Most of us can remember those family visits we were forced to endure as a child. The Uncle and Aunty who served the stale biscuits, Dad’s former work colleague and his wife whose own child, fully two years older, totally ignored the visiting juvenile, the Grandparents whose dusty, dim house imprisoned you for the mandatory sentence of stilted conversation about school and sporting activities until you were permitted to escape to the overgrown garden…
In former times, a common symbol of middle class culture was the inclusion, as part of the lounge room furniture, of an upright piano. Usually nobody played—perhaps Dad once aspired to learn a handful of Broadway hits or sister suffered through four years of unproductive lessons—but now the walnut box sat sadly against the wall, its cover down and a pair of colourful china vases sitting in symmetrical silence on top.
Mute, brooding, perhaps a little hurt. Staring down at the floral carpet and watching the motes of dust dancing to secret tunes when late afternoon sun filters through venetian blinds. That’s how it felt to be a piano in the middle-distance suburbs in the late 60s. Unless, of course, visitors arrived towing a reluctant child or teenager who was known to learn the pianoforte. Give us a tune! What’s your latest piece? Know anything from The Mikado? How I dreaded these conversations. Not for their lack of connection to my musical world (because I did not really have one at that stage) but because they indicated an inexorable arc towards a particular outcome; I would be pressed upon to play.
Was it the repetition of this scene that led to my learning by heart a couple of pieces I could trot out to fulfil my musical obligations? If so, how on earth did I conclude that 1918 compositions by a contemporary of Satie and Stravinsky would be well received by the Gilbert and Sullivan loving audience my parents inflicted me upon? Was it some kind of quiet rebellion? That is unlikely both for reasons of general emotional squashedness and because my tastes were still entirely constrained by the musical environment of my parents and a generally conservative piano teacher. Perhaps the two pieces by Poulenc were my standard performance repertoire because they were short. And after hearing their surprising melodic dissonance and unusual structure, people usually did not ask for more. That has a certain truthful cadence to it.
And so it came to pass that one early Spring day, late on a Sunday afternoon, the young pianist was sitting on an ungiving wooden stool before the yellowing keys of a parlour instrument in an unfamiliar lounge-room. A couple of arpeggios proved that the instrument was not too out of tune, so, with a brief, inaudible sigh, I launched into Trois mouvements perpétuels No. 1, it’s unusual melody—both caramel and peanut brittle—filling the room. The eighteen-year-old daughter of the hosts, hitherto unseen in such tedious company, appeared in the doorway. In my peripheral vision I could see her leaning against the door jamb, arms folded under her breasts (the memory of which dates this story to my teenage years, without any doubt), her eyes fixed on my hands. Halfway through the brief piece she could contain herself no longer. “His fingers are like spiders!” she exclaimed, to the mixed embarrassment and amusement of the older section of the audience. Me? Despite abhorring all arachnid life forms, I was quite chuffed, and launched into movement deux with scuttley enthusiasm.
What strange neurone webs, lying long-dormant in our endless brain-matrix, are quietly breathed to life years—decades—after the experience occurred? Perhaps it was seeing a photo of an LP of Poulenc’s piano music on social media or picking up an op shop CD of music associated with Picasso that included some works by the French composer. Hard to say, but I found myself thinking about those pieces and wondering whether they had been recorded on disc.
You can find anything on the net, can’t you? And so a copy of Poulenc: Piano Music Volume 2 (Naxos, 1999) was ordered in the click of a mouse.
Awaiting arrival of the CD, wisps of memory began to surface. I found myself lying in bed, playing through the first movement in my head to the point where the notation blurred to foggy uncertainty. But the next day, stacking the dishwasher, the next section drifted in, until, around the time the little package arrived in the post, a collection of fragments lay on the table like jigsaw pieces grouped into like colours but not yet joined.
The sheet music. I wonder if I still have it? Two possible locations; the first a strike, the second a score. Well, well. Discoloured, slightly dog-eared, the slim booklet reveals both history and mystery. Here is the first piece, much as visualised and heard in brainwaves made gossamer by time. Next, the second. A single page of music ending in the only glissando I ever played. Then the unknown third and final movement. But what’s this? Pencil annotations and fingering clearly show I must at least have began to learn the last piece, but I have no memory of this at all. Nothing. I am sure, when I play the recording, I’ll hear this third part of the trilogy for the first time.
There is a brief sparkle of excitement and a tiny quiver of apprehension. The music has been circulating my head, phrases emanating from my teenaged spider-hands. How will the pieces sound played by a professional? By an actual musician? I’m almost afraid, but thrilled too. Both feelings are augmented as memories of the pieces slowly patch together into something I suspect resembles the whole. I’m hearing the notes in my head, both right and left hands, fingers twitching like an insect overcome by spray, quivering out its last movements.
Time to listen.