‘if music be the food of love, play on’
THE KEYS TO MY HEART
You know how much I blog about my love of music and how lucky I was to have a grand piano in the house when I was born, also parents who could see how keen I was to play it properly at such a very young age, three years and a month or so. The one thing I have not done, however, is explain just how much I have owed to my music in every part of my life.
When very young and starting to have proper lessons, three years and eight months, up to about eight years old I was just content to have four hours of lessons a week and practice two or three hours a day. I was born with a severe phobic form of anxiety neurosis and there was no way I was going to sit exams, grade tests or such like things. However, at nine and a half I stupidly stayed back after a music lesson and played a short piece of Goyescas by Granados and our music master heard me playing for the first time. He was stunned and I was persuaded to take part in our school’s annual concert just before Easter. That was the day I, and an awful lot more people in my life, discovered just how advanced I was. I would be a liar if I said I did not enjoy the incredible ovation after I had finished, and the shock I gave my piano teacher by playing an encore that he had never taught me. It was an arm and finger breaking five minutes of Scarlatti at twice the usual speed because I loved doing it that way. But that was the start and end of my ‘career’ in music. My family did not want to put me through the horrors of enforced prodigydom. Anyway, phobically I personally never wanted to play before an audience again. This was not least because I was too shy and scared to admit to having a phobia, so nobody ever took it into account for another seven years.
But my lessons continued until the day I went to university in Paris in late September 1960.By then I could play just about anything I had ever heard in the piano repertoire and was really lucky that I could pick up how to play everything I loved after only a few readings of the scores. Let me give you an idea of how I used this wonderful gift that I had been given. The first time I was inspired, or felt I wanted really badly to play something, was the evening before I made my first Holy Communion, Corpus Christi in 1950. I wanted to do something to make God happy and to thank Him for making me able to do it. I had just had my eighth birthday and sat alone before the keys in our huge drawing room. It took me just twenty five minutes to play Mozart’s piano sonata no 10 , K330. I haven’t a clue whether it was as good as it later became, but I know what it did to me. Playing privately, yet for someone I loved, made me feel so full of joy I could hardly believe it. I am sure that was the day when I can honestly say my piano playing changed from a physical pleasure into an act of love.
The second very strong memory I have of how much the keys of the piano tugged at my heart strings was in 1953 when a girl I had known for several years came round to our house to say goodbye. She was returning to the United States with her Family after her father’s four year posting to London had ended. I can remember asking Mary-Beth if there was anything I could give her as a loving present to remind her of me while we were over three thousand miles apart. At the age of 11 and three months what we felt was very immature, but in its way so much stronger than adult love. We were at an age when friendships were things you made for life not for teenage thrills, experiment or misguided deluded feelings. At eleven I expected everything I loved to last for ever, Mary-Beth was the first great loss in my life. She really did have a crush on me, and my sense of humour, but just amazed me by asking, “Could I take home the sound of you playing any piece of music that is supposed to say goodbye?” I couldn’t believe it. I am quite certain my eighteen minute rendering of Beethoven’s sonata no 26, ‘Les Adieux’, was probably a musical massacre, but my little friend sat transfixed throughout it. All she did was say she would never forget it, kissed me on the cheek and we joined the other grown ups and kids in the playroom. I have never seen her since, but she has written occasionally over the years and always mentions that day.
Another time love played a big part in my playing was late in October 1956 when in Budapest on a family rescue mission. During the uprising, which liberated the country briefly from the Soviet Union, some great friends of our family saw a God given chance to get a young relative of their’s out of Hungary and back to her relations in London. Elisabeth, who was orphaned aged two, was just fourteen to my fourteen and a half and I was chosen as the courier to go and fetch her. As I spoke her second language it was thought nobody would bother worrying about a pair of youngsters our age. Our mutual language was French and after various vicissitudes I caught up with her in another world. Her crumbling family home was straight out of an 1840’s Russian novel. But it included a grand piano in the salon. Elisabeth blushed and asked me could she play one last thing before we left. Hurried though we were I said yes. Her Chopin polonaise was really lovely. It was no good. I took one look at her, one at the piano and put my finger to my lips. I thought at the time that even I had surpassed myself as I played Liszt’s sixth Hungarian rhapsody. I could not leave the Danube without thanking her country from the bottom of my heart for introducing us. Her thanks to me and our incredible journey home are another tale, but Elisabeth has stayed very much part of my life ever since that afternoon.
I may also have alluded occasionally to some advice I was given about dealing with my dreadful agoraphobia. My closest friend advised me, when he was only ten and the only person who had seen me hyperventilate and believed I was seriously ill, that the only way to fight irrational fear was by deliberately trying to do something more frightening. Small wonder he went on to become a leading diplomat. My acceptance of the offer to collect Elisabeth is an example of this, because I knew how much flying scared the wits out of me. Yes, it was very difficult but a great feeling of achievement when the mission was complete. So in late April of 1960 he and I volunteered to join a team of young people helping to bring back a whole lot of stateless people from East Germany who had literally been homeless for at least fifteen years. I have written about this and the fun and success we both had for a week, but I could never have done it if I had not really calmed my nerves after I returned. The method? Well I spent the whole afternoon just slumped over the keyboard at home letting my fingers do whatever they felt like. It was extraordinary. I wondered then if I was about to compose something original, I almost did, and then my phobia stopped me dead. I began to panic at the piano for the first time in my life.
A few stiff drinks, scotch and very little soda, got me back to something like normality. My prayers started to be answered but then the room became a prison. I could not walk the distance from the piano to the door. I was about to pass out when my sister opened the door, saw what was happening and rushed over to me. I hastily told her I was okay, but she knew about my illness by then and told me I wasn’t. Then she did something which saved my sanity, probably for the rest of my life. She told me that if I was starting to get petrified sitting at a piano then I had better play something very difficult and do it at once. She said she would sit and watch until I finished. I always found Scriabin’s piano music incredibly difficult to play, I don’t know why I think I just didn’t like it. So I went on playing bits of it until I was in total control of myself again. The piano keys had literally shown how much they loved me.
For most of the rest of my life I have kept up playing for the pure love of what I can do. For individual people I can give recitals, and for my Vietnamese wife especially I loved playing as she was Asian and Western music enthralled her. By the time I met her I was a war correspondent, a profession I embraced wholeheartedly as it was far more terrifying than my panic attacks. Indeed the only period when I did not play as often as I could was for about a year after she and our daughter were killed in Saigon. I just burst into floods of tears whenever I went near a piano, but in time this too wore off. However, the piece of music she loved best was Weber’s ‘invitation to the dance’, and I made myself play it many, many times until my sorrow at the death of a beloved wife and child became a loving and happy mental picture of them both. It is the best example I know of how music has actually rooted out sadness and replaced it with love in my heart.
Unfortunately I had another cerebral stroke, my fifth, at the start of this year and I can only use six fingers now. But we all have a Cross or two to bear in life and at least while I am writing this I can do so with my headphones on listening to the sounds I adore. At the moment it’s that Mozart sonata K330. But, like Beethoven, I don’t really have to physically hear it. I can switch the piano button on in my brain whenever I want to!