The piano arrived from Wexford, after my grandfather died. Mr. Carr brought it from the railway station on his lorry. Pianos tend to be large, with few places to grip them. (WANTED: A piano for a lady with rosewood legs. It’s an old joke but it still stands up.) It stood like a cliff, in the sitting room. It had movable brackets for candles and a red velvet panel on the front, but my parents never risked candles, in a house full of children. Very wise. It was my mother’s piano when she was a child in Wexford. She was delighted to have it again. She had a pile of music books, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, all the up-and-coming names. (The books were very old.) She was musical. The piano became her retreat into sanity in a noisy house. Saucepans might boil over. Coals might fall from the fire, but she was away with Chopin and noticed nothing amiss.
I should tell you that I took to the piano immediately—a natural; that I toured all the great concert-halls of the world; that I had a coat with tails, a high-collared white shirt and waistcoat. You know that little ‘flip’ when the pianist flicks the tails of his coat over the piano stool. He means business. I should tell you this… but it would not be true. Neither did I play the speakeasies of Chicago or the honky-tonk saloons with Joplin. I never even owned a pair of spats. The cat could play better than I could. She would walk daintily from right to left, on her way to the window, from the tinkling high notes to the rumbling left hand keys. You could catch her and get her to do it again. Practice pays off. She subsequently toured the great….That would not be true either. The problem is that pianists play different stuff with each hand. They even play the black notes. I could not divide my attention in two directions. ‘Let not the left hand know what the right hand is doing.’ The left hand became paralysed with indecision. I pumped the pedals, making a great sonorous ‘boom’ inside. The sound lingered. The room reverberated. Put your ear to the wood and you heard thunder and cannon fire on distant hills, receding, dwindling, until the storm abated and the armies marched away.
‘Don’t do that. You’ll damage the piano.’ That was always a danger. You could get a ruler and tickle the strings, through the open lid. It sounded more like a harp. Some of the modern composers seem to have discovered my technique. Maybe their genius wasn’t strangled at birth. Maybe they didn’t drop the ruler into the belly of the beast and have to dismantle the whole thing to retrieve it and get a clip in the ear for vandalism. It is astonishingly easy to take a piano apart, down to the iron frame. Even the keys and the hammers lift out. Not a good idea, as I discovered. There was an inscription on the frame, the names of an entire family, dated 1888. This set the imagination working. Who were they? Was I related to them? What music had they played? Where have they gone? We added our own names, in glee, to the list.
I found it hard to believe that the keys were real ivory. Elephant tusks are curved. Where would you get all those straight bits? Did some great white hunter shoot an elephant, just to make our piano? I saw the mighty beast crumpling into the high grass of the savanna. Who ventured into the forest to get the ebony for the black notes? The ivories had half-moon grooves at the edge, where innumerable fingers had stroked music from them, over the years. Some had fallen away, but the notes still worked. Mr. Fitzgerald came every now and again, to tune the piano. He had tuning forks and little pitch pipes and keys for tightening the strings. He talked a lot, gossip from all over the country. He smoked incessantly, leaving a semi-circle of ash on the carpet around his workplace. He hummed. He appeared to have a very harmonious existence.
My mother’s cousin in New York, her contemporary and life-long correspondent, sent her The American Home Songbook. It had everything in it. It came from a Norman Rockwell world, where farmers in dungarees, drove jalopies and kids wore PFs and ‘sloppy joes.’ I loved the songs of Stephen Foster. Although he had only once been in The South, he seemed to express the essence of Southern living and the easy, harmonious life of the cotton plantations. He expressed a longing for hazy summer days and the Old Folks at Home. I can still sing(?) O Susanna, the song of the Gold Rush. Listen to that banjo. I know De Camptown Races, although I have never met those ladies. I sang it in harmony(?) with my brother, David, a rare cessation of hostilities, in those days. I’m sure he knows it still . Gwine to run all night. Gwine to run all day… Foster originally wrote in ‘dialect’ as required by the minstrel shows, but he abandoned this in his later work. He lived to see the Civil War and the proclamation of emancipation for the black slaves in The South.
The old piano went to the elephants’ graveyard of pianos. A new one arrived to take its place. Mahogany, this time. Somebody had ventured into the rainforest again. Some elephant had sunk to his knees and subsided into the dust to provide the ivory. It’s illegal now. Was my mother dealing in contraband? Contraband..the word used to describe runaway slaves. De Massa run ha ha. The Darkies stay ho ho. It must be now dat De Kingdom’s comin’ and the Day ob Jubilo Did Foster write that? Did the Day of Jubilo ever really come? It sounds like something from another world. I guess he’s tryin’ to fool dem Yankees for to think he’s contraband. It sounded like a great joke.
My sister, Mary, plays that piano still. She has a remarkably musical family. I am glad that it found a good home.
We went to see Twelve Years a Slave. The cinema was crowded. I have never sat in so silent a cinema. Go and see it for yourself. In the meantime, listen to Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More. Listen to Thomas Hampson on Youtube. (I would upload it for you, but I suffer the same ineptitude with computers as I suffered with the piano.) Avoid all others. He sings for all people, everywhere, in every age. He is the genuine article. Foster wrote out of his own personal suffering, a song for all those who are bear pain and sadness. Look at the accompanying photographs….
…and never complain again.