vendredi 4 décembre 2009

My piano

My nephews, playing Schubert's Trio in E flat Major


"Tu étais où?" he demanded, when I opened the car door a little too casually, where I had just pulled up in front of the house and begun struggling with the car CD player to remove a version of Schubert's Trio in E flat Major with Vladimir Ashkenazy and Pinchas Zuckerman. I had seen him approach the passenger door out of the corner of my eye. He had been watching for me. I smiled. I knew I was in trouble. I had just received his message and seen that my cell phone answering service had called me, oh, 10 times, but I felt a little touched.

Going on 50, and nearly in trouble. I felt 15 all over again.

I sidestepped his question. The moment was not quite propitious to reply. Not at all. After all, for the moment, I was in trouble. I continued to fiddle with the CD player.

"Mais! Qu'est-ce que fais?"

"Je n'arrive pas à sortir le CD."

"Laisse tomber." But I didn't want to let it go and get it later; it was very useful for distracting a piqued husband. "Je ne savais pas où tu étais, et il est tard. Tu pouvais avoir eu un accident, et je n'en savais rien." It's true. I could have had an accident.

"Mais, j'ai dit à Sam où j'allais." The CD slid out and I gathered up my things and stepped from the car, hoping to confound him with my presence and beauty.

"Quand j'ai enfin pu arracher un mot de Sam, il ne savait pas non plus où tu étais allée." He wasn't sounding all too pleased with my son's communicativeness, but then again, it would be particularly misplaced of him to make an issue of that particular, well, issue.

"Oh," I thought a moment, making sure to look concerned and contrite enough, since my beauty was perhaps not having the full desired effect. "Peut-être je ne l'ai pas dit." I explained that he had called from the vaccination center for the terrible flu thing we call H1N1 here, when I was taking his daughter home from riding class, and I was trying to listen to him, talk and not be rude to her all at the same time. "J'ai peut-être oublié." He followed me into the house.

"Tu pouvais être blessée." At least he didn't say "dead". "Alors, tu étais où?" I was going to have to answer the question, and better to be honest about it, even if I had just managed to create the exact opposite of the conditions required for my communication.

"J'ai été allée voir les pianos." I turned to busy myself at the kitchen counter. It was, after all, past 10 pm, and no one had had dinner. I heard him draw a breath in.

"J'en étais sûr. Alors, tu l'as acheté?" He let the breathe out. I drew one in, much more subtly. This was it.

"Non. Pas encore."

"Pourquoi pas?" I let the breathe out, barely perceptibly.

"Parce que, ce n'est pas le piano que je veux." He looked at me. "C'est un autre que je veux. De chez lui." He sought to clarify; I didn't want the piano at 3,000 euros that I did want the other day? I nodded. I'd have to explain. Monsieur Baudry had suggested that even if he didn't like the piano, he could possibly understand that like anything complex, there are differences in the quality of the instruments that can explain why -- oh! how self evident this was! -- a better one is more expensive.

This can perhaps be better explained if I say that I had given articulation to my fear some moments before, before I crossed the villages of the Vexin Français, listening to Schubert's trio and thinking of my nephews and niece playing it together, avoiding announcing the joy that made my heart sing as I drove in and out of drizzling rain and a succession of lovely old villages (picturing us -- and the piano -- living in several different homes I passed in the dark), over the phone, the fear that my husband not liking the piano at all would be perfectly indifferent to the reasons I wanted this piano, and not the one I thought I could want. Monsieur Baudry had made the list for me. It was my own. I drew breath in again, and decided to go for simplicity of expression and absolute truth.

I must have been convincing (enough) for when he asked me how much this piano was, and I gave an approximate answer (which I could do in all honesty because the price wasn't established, not yet, but I had a ballpark figure; it would all depend on whether Monsieur felt that he could harmonize the piano without sending the hammers to Germany to have the felt changed, which he wouldn't know until he sat down and studied it in the morning), he remained silent.

Which means, he didn't argue. He didn't tell me no.

In two weeks, I have gone from only thinking vaguely of wishing to have an to play a piano again, to considering purchasing a very basic piano for which you can find no information online (nor in the piano atlases -- a bad sign), to nearly purchasing a good Swedish piano with an excellent Renner mechanism and nice sound and touch, to actually contemplating the purchase of a 1920s Johann Urbas piano. I had not completely lost my mind; I was not looking at the Hamburg Steinway and Bechstein uprights, and I had not given serious thought at all to the lovely satin black Feurich, from the 1920s, as well. I had merely returned to make sure. "My" piano had moved to the front and center of the studio work area for harmonizing and tuning.

Seeing it there, I needed to swallow. I wasn't sure. I thought I might need to talk myself into it, like a reluctant courter. He played it a little for me and talked about how it was a good piano. Monsieur Baudry is not a "commercial", or a salesperson. He is a master piano technician, a lover of pianos. Whether I buy the least or the most expensive piano is of no concern to him for someone will buy them, every one of them that he presently has, and every one that he will have valued and brought to him, of which about a third will become his own pianos.

"Et s'il y avait un argument pour acheter un piano un crin au-dessus," just a hair better, "il serait quoi?"

Monsieur drew in a breath and began to explain that if I really thought I might wish to own a better piano (and it was starting to become clear that I did) it would be best to make the investment now, if I possibly could, since it would avoid the problems of selling the one I was buying, having it transported and moving a new one in. Beyond the practical aspect, I would, of course, benefit from better quality of construction, greater durability, a finer voice and touch, and a piano I would be happy to have for a very long time. It would be, he said, perhaps, a Sauter, and he rolled one out from a long line of pianos, stored sideways against the studio wall. The most impressive were the grands, ranged on their sides like so many filing cases, wrapped in moving blankets, their legs up on top. He knew which each was, how it sings, to what music it is best suited. They are the pianos he rents for concerts. They are his pianos.

I looked at it. It was walnut in a satin finish, rustic carvings of nature graced the Chippendale legs, the case and below the keyboard. Audouin would prefer it, I thought. Monsieur began to play it. It was nice. I sat down on the piano bench and looked at its open case, just touching the side of a gleaming 1920s Hamburg Steinway O model, and down along the length of the room, past several Steinway and Bechstein grands to the far wall, letting my gaze run back up the other side, stopping at the half taken apart mahogany upright to my side.

"J'aime ce piano." I stood and moved closer to it.

"Alors, achetez le," he said, raising his shoulders and eyebrows and smiling kindly at me.

"Vous plaisantez," I laughed, joining in the joke. Only it wasn't one. He thought I could. "Alors, il serait combien?"

I returned my gaze to the glow of the aged whiskey-colored wood, the straight legs, the keys that seemed less plastic than those of the Nordiska and the Sauter. I touched one. It was soft and alive. I read the name of the manufacturer again, in raised lettering on the plate, Johann Urbas. I heard him say the price. I looked at him. I thought I saw him trying to find a way to make this piano possible for me. So many pianists, he had told me, excellent ones, very capable ones, only think of the technical performance of the piano, they don't, he said, hear the piano. This made no sense to me, except how else could so many industrial assembly-mine pianos get to the market and be sold if this were not true?

"Mais, ce n'est pas comme ça pour les violonistes, violoncellistes? Il parlent toujours de la voix de leur instrument."

"Oh! Mais pas de tout!" he had said, agreeing. "Depuis qu'ils sont petits, ils cherchent à faire le plus beau son. Ils écoutent leurs instruments, et ils font la même chose quand ils achètent un piano."

"Peut-être," I sought to explain this, "c'est parce qu'un enfant joue souvent le piano qui se trouve chez ses parents, comme un meuble, un objet dans la famille, ou parce qu'ils achètent quelque chose 'pour voir' si leur enfant est sérieux, et puis il ne joue que celui-ci et celui de son professeur. Il travail la technique, et il vie avec le son de son piano." He nodded in agreement. I didn't know that Schubert sounds "right" on a Bechstein, nor that a Bechstein upright has a delicacy, a finesse that suits other music better than a grand, but I did know enough to be convinced that no two pianos are alike in the sound they produce.

He explained that the phenomenon of the ubiquitousness of certain instruments, despite a distinct lack of quality of sound (Yamahas) is because they were able to saturate the market with instruments at a competitive price at a time when quality of fabrication was dropping anyway -- gone with the last of the artisans in so many other fields -- as people were demanding the "democratization" of the piano. Combine that with lack of demand for "voice", and you have the resurgence of the Japanese pianos, and, today, the plethora of lesser quality pianos coming off the lines in Indonesia, China, South America, and so on. The conservatories, he explained, buy Yamahas and the students sign contracts to purchase an Yamaha, with the ability to "trade up" in their line after two years. The ear becomes trained to the instrument, and not the other way around. It is Monsieur Baudry's hope to encourage more music schools to buy well-maintained and reconditioned used European pianos, which more than compete economically, provide more nuanced sound and will outlast the production pianos.

As he spoke, I recalled my son's violin teacher as he played, first, his violin, and, then, his viola for us. The beauty of the sound. I recalled remembering the screeching dry sound of the violins in our school orchestra, provided by the school, and wanting to get the best-sounding instrument for my son that I could, while he still played. It makes a difference. We were still standing by the Johann Urbas piano, and I touched the keys while I watched him think. They made you want to play this piano.

"J'aime le toucher de ce piano."

"C'est beaucoup plus profond." I continued to pick out little melodies that came from nothing and were less while he thought a little more.

"Je pourrais peut-être éviter de changer les marteaux," he finally said. If he could, then he could offer me the piano for a little less, "pas beaucoup, vous comprenez, mais un peu." I understood, and I felt grateful to him. He said he would look at it in the morning. It would take him about an hour to determine if he could possibly do that and still make the piano sound the way he thought it should. He placed the front of the case back on it, and we looked together at the carving. He reached forward and touched it, "Je n'ai même pas touché à ça." It didn't look to me like it needed to be polished, cleaned or anything.

It was lovely.

"Je pourrais être très heureuse pour longtemps avec ce piano," I said. He raised an eyebrow, looking at me and then at the piano and nodded.

"Oui." Oui, vous pourriez l'être.

I felt my heart race a little, driving home. I knew what I was going to do, if it wouldn't be at the cost of my marital happiness, and remembered what my friend had written to me when I told her that I was about to buy another piano, "Congratulations, you are soon to be the owner of a beautiful piano! It's very exciting when they roll it into your home. You won't regret it."

Last night, I stopped at my sister and brother-in-law's to call home. There were problems with the trains on that line in and out of Paris all days, and my cell phone battery had given out. I didn't want a repeat of the prior evening's doings, so I rolled the load of fabric I had just bought with a friend at the Marché St. Pierre on the little cart I picked up at the bottom of the street, near Barbès Rouchechuart, from the RER station, up their street and stopped on the way to my car, parked a little further along, in front of my other sister and brother-in-law's home. I sat it inside the gate and went to knock on the door.

It was nearly dinner time, and one by one, those not home arrived. A plate was set out for me for dinner despite my protests that my husband was going to have a fit -- two nights in a row, deprived of my company -- and then we talked of my purchase. Unlike his brother, my brother-in-law and his wife love music period. Their son is a gifted pianist at only 11. His older brother plays the violin, their sister, the cello. They listened while I told them about my piano and listening to Schubert's Trio in E flat Major. I knew they children were working on this piece together, their first collaboration. They agreed to play for me, all but my niece, who had already gone to her room, sore from her new braces.

It was magnificent. It truly was. The others in the family who don't care to appreciate this may do and think as they like, but I want to be able to offer a gorgeous piano with beautiful sound in my home to musicians who come to visit, and to be able to do what I will be able to again one day with my own hands.

Johann Urbas began making pianos in Dresden, Germany in 1894. In 1945, it was bombed in the bombing of Dresden. I think of Victor Klemperer who survived that night, as did his wife, from whom he became separated during the horror; he found her the next day, another of the miracles in which life seems to abound. I think of Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose life was saved by a piano and a German officer, or, as he corrects himself, "a human being who wore the uniform of the Germans", Wilm Hosenfeld.

"Jouez quelque chose!"

Comment? Monsieur l'officier ignorait-il que les SS des environs allaient arriver en courrant dès qu'ils entendraient les premières notes? Je l'ai dévisagé avec perplexité, sans bouger, et il a dü percevoir mon embarras puisqu'il a ajouté d'un ton rassurant:

"Ne vous enquiétez pas, je vous assure. Si quelqu'un vient, vous irez vous cacher dans le garde-manger et je dirai que c'est moi aui voulais l'essayer, ce piano..."

Quand j'ai posé mes doigts sur le clavier, j'ai senti qu'ils tremblaient. Habitué que j'avais été à gagner ma vieen plaquant des accords, je devais donc la sauver maintenant de la même manière! Quel changement!... Et ses doigts agités de frissons, privés d'exercise depuis deux ans et demi, raidis par le froid et la saleté, embarrassés par des ongles que je n'avais pu couper depuis l'incendie qui avait failli m'emporter! Pour ne rien arranger, l'instrument se trouvait dans une pièce dont les fenêtres avaient été brisées et les réactions de sa caisse imprégnée d'humidité seraient sans doute désastreuses.

J'ai joué le Nocturne en ut dièse mineur de Frédéric Chopin. Le son vitreux des cordes mal tendues s"est répandu dans l'appartement désert, et allé flotter sur les ruines de la villa en face pour revenir en échos étouffés d'un rare mélancolie. Lorsue j'ai terminé le morceau, le simence n'en a semblé que plus oppressant, irréel. Un chat solitaire s'est mis à miauler dans la rue. Puis il y a eu un coup de feu en bas, e bruit agressif, sans apel, si typiquement allemand...

L'officier me regardait sans rien dire. Au bout de quelues minutes, ila poussé un soupire avant de murmurer:

"En tout cas vous ne devez pas rester ici. Je vais vous sortir de là. En dehors de Varsovie, dans un village, vous serez moins en danger."
J'ai sécoué la tête, lentement mais avec fermeté.
-- Non, je ne paritrai pa. Je ne peux pas.
A cette réponse, il a sursauté. Il venait enfin de comprendre pour quelle raison je me cachais parmi ces ruines, visiblement.
-- Vous... vous êtes juif? m'a-t-il demandé d'une voix oppressée.
-- Oui."

Pour la première fois depuis notre rencontre, il a décroisé les bras et s'est assis dans le fauteuil ui flanquait le piano, comme si cette révélation demandait d'être mûrement considérée.

"Euh, oui, certes... Sa voix était à peine audible. Dans ce cas je comprends, en effet."

If you have read or seen The Pianist, you know that he asked Szpilman to show him his hiding place in the attic, and that he brought him bread, sausage and raspberry jam to sustain him while he protected him; you know that it would be the officer who would die, while Szpilman would return to the radio in Warsaw and play again, his first piece that same one with which he left off at the beginning of the invasion, the same one he played for Hosenfeld, Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp Minor.


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