow, you bumpkin,” Applejack said with narrowed eyes. Big Mac only sighed and shook his head.

Rarity pursed her lips while working on Fluttershy’s makeup. Maybe dragging him along wasn’t the best choice, but Applejack wanted him to come, and at least she could count on him to keep quiet. Pinkie, on the other hoof…

“These seats are right next to the royal box!” Twilight said as she examined her ticket. “I’ll get to see Princess Celestia!”

“Yes, yes,” Rarity said, fiddling with Fluttershy’s sleeve, “but we must look our best. Dresses adjusted, hats straight, shoes polished, everypony?” She felt like a mother hen trying to gather her chicks together, but fortunately she had a captive audience at the moment. Six eager faces nodded back at her. And one continued to stare out the window. “Excellent.”

“Sun’s still out,” Big Mac muttered. “Could’ve got another two hours’ work done.”

After a short ride to the earthwork amphitheater just outside Ponyville, the group disembarked from their coach with only moments to spare. The usher gave their tickets a perfunctory glance, then rushed them along to their seats without any of the meaningless small talk Big Mac would have expected. He’d hung back at the end of the line, and his gamble paid off—he got the aisle seat, in case the opportunity for a strategic exit came up.

He slouched sideways in his seat and propped his chin on a hoof, the waves of conversation washing over him and threatening to lull him to sleep. Glancing down the row, he saw that Twilight had of course taken the seat against the princesses’ box, with only a low divider between them. She leaned over it and waved furiously, and Celestia responded with a staid “yes, I see you, now please sit down and act your age” nod. And with a sheepish smile, Twilight settled back into her chair.

Big Mac had to chuckle. At least that was good for a laugh, and he might have to take entertainment wherever he could get it.

“Well, this is most unusual,” Rarity said with a frown. “Already ten past the hour, and they still haven’t begun! I do hope that nothing is amiss.” She stood and scanned over all the entrances. “These performances are always so lovely, and I’d hate to miss an opportunity this rare. They hardly ever play outside one of the large cities!”

She tut-tutted amid her other friends’ shrugs, and Big Mac found himself looking forward to the prospect of a quiet evening at home. A nice pot of coffee on the hearth, maybe a block of birch wood and a whittling knife, or better yet, the latest edition of the Farmers’ Almanac. Yeah, just another short trip back—

Mayor Mare strolled out on stage and cleared her throat, dulling the ebb and flow of voices. “There’s been a slight delay in the arrival of some of the performers, but we will begin momentarily,” she said. “Thank you, everypony, for your patience, and shortly the Canterlot Philharmonic will be ready to begin.”

Big Mac stifled a yawn and rolled his eyes. Fine. What would another thirty minutes matter when the evening was already in the outhouse anyway? He craned his neck right and left to see if he recognized any faces in the crowd as ones who might provide the company that misery loves. But no. Just the fancy types.

Before long, he could hear instruments tuning up behind the curtain. He wasn’t completely out of his element here—he knew a few basics. Some fiddles—er, violins—plucked and bowed, then a few trumpets, a flute or two, drums, and… he’d pretty much hit his limit. But he hadn’t heard quite that variety of sound before, not all together, anyway. They put on a nice light show that might keep him interested for a little while. He reckoned about twenty minutes.

The noise gradually faded away, and everything blended back into the orange sunset. And out of the intense quiet, a single instrument sounded, the one that always made him think of a duck, though… he’d never really looked at it before. It made a nice, rich brown-looking noise, like aged hickory. Soon enough, all the other instruments joined in, and… the curtain shimmered—he couldn’t take his eyes off it.

The curtain drew open, and an old stallion strode in from the right side and took his place at the podium without introduction. He immediately waved his hooves, and the orchestra started into… Big Mac didn’t know what. But the colors. Gold and red and blue and—he flipped through his program to see. An overture by Hoofgang Amadeus Mozart. The name rang a bell, he guessed, but the colors!

A low, bass brown, a high, tinny silver, all spilling off the stage. He’d seen… well, when he sang with the Ponytones, they made a nice blend of shades, but nothing like this.

And too soon, it stopped. The crowd burst into applause, but Big Mac couldn’t do any more than gape. Different instruments, blending into new combinations all the time, and lighting up the stage with changing patterns. The audience had quieted down before he could get in a couple of stomps.

The conductor bowed deeply. “Thank you, mares and gentlestallions. I am Maestro, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to the first stop on our traveling concert series. We always enjoy the opportunity to bring the music to the ponies. We have a diverse program for you, as well as a special treat after the second intermission. Please sit back and allow us to take you on a journey. For our next piece, we will perform the famous Third Brandin’ Burg Concerto by Johann Sebastian Buck.”

This one sounded more intimate, with a smaller number of mostly strings and higher brass instruments. It took a… regal tone, white veined with grey, like marble, then filling in the brown of fine furnishings and the sky blue of broad landscape paintings. Big Mac closed his eyes and weaved the colors into his mental picture. As the music switched to a slow tempo, he whipped up royal-purple robes, swishing and twirling in courtly dance, green palace gardens outside the windows, multicolored flashes of songbirds in the trees…

Before he knew it, applause rang out again, and he looked up at the stage. The orchestra dispersed and milled about, some of the performers greeting ponies on the floor below.

Rarity sidled past him, mumbling something about powdering her nose, and everypony else stood to stretch their legs. But Big Mac just sat there. Was this what he’d been missing? Twilight probably had a ton of records at the library, and he’d never even known.

He’d listened to country music with Applejack, and of course singing, but nothing this complex, with so much texture. He’d let the lyrics organize the colors into scenes for him, but these built their own, note by note.

All around Big Mac, ponies wandered this way and that, and then here came Rarity back from the mares’ room or wherever she’d gone. She wriggled by him, then tapped Twilight on the shoulder and pointed at him. What did she want?

Whatever she’d said got passed down the line—Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie started giggling, and Applejack shot them a glare and swatted them. Spike just shook his head. Maybe he was on Big Mac’s side. Of what, who knew? And why had he agreed to come here with a bunch of mares?

The ushers came down the aisles again and urged everypony back to their seats, and a quiet attention settled over everything.

In the renewed silence, Maestro took his place at center stage again. “For our middle section,” he said, “we will perform the Sixth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoofen. Nicknamed the Pastoral, it evokes scenes from rural life and nature. We hope you will enjoy it.”

Now, Big Mac could see potential there. If he’d gotten that much out of a fancy palace scene, how much more would some nice country music speak to him? They had plenty of fiddles, but he didn’t see a guitar anywhere.

No matter. He closed his eyes, and… it wasn’t what he expected, but still. He could see it: green hillsides, tilled earth, chattering streams, and windblown grass, stretching out around him. The music slowed, and it changed to grazing land and fluffy white sheep. Faster again, a harvest celebration. Everypony cheering for a well-stocked barn and swinging around in the old dances Granny Smith used to do. Finally, a storm, with the rolling thunder and cracks of lightning, bringing life-giving rain.

This was his world. The farm he loved, the work that gave him meaning, somehow made into sound. And then it ended. He didn’t open his eyes until he felt a tap on his shoulder.

“Why, Big McIntosh, I rather think you’re enjoying yourself!” Rarity grinned and cocked her head. “Aren’t you glad you chose to attend?”

“I didn’t exactly choose to, Miss Rarity,” he said with a squint toward Applejack, “but I gotta say, it ain’t what I expected. I’m havin’ a good time, so thank you kindly for the invite.”

Rarity held a hoof to her chest. “You’re very welcome, dear. What do you think so far?”

“So many instruments I never heard before.” He jutted his chin toward the stage. “I didn’t figure on so much color.”

Rarity glanced around at the crowd. “Oh, all the lovely outfits? Surely you’ve seen as much around my boutique before.”

“No, Miss Rarity, up over the stage, while they played.”

She turned to have a look, but no way she’d see it now, not while the orchestra was on break. She just shrugged, and with the ushers making their rounds again, she went back to her chair. Nothing, though. Everypony had quieted down, but… Oh. Here came Princess Celestia and Princess Luna back to their seats. Right, about time for sunset. And moonrise. With them seated again, the conductor took his place on stage.

Even with Maestro commanding everypony’s attention, an excited chatter roamed around the crowd. What had them all so worked up? Everypony was looking in different directions, so no way to tell. Big Mac leafed through his program again, and—yeah, the “special treat.” A few more pieces listed there, but he didn’t recognize any of them or the name of the soloist listed below them.

Maestro leaned toward the crowd, his eyes sparkling. “For our final section,” he said, breaking into a grin, “we will perform some special music for strings, featuring our own very versatile Octavia Melody. She will play the featured cello part in Tchaikhoofsky’s Rococo Variations, lead a suite for strings by Gustav Horst on viola, and play the solo part in Sam-Mule Barber’s Violin Concerto. We have enjoyed Ms. Melody’s talents ever since she was accepted into the Royal Canterlot Conservatory at the age of seven, and in her time with us, she has mastered all of the string instruments. We have no doubt she will soon conquer the rest.”

He extended a hoof to his right, and Octavia strolled on stage with a slight shake of her head and a faint blush to her cheeks. “And so, ladies and gentlestallions, I give you Octavia Melody!”

More applause sounded as she took her seat out front, by the conductor. Closing her eyes, she leaned an ear toward her instrument and plucked a couple of strings, then nodded. And… color. Big Mac had waited for the color, but none came. Not that he noticed, anyway.

Just gray and black. Nothing spectacular about gray and black, but his eyes never wandered from it. Charcoal mane, plain gray coat. She mostly kept her eyes shut, but when she occasionally peeked at Maestro’s waving baton, he might have seen a flash of purple. Always that faint smile, and her hooves, working with the instrument, not against it.

Black and gray, but so elegant. The way she wore her mane long, the way she brushed her forelock over—he stared forever. She swayed back and forth in her chair, playing from memory, feeling, living the music, and he could have sworn the orchestra stopped and started a few times, but he didn’t—

And then the colors hit him. Streaming from the strings, her right hoof drawing them out and her left adding the ripples. It hadn’t even occurred to Big Mac to listen, but now that he did, it grew loud and… ended.

Applause. She stood and bowed.

Big Mac swallowed against the dryness in his throat and paged through the program again. Still two more to go. He needed to hear this time. And out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rarity glance at him with a sly grin on her face.

At least nopony else was looking, and the next piece had started anyway. A fun little dance tune with bright summer clothes and golden hay bales. Next, on to blue. Other colors swirled on top, but the blue flowed underneath it all like a stream. Then Octavia picked up her violin and played a soaring line, rich in tan and turquoise to match its Arabian flavor. Finally, another dance, and then—hidden inside it, an old folk song he remembered hearing a couple of aunts and uncles sing when he was young, all green and deep red, like holly.

Too short, much too short, but he managed to join in with the applause. A quick look, and Rarity still had that smirk. Big Mac pursed his lips, but he couldn’t do anything about it now. What was she up to anyway?

No matter. More music and more color. Every hue, radiating outward, but he latched onto that most amazing gray-on-gray at the center of it all. He floated on it, lost, for a few seconds or an hour or a day or—

Everypony stood, and Big Mac staggered to his hooves. He stomped along with the crowd and earned a few odd looks from well-to-do ponies for his sharp whistling. He didn’t care. That’s how music worked, right? Put everything into it, and let the ponies who heard get it back out. He saw his singing that way, and no reason for cheering to be any different.

Murmuring started up in the crowd again, and ponies filed toward the exits. But Big Mac sank back into his chair. He vaguely heard Pinkie chattering about something, and then in her characteristic trill: “Somepony’s smitten, love-bug-bitten!”

No, he—

Perfect. At least Applejack shushed her and jabbed her in the ribs, but Spike was making gagging sounds, and now here came Rarity.


Rarity eased into the aisle beside his seat and crouched down low, but she wore a gentle smile and spoke softly. “Would you like to meet her?”

Black and gray and… “Um… I uh…” Thank goodness he already had naturally red cheeks.

“Our tickets include an invitation to the reception afterward,” Rarity said, touching him lightly on the shoulder. She waited for a moment, then cocked her head toward the stage. “Would you like to meet her?” she repeated.

He opened his mouth and stared back at her. A fancy reception? No way he’d fit in at one of those. No, no, he should just wait by the carriage and—

Rarity hooked a foreleg around his and tugged him out of his seat. “Come with me.” He didn’t resist. “We’ll enjoy some nice refreshments, and then we’ll get in line to—”

“Oh yeah, party time!” Pinkie said.

Rarity gritted her teeth. “Low. Key,” she said through her clenched jaw.

Most of the group had fanned out to sample the canapes, drinks, and conversation, but Rainbow Dash stayed by Fluttershy to pull her out from behind a curtain or potted plant or wherever she hid when somepony complimented her dress. And Rarity kept nudging Big Mac along the greeting line.

Big Mac scanned the room and wished he knew more ponies here, but nothing to do except stare straight ahead and take a few steps every minute or so. Rarity, though… she waved at every other pony who passed by and called them all by name.

And the closer he got to the front of the line, the more he wondered why Rarity wanted to help him, or if she just couldn’t resist meddling. First his baby sister on Hearts and Hooves day two years ago, and now this.

The orchestra members mingled with the crowd, and word after word he didn’t understand floated at him. Scherzo, double stop, coda. And still closer he got to the ponies he guessed were important enough to make everypony else wait for. Maestro, then a couple others he hadn’t noticed during the concert, and finally… Octavia.

He broke into a sweat. What could he say? He knew enough about singing, but everypony in line sounded like they could teach a music class. “I like your hair?” Yeah, real smooth. Might as well just grunt and save her the trouble.

Big Mac shook Maestro’s hoof, and the other few, whoever they were. While Rarity greeted them and made some small talk, he just nodded and smiled. Shake hooves. Nod. Smile. And then—

“Hi,” he said.

“Hello,” Octavia answered. Her voice, at once red, but richer, darker. Something as simple as “red” wouldn’t fit the bill—he needed one of those fancy words Rarity might use, like carmine, or scarlet, or—

Burgundy. It felt warm just to say the word in his head. A little bit refined, a little bit exotic, and soft like a blanket. As much at home in an expensive restaurant as in a small-town market.

“Um…” Big Mac looked back at Rarity, who hadn’t finished saying whatever she wanted to Maestro. “Um…”

“Did you enjoy the performance?”

“Yes’m.” Why was it so hot in here? And finally Rarity circled around him and put a hoof on his shoulder.

“Octavia,” Rarity said with a flick of her hoof. “A pleasure, dear. I’m glad to see you getting along so nicely.”

“Rarity! I haven’t seen you in ages!” Octavia seized Rarity’s hoof with both of her own and gave it a vigorous shake. “I still love that dress you made me for my recital a few years back, but I’ve grown a smidge since then. Do you think I could bring it by and get it lengthened?”

“Of course! Come by tomorrow before you get back on the road. I’ll have it done in no time.”

“Thank you. And who’s your friend?” Octavia asked, leaning forward.

“I-I’m… Mac. Big Mac. McIntosh, that is. Big McIntosh.” Wow. Real smooth.

“That’s quite a long name,” she answered with a chuckle.

“Yeah, um…” Not just the heat, but that stupid bow tie felt like it would choke him. “I just wanted to say, ma’am, that what you did tonight was amazin’. Never seen or heard anything like it. You sure know how to put on a color show.”

She wrinkled her brow and opened her mouth to say something, but then shook her head and looked to Rarity, who only shrugged. “He said something like that during an intermission,” Rarity replied. “I assumed there was a reflection…”

“No,” Big Mac said, “from the instruments, ripples o’ color floatin’ up and gatherin’ above the stage, like clouds.”

Octavia and Rarity glanced at each other and raised their eyebrows.

“You mean y’all couldn’t see it?” he said. Plain as day, and even more visible in the dark. Right there, too, Octavia’s burgundy voice and Rarity’s silvery blue. Well… they probably couldn’t. He hadn’t thought about that in years, but he remembered being told he was different. Shame, seemed like half the point of the show.

“No, dear,” Rarity answered, “but if it adds to your enjoyment, then who are we to argue?” And then a throat pointedly cleared behind them, and Rarity’s eyes shot wide open. “Oh, we’re holding up the line. Nice to see you again, Octavia. Let me congratulate you on a fine performance, and stop by my shop whenever.”

“Thank you,” Octavia replied as Rarity hustled him off, but she was looking at him. His knees nearly buckled.

Alone at a small table, Big Mac watched Rarity try to dislodge Twilight from her conversation with Princess Celestia and round up everypony else to go. She’d probably have better luck getting Applejack to help. That mare’d never lost a stray in her life. Anyway, he might as well start heading that way.

He felt a light touch on his shoulder. “Big McIntosh, wasn’t it?” Octavia said.

Once his heart had started beating again, he moved on to the next problem: his voice. “Uh, um, yes’m,” he said with a jerky nod. “But folks call me Big Mac.”

“I found your comments interesting, about the colors. Do you mind telling me more?” She took the seat next to him and propped her cheek on a hoof.

“Yes’m, I—”

Her hoof shot up, and she bowed her head. “Please. Do I look old enough to be a ‘ma’am’? Just call me Octavia.”

“Yes, ma’am, Octavia, ma’am.” She laughed out loud, and he rubbed a hoof on the back of his neck. “See, the music makes me feel a certain way. It brings images to mind, and with a group this big, I got all the color I need to paint it. Like that there Horst one—in the second bit, it sounded like the creek that runs across my farm. I could pick out the blue from above the stage and imagine it as the water. A lot of other stuff was happenin’ over top of it, but that blue kept goin’ under it all.”

“Interesting,” she said. “It’s called an ostinato, and that’s the whole point of it. Impressive that you instinctively saw that.”

“And that symphony. I could see my farm, plain as standing there. The golden wheat, the white sheep, green grass, brown earth… It made me feel right at home. I never heard the like before, and really, Octavia, ma’am, it was powerful good.”

She leaned so far forward in her seat that he thought she might fall out. But she didn’t say anything. “I also thought,” he said, “it was a bit odd—between the last two things you played, a couple strings on your instrument changed color. They went from brown to a kind o’ dark green.”

Octavia gaped and held a hoof to her chest. “I… changed the tuning. We call it scordatura. You tune a string differently to alter the timbre.”

He stared at her blankly.

“You make it play with a different sound quality than it normally does.”

“Ah.” That made sense.

“The music didn’t call for it, and it’s tough to do on the fly, but I just thought it fit better. You seem to have a feel for these things.” She signaled a waiter to bring her a glass of punch, then squinted at him. “You’re a very interesting stallion, Big Mac. Do you play any instruments?”

“I…” He almost said it. But no. He wouldn’t tell just anyone. Mentioning the Ponytones would be enough. “I sing with a quartet. Well, quintet now. Still gettin’ used to that. And thank you, ma’a—” She’d forced a scowl over her face. All except the smile. “I mean, Octavia.”

“Listen, I’ve got to grab a little dinner before I do a short practice and get to bed. But I’d love to talk some more.” Octavia pointed her muzzle toward Rarity. “I have to go into town tomorrow to drop off my dress. Could I meet you for lunch?”

“Oh. Um… uh… yeah. I’d like that.” Suddenly, getting his chores done seemed less important.

“Great! I’ll see you around eleven?” She waited until he nodded, then patted him on the shoulder. “It was good to meet you, Big Mac.”

“Likewise, ma’a—Octavia.”

He’d kept everypony waiting.

Big Mac ran a hoof down his muzzle and shook his head as he walked out of the amphitheater. Having a mare hold things up, he could understand, but…

Every last one of them wore a funny grin. All except Spike, who just kicked a foot at the dirt, but the rest looked a little too satisfied with themselves.

“See, dear, that wasn’t so difficult,” Rarity said.

“Aw, y’all were watchin’?” he groaned. A bunch of big smiles answered him. So he just climbed into the carriage, jammed himself back in his corner seat, and prepared for the worst. But… either Rarity had told them to go easy on him, or they’d all lost their second wind this late in the evening. Didn’t matter. At least he had a peaceful ride back.

Even after they’d all disembarked at Carousel Boutique and gone their separate ways, he still faced a long walk home with Applejack. While she’d look out for him in public, she could be right vicious when she got him alone. But she followed along behind him and kept quiet.

Good thing, because he couldn’t wipe that smile off his face. And from the few glimpses he caught in the moonlight, she couldn’t, either.

Author's Note:

I like it when chapter titles add a little meaning, but it can go over the readers' heads if they're too cryptic. I'll explain mine, and do all of them for consistency's sake, but the first couple are pretty obvious.

In its original form, an overture was an introductory piece that preceded a larger work, typically an opera, but the term also can carry a connotation of making romantic advances.

The pieces mentioned during the concert are all based on real ones, even down to the details. Beethoven's 6th Symphony does depict rural life, with each movement signifying the same things Big Mac saw in them. And Holst's St. Paul's Suite starts with a jig, then an ostinato, then a violin solo in an Arabian style, and finally a dance tune called "Dargason" with "Greensleeves" brought in as a countermelody, hence Big Mac seeing it in the red and green of holly.

Woo hoo, my first chaptered story in three years! Let's see how this goes.

Posted September 28. Coming October 5, Chapter 2: Crescendo.