Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Sunken Cathedral

The man in the picture above is not the man who made me want to play the piano when I was six.  The man who made me want to play the piano when I was six was Benny from ABBA because I thought the piano introduction to Mamma Mia was the raddest thing I'd ever heard.  The man in the picture above is Claude Achille Debussy - he's the man who makes me want to play the piano again, now that I'm 40!

My Auntie Rhona lived in a big house called The Grove.  It had loads of funny rooms and strange extensions and giant spiders and a summer house and a wood and a heron and an owl.  It was just the kind of place that would enchant any six year old.  And it had two pianos.  I used to go round there and pretend I could play them.  Eventually, I worked out what the order of the piano keyboard was and I was able to pick out a tune by ear.  By the time I was eight I had got that Mamma Mia intro down to a tee.

One of the pianos belonged to Rhona's Mother-in-Law, Mrs Airey.  I liked her a lot - she was the poshest person I knew and she was also the only person I knew who would tolerate sitting with the eight year old me and being asked proper questions about music.  I could sit with my Grandmother and listen to Handel's Messiah or Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, but when I asked Mrs Airey things like "Why are they all singing at the same time but you can understand what they're saying?" she would have an answer for me.  Her answer to that question, incidentally, is why I love The Marriage of Figaro.

One day she played me an old crackly recording of someone playing Debussy's Clair De Lune.  I couldn't speak - it moved me so much that the words literally stuck in my throat.  Breathing properly was kind of hard too.  This was a completely new musical adventure for me.  The way the notes piled upon notes upon notes upon notes and STILL managed to sound utterly delicate and beautiful.  And so I made her play me everything she had by Debussy.  None of it had any less of an effect on me.  And it was that day that she said to me "You can have my piano if you like - I'm too old.  I won't be playing it again!"

And so, 2 weeks later, I remember hiding behind the door while my Uncle John (Mrs Airey's son) and my Dad lifted that old piano off the back of a pick up truck and into our living room.  It was about an hour before I could work up the nerve to open the lid and see how out of tune it was.  But, as soon as I did, I didn't care. There was no stopping me then.  I wanted to play everything.  I would spend all my pocket money on sheet music (the first was Debussy's Suite Bergamesque, though it would be a long time before I could play anything from it), I would teach myself to play Joni Mitchell songs, Clementi Sonatinas, basically anything that could conceivably be played on the piano.  I started writing music.  I started loving the act of being a solitary man at a big wooden instrument, creating something that make the neighbours stop what they were doing and just listen.

I left home eventually and the old piano didn't come with me.  I stopped playing completely.  But when I heard old Mrs Airey had died, I put some Debussy on and had a little cry and every bit of me cried out for a piano to take my grief out on.

When I moved to Jersey I bought another piano.  I could sit at my window, looking at the sea and play Debussy to my heart's content.  And sometimes I would go deliberately on my own to the bar of the hotel where the man himself composed La Mer.   They were my secret little pilgrimages to the man whose music made me love the piano.  Eventually I sold the piano to a beautiful Swedish girl who would love it as much as I did.  And then I moved to Manchester and was pianoless again.

If I had one now - right now - I'd be teaching myself some Joanna Newsom songs.  Maybe some Gaga ones for a laugh.  But I haven't got one.  And, along with a few select things, I miss it.  So I had to write about how having a piano felt to me.  And now that I've done that I kind of wonder why.

Time to save up for some keys...

1 comment:

muflon said...

JIm this is a great writing its so human its so nice to see people they remember of the past and I would like to see you play on the piano:) Hugs