by Anton Wills-Eve

<a href=””>Always Something There to Remind Me</a>

music that reminds me





Of all the really great tunes that I have heard in my life, pop, classical, country and western, operatic arias, ballads et al it has always been the catchy  –  ‘want to sing or whistle it again’  –  quality that has made me put it in my favourites. There are many songs and tunes that set me going, foot tapping or rushing for the nearest piano if there is one, to join in and enjoy myself. But there I have mentioned the luckiest, lovliest thing in my physical life. My mother’s half of the family were all well known singers, actors and entertainers so of course I was brought up with a piano in the house and loved sitting trying to make the keys play a tune from as early in my life as I can remember.

My father, who was a journalist and nothing to do with  the theatrical side of the family was a modest pianist himself and it was he who first spotted in me the natural ability to pick up a tune and reproduce it. I must have been about three and few months because it was just before we moved from Buckinghamshire to East Sheen near Richmond in London, that mum was playing arias from the Marriage of Figaro on a 78 record player. Records in those days, July(?) 1945 were not of the acoustic quality of today, but never the less the wonderful soulful yet bouncing melody of Cherubino’s Aria ‘voi que sapete’ really turned me on. I listened to it about five times through and then went to the piano and tried to find the right notes to play the tune. It was as I was on about the fifteenth attempt and getting to the  stage where I wanted to smash the piano to bits that my father came in. He just looked at me and said.

“Do that again. No seriously, it sounded just like one of the Arias from Figaro. But you couldn’t have taught yourself!” I couldn’t, and didn’t believe him. I thought he was joking. so I played the same notes through again to the end of the sixteenth bar. Then I looked at him inquisitively. All he said was brief and to the point.

“You were playing ‘voi que sapete’, in the wrong key, the wrong tempo and with one or two notes of your own, and an inability to finish it. Also your feet don’t reach the pedals. But if you taught yourself to do even that by imitation then as soon as we’ve settled into the new house we’re getting you a piano teacher. Also were taking the grand piano with us and the family can fight over who owns it later.”Both before and after we moved  I continued to enjoy trying to imitate tunes with my parents showing me where I was going wrong and teaching me the basics of music. The very basics I assure you. But then one day I was introduced to  an Italian gentleman who was very polite and called mummy ‘Madamina’. She seemed to like it. I was told that though I was only three and eight months I was going to have a well known concert pianist to teach me. The words and signifcance of the remark meant nothing. But he was very polite and called me ‘little Sir’. I thought this odd but nice. Then on that very first lesson he asked me an extraordinary question.

“Is it true that you like Mozart?” I was three and a half for heaven’s sake! So I nodded and when he asked me if there were any tunes I could play I knew the family had been talking. So I just went straight at it and played the basic melody of an aria, mummy said that was what you called songs in operas, and knew I had only done the begining and the wonderful speeded up end. It was dreadful musically and pianistically and yet I managed to rescue and include the main tune and at the  -almost – right tempo. The teacher just looked at me.

“What is that called and what is it from?”

I was glad I had remembered. “It was meant to be ‘larchy daremla marno But I don’t know the opera”. I did but was too embarrassed to grossly mispronounce Don Giovanni. I had no command of Italian at all in those days. But the teacher never said a word. He put his fingers to his lips, pointed to his fingers and my eyes and proceeded  to play a beautiful piano version of La Ci Darem La Mano. I meant to say how good he was, how much I liked it and all the right things but that was not what came out. All I said was,

“Please teach me to play like that, Sir, please. I’ll practise every day of my life if you do. And as he got up from the piano stool a bit later at the end of that lesson I looked at the lovely grand piano and the reflection on the lid of a laughing, smiling face that stopped me getting off the stool. Then it vanished. That evening I asked dad the names of the characters in the aria  because I had only heard it as a gramaphone recording and thus also as a duet. He couldn’t remember. It was my aunt who told me it was the evil Don Giovanni who was trying to kiss a peasant girl called Zerlina. I didn’t blame him if she was the face I had seen on the piano.

I was eight before I could honestly say I could play the piano properly, fluently and because I had worked my insides out at it. As Mozart had never written a piano version of the duet I had to be satisfied with just improving my own versions. I think in many ways this was the best thing I could do. But I had to play the established piano solo pieces of those days and my teacher  became more and more pleased with me.  I was eight and a half when he heard that our music master at school was a former leading pianist but who now concentrated on making every boy in the school sing most of the standard Masses and was also Abbey choir master. But he was also an opera freak. We had 40 minutes of music twice a week and he used half the lessons to teach us to sing all the leading operatic arias for tenor, baritone and bass, but this was my second piece of luck. I had a voice like a rusty wheel and so in the music classes was placed at the end of the front row. I was not encouraged to sing very loudly, if at all, but joy of joys, my eyes were exactly in line with the keyboard and I could follow his fingers. It was half way through my second year at the school before circumstances arose that gave me the courage to take my piano teacher’s advice and tell him I could play the piano.

“Please sir, you know you said there was a school concert  at Easter at the end of term, well can anyone audition to play? I have been told to ask you by my piano teacher.” When I named him the music master just stared at me.

“How long has he been teaching you? I mean what level are you at? ” I was extremely honest.

“Five years, since I was three and eight months, and he says I am his best pupil for my age. But I am too shy to take exams  in playing and don’t know what the correct grade is that I have reached. But this is the last lesson before morning break, so could I play you something for a few minutes to let you see what you think.?” He asked me what I wanted to play. Considering the time I decided to play the piece I was currently studying, Valses Poeticos by the Spanish composer Granados. When I told him he almost laughed. But just gestured to me to see what I could do. Well I loved the variations in the eleven minute piece and played it as well as I could. I had no idea just how good I was. He moved from his usual position at his desk and sat where I would usually sit so he could see my fingering and control of the pedals. I began with the intricate introductory melody in waltz time which always used to make me think of two people in evening dress, dancing  under a spot light and then using the whole eleven and a half minutes to express every emotion I presumed two people in love would experience. As the variations changed so did my touch on the keys which I actually felt depicted the change in the dancers’ feelings. This did not go unnoticed.

I had been playing studiously and really enjoying what I was doing  for about five or six minutes when I glanced at my school master to see how I was doing. His face was a study in total amazement. He was lost in what he was hearing. When I reached the last frenetic two and a half minutes I glanced at him again, and even though he wore glasses I noticed he had tears in his eyes. It just inspired me to put every ounce of feeling I could into the final four, ever  so slow bars, as I imagined the dancers falling into each others’ arms. I even held the last soft bass note for some fifteen seconds longer than I had done on previous practice sessions. Then I slumped forward over the keys and let out a long sigh of completely exhausted and total delight.

My music master slowly got up and walked back to his desk, removing his spectacles and composing himself. Then he turned to me and said,

“Wills-Eve, I know your family includes many noted entertainers but do any of them play the piano like that?” I shook my head,waiting for his opinion. It took a couple of minutes coming, and after one question. “Why do you never sit grade exams? If you are to get anywhere in music you really must you know! Oh I expect you want to know what I think. Well many people are born with natural genius that can never be taught. Your piano playing  is in that category. I have heard that piece played many times and by the greatest pianists of the thirties and forties, but never have I heard that degree of perfection emanate from human hands. When at the piano you transfer your heart through your fingers to the keyboard and that is what I heard. It was one of the highlights of my life. You will play it at the school concert and, despite your age, you will top the bill as the main soloist and play the last piece before the choir sings us out with something which I have not yet chosen. Oh, and thank you for making an ill, elderly man very happy. “

“Sir, I did not know you were ill and I shall certainly not mention it to a soul. But in return would you please not tell anyone at all that I am the last soloist in the concert. I could just about manage to play in front of an audience if they did not know it was me until they sat down and read the programme. Do you understand now why I have never sat grade exams?” And I smiled at him and left the room with a skip in my step as the next class of twelve year olds came into the music room and wondered what I was doing.

But to return to La ci darem la mano.  I often loosened up my fingers before starting a set practice piece at home by playing one of my own straightforward, but by now much more comlex, versions of the lovely aria.  However, I don’t think Signor Pirelli ever heard me. He may never have heard my enjoyment of the song since that very first lesson for all he ever remarked on the piece. I used it when warming up for the school concert, which I was dreading, and it helped calm me down. Nothing more so than the lovely face that smiled at me as I sat at the piano stool before a large audience of parents, teachers and pupils, all of whom seemed staggered at the obvious age of the soloist. I took a gulp and played the lovely waltz variations.  So long was the ovation when I finished and so strong the cries for an encore that I finally signaled to the audience to hush, and in my forthright if unbroken voice said,

“Thank you all so much for enjoying that gorgeous music and as you seem to want a short encore I would like to play the opus K96 by Domenico Scarlatti, which while only some four to five minutes nearly takes the arms off you. You will see why it is also called ‘the chase'” When I finished one of the most difficult and striking pieces of baroque music, which not even Signor Pirelli knew I could play, the applause went on so long we ended the concert there without the chorale finale. I was seen as a prodigy at that concert had I wanted to become one. But my family did not. All approaches over the next few days were turned down and both the school and the various impressarios and agents who wanted to sign me were turned away. Fortunately I knew nothing of this as it was handled way above my head.

In amongst all the changes in our family and my personal life during the next seven years, approximately, one of the most important in the long run was a change of neighbours next door. The house was not as large as ours but still had some twenty five rooms and nearly an acre of garden. Its grounds carried on up the side of the common where ours stopped. We soon met the owners who also turned out to be Catholics and would be going to the same parish church as us. He was a banker and she the mother of seven children. More than that we didn’t know for a week or two.

At that time I suppose it must have been 10 solid years of piano practice that made it possible for me to make some sort of attempt at playing Beethoven’s first piano concerto. I was so pleased with myself for managing it that I just collapsed over the keys and almost passed out with exhaustion. Signor Pirelli had given me a 45 minute lesson that day as I told him that at last I could do it, although it had to be without an orchestra. He clapped loudly when I finished but told me that just getting ALL the right notes in the right order was not enough if I was to have any chance in the national under fifteen competition in three months time. I had a lot of work to do, not least on conquering my nervous anxiety at the thought of playing before such an audience. It was only my teacher’s influence that had let me get through all the preliminary rounds to reach the finals. He often told me later that he never realised just how ill I was.

Then it happened. I was fourteen and a half years old and almost totally absorbed with piano, cricket, mediaeval history, hagiography and languages and only just beginning to notice my own reactions to one or two attractive girls of around or just under my own age. As I sat up after playing the Beethoven concerto I turned round, and in truth I nearly fainted.

All I saw was a face, but what a face. I thought it was aged about eight and I later turned out to be almost spot on. She just stared at me open mouthed. I think I was blushing and laughing at the same time when she said, “How on earth did you do that? I only heard the last ten minutes, the rondo isn’t it? but it was incredible. Who are you?” I didn’t answer at first because just looking at that lovely laughing , slightly embarrased face, I realised I was looking at Zerlina. Somehow I always knew she would enter my life. But now that it had happened I knew that I was doubly lost. But I had to answer and heard myself saying “Zerlina.

My name’s Anton Wills-Eve and I am fourteen and three quarters. I was starting to master my entry for the national piano competition. Are you here for a lesson?”

She looked straight at me.”But you live next door to us. We only recently moved in. Much as I love Don Giovanni I’m afraid I’m called Lucy. I don’t mind Lucia if you prefer!” I laughed out loud and said ,

“Sorry, I must explain why I called you Zerlina,” and I played the first half of my easiest to follow version of La ci darem. “It was your laughing smile, it is how I always picture the girl in my favourite aria.” To my surprise, and my teacher’s, she sat down beside me and in a basic verson of the melody went straight into the finale, but also sang Zerlina’s part in Italian. I joined in as soon as I could and as we finished on that lovely chord Signor Pirelli laughed. “Ah children I shall enjoy teaching you both so much now.”

But you can see how carefully I would have to deal with my favourite song from now on.