Piano

There’s something very special, I think, about hearing piano music in the street. Perhaps because it’s not something I hear so often, each time it happens it adds an extra little bookmark in my memory.

Brussels streetA morning walk along a Brussels street. The sun slants, just clearing the rooftops, illuminating the facades but leaving the paving still in shadow. The promised heat of the afternoon is yet to come and yesterday’s has dissipated in the night. It’s a little chill. There are no front yards, the front doors, up steps, a couple or three, open off the street, and the tall front room windows, above the head height of passers-by, are open to let in the fresh air. From one of these comes the sound of a piano.

The pianist is not proficient. This is practice. Four, eight, sixteen bars tried again and again. There’s something a little hesitant about the last couple of bars. The speed drops, a key is missed, fumbled, there is a pause and the passage begins again. I walk on up the street and the piano sounds fade away behind me, but I am remembering another street, another piano.

Cracow streetAfternoon in the centre of Cracow. The yellow trams are rattling past one another up and down the road, taxis weaving between them and people, locals on their way from work to the shops mixed with ambling tourists in T-shirts and shorts. And once again from open windows above head height the sound of a piano. Here, a sign by the door tells me this is a music school. Someone is practising – Chopin (of course), the Minute Waltz. And I stop and join two or three others who stand below the window listening, smiling at one another, and as the piece finishes without a hitch there is a small round of applause before we all go our separate ways.

At the Eurostar stations in Paris and London the management have put out pianos. Older, upright pianos, painted in bright primary colours. Passengers waiting to board their trains or people waiting to meet friends arriving from far off sometimes sit down and plink away. When I was in London in March – my first visit – a young man was picking out Chopsticks. Diddle-um-pum-pum, diddle-um-pum-pum, diddle-um-pum-um-pum-um-pum-pum. In Paris, another young man sat and delivered a proficient jazz melody while his friends stood around.

A hundred years ago there was a piano in every home. Well, perhaps not every home, but in most British middle-class homes and in many an aspiring working class home. Before radio and long before TV and before cheap records and gramophones, people made music themselves and the piano was a symbol of modernity and a product of modern industrialisation (likewise the accordion, but the squeezebox never achieved the same cultural cachet). Sheet music was cheap and the ability to play the piano was a social accomplishment. Before the guitar, the piano ruled.

No longer.

Now pianos may still be built and bought by the wealthy, but the pianos of the past are out on the street. My brother-in-law’s piano – an upright that he sometimes plays (tries to play, but don’t tell him I said that) – was just such a piano. Left out on the street by a family clearing the house of a deceased relative. They were going to take it to the tip – the second-hand charity shop they approached didn’t want to know. It cost my brother-in-law the price of two men and a van to get it home.

The sad piano - warped keysA couple of years ago I came across another piano abandoned by the wayside. I’m not sure how long it had stood there, some of the boards had come away exposing the cast iron harp. It was still strung, but the felt of the hammers was swollen with damp and on the keys the white veneer – not ivory I hope – was coming away from the wood. Of course I tried it to hear if I could make it sing, but it was dead. I took some photographs.

There’s another piano memory – this reaches way back, more than 40 years – 45 perhaps. A cold, dim November evening in my childhood home in Brighton. The piano teacher is coming. My sister and I, reminded, rush to our upright piano. For a week, since the last time the teacher was here, we have not looked at it, but now with just an hour to go we are squabbling over who gets to practice. Will it be my funereal slow version of “Jig” or my sister’s stuttering rendition of “Frairer Shacker”. (That’s “Frère Jacques” to you.)

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, visiting, slips in ahead of us. She claims the keyboard and plays with bravura the chorus of “Toreador” from Carmen. Most impressively, she does so without reading notes. We squeal in shock, How is this possible? How?! She never learned, she says airily, just picked it up. Plays by ear.

Here we have been struggling to read the black insect squiggles and stretch our fingers to press the right keys in the right order at the right time. Now we learn you don’t have to do that. Just play by ear! We go on strike. No more piano lessons for us. We will play by ear. So, of course, we never do.

“Thank you, Mum,” my mother said to her mother. I think that was when I began to recognise irony.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Chagall

On Saturday Mrs SC and I went to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts here in Brussels to see their Chagall Retrospective. We had some idea that this weekend would be the final opportunity but it turns out the exhibition is running for another month yet.

The Promenade
Click on any picture to see it larger.
It was very impressive to see in one place so many of Chagall’s paintings – 200 says the exhibition brochure. So much intense colour. I just found a quote from Picasso who said in the 1950s that after his close friend and rival Matisse, Chagall was the only living artist who “understands what colour really is”.

A little bit of a backhanded compliment that – I wonder if Chagall appreciated it.

I wonder if Chagall would have appreciated this exhibition.

The Lovers in BlueWell, of course he would. The reverence for his art now, contrasts strongly with the indifference and contempt he faced for many years. Indifference first from a broad public in his early years (though not among fellow artists and not at home in Vitebsk).

 Flying violinistBut indifference was less of a problem than the contempt, as his art was rejected in Revolutionary Russia and as Nazism grew in the 20s and 30s. Chagall’s art was “green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth, fiddling on violins, flying through the air … [an] assault on Western civilization”.

On the other hand, the exhibition hall is buried in the cellar of the Museum (and what would Chagall have thought about all the artificial light), and to get there visitors have to pass a foul smelling vestibule that reminds you Brussels also boasts a Sewer Museum. Perhaps the smell was a advert for that?

But then you get to the art and the all rest is of no account.

The ringAs there were signs at the museum entrance showing crossed over cameras I assumed photography was forbidden until I saw somebody filming. I went and asked and was told I could take photos for my own use as long as I didn’t use a flash.

I may have gone a little overboard.

Adam and EveThere were pictures from every phase of Chagall’s artistic career, from about 1909 until the 1980s. Personally I found most interesting the ones from about 1912 through to the 1940s – the later pictures from his time in the south of France seem over decorative to me. But the range of his art from a sort of post-impressionist style reminiscent of Gauguin and van Gogh, through Cubism, Expressionism and on into a naïve Surrealism is compelling, and its easier to appreciate it when you see so many works all together.

David - Chagall's brotherThe only thing missing from the exhibition really was any example – or even any photograph – of Chagall’s stained-glass. But I forgive this because I know it was Chagall’s opinion that his glass should be seen with the moving light of day behind it, so that it changes over time and depending on the weather.

The Monster of Notre DameOnce upon a time when I was in my 20s, I stayed at my father’s home in Kent, a village called Five Oak Green. I was to take care of the place while he and my stepmother Doris were on holiday. Before they left Doris said she thought I might be interested in the church in the next village.

“It’s got some windows,” she said. “They’re by some French fellow, some Jew.”

 Green face blue face - detailFor reasons of domestic tranquillity, and because she simply wouldn’t understand what I was getting at, I let the Jew reference pass by.

Doris went on to say that the windows had been put in to commemorate the daughter of the Lady of the Manor who drowned in a sailing accident off Rye, and that her husband – “Harry Goldsmid, you know” (I didn’t) – was the one who had brought in “the Jew”.

Cat - detailI didn’t have an awful lot to do once I was on my own. Every morning I had to feed the cat antibiotics because it was recovering from a battle with a rat – it had a rat bite across the root of its tail. That meant about an hour and a half of stalking the cat, holding it down (with gloves on) and forcing a pill into its mouth repeatedly (it kept coughing it up).

That cat hated me. With reason, it must be said.

 The Poet RecliningAnyway, once the morning’s struggle was over there wasn’t much to keep me in the house and so I walked a lot, exploring the byways around the village. One day I walked across to Tudeley to have a look at the church.

I wasn’t expecting very much and the outside of the church, when I found it, was not encouraging. It looked like it might have been quite pretty once, but I was absolutely convinced the tower must have been hit by a bomb in the war and rebuilt by some local builder with minimal experience of architecture. While the body of the church is constructed from an attractive local stone, the tower is a square, squat block in red brick that looks more like an electricity distribution substation than anything else. (I am surprised to discover now, thanks to the church’s own website, that the tower actually dates from 1765.)

Tudeley east window
Tudeley east window – photo by Philip French
Inside, though, all other considerations just fall away as you stand in the wonder of the blue light streaming in from twelve fantastic stained-glass windows, all clearly the work of Marc Chagall.

A little nosing around shows that while Sir Henry d’Avigdor-Goldsmid may have paid for the windows it was his Christian wife and daughter who chose Chagall. They had seen and fallen in love with the artist’s stained glass when his windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem were exhibited in Paris in 1961. When the daughter, Sarah, was drowned in 1963, the mother, Rosemary, tracked Chagall down and persuaded him to create a commemorative window for the church. Chagall was reluctant at first, but finally agreed and when he came to see the window installed in 1967 he is supposed to have said “C’est magnifique! Je les ferai tous!” (“It’s beautiful! I will do them all!”) All the windows that is.

The last window was put into the church in 1985 – which may have been after I was there – soon before Chagall’s death.

Wandering JewIt’s strange to think about the windows at Tudeley now and how I came to see them for the first time. Here I am in Brussels, viewing an exhibition that focuses on Chagall and his extraordinary life: Vitebsk, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Paris again, New York, the Côte d’Azur – in his art he portrayed himself, among other things, as the Wandering Jew of folklore. And my mind slips back 30 years or more to that summer, and then suddenly forward again ten, twelve years. Now I am looking down on Kent from the window of an aircraft flying into Heathrow. It’s a crystal clear October morning and my eye follows the route of a railway line and suddenly I realise I’m looking at Five Oak Green and Tudeley, and a little beyond, Tonbridge where my father is dead in a funeral home waiting for cremation.

BirthdayIs it me or is it Chagall? Neither I suppose – it’s just human nature. But Chagall was able to capture in his art the way the mind can hop and skip across time and space and mix fact and fancy. Even fly through the air.

 Green monster - detailIn the museum, the voice on the audio guide is reading an English text that has clearly been translated from French and originally written by an art historian with a definite idea of what Chagall’s art means – but I’m not so sure. I hear her saying “anger… terror… horror”, but I find it difficult to see these emotions in Chagall’s work. I see joy and happiness, humour, innocence and bemusement. At worst I see faces without expression. Chagall’s colour symbolism is beyond me – so green means illness? OK, if you say so, voice from the machine. The falling angel, burning in red with one black eye gazing back at the viewer, now that I find more comprehensible, but I don’t see fear.

Falling AngelAt the end of the exhibition, passed the turnstiles at the exit but before you reach the exhibition shop… (Chagall prints on micro-clothes to dust your computer screens – artistic and practical!) Before the shop is an area set aside for visiting school kids, paper and crayons and an exhibition of children’s work inspired by Chagall. Acrobats and lovers and figures flying over rooftops, angels and musicians and people with Janus faces. The kids seem to have distilled Chagall’s essence – even if they can’t quite do the colours. But then, with both Matisse and Chagall gone, who now understands colour?
Chagall exhibition - Viewers


All illustrations are from my own photography except the picture of the east window at All Saints’ church Tudeley, which links to the original source.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.