My mother played Liszt. Not the transposed for modern players Liszt but the original bastard’s manuscripts that he didn’t want women to play, or anyone else for that matter, so betoken was he to his own musical genius. She was taken, my mother, I think, by his obsession with making the piano, the instrument that she devoted her life to, the life force of the musical world. She tackled Dante and Faust as Liszt might have done, without compromise. Stubborn old cow (if you’re allowed to call your mother an ‘old cow’).
“‘Damn you Liszt’”, she would swear at the old composer, for to her he wasn’t dead, he was peering over her shoulder telling her she could never play his Étude d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini the way he did. But play it she did, and the Etudes, the Symhonies, the Preludes, the Concertos – the whole damn lot. Damn you Liszt indeed, for I suffered it all – waking at midnight to hear her bang the piano and push the old man out of the way, to go back to being dead so that she could master him.
This would go on, night after night, and I needed my sleep. I was a school boy, a child, enthralled by her skill and without excuse the next morning when time it was to rise for school. What the other mothers were engaging I had no idea, not in this sort of behaviour I knew that much. None of it, they were asleep, comatose in their own tea cosies and magazines probably. Other mothers were normal. As far as I could tell I had the only bloody minded mother in the known universe. I’d given up the idea of being part of a normal family, where mother would bake bread, or cake, for when the child came home from school. Not us, we’d have to make ourselves scarce, while my mother taught her charges. “‘I won’t be finished teaching till seven o’clock, so grab yourself something from the kitchen and find yourself something to do till then. But don’t bother me.’” So off I went.
So Liszt, damn you to hell, you obstinate, passionate, brilliant old bastard. I suffered because of you, learned to ride a bike, dirt track slides, the lot, most of it. Having said that, all of that, I did get a kick out of it, knowing my red headed mother could play like that, whilst the best Reggie Bowen’s mother could do was drive the school bus.
I haven’t mentioned my father, the one who lay in bed while his wife consorted with her lover, reading a book because there was no point fighting the woman. “‘You coming to bed?” “Shortly, yes, when I’ve done some practice.’” He knew he wouldn’t see her till morning.
People who fought the woman came off second best. “‘Shouldn’t you try something easier?’” from those who had some understanding of the dead genius’s works or “‘Is there something you’re trying to prove?’” from those whose musical knowledge extended just slightly beyond a Gershwin tune. A humph was followed by an angled turn of the head in a none too subtle display of disdain.
Which brings me to the point of the school hall. Or more to the point, the grand opening of the new school hall, the purchase of the grand piano to augment its false grandeur and the playing of the aforementioned piano by the school’s salaried hack music teacher at the aforementioned grand opening. My mother detested all school music teachers, perhaps because they fell in their duty to provide her with the education her abilities and intellect deserved. She regarded most teachers, but more particularly music teachers, as dilettantes. She considered that the teachers college, where they obtained an all too easy qualification, arranged so that enough of them could be loosed on children wonted assumed had no interest in music other than to fill in the time prior to lunch, gave them rather a too fundamental understanding of the gift that was music, to impart it to children. She particularly despised our school’s senior music teachers ability to play the piano, considered her a journeyman. It wasn’t that she despised her as an individual, it was that she despised her calling herself a musician, a pianist, when what she was was a second rate musicologist who could play the odd tune.
So when the came time for the opening ceremony, and the playing of the piano, the journeyman school music teacher couldn’t bring herself to even front and play something perfunctory, a prelude, Chopsticks, anything. The music teacher clearly thought long and hard about playing, doing her duty, applying herself to the task of repaying the taxpayer, because she notified the organiser, or the school Principal, we don’t know who, we never found out, on the morning of the concert itself.
The Principal was left in a bind, he had rung around to see whether anyone else on staff might be capable of faking a Beethoven prelude, there were no takers – “‘she’s the only one I know who can play anything decent’” cried one from the corridor. “‘I can ask if any of the music students can play for us,” “that’s rather embarrassing isn’t it’” asked another. “‘We can sell it as promoting our students.’” Then one of those self same students suggested my mother, one who had previously been tutored by her – “‘you could ask Mrs N——.’”
And so my mother picked up the phone shortly after 9am on the morning of the opening ceremony of the new school hall.
“‘Is that Mrs N——?”
“Yes, who is this?”
“It’s Clara Pullman from the high school. I’m the secretary to the Principal.”
“I have been asked by the Principal if you are available to play the piano at the school.”
“What is the occasion?” My mother was a direct woman.
“The opening of the new school auditorium.”
“I see. When?”
“Today.” Clara Pullman was at this point taking deep breaths, ones designed to lower ones heart rate.
Again, “I see.”
“I know it’s short notice.”
“How perceptive of you. Short notice is not what I would call it. Rude and presumptuous is what I would call it.”
“I’m sorry Mrs N—— but it’s rather a case of getting us out of a bind you see.”
“What type of bind would that be then?” knowing precisely the bind they were in, she wanted them to work for it. She didn’t have anything against Clara Pullman necessarily but she did despise the idea that she was a backup plan. That was my mother, mess with her, play games with her and take your pain. Yet the self same woman would bake me a cake because I took the blame for Charlie Elks kicking the football through the louvers at the back of the house. She knew Charlie had kicked the ball because I was so quick to take the rap, while Charlie stood there with his supercilious grin figuring he could pull off this type of ruse for the rest of his life. He might have argued that I should have saved it but Gordon Banks wouldn’t have got to this ball. It was wide.
“‘Well, you see the music teacher…”
“Giselle Radowski.”
“Yes, Giselle Radowski. Well, she has had to pull out you see, something wrong with her wrist. She is unable to play.”
“You’re right, she can’t play.”
“Yes, well uhm, can you help us?”
“Oh yes I can certainly help you.’” Imagine Clara’s sense of relief, shoulders rising from the stoop, teeth becoming visible, being able to tell the Principal (who is provided a title here for the purposes of continuity only, not because he was any good at his job) that she had found a solution, a pat on the back a least, perhaps extra responsibilities. “‘The question is not one of whether I can help you, the question is one of whether I am prepared to help you.”
“I guess Mrs N—— you have us over a barrel,’” continued Clara Pullman, “‘it’s important to the school because we have purchased a new grand piano. Everyone is expecting a recital, of sorts.”
“It kind of begs the question as to why you firstly didn’t realise that Giselle Radowski would never be able to play any sort of decent piano recital and secondly, you didn’t have the courtesy of asking me to bail you out just a little earlier. When is this recital?”
“Eleven o’clock.’” And silence in the gallery, Clara held her breath, the student sat on her hands studying Bartok, or Bach, I can’t remember what grades she had on Thursdays, while she waited for my mother to get off the phone. ‘I’m sorry Mrs N——.”
“I still have students.”
“I will need to let the Principal know.”
“Tell your inept Principal that I will bail him out.’” She didn’t, not for one moment, consider that her son, me, would bear the consequences if Clara squealed. Things would, I later conclude, go badly for me.
“Thank you Mrs N——, thank you.’” And Clara Pullman would go on giving thanks for the next hour, as if she had supped with royalty, or celebrity. She would, Clara Pullman, discover, when she sat in the audience with the students, with the teachers, with the performers, with the dignitaries, that she had been talking to royalty, musical royalty, Liszt type royalty.
“‘Hands Fiona, lift the hands, you’re punching the pedals, caress them, caress them. You’re playing by ear again, your’e not sight reading. If you want to be great you first much learn to sight read. You should want to be great. If you want to be great you first must learn to sight read, even the most ambitious works, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, even Liszt.”
“Even Liszt?”
“Especially Liszt.”
She would turn her attention to the school auditorium once she had finished with Fiona, ten year old Fiona, who would surely be great if firstly, her mother had anything to do with it but particularly if my mother had anything to do with it. Fiona finished her lesson, half an hour, my mother relented, on account of the phone call from Clara, let Fiona off early so that she could put in the twenty five years worth of practice required to play in front of a thousand people and hold their attention for any longer than a the short introduction.
By turning her attention to the opening of the school auditorium she meant rummaging through her sheet music, of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Bach (perhaps not Bach today), Chopin and of course of the bastard, tucking them under her arm and making her way to the school so that she could at least familiarise herself with the surroundings, the instrument, the chair she would sit on.
So she tucked them, the papers, those manuscripts that the greats had wept over, under her arm and strode as majestically as any forty year old woman, piano teacher, mother of three, wife of husband who would not care whether she played, for whom she played, for how long she played or under whose commission and show them, the teachers, the Principal (given the title here for identification purposes only), the students, but especially Giselle Radowski, what a real pianist does.
Given fifteen minutes, she played for those fifteen glorious minutes – Brahms for opening, then Beethoven’s fifth. She played for another fifteen before determining halfway through Beethoven’s eighth sonata that she’d play for another fifteen minutes after that, and if the Principal (who retained the title against all odds) didn’t like it then she’d let her transfixed audience know why it was her giving the recital and not Giselle Radowski.
And so my glorious mother played solo for forty five minutes, sight reading Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok and the old bastard until even she realised that she must pause so that the children, who had never heard music like this played like this, but they had Giselle Radowski, stood and applauded her. Things were never going to go well for me after that.