THE PIANO LESSON

As long as he could remember, Albert Thistlethwaite had been passionately fond of playing the piano. There was one bad spell early on, when as a small boy he would revolt against being kept in to practice, away from his playmates and football in the alley, and would take it out on his parents’ most treasured possession by kicking it as hard as he could. But this phase soon passed as a fuller understanding of music and greater facility on the keyboard led him to boundless horizons, across placid seas and billowy clouds, to distant lands, with sun-drenched beaches and gay feasts and carnivals. His beloved parents and elder brother encouraged him as much as they could, but no one ever explained to him what sacrifices were needed to become a great pianist, the hours of lonely practice, the years of repeating difficult passages until they became automatic, the endless, never to be satisfied striving for perfection. He invariably fell miles short of his goal, and was made painfully aware that self-tuition would never take him beyond the intermediate, competent, but fallible standard he had reached, and that he would need the expert guidance of a master to break through the barrier and advance to higher stages of virtuosity. He made up his mind that he must wherever possible find a master to guide him; but this objective was to prove more elusive than he had ever imagined.

 

His greatest enemies were time and the inexorable demands of other masters, the grammar school and university calling for ever more hard work and study, the war years teaching him the rough martial arts, which left no appetite for anything so fancy as piano-playing. And so it was not until after the war, when he was in his first diplomatic post in Moscow, that he had anything like the spare time needed to give the piano the respect it demands and deserves. The Soviet authorities generously cooperated by providing him with a fine German grand piano, but unlike today, there was no teacher, or course at the Moscow Conservatoire, to help him unfreeze his fingers stiffened by the enforced inactivity of the war years. The Soviet musical profession had, like every other, been decimated in the horrors of the Nazi invasion.

 

It was a beautiful instrument, but suffered great indignities when it was delivered one icy cold winter’s morning, across snow blown into great drifts, and with dark, scudding clouds threatened more. As the six stalwarts swung it down from the lorry and across the ankle-deep snow, loud jangles of protest issued from its inside, growing to a strident crescendo as they hauled it through the French windows into the stifling hot-house temperature of Moscow town’s central heating supply. They then had the nerve to advise letting it settle for 48 hours before playing it, as if any more harm could be done by Albert’s delicate touch! They would not accept any payment for their services in roubles; sausage and black bread, and a bottle of vodka, quickly uncorked by a sharp tap on its bottom, and as quickly demolished between them, was all they asked for.

 

He spent many happy hours playing that piano, ensconced in the warm, cosy sitting room, the oak panelling providing a perfect sounding board (as well as a snug refuge for the families of rats nesting behind it). He could now escape on quiet evenings from the tedious platitudes and repetitious slogans of the Soviet press, the trying hurly-burly of Moscow social life, and the bleak daily routine of trudging through the snow and slush. Music-lovers from the Embassy and foreign community flocked round in search of a respite from the psychological tension engendered by the total isolation and the round-the-clock surveillance which it seems to be the eternal lot of succeeding generations of Moscow’s foreign colony to have to bear. Many hilarious occasions helped to while away this time; Alexander would play the Russian pieces he had been brought up on, ending with an impatient discordant thump whenever his technical skill ran dry; Jack would execute Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto in grand style, with all the flamboyant gestures and air and graces of a pretentious virtuoso. Other performances were ruder, but nonetheless contributed to the conviviality which passed the hours and evenings that would otherwise have been spent in loneliness and boredom.

 

Ostensibly to give him a change for the better, the Foreign Office next posted him to one of Egypt’s delectable fleshpots, which even in 1948 lacked for nothing. He was in luck, for he succeeded in finding both a fine Bechstein upright and an enthusiastic tutor in the smiling, happy-go-luck Piero. In true Italian style, Piero taught him all the rubato playing, warmth of expression and musical sensitivity he could wish for, and Albert felt a sense of great loss when he eventually left to set up his own quartet which was to win a high reputation in French musical circles. 

 

What Piero had left unsaid and undone was made good with a vengeance when some years later Albert persuaded another master, Victor, to give him lessons privately. Victor brought to his lessons all that is best in the German tradition; precision, exact timing, close attention to detail, and a firm touch making every note sing its full value, while maintaining the greatest possible flexibility. Understanding the instruments’ demands and his pupil’s shortcomings, however, he let much go by default, only to come back at every turn to the essential simplicity of music’s message. He treated the great masters with respect bordering on reverence. “Say a prayer before each piece”, he would remark devoutly, with the same fervour which radiates from all his works, compositions of great freshness and originality which have justly brought him renown.

 

The discipline to which the schooling of his two masters had subjected him was to stand him in good stead in the wilder parts of the world to which in due course he was posted, and where no such amenities as he had enjoyed were to be found. A powerful self-confidence and will-power had gradually been built up within him and had taken command, so strong that he would gladly accept, without fear or flinching, the material hazards and political dangers these posts flung at him. He could resign himself to all the upheavals in store, provided that he could find a decent piano to play, and gather around him like-minded musicians with whom to share his enjoyment.

 

He was rather spoilt in Indonesia, thanks to a brand new Steinway concert grand he managed to hire, for the absurd rental of £2 a month! “You can have it for £2 a month”, the rather phlegmatic Dutch owner of the music shop had said. “You’re joking”, Albert replied. “No, I’m not” came the riposte, “It’s far safer in your residence than here. It’s yours, provided I can borrow it back whenever there is a concert”. A superb instrument, fully tropicalized, the ivories pinned down instead of glued, and all the felts and woodwork poisoned against the white ant, that dreaded maggot which can reduce any but the hardest woods to powder within hours, and had already reduced a case of Albert’s sherry to nothing but the bottles and metal tops. The cool, lofty marble reception room provided the ideal setting for the main recitals Albert and his friends gave, and only twice during the whole of his stay was the piano called upon for a public concert. The resonance of the room accentuated the Steinway’s crystal tones, and as the music echoed through the tall open windows and doors down to the river, it would challenge the nightingales to match it with their own pure, limpid song.

 

It was much tougher going in the other difficult posts, the Yemen for instance. Albert’s Bechstein had been transported from Aden to Taiz, at that time the capital of the Imam Ahmed’s kingdom, over terrain which it would be a euphemism to call a track, 125 miles of huge rocks and boulders, dried-up river beds and paths fit only for the mountain goat. The casing withstood the severe jolting, but the strings were knocked completely awry, and jarred hideously as the piano was hoisted through the rough-hewn aperture of the upper room window. Four lusty German technicians, there in Taiz to build of all things an automatic telephone system, helped him to put it together again, but despite their repeated efforts they never succeeded in tuning it to last for more than a day. They would sit round every evening discussing, and as the imbibing progressed, disagreeing about this or that pitch, only to be greeted the next morning by the same hideous cacophony. Eventually one of the Germans spotted the cause. The Yemeni craftsmen builders (who are incidentally outstanding stone masons and carpenters) had used tamarisk trunks, gnarled by the ferocious heat, for the beams of the Legation building, so that the floor of the upper room sagged towards the centre, thus throwing the piano strings permanently out of true! A spirit level, a few chocks here and there, and a liberal dram of a harder spirit sufficed to put the tuning on course for the rest of his stay in the Yemen.

 

This episode bears eloquent testimony to the sturdiness of the Bechstein. It survived all the tribulations inflicted on it on its odyssey to Mongolia, the days of rocking to and fro on the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Ulan Bator, the precarious tossing about on a lorry from Ulan Bator sidings to the Hotel, and finally the rough manhandling and scurrilous cursing of the six Mongolian wrestlers who helped to lift the piano’s dead weight up the stairs to the Ambassadorial suit.

 

The Mongolians are a cultured and musically very gifted people, and the grand was put to many valuable uses encouraging their talents. But again the tuning proved to be almost an insoluble problem, until it was decided to tune it by accordion, which maintains its pitch at all times and even in that severe arctic climate. Two accordionists were accordingly assigned to him for the job, spirited young fellows who seemed to savour Schubert and Chopin with as much zest as his Scotch.

 

Laos was the most remote and hair-raising post of them all. It was not unusual there for the recitals to be interrupted by external forces, as when an untropicalised Yamaha seized up through excessive humidity in the middle of a performance, or a sudden tropical storm drowned the soft cadences of a Brahms Intermezzo as the sheets of rain bounced off the corrugated iron roof. But the wild life usually quietened down when he played. Emerald geckos with their bright ruby-red eyes and rough, scaly armour would peer over the top of the upright, curious no doubt to discover what had caused the shattering noise disturbing their slumbers. Snakes abounded, and slithered softly into the shack, not at his feet, thank God, but into the darker recesses and under the chairs. “Leave them alone, and they’ll go home”, he would mutter anxiously to himself, for he knew from his orchid expeditions that, left to themselves, snakes prefer to get out of the way. But the melodious sounds fascinated them, and they only left after the last notes had died away. He thought he had made an even bigger break-through in man’s communication with the animal kingdom, when one day the tiny Rhesus monkey pet of an American friend jumped on to his lap as he was playing, and lay straddled across his right knee, staring soulfully up at him with her mournful protruding eyes. “What a conquest”, he thought to himself, “this must surely go down in zoological history”. Great was his disappointment when the reason for the little creatures bliss dawned on him. Every up and down movement of the pedalling was scratching her back against the edge of the keyboard, releasing her from the everlasting purgatory of the fleas, at least while the pedalling lasted!

 

With all this wealth of musical experience behind him, it was foregone conclusion that on his retirement (which came early because of all the difficult posts in which he had served), Albert would devote all the time he could to the piano. He ran at once into grave problems. So far he had commanded a fairly wide range of well-known classics, but now, with all the leisure time he could wish for at his disposal, he set himself the task of covering the whole classical repertoire, and, of course, badly over-reached himself. He just had not attained that standard of technical excellence which could master with ease the towering difficulties of the repertoire’s great works, Chopin’s B minor sonata, for instance, or Schumann’s F sharp minor sonata, or for that matter Liszt’s prodigious output. His frustration knew no bounds, as he began to realise that he had been playing the same pieces, day in, day out, and making no progress. He sat down in desperation to think out what should be done. A born perfectionist, there was really no other solution for him, if he were to continue at all. He had to turn again to an expert tutor for guidance, or perhaps to a masterclass. He browsed through the musical journals in search of the ideal teacher, and was eventually attracted by a most seductive advertisement in a French magazine, to the effect that Mlle N., who lived in a small fishing village near Marseilles, would be disposed to take one or two advanced pupils not averse to the immense task confronting them. Albert was all the more intrigued because of Mlle N’s., reputation, not only as a leading exponent of the piano, but also as one of the most beautiful women in France, cold and distant in manner, perhaps, but with a sparkle in her eyes and a briskness in her gait which revealed a vivacious personality and an all-consuming love of life. He lost no time in writing, in his most polished French, begging her to accept him. She replied quickly, saying that she never accepted anyone without an audition; would he please practice a piece of his choice, and come along in a month’s time. So began the most fateful relationship of his life.

 

Overjoyed, he ran through his old favourites, debating for a long while whether it should be this one or that. He ought, for a lovely French lady, to have chosen Debussy, one of his light, translucent Arabesques, for instance, which would have been well within his capabilities. But he wanted to impress, and chose instead one of the hardest works, Brahms’ very last composition for the piano, the great Rhapsody Opus 119. A work of rugged, primeval power, monumental pyramids of sound reaching up to the Heavens in homage to music, a paean of thanksgiving from its grand opening chords to the resounding finale. He plunged into the long, strenuous practice the work demanded with all the happy abandon of a two-year old setting out on his first walk, and made progress, although the five hours he could spare every day of that month fell far short of the long apprenticeship the work called for. But he was confident he would make a good showing on the day.

 

He nevertheless felt a tremor of trepidation as he approached the villa, a pleasing white Mediterranean-style house surrounded by sun-baked courtyards and shady arched patios, nestling against the pine woods of the hills overlooking the bay. The lizards scampering over the patio walls reminded him of the emerald geckos he had charmed out of their hiding place in Laos, and his thoughts flashed back to the full-throated song of the nightingale in the starlit night of Java as he heard someone playing the most delightful Mozart, to his ear without a fault.

Albert Thistlewaite dreamt of one day becoming a concert pianist, but needed the guidance of a master.

 

The prim little maid led him through the hushed hall and showed him into the salon, the fresh beauty of which took his breath away. Large enough to hold two suites, in light green brocade to match the tapestry, it was flanked by two leaded French windows, all tall as the room itself and leading out into an Italian garden resplendent with acacia, plumbago and scented white jasmine. A semi-circular display alcove facing him contained a marble bust of Beethoven, rather out of keeping, he thought, with the delicate touch of the French decor. Mlle N. stood waiting there to receive him, dominating the room with the sheer strength of her personality, and riveting Albert’s whole attention on her presence. Dressed in pale blue to match her eyes, her jet black hair immaculately arranged in a trim French-style bun, the sunlight thrown back at him in the dazzling brilliance of her necklace, she appeared to him like some imposing Grecian goddess, and he later had to admit that at that instant an overwhelming desire to come closer and embrace her had come over him. She was not unmindful of his admiring gaze- and his distinguished military bearing – and betrayed in it the warmth of her greeting. But the split second of magic vanished, and resuming her facade of aloof detachment, she waved him into an easy chair, to return without more ado to the little blonde girl who had been playing such exquisite Mozart.

 

He settled back to listen, and a warm feeling of well-being came over him. He began to daydream of future lessons, of piano duets with Mlle N. at his side, of picnics on the sunny beach or in the cool shade of the pine woods, and of romance blossoming out of their shared passion for music. His reverie was rudely shattered by her sharp rebuke to the little girl. “Your timing is all wrong, listen to the metronome”, she was saying, “you haven’t done your homework, and I’ll tell your mother”. She put on the metronome, and only then was it just noticeable that the tempo was dragging. The little girl wilted, but her playing did not seem to suffer. At last the girl’s mother came to pick her up, paid the fee, and nothing was said.

 

Albert was badly shaken, and trembled at the thoughts of the massacre awaiting his rendering of Brahms, if this was the treatment meted out to well-nigh perfect Mozart. He shrank deeper and deeper into his chair, and clutched his music more tightly to his side, as if the tornado would tear it away from him. “Now Mr Thistlethwaite, what have you brought along?”, she asked, turning to him with a winsome smile. “Brahms Rhapsody Opus 119”, he muttered, half attempting to disguise the fact. She stared at him in sheer incredulity. “You must be good, then, who were your tutors?”. He stammered out their names and reputations, overcome with stage fright. “Never heard of them. Well, let’s hear what you've brought”. By this time he was petrified, and completely forgot as he sat down to adjust the Beethoven stool from the girl’s height to his. With Mlle N. sitting immediately over his right shoulder, he began. Years of training deserted him. He broke out in a cold sweat, and his leaden fingers refused to do what he was asking them. He realised that he must be playing at less than half the required speed; there was no mishap, but of course at that speed all hope of interpretation had disappeared. The ordeal over, he just sat back exhausted, his arms hanging limply at his side.

 

She never told him what she had thought at that first meeting. She was no doubt exasperated at all the amateur, even beginner’s mistakes, and angry that he had had the nerve to come to her at all. There was a deathly hush as the notes died away, longer than any he had ever experienced on Armistice Day. It must have been five minutes before she broke the silence with a deep sigh and the verdict. “Well,” she said, “I loved your great sensitivity, but your technique is shocking. I will accept you as my pupil, provided you do exactly what I ask you to do. At least five hours a day practice, and please follow implicitly the exercises in this book”. She marked off half the book, easy classical pieces broken up into runs, arpeggios and chords intended to be practised until they became automatic. Perhaps to raise his morale and show him that all was not lost, she also set him a Bach suite, to be completed by the next lesson the following month.

 

He returned home as satisfied as might have been expected, and impatient to start. He loved the Suite’s dance sequences, particularly the Gigue at the end, and thought highly of his efforts by the time his next lesson came round. But he never got to the Gigue, nor for that matter beyond the first few bars of the first sequence. “Who taught you to finger it like that?” she snapped at the very first chords. Albert pointed to the editor’s name at the top of the page. She looked at it, then with one bold sweep of her thick carpenter’s pencil struck it out. “He’s no good”, she declared, in a tone that brooked no contradiction, “and please do not come again with your music so clean and devoid of markings. I want to see your fingering and phrasing, which is all as vital to the mastery of the piece as anything else”. She was cross with him for his dilettante approach and neglect of detailed preparation, and cross with herself for giving vent to her feelings. He too was angry at the slight of his hard work, but suppressing his feelings, listened intently to all her criticisms, and vowed to do better next time.

 

For the second lesson she set him some Scarlatti sonatas and Chopin Mazurkas, for dexterity of fingering, clarity and sharp brilliance. The same thing happened. An early disagreement about balance between the hands roused her Gallic temper again, and left him non-plussed and apologetic, anxious to make his peace in order to stay with her, both for her tuition and not least just to be in her company. And so the lessons continued, hanging by a hair’s breath, an unbridgeable void preventing any agreement between them. Mlle N. was wanting to impart to him all the techniques, the precision and the minute attention to detail which make the professional pianist, while Albert was prepared to settle for a lesser competence, realising the mountain of work that would be needed to achieve her objective. Inevitably they quarrelled, Mlle N. unable to control her outbursts or stop upbraiding him, he resenting it but accepting it philosophically, if only to continue being with her.

 

The dam burst after a few months. It was a hot, sultry afternoon with a Saharan sirocco blowing and temperatures well into the 90s, and Albert had had an exhausting journey. He found Mlle N. reclining on a settee, listless and irritable, and quite clearly even less inclined to tolerate his imperfections. A new disagreement, to Albert trivial, to her all-important, sparked off the row, only this time she went on to accuse him of coming to her under false pretences, frittering her valuable time away, refusing to listen, and so on. Albert choked back his indignation, for she was at her loveliest when angry, and made to go. He could have chided here with her unbending severity, her excessive criticism, and her failure to praise the progress he had made, but deciding that it would make no difference and might exacerbate the situation, he walked in stony silence to the door.

 

She blushed profusely and bit her lip as she realised he was going. She struggled desperately to suppress her pride and beg him to stay. He was almost at the door when, her finely chiselled features white with anxiety, she got up and rushed towards him. “Don’t go, my darling!” she cried, flinging her arms around him, “I love you, stay and be mine. I want you for my own. I have so much wanted to give you all I know, and to make you the finest pianist in the world”. Deep-rooted emotions of love, passion and rapture welled up in him, wiping out in one swoop the irritations and frustrations of recent months. He bent down and kissed her passionately and with all the reverence of a lover. “My darling”, he muttered, “I love you, I have loved you ever since our first meeting. I have done all I can to please you, however much I might have fallen short of your dreams. I long to shower all my love on you, and my happiness is at your side”. Joy and bliss mingled with their tender caresses as in ecstasy they sat together planning their future happiness.

Albert resting in between virtuoso practice sessions.

 

Their love and passion were matched only by their passion for music, and as the years went by and their numerous offspring bore witness to their undying love, the bonds between them were further strengthened by her constant guidance and patient instruction, until the day arrived when technical difficulties were almost a thing of the past and he could devote all his time to moving interpretations of the great works of the masters. As he played, his mind would flash back to the many lonely but happy hours he had spent on the piano in such diverse and difficult parts of the world, and when the two of them played duets together, he remembered with affection the many hours he had played Mozart and Schubert duets with Victor. Only now it was different; his happiness was at last complete in the bliss of shared love and the devotion of a caring family around him. While they toured the concert halls of Europe together, they had now firm roots in the family and the villa in Provence, and Albert never let it be forgotten that his fame had been predominantly the work of his darling wife, who had so doggedly persisted, against his own instincts and lazy disposition, in making him a concert pianist.