Prelude and The Raft
In the Circus Ring
The Pedlar's Prediction
Jealousy is Dead
A Steam Engine for a Piano
Hungarian Rhapsody: a failure
All or Nothing
IN THE CIRCUS RING
came home from work each evening eager to get back to her beloved piano.
Patiently and doggedly she taught herself the basic rules governing
the positioning of the hands on the keyboard. After following the dreary
track of tedious exercises to give her still hesitant fingers a measure
of independence, she was soon able to take the terribly monotonous,
endless highway of scales. Her hands ran ceaselessly up and down the
keyboard and their mastery gradually increased.
vividly remember those sessions, all the more as, still on my mattress,
I did the exercises with her. Lying by the wall, my hands under the
blanket, I carefully imitated each movement of her fingers. As for the
problem of shifting the thumb in scales, I resolved – when my sister
was out, of course - to ask my father to let me into the secret.
tried to restrain my impatience and, in his usual reserved manner, told
me kindly that he thought I was too young and, to stop me bursting into
tears, promised to explain everything – in a few years. "In any
case," he went on, "I don’t see how you could take do anything
so demanding with your poor health. You can’t even stay on your feet.
You spend all your time in bed." Dreamily, he added, "Spending
hours at the piano every day is tiring work, as good players know all
too well." I was over three and more or less knew what he meant.
But despite the basic truth of his words, I felt very bitter.
ensuing days became sad, dull and interminable once more. Lying with
my face to the wall, I would have nothing to do with anyone or anything,
including meals. I searched for some form of punishment in keeping with
my sorrow and tried to think of something else while my sister continued
conscientiously with her exercises hour after hour. All in vain: such
was my fascination with what she was doing that in spite of myself my
fingers under the blanket followed her every movement to perfection
even though her fingers on the keyboard were not visible. I had just
understood how to play a scale. This time I was careful not to breathe
a word of my discovery to anyone and fell asleep as proud as Punch.
And so it continued: my sister progressed and so did I. I re-did everything
she could do on the keyboard under my blanket.
of luck never come singly. One morning I woke up feeling unusually well.
The sort of column of fire, that parasite gnawing at my body day and
night, had finally decided to change HQs. I at once asked my mother
to dress me, which she was delighted to do. While washing me she gave
me endless advice: don’t go out; don’t catch cold; don’t run about in
doors or you’ll get too hot and all sorts of other things which I listened
to sulkily. Anyone who has spent too much time lying on his back ends
up knowing the ceiling better than the floor. I was sullen, a loner
who spoke little. Playmates of my own age kept away from me. When I
went to bed in the evening, I deliberately turned my face to the wall
to avoid joining in any family conversation. Though I silently worshipped
her, not even my mother could cheer me up.
so, my illness had been of some use. My mother had taken advantage of
my endless appetite for pictures and of my being bedridden to teach
me the rudiments of reading and writing – with success. By the age of
four I could do both fairly well. I was pleased: I would no longer miss
the company of friends so much. Of course, I still envied their happy,
wild cries, which punctuated their games in the yard. My reading and
my dreams were all I had. They enjoyed themselves with every part of
their bodies whereas I had only my fingers. I observed their joy through
our little window, wondering why they were granted so much and I so
little. In the meantime, I read everything I could lay my hands on:
stories and old albums full of drawings and strange characters which
peopled my imagination.
was soon to discover that this precocious maturity was Providence’s
way of making up for the missed games of football. Having watched my
sister at the piano, I took it up – with my father’s permission, of
course. I closely watched her every movement, then took my turn and
was amazed at being able to imitate her, however clumsily. I felt encouraged.
The magical sounds and the intricacy of the keyboard encouraged me to
go further, with the aid of my father. I regretted that our shared evening
lessons were so short and constantly asked for further explanations,
which I put into practice there and then. I was fascinated by the variety
of the work and would not get down from the stool. I caught up with
my sister and for a time we did the same exercises. This did not last
long for soon I was playing well-known little melodies perfectly accurately
while inventing my own left-hand accompaniments.
had become insatiable. There were no longer sufficient hours in the
days which had previously seemed so long. I was making rapid progress.
At the time we did not have any sheet music, which did not bother me
since I was unable to read the notes in any case. I pestered my mother
to sing me tunes to add to my repertory, which she did willingly, and
I got to know a lot of extracts from opera and operetta. I usually retained
them after a single hearing and let my fingers run over the keys before
joyfully getting to grips with the piece. It was child’s play to me,
in the true sense of the term. Thanks to these games of ‘tag’ and ‘hide-and-seek’,
my hands soon became autonomous, playing both separately and together,
and this encouraged them to try further exciting experiments. My tastes
broadened and my pleasure redoubled as little by little I entered the
enchanted world of scales, the magical landscapes of chords and the
boundless horizons of modulation. I grew ambitious, inventing introductions
for the little tunes and embellishing them more and more. When my left
hand could react as quickly as my right, I started on variations.
was barely five at the time. When my father saw the rapid results of
his teaching, he showed me stranger and more complex harmonies which
to me seemed bizarre, potent dissonances. Once I had grown accustomed
to them, I used them with assurance and embroidered the little waltzes
and the pieces I invented for the fun of it.
knew the main tunes from Carmen and even more by Gounod, whom
I adored. I learnt the great waltz from Faust by ear (it was
not until much later, when I was living in Paris, that I understood
the full diabolical beauty of this piece through Liszt’s masterly transcription
and made haste to record it – in memory of a memory.) Thanks to the
great Strauss dynasty, Offenbach and many others, my daily work at the
piano after the age of five consisted entirely of improvisation. It
was more than mere pleasure: it was a power which enabled me to escape
from ‘Angel Court’ whenever I felt the need.
do I feel now about my musical apprenticeship? Setting out to learn
the piano seriously without being able to read music cannot do any great
harm. Quite the contrary: taking care of the practical rather than the
theoretical helps and speeds up the flowering and development of reflexes.
The learner’s growing concentration is not saturated or dispersed by
having to learn other notions his brain can well do without and he is
able to work with maximum efficiency to develop his reflexes, the basis
of any true pianistic technique in my view.
not get me wrong: I am not against theory and sight reading but I do
not agree with their being taught too early. Any teacher faced with
a self-taught beginner who shows exceptional skill at the keyboard will
not fail to appreciate the truth of this. He should allow such hands
to go their own way, while keeping an eye on how their skills develop
so that the player will discover the laws governing the different phases
of their spontaneity for himself.
is far better to penetrate the mysteries of sight reading once the child,
through the complicity between his fingers and the keyboard, has the
all-powerful feeling that his will, as expressed by his hands, is moving
over conquered terrain. This method was of the greatest benefit to me.
With the help of exercises and, even more, of frequent periods spent
improvising, my hands rapidly became autonomous. Freed from having to
search for the notes on the staves and keyboard at the same time, I
was able to learn the significance of those mysterious fly-specks in
record time, whereas beginners are so often put off by their apparent
complexity. With this method, there was no time wasted and nothing to
discourage me so that I continued to progress rapidly as well as enjoy
myself. I would suggest that those who pay me the compliment of considering
me to be the exception which proves the rule try this method, unorthodox
though it undoubtedly is. I would go as far as to affirm that in every
case the progress will be astonishing even if the pupil’s skill never
rises above average. In my own case, there is no doubt that the experiment
was a success way above all predictions. According to my father, my
achievements by the age of five, both in theory and playing, were comparable
with those of a good amateur adolescent player. From then on I progressed
as if by magic, in a manner beyond all understanding.
after all this, a strange, limping pedlar turned up at ‘Angel Court’
and he was to set my favourite pastime on the way to becoming a career.
Twenty years later, he was to turn up again – this time to block my
way and have me thrown into prison. I shall be returning to that.
then on my piano became my shrine. I made a daily sacrifice at the ivory
altar with all the fervour of the poor. I discovered the tormented world
of duplets and spent most of my time thinking up cunning ways of compensating
for my small hands. Despite this handicap, I managed to perfect my fingering
and play scales, arpeggios in thirds, fourths and augmented fourths,
chromatic and whole tone scales. Naturally, I continued to improvise
daily, incorporating the new techniques into various little pieces I
had invented. My hands flew over the keys with ever-growing delight.
I felt they were subject to my power and that I was their sole master.
evening after my father and sister arrived home, I gave them a surprise
by improvising a Grande Fantaisie Brillante, designed to show
off all my latest discoveries. My father, silent as ever, nodded in
approval, which encouraged me to attempt there and then other romantic
improvisations. My sister was standing by me. I was too occupied to
look up at her but I sensed she was distressed, as if overwhelmed by
a sorrow as great as my joy. I only looked up when I had finished. Her
cheeks were red, her eyes brimming with tears. Without a word, she turned
her back on me and walked unsteadily to her bed, threw herself on it
and burst out crying. This upset me terribly. I ran to her side and,
not knowing how to console her, began to sob in unison.
She pulled herself together almost at once and smiled as she tried
to stop my flow of crocodile tears with kisses and caresses. My joy
was restored and I suggested in a naively learned tone that she should
spend less time at work so as to be able to practice more. The spell
was broken, however. She took out her book of scales more and more rarely.
Weeks passed without her playing at all. Her enthusiasm had gone. After
half an hour or less she would get up with a sigh. In the end, weary
of dwelling on her former dream, she kept away from the piano altogether.
By now I was spending as much as five or six hours a day playing. My
mother kept a discreet eye on my growing ambition. She was even obliged
on occasion to threaten to deprive me of my next meal to make me moderate
my exertions. Yet I was right to redouble them: my first concert was
not far off.
summer morning, a smiling sun lit up our yard. Four brightly-daubed
characters were jigging joyously up and down. They were clowns. The
first two danced in a sprightly, comical way, bawling out comic songs
enlivened by the others with the din they made on a badly played accordion
and a pair of cymbals mounted on a drum and glittering in the sunlight.
In their rumbustious humour they raised a cloud of dust and as it began
to clear one of them announced in a stentorian voice that the most wonderful
circus ever was going to pitch its tent in the next field. It would
be, he proclaimed, nothing less than criminal not to come in great numbers
to see such a fine show.
heart leapt with joy. Suddenly, on some unknown impulse, I let go of
my mother’s hand, dashed downstairs and ran panting up to the most heavily-painted
of the four. He was surprised by the speed of such a slip of a boy,
caught me on the run and lifted me up at arm’s length on a level with
his rainbow-coloured face. Without even giving him time to put me down
and in no way intimidated by his appearance, I explained all about my
‘knowledge’ of the piano. He was astonished and asked me my age and
the titles of the pieces I knew, punctuating his questions with various
clicks, hiccups, howls and frequent clucking noises. Meanwhile, my mother
had arrived and started pulling me in the other direction. By now the
fellow’s curiosity was aroused. Taking advantage of the crowd around
us, he begged my mother in a resounding, persuasive voice to let me
continue my story – with hearty support from the neighbours. Not wishing
to be a spoilsport, she let me return to the clown-accordionist’s side,
which I hurried to do, beaming with delight.
new protector started on a tune then stopped all of a sudden to ask
what I thought. I nodded my approval, while pointing out that certain
chords in the accompaniment were out of tune. At his request, I proposed
the necessary changes. With a mischievous, conniving wink, grinning
from ear to ear, he began again. When he reached the point in question,
correct this time, he turned to the audience with whistles of admiration
peppered with gurgles of delight. Encouraged by his three accomplices,
the inhabitants of the huts applauded loudly.
was a lovely day. Nobody wanted to leave. A few of those living on our
floor shyly suggested I go back up and play something. Everyone approved
and began to clap. To encourage me to make up my mind, the clowns added
joyously to the general uproar with drum rolls and thunderous cymbal-clashes.
My ears were humming with the din. Relaxed and reassured by the jovial
atmosphere, my mother smiled at me and gave my hand a discreet squeeze
of encouragement. A moment later, filled with unspeakable joy, I ran
upstairs. You can imagine – I had never before played to an audience.
The door and little window of our room were opened wide and the whole
yard resounded with my inspired, passionately lyrical improvising. Intoxicated
with freedom and in their element at last, my hands flitted over the
keys at the whim of my fantasy. My fingers flew from Carmen to
La Vie Parisienne without pause, with a few Viennese waltzes
in passing, the last of which I did in Turkish style to make a better
transition to Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine. Down in the yard there
was an impressive silence broken by long bursts of applause. My mother
stayed with the others and listened to the sound gushing from my undiscerning
heart with that look of calm happiness she always wore when I played
just for her. Suddenly my mind, completely caught up in its inspiration,
was taken to task by my stomach, which never showed any consideration
for my artistry and used to warn me with the dull regularity of a factory
clock that it was lunchtime. I crouched on my stool like a crab and
prepared to get down to telling my mother, the fairy godmother to my
cravings, of the alarming state of affairs. Shadows blocked the doorway:
the four musical clowns had already stolen away some time before to
watch me closer at hand. They were all smiling radiantly. My mother
was already standing beside me without my having noticed. The delegation
stood solemnly round us and one of them said in oracular tones, "The
circus awaits you, my boy!" "It would be a sin, madam,"
continued another, "if you were to deprive the public and the wonderful
world of show business of the exceptional musical gifts of this little
he spoke, he rolled his great bulbous eyes in the direction of the ceiling,
which seemed to inspire him to prophesy: "If you didn’t already
know, madam," he continued with growing passion, "your son
is a perfect circus artist, a second Offenbach!"
I did not really understand his obscure tirade, which did not prevent
me enjoying the aftermath of my triumph. Quite the contrary, when our
visitors had left, I tugged at my mother’s arm repeating, "Did
you hear what he said about me? Did you hear, mummy? You’ve no right
to keep me hidden away! I’m an Offenbach!"
mother laughed till she cried. Then she ran her slender fingers pensively
through my hair. "I’m going to let you have a taste of glory at
the circus," she said, "to show you that I don’t intend to
crush your talent. You’ll take part in a matinee because you mustn’t
forget, Mr Offenbach, that you’re only five," and she flicked my
father was taken aback by the news when he got home that evening. Listening
absent-mindedly to a summary of the day’s events, he said straight out,
"We aren’t a charity. Did you ask how much our son will be paid
for playing at these shows?" Mother and I came down to earth. We
had never considered the question from that angle. We were perturbed
by his very pertinent remark and ate a snack in silence before going
early to bed – perhaps so as to have more time to dream about my first
the following afternoon, polished like mirrors and all in our best,
my mother and I went hand in hand over the rutted, marshy meadows to
the circus. We were rather mud-spattered by the time we arrived but
soon forgot about it when we saw all the bustle around the rather worn
big top. We made our way with some difficulty to the entrance, where
the clown with the accordion was standing. When he saw us, he literally
snatched me from my mother and strode of through a maze of canvas, heading
for God knows where. Far off, I could hear my mother indignantly storming
at him for his haste. I was led up to someone scarcely taller than myself
in a half-Harlequin half-Pierrot costume. He was so skinny and his face
so sunken that I was scared. He must have been a real live midget. He
stood motionless, his small piercing eyes supervising the constant comings
and goings of the acrobats, conjurers and animal trainers who were warming
up in the patched canvas wings, waiting to go on. He had his back turned
to us and was so absorbed in all the goings-on that he did not even
seem to hear the short presentation that my six-foot beanpole of a friend
tried to whisper in his ear. At that moment he turned round, saw me
and his fakir expression turned at once into a promising smile.
it’s you, my little friend," he said, not without a certain kindness
on observing my own diminutive size. Meanwhile my mother had caught
up with us after making her way through the maze of canvas. The Midget
turned to her: "Madam, my men have told me about the extraordinary
find they made yesterday in that foul pigsty," he said, nodding
in the direction of ‘Angle Court’, with its stinking huts lowering on
the horizon as if threatening his profits. "I’m the chief or, if
you prefer, the manager of this little group and a performer like the
rest of them," he went on, pointing to his costume. "We share
the best times along with the worst and we all love the circus. It’s
a wonderful job," he insisted, "and anyone who wants to join
us has to offer himself up to the flames at every show or lose all reason
and means for living."
me, utterly bewildered as I was by the uproar coming from every corner
of the big top, he looked like some ancient waxwork with his cracked
parchment face under the outlandish make-up. His outdated Pierrot-Harlequin
costume made him look even more like a gnome. .He went on speaking to
my mother, haranguing her and gesticulating wildly. My ears rang with
the yapping of the performing dogs which were watching a fire-eater
fearlessly blowing impressive bouquets of flames. Ponies and donkeys
were braying, irritated by a little troupe of tame monkeys on their
backs, jabbering and squabbling over a few peanuts. From outside came
the shouts of fairground wrestlers boasting of their victories among
the pandemonium of the clown-musicians who were trying to transform
the fermenting uproar into the joy of the fair. Without transition,
the Midget’s voice rose above the uproar without losing its restraint,
"So, lad, you’re fourth on the programme between Colossus the Giant
and Hercules the Dwarf, who bends iron bars. Tee hee!" he went,
laughing at his own joke. "But, tell me, what exactly is it you
do?" he asked, perplexed and with such seriousness that I was filled
invent all sorts of things on the piano…pretty things…" I stammered
shyly, swallowing my saliva. "Fine," he said, reassured, "We’ll
ask the honourable audience to propose themes for you to improvise on.
I’ll trust you," he said, lost in thought. He sized me up with
his piercing look. "Even though I haven’t as much as heard you,
I have a feeling you’re going to make a name for yourself."
tone changed all of a sudden as he told my mother, so sharply as to
be hurtful, to watch out for the boy in charge of the ring, who would
see to us. With that he went off towards the exit, mewing and bleating
at the top of his voice to get all the gawpers to the box-office. His
talents as a stuntman and his fairly coarse jokes had people guffawing
and soon transformed most of the idlers into paying customers.
it came to my turn to go on, my colleague the Giant, who was the flea-trainer,
made me sit in the palm of one hand held perfectly flat and steady.
He raised me gently at arm’s length above his head to the level of the
platform. While the children applauded the feat, the grown-ups were
already yelling out an avalanche of song-titles they wanted me to improvise
on. Of course, they all wanted something different. Luckily, the ringmaster
sprang to my assistance. Thanks to his eccentric acrobatics, he managed
to staunch the disorderly demands of the unruly crowd. The sight of
all those wildly excited people was enough to make me wish I’d been
a thousand miles from such a den of perdition. Once calm was restored,
my boss explained to the tamed public that they were to hear an infant
prodigy and assured his distinguished audience that the best way to
savour music was to shut one’s face. Even those from the depths of ‘Angel
Court’ were stupefied by such wisdom. After this highly cultural introduction,
he helped me onto my stool and, amid a religious silence, asked quietly
for a few well-known tunes. He chose three from several proposed and,
with a conspiratorial wink, gave me a sign to begin. Now I knew what
I had to do. I threw myself into my playing, now linking, now superposing
the three melodies, decorating and embellishing them at leisure. My
hands were swept along on the wings of my fantasy. They flew all over
the keyboard, ablaze with energy.
I began the audience was quite silent. Certain music-lovers, to show
how sensitive they were and how deeply interested in my playing, encouraged
me with words acquired from long experience of neighbourhood brawls:
"Go it, lad! Hang on tight! Keep hard at him! Let him have it with
your left! Show that short-arse a ‘Court’ artist has two arms!"
Whistles of admiration, accompanied by louder and louder applause, greeted
each of my feats. My hands grew in ardour and daring. After a while,
I noticed silence had returned to the Big Top. But it was not silence
imposed by a dwarf: it did not have the same consistency. It was a respectful,
had entertained the crowd and won its esteem. I had won a victory and
advanced to the edge of the platform to take a bow. The wave of disciplined
applause accorded an artist was quite different from the ovation for
a stuntman. Suddenly, just in front of me, I saw my mother at the foot
of the podium. Overjoyed at seeing her again and forgetting where I
was, I jumped into her arms. She took me backstage, almost at a run,
and wrapped me in a great scarf, an old friend which had often shared
my nightmares, and we made our way to the exit between the rows of people
on their feet applauding even louder. At the exit, the dwarf ringmaster
and my great pal the clown-musician were waiting to say goodbye. After
the standard compliments, by way of wishing us goodnight they said to
my mother as if it were the most natural thing on earth, "Tomorrow.
Same time, same place. Right, madam?" She stared at them, round-eyed
with astonishment and replied firmly, "Gentlemen, not for all the
gold in the world would I let my boy go through that again!"
two men looked quizzically at one another, then the dwarf continued,
emphasizing each word, "Madam, your son does not need all the gold
in the world. He is already a seller of dreams. Beautiful dreams cost
a lot and I am no miser. As from today he will be paid five crowns,
five real silver crowns," he said to my dumbfounded mother. "Five
crowns per show for three weeks. What do you think?" Mother was
breathless with emotion. All the while I stood silently beside her and,
realizing the importance of this extraordinary offer, squeezed her hand
as hard as I could to get her to accept without delay.
government had managed to put an end to inflation. Fifteen crowns was
the salary of a good worker and I was being offered five a day. Heavens!
With that amount we could buy the whole family new clothes – which they
were more than ready for – and still have more than enough to live on
for some time. My mother had not given her full consent before leaving
but presented the wonderful news to my father and sister, who had just
got back home, as a foregone conclusion which there would be no going
next morning at dawn somebody knocked at the door. It was the accordion-playing
clown wanting a definite answer. He was not yet made-up and out of breath.
Perspiration flowed from his bald head. He seemed very pleased that
my parents agreed. When all other questions had been gone through with
my father, he got up solemnly, cleared his throat and said, "We
aren’t rich but we’ve made a collection for our little artist. We’re
going to have a suit made for him to perform in – a matching waistcoat
and trousers plus top hat – so that he’ll be able to carry on his career
with panache worthy of his devotion. Welcome to the circus, dear young
colleague!" he exclaimed by way of a goodbye, shutting the door
so my stage career began. I arrived punctually at the circus every day
and set to work, dressed all in my best and as serious as the Pope,
improvising on an incredible variety of themes – fodder thrown to me
by the audience. Afterwards I bowed from the four corners of the platform
and, my eyes shining, was acclaimed in triumph. Sometimes the magician,
the sword-swallower or my clown friends, got up to their antics or played
outrageous tricks on each other to try and make me laugh. As the youngest
member of the large family, I was their mascot and lucky charm.
the first ten days everything went wonderfully. A fortnight later I
felt fatigued and feverish but still carried on as the infant prodigy
of the fairground. The next day I had to give up: despite all my efforts,
the piano had become a great hazy blob before my confused eyes.
stretched out on a beautiful new bed, the fruit of all Yolande’s work,
I stayed at home. My father went to see the manager for the last time
to present his apologies and cancel any further appearances. However,
we all hoped, without daring to say so, that a few days’ rest I would
be able to return to my job, which was, after all, enjoyable and profitable.
Alas! My physical resistance was simply not up to the excessive demands
I made on myself. Each evening at the circus required four or five hours’
practice a day. My number only lasted half an hour but, being the star
turn, I had to play last in order to make an impression. It was too
much and I discovered at the age of five and a half the price of fame
for any star: overwork. This lesson cost me three weeks in bed with
countless attacks of fever, dizziness and hiccups. While my body, like
a figure on a tomb deprived of its substance, encouraged itself to get
better, my mind went off in search of its vanished hopes. The travelling
circus was far away…and I was still in ‘Angel Court’.