I was wondering about Beethoven’s state of mind when he wrote the ‘Emperor’ Concerto. Because it has an endless end – and endless ending. And I’m sure that musicologists and scholars have written about the insanely beautiful part known in music as rondo. But I’m too tired to look that up. I was wondering if he was going mad when he wrote the concerto because when I listened and watched for the third time on the annoying YouTube, with ‘Ads’ and ‘Skip Ads’ interrupting, I thought this rondo is going to drive me mad. It’s never going to end. And I looked at the pianist, Mitsuko Uchida, half magical princess, half wild being. While I listened to the unbelievable beauty of her playing – delicate and light-handed, but strong and filled with passion – I realized that compared to her and Seiji Ozawa, we’re all little pipsqueaks. And to think my husband prevented me from seeing them perform at Carnegie Hall and in Boston, and at Tanglewood, and it’s too late now because Ozawa is so frail and Mitsuko might be less energetic now. She might not be able to fly off the bench, throwing her aquamarine organza sleeve with her delicate white-skin arm into the air.
I looked at her. She was wearing a blue-green organza blouse with a crinkly – is it ruched? – camisole underneath, her beautiful, white, smooth skin showing. It was distracting, the sleeves were so big and puffy, and you could see her arms and slight, thin chest through the middle tighter part. She hadn’t had her hair blown dry straight. Hair blow-drying is a waste of life. Her hair was cut in thick layers and it was wild. She was like a wild woman when she played, and I wondered how she could play that way without going crazy. And then I looked at Ozawa, and the rondo wasn’t bothering him. I guess he’d done it many times before and he knew the music-history explanation for it. Then I remembered my piano teacher from childhood. One day he said, ‘How would you like to play a little Gershwin for a change?’
‘How about Beethoven? The Moonlight Sonata,’ I said.
‘You know Beethoven was blind and deaf when he wrote that.’
And since I was only eleven, I said, ‘Oh no. How come? Why?’
The piano teacher said, ‘He had syphilis.’
‘What’s that?’ I said.
Then he called my mother in from the kitchen where she was holding an orange Le Creuset pot, for those onions, as usual. I mean, how could it be so important for my mother always to be cutting onions in the kitchen?
He asked her, ‘Doesn’t anyone tell this kid anything?’
‘Tell her anything like what?’
And he said, ‘Well, she doesn’t know what syphilis is.’
‘She’s only eleven,’ my mother said. ‘Why should she know about that?’
‘We were talking about Beethoven,’ he said.
He was kind of a bohemian, now called hip, but somewhat overweight guy. He wore corduroy suits and dark blue shirts with olive-green ties. He used to come and smoke a cigar and let my mother feed him every fattening thing she had cooked and baked the whole week. During my piano lesson he would show me how a piece of music ought to be played and he would explain by singing along with Mozart, and instead of saying, ‘la la la’, or ‘la da’, like most people, he would sing ‘ya ba ba’ and ‘ya ba bom’ and ‘bom bom pom’, and more and more excitedly ‘ya pa pom! pa pa pom!’, rocking back and forth and bouncing up and down in the antique chair my mother had provided for him until I thought the seams of his corduroy pants and the buttons on his hopsack cloth shirt would pop off from the pressure. I was afraid the veins standing out in his face would burst and that his whole person might just explode from the exertion.
He was married to a beautiful modern dancer. She was thin and had creamy white skin and long black hair she wound up and stuck at the top of her long neck with big, tortoiseshell hairpins and she had thick bangs. They were an arty and elegant couple. She was arty and elegant, anyway. He was arty.
I pictured the room. I pictured sitting at the piano on the bench, with these beautiful pink roses on the dark green needlepoint cover. We bought the piano from an older couple in their apartment, with the needlepoint cover bench. To think I was offered that bench when my parents sold our house, and I didn’t take it. My apartment had two rooms, without space for the piano or the bench. I would like to look at that bench so much. The bench could be opened up and inside were all the yellow Mozart piano books. If only I could be in that room with those many big windows looking out onto what’s called a tree-lined street, and inside, walls of shelves of books and my mother in the doorway with her orange-red Le Creuset pot, and my teacher sitting in a chair next to the piano.
Once, in an argument with the teacher, he pushed me at the bench to show feeling and I refused to play after that. He said, ‘Do you hold that against me?’ I said, ‘Yes, you pushed me at the piano bench. You’re not supposed to do that. I don’t understand how you can have such a beautiful, wonderful wife.’ He was amused, and he said, ‘Well, how is she so beautiful?’ And I said, ‘Oh everything, her hair. That long thick black hair. That white skin. That beautiful big smile.’ And he said, ‘But you have the same long hair. And yours is blonde.’ And I said, ‘Oh, but hers is thicker. She has those thick bangs. She’s just so beautiful and everything she has is beautiful.’ And he said, ‘Well, why do you suppose she married me?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘But it was a mistake or some error in judgment.’ He was entertained by that. I guessed he knew he was a lucky man.
I could tell that the teacher didn’t like me. He was brought in to make my older sibling feel better. He was told how she felt so bad because she was not attractive or entertaining. However, even she was entertained at the dinner table when I told stories of what I’d seen and done that day. They even laughed at imitations of their table manners. And all the attention from everyone we knew or met went in my direction. Then the piano teacher was filled in, as so many people were, with that sob story. That’s why he preferred the evil sibling.
I couldn’t help that I looked like a movie star and made people laugh – I thought all children’s looks were equal and I chose my friends because they all looked different. I couldn’t help it that I was born and that my older sibling never got over it. That’s why she was miserable and depressed. My mother did everything to keep me down.
A Viennese child psychoanalyst told me, when I was a young grown-up – and she wasn’t an empathetic person – ‘I have seen one child completely destroyed to protect the other.’
About thirty years later I was friendly with a precocious pre-teenaged son of a world-renowned reproductive surgeon, who said to me, ‘I have a way on my computer where I can find anyone. Do you want me to find someone?’
‘Yes, find my piano teacher,’ I said. ‘Ivan Fiedel. Find him.’
A bit later that evening the boy reported back to me that he had found the piano teacher, his phone number and where he lived in California.
He offered to call him for me.
When he reported back, he had a long story to tell. He said the teacher talked and talked and talked and talked. And he added, ‘You know what, he didn’t like you. He just liked your older sibling. He just wanted to ask about her.’ The boy thought it was funny. I could tell he was smiling.
The piano teacher told the boy everything about his life, that he’d had an illness and for a while he didn’t think he’d recover. But he did recover. The boy said, ‘The stories he told, he went on and on and on! He couldn’t stop talking about your whole family, your parents, your sibling, your house! Early-American antiques bought inexpensively. Art that had been given. But the main thing is, I could tell he didn’t like you.’ He was still amused.
I said, ‘That’s right, he didn’t. He once pushed me as I was playing and he yelled, “Move! Move! Move!” Then he added, “Marion Greene moves around with feeling when she plays these sonatas! You’re not supposed to sit there like a wooden stick.” ’
He probably wished he’d had Mitsuko Uchida as his student. It’s possible, she was much younger than he was but she lived in Vienna at the time. Who was her teacher? I guess I could google it, but it would take too long.
I had the courage to say, ‘I think Marion Greene looks like a complete fool when she moves around. I don’t want to be like that. I’m just playing the piano. I do what she does when I’m imitating a famous pianist I’ve seen on TV. Everyone laughs.’
He liked it when I explained this because he considered that one of his side points as a piano teacher was getting adolescents to express their true inner feelings and solve their hidden conflicts. Emotional outbursts were fine with him. I used to pretend to be wildly conducting a symphony or even playing a sonata. My mother and aunt found this funny, laughing their heads off, instead of just sending me to the High School of Performing Arts. My high school was more like one in Beverly Hills.
My mother said he’d told her that Marion was learning like a house on fire, and then said to me, in her meanest way, ‘You’re learning like a house not even started.’
Years later I wished the teacher could know that I had Mozart’s complete works and listened all the time. I saw him interviewed on TV one year, running a progressive music and dance school in Connecticut, and then I saw his wife buying a black cape and black coat on the designer floor at Lord & Taylor. She looked exactly the same, twenty years later, the same exact face, the same black hair, no gray and not dyed; maybe a few lines around the eyes from laughing and being happy and hip. I told her who I was and she didn’t remember if I had my name or my sibling’s. She said her baby was fifteen now and a very sensitive boy.
When I was about eleven and I told the piano teacher I hated the boring Hannon piano exercises, he said, ‘How would you like to take a little vacation from Hannon?’ I was quick to agree and when he never resumed them after three years I didn’t remind him, although it was always on my mind.
Once, after he got me to confess that I sometimes hated my mother, he said, ‘How would you like to talk to a psychiatrist?’
‘But I’m not crazy.’
‘You don’t need to be crazy. Lots of people do it if they’re a little confused the way you are.’
‘What does a little confused mean?’
‘It means I know lots of people who feel better after they go to one.’
‘People like me.’
He’d probably been going for years and was still going. I didn’t know that part of society yet.
‘And kids your age,’ he added.
‘Yes. Lots of kids like you.’
‘Anyone I know?’
‘My kid brother.’
‘You have no brother, no young brother.’
‘Sure I do. He’s fifteen.’
‘But you’re old.’
‘How old am I?’
‘In your thirties.’
‘I’m thirty-six and my parents had a surprise baby when I was twenty.’
‘Is that why he’s crazy?’ This is something I might have said as Lolita in the film version of Lolita. I love the moments when she screams at James Mason, ‘You’re crazy!’ I could have played that part of dialogue, although the unbelievably great performance of the teenage actress Sue Lyon was perfect for all of the movie. I was too high class to play that character.
‘Wait a minute. He’s not crazy. He had some problems, he got some help and now he’s getting straightened out. He’s a lot happier kid now, less guilty, less withdrawn, more in touch with life.’ That was his style of talking.
‘Uh-huh,’ I said. Even then I didn’t care for that style.
‘Are you interested in looking into it?’ the teacher asked.
‘I don’t believe you have a brother that age.’
‘You never said so before.’
‘It never came up.’
‘You’re always telling about all the kids you know, especially ones that you’ve helped with their mental problems.’
‘I didn’t get to help him, the psychiatrist did.’
‘I’ll ask your wife. She wouldn’t make something up like that.’
‘Why would I if she wouldn’t?’
‘She’s superior to you.’
‘Ha. Really? How?’
‘She’s beautiful and thin and kind. She doesn’t interfere with people’s minds. She’d never scream and push a student over at the piano.’
‘You hold that against me still?’
The piano teacher and his beautiful dancer wife had two little children. A photo of her had appeared in Life magazine just after she had her first baby by natural childbirth, in the delivery room with what looks like all her stage makeup still on, smiling in ecstasy with her new baby. My mother said, ‘It’s not normal for a man to talk about details of natural childbirth. This is what women talk about, amongst themselves.’
This was the beginning of the new era. I guess he was ahead of his time, or her time anyway. Now everybody talks about everything.
In the photograph the dancer-wife looked beautiful and not even tired. But my mother didn’t want to hear about that either – the fact there was no anesthesia used and maybe she went home the next day or the same day. Hard to remember every detail.
My mother would bring out those samples of unhealthful things she was cooking in the kitchen. The piano lessons were mostly about her giving him samples of food she was cooking for dinner, in fact about anything other than the piano playing. Antique furniture was another topic.
It’s not as if I were a great piano student. Chopping onions was always more important than anything. And I hate everything about onions.