I gotta have my orange juice.

Jesu, Juva

The Piano

leave a comment »

When I am stuck in writing a book, when I am stuck in a problem in life, if I go to the piano and play Bach for an hour, the problem is usually either resolved or accepted. I find, as I grow older, that I turn less to the romantics and more to the baroque composers, though they’ve always been my favorites. In college I asked if I could learn something with more feeling in it, and my professor gave me some Chopin. What I had really been wanting, of course, was Bach.

And I did, years earlier, discover counterpoint for myself. We were visiting my grandmother in the South. What I remember most about her big old house was that there was a small conservatory, always green-smelling and warm, and that there were birds in it; and I remember her white, cluttered bedroom, off which was a screened sleeping porch entirely surrounded by trees covered with Spanish moss and filled with the singing of birds; and I remember the music room, with double doors leading to the living room. I spent a lot of time there, the doors closed, and one evening after dinner I was leafing through some old music and came across a rondeau by Rameau. I hadn’t been taking piano lessons for more than a year or so, and I will never forget the shock of joy with which I heard my left hand repeating what my right hand had been doing, heard both hands together, one starting the melody, the second coming in with it: the feeling of discovery, of sheer bliss, is still vivid.

Here in Crosswicks we have my mother’s piano. It is older than I am, has become difficult to tune, is not always predictable. Keys stick. Notes do not always sound when struck. When we moved back to New York for the winters it was clear that the piano would not stand another transition. In any case, we did not want to empty the house completely; it still had to be Crosswicks.

For a while we lived in a lovely but almost empty apartment. My mother came up from the South to visit, and one day she said, “You do miss a piano, don’t you?” Yes, I did. Desperately. We kept our eyes and ears open for a second-hand piano, and eventually found one which Mother bought for me. It was not a great piano, but neither am I a great pianist. For a good many years it was perfectly adequate. Then it got to the point where the bass sounded dead and the treble sounded tinny, and tuning didn’t help at all.

One evening we were at Tallis’s for dinner. The friend who had cashed Emily Brontë’s check and I were with him out in the kitchen. Hugh was coming up after rehearsal; had he been there he probably would have shut me up, but I was beefing about the piano, and said, “If one of your ritzy friends is breaking up a big house and wants to dispose of a piano, I’m in the market.”

The following Sunday after church we were again up in Tallis’s apartment, and he staggered us by announcing, “Madeleine, I’ve decided to give you my piano.”

Hugh’s response was, “You can’t! Where will you put your pictures?” For the top of the piano was covered with dozens of photographs—friends, godchildren, people from all over the world, famous and infamous, majah, minah . . .

The piano is a Steinway grand. It came to Tallis from Austin Strong, the playwright. It has been played by Paderewski and Rachmaninoff. It has also almost undoubtedly been played by my mother, though none of us knew this at the time. Austin Strong was a friend of my father’s; they were of the same generation, and they saw each other weekly at the Players Club. My mother was a splendid pianist, and one of my earliest memories is hearing her run through an opera score while friends from the Met stood around the piano and sang.

The piano is now in our living room in New York. Tallis quite often remarks that things know where they belong. And The Piano is quite definitely an icon. I am convinced that the fact that Paderewski and Rachmaninoff have played it affects my own playing; the first night it was in our apartment I took my bath while Hugh walked the dogs, but instead of going to bed, I wrapped myself in a huge towel and, unable to resist, went to the piano. When Hugh came in he began to fumble with the dials on the radio-phonograph control, which are out in the hall by the front door. “What are you doing?” I asked him. He answered in surprise, “Are you playing? I thought it was WQXR.” Such was the effect of The Piano.

Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, 165-167

Written by Scott Moonen

January 27, 2020 at 7:06 pm

Posted in Books, Music, Quotations

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: