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Prelude and The Raft of Poverty
In the Circus Ring
The Pedlar's Prediction
Hail Caesar!
Jealousy is Dead
A Steam Engine for a Piano
Stalin Organs
Hungarian Rhapsody: a failure
White Nights
All or Nothing


          Yolande 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.

          I 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.

          He 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.

          The 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.

          Strokes 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.

          Even 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.

          I 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.

          I 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.

          I 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.

          I 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.

          How 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.

          Do 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.

          It 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.

          Shortly 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.

          From 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.

          One 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.

          One 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.

          My 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.

          My 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.

          It 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 boy."

          As 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!"

          Frankly, 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!"

          My 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.

          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 recital.

          Early 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.

          "So 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."

          To 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.

          "Well…I…can 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."

          His 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.

          When 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.

          When 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.

          I 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!"

          The 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.

          The 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.

          The 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.

          And 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.

          For 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.

          Lying 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’.

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