and The Raft of Poverty
In the Circus
A Steam Engine
for a Piano
Rhapsody: a failure
IN THE CIRCUS
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 nose affectionately.
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 recital.
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 with pride.
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
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, willing silence.
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 back on.
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 behind him.
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’.