and The Raft of Poverty
In the Circus
A Steam Engine
for a Piano
Rhapsody: a failure
TO SAINT FRAMBOURG
I see a young artist in difficulty,
I feel like helping him, reminded as
I am of my own years of hardship and
enforced silence. How many young people
suffer from the taboo of being unknown?
Just tell them that oneís twenties are
the finest years of oneís life! I secretly
vowed to open up to them the temple
gates I had been kept away from for
until the 1960s, many artists were ignored
by agents on the pretext that they had
not made any records and were not known
to the majority of music lovers. In
their turn, the record companies hesitated
to invite them to make a first recording
because they had not given sufficient
took me a long time to find a way to
break this vicious circle but in the
end I found several solutions. To start
with, I selected a number of young players
and presented them to the audience at
the end of my recitals, concerts and
various TV appearances. Once the surprise
had worn off, they were given a warm
welcome. Rather than the usual encores,
I let them take my place at the piano.
At the same time I decided to reward
future winners of the International
Piano Competition which bore my name
by altering the nature of the prizes.
Instead of obtaining engagements and
recordings, which risked only attracting
a limited number of music lovers, I
intended to share the platform with
the prize winners so that they could
enjoy the sort of large audience which
paid me the honour of attending my recitals.
fine, I thought, but not sufficient.
It was then that in order to give my
project more importance I thought of
starting up a Foundation where there
would be master classes and a recital
hall sufficiently spacious and with
the appropriate audio-visual equipment,
giving young instrumentalists of all
categories the opportunity to complete
their training under the best teachers
as well as giving recitals or making
recordings at will, without being obliged
to spend years in ante-rooms in the
hope of being Ďdiscoveredí.
I am not in favour of fire-proofed formica
or corrugated iron, which are, alas,
used in the construction of virtually
every cultural centre which our leisure
civilisation is so avid for, I followed
the old adage according to which the
new should be built from the old. Wit
the best intentions, I decided to go
and see André Malraux to ask
(1901-1976) was at the time Minister
for the Arts. He was also a novelist
of repute.] This time luck was
on my side. I met him the next day in
a historical district known as Le Marais.
I told him of my plans, which he welcomed
project is all to your honour but itís
not possible here in Paris. Thereís
not an inch of land which someone hasnít
laid hands on," he said, pointing
wearily to the metal beams of the Centre
Beaubourg outside, then in the final
stages of construction.
[Also known as the Centre Pompidou,
it lies on the site of the former vegetable
market Les Halles. Boulez's IRCAM lies
beneath it.] "No,"
he said, "it would be better to
go to Senlis. Itís quite different from
other historical towns. Senlis is the
birthplace of France. It was formerly
the seat of the first Capetian kings.
Iím fairly certain its oldest church,
the former Chapel Royal of St Frambourg,
is in danger of collapse. Since it was
pillaged under the Revolution, it has
been a Temple of Reason, a forge, fodder
suppliers, a riding school, a firemanís
barracks and, latterly, a carpark. Yet
how beautiful it must once have been!
If you were able to restore it, France
would be deeply indebted to you, believe
you me. But, dear Georges," he
said, lowering his voice, "such
an undertaking would require a great
deal of money. Have you got enough?"
no," I sighed in frustration. "Iíve
just about enough to buy it in its present
condition if the owner doesnít ask too
much. And from what you say about the
placeÖ" "Your savings wouldnít
be sufficient, "he acknowledged,
"so what do you intend to do?"
"I donít know yet but I want to
purchase that church and turn it into
an auditorium dedicated to Liszt,"
I ventured. "And youíve got some
means of doing that?" "Yes,"
I said, suddenly feeling reassured and
placing my hands on his, the Royal Way
[An allusion to Malraux's
novel "La Voie Royale" (1930)],
which also happens to be mine."
"In short," said Malraux in
amazement, "you hope to raise the
Chapel Royal from its ashes with your
own two hands?" "Yes,"
I replied. "Thatís the best way,
providing God gives you help and strength.
But you must admit," he said with
a twinkle in his eye, "that a descendant
of Attila returning to France to restore
the birthplace of our kings really is
so the great adventure began. Back from
a concert tour, I went to Senlis to
look round my future purchase. What
a desolate sight met my eyes when I
went inside. Twenty-odd parked cars
were dotted here and there. Walls, pillars
and ceiling had all been despoiled.
Twenty-four gaping holes nearly ten
feet high were all that remained of
the stained glass windows. The roof
leaked. Malraux had been right: everything
would have to be restored.
wife Soleilka was to be mainly responsible
for the seemingly impossible undertaking.
Guided by her fervent intuition, I bought
the church just as it was, exposed to
the elements. The first thing we did
was to have plate glass windows put
in so that the dozens of crows, the
hundreds of pigeons, thousands of sparrows,
and black cats would know they would
have to find a home elsewhere. I could
do no more for the time being. I would
have to be off to make more money. Restoration
work advanced with tantalizing slowness
and it melted away. Larger and larger
sums were required. I worked like a
galley slave. Luckily, as Soleilka had
predicted, a new miracle occurred. In
1975 the Foundation was officially declared
a public utility so we could accept
gifts from friends wishing to support
our cause. It was a drop in the ocean
compared with the budget for the work
yet to be done but at least we were
the time, we lived in Paris. The windows
of my study, where I worked between
tours, looked down onto a nearby church.
One evening after work, I did not go
to evening service as usual but just
went there to meditate for a few moments.
Back home, a new pile of bills was awaiting
me containing so many zeros that I still
shudder at the very thought of them.
I am a believer and normally never pray
for anything other than the health and
happiness of my family. That particular
day I prayed to Saint François
de Sales, patron saint of the church,
to give me strength to continue. Unless
a miracle occurred, I could not go on
assuming the heavy expenses of the undertaking.
I needed to reduce the number of concerts
I was giving but could not. Back home,
Soleilka welcomed me with a strange
piece of news. Someone had phoned to
say she had two beautiful stained glass
windows just the size we required and
wanted to donate them to the Chapel
Royal. We went to look at them and they
were indeed magnificent. One was of
Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, the other
of Saint François de Sales.
strange," said Soleilka on our
way back, "that we should jus chance
on a stained glass portrayal of Saint
Elizabeth." "And Saint François
de Sales," I murmured pensively.
"That makes a fair number of coincidences,"
she went on. "Saint Elizabeth is
the patron saint of Hungary and Saint
François de Sales, well we live
just by a church dedicated to him. And,
strangest of all, Liszt conducted the
second performance of his The Legend
of St Elizabeth in the same church.
What do you make of all that?"
"I donít know about the coincidences
but it certainly makes you wonder,"
I replied, thinking back to my visit
to the church the previous evening when
I had felt so discouraged.
coincidences came together like the
arches of Saint Frambourg, its patron
saint, who was from the Auvergne where
I organized the La Chaise-Dieu Festival
each summer. During the war I had seen
a chapel where I had just played the
organ bombed and had been tempted to
believe music could unleash destructive
forces. It is a comfort to see another
chapel resurrected through and for music.
accelerated after that. Members of the
Foundation arrived in their hundreds.
They now number thousands. An unhoped-for
grant enabled restoration work to forge
ahead. Generous donators offered to
take on financial responsibility for
the rebuilding of the faced, including
replacement of the great door. In the
newly-converted crypt, all objects found
during preliminary excavations will
be put on show. The great nave itself
will be entirely restored and fitted
out by the end of the year. If you come
to Senlis for a concert, I will be glad
to welcome you. I am sure the Franz
Liszt Auditorium will come into being.
I shall have to work overtime for it
is my lifeís work and after that the
outside will need restoring.
should like to communicate the invisible
thread linking the Franz Liszt Academy
in Budapest with this new auditorium
of the same name on French soil to all
young musicians who come to Senlis so
as to justify this great adventure of
the restoration of the Chapel Royal.
a religious sanctuary that has been
pillaged, desecrated and betrayed into
the Franz Liszt Auditorium is more than
just homage to Liszt: it is an invocation
and the achievement of a childhood vow
in which I am totally involved. Since
the age of ten I have been the bearer
of a message which can only be understood
after a lifetimeís experience and suffering.
Before I could pass it on it had to
penetrate me and feed on my inner substance.
This message was passed on to me by
my teacher at the Liszt Academy when
he entrusted his secrets to us: the
words of Liszt himself, to whom he had
in his youth played Chopinís Fourth
Ballade. No-one better than Liszt
could have found words to express Chopinís
inexpressible aura. In quoting, with
respect and humility, the words engraved
in his mind, he was indeed the transmitter
of a tradition.
is what Liszt said: "My hands no
longer obey me and I fear that certain
composers may see in my works nothing
more than circus acrobatics. Let them
talk: my time will come. But, as regards
Chopin, watch out: his art has nothing
to do with excessive emotional displays
that so many think of as passion. Naturally,
they think his music should be able
to speak for itself and portray its
essence, but under no circumstances
should the interpreter give way to an
affected or uncontrolled confession.
Such music is a struggle with the powers
of darkness in which there is no room
for intellectual well-being. It meticulously
lays bare a heart beyond time and space
listening without complacency to its
genius consisted in praising Chopinís.
Acknowledging Chopinís exceptional powers
revealed his own destiny to him. "Chopin
is all that and more. Iím more grateful
to him than to anyone else for my contact
with him has enriched and ennobled my
own playing. Beware of aesthetes who
delve into the inexpressible charm of
his music as if it were a Vale of Tears.
They are fake seraphim: ignore them."
his true friends, of whom I had the
privilege to be one. Make the various
shapes and patterns of this richest
of souls a part of you. I learnt from
him a special form of perception enabling
me to discern and transmit the ever-changing
inner light emanating from his every
work. The purity of the kaleidoscopic
aura of his music is a miraculous, unique
alliance of youthfulness and gloom.
He spiritualizes the human condition,
which was a burden to him. Early on
he realized his days were numbered.
As a consequence, his love of life became
a shadowy, almost cult-like love of
death. The intensity of his work with
its candid, innocent language brings
to all he wrote a tear-like purity.
The idealist in him was more prolific
than his dreadful suffering."
Chopin was far more than just a poet.
He was the only metaphysician who could
analyse the slightest tremor of his
new music will be forgotten before another
soul appears with such divining powers."
his gods Bach and Mozart, Chopin passed
like a meteor. He went off in search
of himself as only those predestined
to do so know how, someone who has always
born the laws of harmony within himself.
Contrary to appearances, the outside
world scarcely interested him. He was
a vast membrane capturing the least
movement of his inner universe Ė the
only source of his creative impulse
Ė which his genius at once transformed
into emotion. The ever-growing rapidity
of the process was a miracle. He was
only too aware that he would have to
hurry if he was to reach the summit
and profit from it. In fact, Chopin
only came back down to earth to consign
the sum of what had been revealed to
him in the course of his previous incarnations.
Others might have written the astonishing
Funeral March Sonata, but the
fantastic murmur of the wind among the
tombstones in the Epilogue could only
have been evoked by someone for whom
the mystery of death was a daily routine."
Mozart, Chopin was accorded only a brief
spell in which to speak of Eternity,
and even then he had to use some of
his precious time to perfect a form
of expression whose range and precision
are no more than an invisible medium
for his nirvana. Lamartineís "Líharmonieux
éther dans ses vagues díazur"
["the silver waves of the harmonious
sky"] merges with the breath
of a soul imprisoned in a body undermined
by tuberculosis for which life is only
a passing phase slowing down its journey
towards immortality. The only interest
the Parisian salons held for him was
to act as a resonator by which to measure
the purity of an inspiration even more
volatile than the dewdrops he put in
the eyes of his ever-captive audiences.
Chopinís piano was merely a means of
bringing his visions to life in an endless
search for transfiguration: the keyboard
had become the instrument of his divine
hearing Chopin improvising or playing
his compositions on his favourite piano
was a rare pleasure. The glory and bondage
of the interpreter all disappeared,
leaving him his place as a legend for
all eternity. The relation between his
music and you must be the same."
was how I first heard about Chopinís
art Ė by way of the inspiration of Liszt.
And I repeat the recommendation of our
teacher at the Franz Liszt Academy for
todayís young players: "Draw the
readers expect an artistís autobiography
to be a succession of thrills and miracles
in the course of a variety of episodes
which help establish the mood. My life
started Ė or rather re-started Ė just
when the reader was expecting an edifying
ending to the story.
fragments of my life have in common
a single, obsessive theme: imminent
spiritual death which, when all seems
lost, becomes a new stage in artistic
only ever felt truly alive and free
when passing from darkness to light
or on taking flight from a dingy prison
cell like a firebird.
believe I have reached the beginning.