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If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

Introduction
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

           HUNGARIAN RHAPSODY: A FAILURE

          Early one morning, a warm, caressing breeze swept away the cold which had been biting into us for so long. Spring sunshine! The morale of the whole unit was high. It warmed our hearts and bodies, which wanted nothing better than to forget the bitter cold winter.

          Full instructions as to our new duties had been received some time before. Everyone did his best to respect them, following them blindly, and soon we were all working as one, with the reflexes of a professional army.

          While waiting for the promised new tanks, I was put in charge of the physical training of a unit of young recruits. The Company was installed in a school which did not have a playground large enough for our frolics so to trot six miles, there and back, to a meadow large enough for a biggish herd of cattle, which had already been scythed by the old peasants from the nearby village. The terrain was just right for us and we went there daily, except on Sundays. I could have taken things easy but the young chaps were not any more enthusiastic about training than I had been, so that I had to give the lead throughout the sessions and, taking my duties to heart, returned to the garrison most evenings far wearier than those who knew exactly how to appear more exhausted than they really were. A lance corporal and a sergeant were in charge of disciplining the reluctant crew but they were relieved that I pretended not to see the skivers and did as much themselves. The daily return journey alone would have been sufficient to keep us physically fit, nor was there any risk of becoming overweight on army diet. To prepare youngsters for a war they had no wish to fight, I sometimes made them do endurance trials, explaining to the lazier among them that Adolf’s little party was not over yet and that it was better to have me on their backs than the Germans. We did obstacle courses in full battledress. We broke into a run then suddenly threw ourselves to the ground (still fully kitted out) and crossed imaginary rivers by crawling along a rope, after which we took a sort, well-earned break.

          I always took part in manoeuvres, though there was nothing that obliged me to. I did it of my own accord – in other words, I was by now little more than a cog in the wheel of war, a product of the brain-washing process. In fact it was a mere game compared with the unbearable rhythm I had had to put up with as a soldier under the orders of that drill sergeant with his SS methods. It was a good life, made to measure, with days well-filled and about as varied as the revolving wheels of a steam engine.

          The very sight of our encampment each evening was enough to make me feel sick, more out of anger than fatigue. I think it must have been a sign that the situation was getting me down: I was fed up to the back teeth with it. Yet more often than not, strange creature that I was, a good night’s sleep put everything right again and I watched my unit falling smartly into line not in the least perturbed by the previous evening’s feelings.

          The inhabitants of the nearby village were always ready for a chat. Once the day’s duties were over, we instructors were allowed out for the evening. We had a sort of late-night pass, in short. So, we soon got to know the local civilians, farm-workers for the most part. Some of us were even lucky enough to be asked in. The kindly, spontaneous way in which they invited us to share their simple evening meal was most touching. Generally, we did not hesitate to accept, not so much for the food as for an evening of peace and quiet with families whose loneliness was relieved by these evening gatherings. Our hosts’ humble, discreet desire that we should feel at home was all the more touching as they had only recently been liberated and had known hard time under the Occupation. Besides which, most families were deeply affected by the absence of news from the Front of a son, husband or father. They must have found it difficult not to give way to despair. They spoke in a flat, laconic manner in what sounded like a foreign language, punctuated by long moments of silence. This was especially so with the elderly.

          Before the war, this little place had been a flourishing rural community. There were fertile expanses of meadow and field, whose products were sold at markets in the surrounding towns. Now they did not even have the seed to produce enough corn to survive on. Only a few half-starved cows, spared by the grace of God, remained of the once prosperous herd. They wandered over the fields in search of food along with a few mangy, famished pigs. The cattle had been slaughtered by the pitilessly bloodthirsty soldiers, friendly or hostile by turns, who were advancing or on the retreat according to the hazards of war.

          We used to go for an evening stroll to try and shake off the spectre of hunger. Quite frequently, someone would come up to us cautiously and hand over a small package containing an assortment of smoked or fresh ham and sausage with a piece of home-made white bread. Despite their great kindness, these people barely spoke – indeed they were almost cool in their manner. Their faces were set in an enigmatic, unsmiling expression which seemed to reflect their inner emotions.

          This attitude was typical of the middle-aged; their daughters behaved quite differently. Most of them had that mischievous sparkle in their eyes which is a country girl’s most attractive feature, handed down as it is from generation to generation. Late in the afternoon, these girls would appear walking arm in arm. Dressed in all their finery, they tried to give the impression that they had a particular destination in mind as they walked up and down on both sides of the village street more often than was proper. We chose the spot for our stroll because it was the most animated. Eyes modestly lowered, they pretended to ignore the insistent stares of the young soldiers they passed before retracing their steps to pass them again. Each longingly admired the figure of the man whose arms she would willingly have fallen into had he dared declare his love. After a day’s physical training, this evening stroll was our only form of entertainment. There was not a cinema open in the area. The one in the village had been hit by a missile and reduced to a heap of rubble.

          As for music, there was not the least sign of any. Even the main café where poverty-stricken gypsies used to play, transforming the noble peasant’s single drink into an orgy of drunkenness, even that, the regional cultural centre, had shut down. Nor did the odd ribald song, whistled by some of my companions on the way to our daily high jinks, contain enough music to reawaken any trace of the fascination it had once held for me. What is more, on the rare occasions when I thought of the piano, it was as something purely abstract. I had become a perfect example of the good soldier Schweik, ready to execute orders at all times. My entire outlook on life had changed. The day’s menu, the promising glance of a young blond who had passed us the evening before and the height of the obstacle we would have to leap over the following day, these were my sole preoccupations. By contrast, the piano as an artistic ideal or even a breadwinner had become no more than a distant memory, classified once and for all under ‘errors of my youth’. Yet again, something unexpected and beyond my control occurred to rescue it from my subconscious.

          Since I did not want to go to the piano, Destiny intervened and the piano came to me. That particular day I had been teaching my brood to dig a tank trap. We came back about midday for lunch in the canteen, known to some as ‘the nursery’ because the new arrivals were lodged on the upper floors. We lined up to be served then sat at a table and chewed hungrily at the dish of the day – ‘fried veal’ as the chef called it. He was only a couple of letters out: it was more a question of flying than frying, as anyone who put a knife to it quickly found out. It was all the same to us. After a morning digging, we would have eaten a plateful of nails if need be. Once we had got the meal over with, I went for a smoke in the yard until it was time to return to our adventure playground. Propped against a wall, I half-listened to my stomach protesting discreetly (to my relief) against being used as a dustbin. Just as we were about to move off, a high-ranking officer came up. Taking me to one side with a conspiratorial air, he peered into my face as if wondering whether I was intelligent enough to realize the importance of what he, the Angel of the Lord, was about to announce. With all due solemnity he began: "In conjunction with the intrinsic needs of the masses, the splitting of whose psych-motricity consequent on the present state of events, is undergoing a kinetic transference, High Command esteems it opportune to concede a fraction of its cultural reserves, subsequent to a bilateral agreement with urban social advisers, to accord maximum importance to the implementing of a project in which, as a study of your previous achievements has permitted us to localise, your participation at professional level would be primordial."

          "Would you care to sit down?" murmured in the sort of melodious, other-worldly voice used by nurses to calm a patient in a paranoiac fit. "No? Well, just listen to me. Even if we didn’t go to the same university, I’m afraid I may well have understood what you’re getting at despite all the flowery language. Apparently, you and he local bigwigs – the priest, the beadle, the grave-digger and the mayor (the doctor and the teacher must have been conscripted) – fornicated together to think up this cultural junketing for the rustics. Now the knife is at your throats you’re longing for some fellow to transform your dreary whist-drive into a Roman carnival. You’d gain yourself an extra stripe when you’re demobilized without doing a thing for the morale of the local clods. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a tank trap to finish?"

          "W-What did you say? He stammered in astonishment. "Cogito ergo sum, with all due respect," and I gave the regulation salute. "Just a minute," he said, reaching out to me with a crestfallen look. "I got what I deserved. You put me in my place. Please listen." "Certainly not," I persisted, trying hard to control my growing anger. "You are, of course, my superior and I shall continue to obey all orders from on high and do my best to fulfil such obligations as are expected of one of my rank. I’ll drive your tanks, drill your raw recruits, swallow your vile food but, my dear sir, my obligations end there. My previous achievements, as you put it, were part of my civilian life, which is no concern of yours so kindly keep your hands off. You seem to think your problem is solved just because you’ve come across some intellectual’s file. I was indeed once a pianist and you think an order form you is enough to make me take my hands from out a grease-covered engine, rinse them and be ready to give a recital. When I tell you, my dear sir, that I ceased all playing ‘at a professional level’, as you so learnedly put it, long ago you will realize what an absurd mistake you’ve made. Not only would I be incapable of transforming myself into a virtuoso at a moment’s notice but I can’t even bear the sight of a piano now. I’ve drawn a line under that part of my life once and for all."

          I had let myself get carried away and gave a deep sigh of relief, which calmed me so that I could look him in the face again. I hadn’t yet recovered from the effects of my heated speech and was astounded that it was the first time I had actually said I was giving it all up for good, which I had never had the courage to do before. Had I sunk so low as to have to put on a mask to be able to look myself in the face? Almost.

          Visibly taken aback and put out by my attitude, the officer silently observed the struggle between my will and my lost illusions. He was to be, though I did not realize it then, the catalyst of my long-forgotten dreams. My benefactor remained silent as long as his rule book permitted in such cases and solemnly assured me that he fully understood. Then he got back on his cultural hobbyhorse and asked me a most pertinent question. It was the way he phrased it that amazed me.

          "How long do you think you will need to restore the explosive power of your hands and burst asunder the hearts of we prisoners?" he asked, adopting a noble, artistic expression in line with what he hoped was my train of thought. I stood there daydreaming, oblivious of his presence and absurd pomposity. He was determined to do his utmost to get me to change my mind and was pleased to note he had touched on a sensitive spot. "What about having another try, even after so long?" I had never thought of it. I had a vague feeling the unease provoked by the idea restored me to life. I told him I needed time to consider the question. He agreed with a condescending smile, certain he had already won. That night as I lay on my bunk I tried over and over again to find the words to refuse to play ever again, which would mean a definitive break with the music I loved so much. The same devil who acts on the mind of the politician starting out on a career with the best of intentions and who likewise keeps watch over the canonical knowledge of the irreproachable critic succeeded in keeping me awake all night, tempting me with all the golden opportunities that would be mine if only I would yield to temptation. Firstly, the creature said, you will be able to look yourself in the face again. Secondly, you will be helping your fellow soldiers no end. Thirdly, you might be offered a job and get out of being sent back to the Front. Fourthly, it is high time you started to think of your ambition and only your playing can help you achieve it. Fifthly, your life is at stake- as you are completely out of your element here and cannot hold out much longer. Sixthly, what have you got to lose?

          Quite true, I thought in my somnolent state, what have I got to lose? The gents’ gala evening is not for another ten days. Since they need me, I will only have to ask and they will relieve me of my duties and give me access to a piano in a quiet part of the barracks during that time. Or will they? As things stand, my hands are so hardened with manipulating shovels and pickaxes that they are better suited to driving a tank than playing a piano. Yet, despite all that has been imposed on them, there is nothing they would enjoy more. Ten days would perhaps be sufficient to loosen them up so as to be able to put together a few pieces buried deep in my memory. Liszt’s Second or Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody, for instance – though as far as the latter is concerned, "You’re letting yourself in for it," my conscience whispered. "To start with we must be more modest, Cziffra, my friend. You can’t get through the final pages of the Sixth Rhapsody with fingers and wrists in that condition. It is just not possible to play multiple octaves with finger joints more used to repairing military equipment than to high precision virtuosity. You’d need ten months’ practice, not twelve, and even then…"

          I had reached a point where I was sick of the whole idea and lay in the dark on my awful camp bed brooding. I came to the conclusion that I was exaggerating the difficulties. "It’s my grief at losing such a priceless treasure that’s making me feel like this. Come on, I’ll go and see the Camp Commander," I said to myself, still half asleep, "and if he really needs me he’s bound to give me a permit letting me off training for ten days before his great cultural evening. If he can find me some sort of piano as far away as possible form the noise of the barracks, I will have at least eight hours a day to get back at least some of my former suppleness and a fraction of my skill and prepare the Second Hungarian Rhapsody and perhaps even work out a few improvisations on a local folksong."

          Full of good resolutions, I slept until dawn, at which point and to its great delight my sense of smell was alerted to the presence of a bowl of bacon soup, piping hot and full of pieces of excellent meat, which the Camp Commander had had especially made and brought me by his orderly. A nice thought. The fellow certainly knew what he was about. He knew that the way to a soldier’s mind was via his stomach. This was yet another of many such experiences and I delightedly got down to my Gargantuan breakfast more convinced than ever of the truth of the old adage that any form of happiness beyond one’s grasp is but a lure. The prospect of other meals like this increased my determination to transform myself into a concert pianist, at least for a while. That particular evening, the piano, the butt of my resentment if ever there was one, was more a means of filling my stomach than of helping men to understand the language of the gods. My mental equilibrium was restored, which was what mattered most considering the extent to which my sensibility had deteriorated over the past three years.

          So no ‘non-aggressive close combat training with use of blanks’ for today. At crack of dawn I asked for and was granted an interview with the Major General, the highest-ranking officer in the camp. He was an educated man, a music lover and an amateur pianist (yet another!). I told him I had decided to take part in the great ‘socio-cultural event’, as he liked to call it. With a broad smile, he handed me a paper exempting me from all duties for a fortnight, which could be prolonged if necessary. He confirmed that some time during the day a piano would ‘appear’ for my exclusive use. "I don’t know where we’ll find one but we will," he said, scratching his head pensively. "I’ll set my best scouts on the job. It shouldn’t pose any major problems; we’re near a fairly large town after all, aren’t we?" he asked, obviously trying to convince himself rather than reassure me. I nodded approvingly and said it was not for me to doubt his word. He burst out laughing, shook me by the hand and dismissed me. I returned to the yard, certain there would be no sign of a piano for at least three days. But the Major General was a very efficient man. In the course of the morning he had the houses in the nearby village searched and, after much discussion, managed to take possession of (sorry, ‘borrow’) a piano almost as old and dilapidated as its owner, a retired schoolmistress. So it was that shortly before midday a young soldier ran up to me, his face glowing with pride and pleasure at being the first to bring me the good news:

          "The M-Major wants you to know that he’s found it," he stammered, standing rigidly to attention. "Found what?" I replied gruffly. "Why, the little chest, that’s to say… cupboard," he said hesitantly. "What’s that?" I asked in astonishment. "Yes, a little cupboard that you tap to make music. Sorry, I don’t know the word for it. It’s the first time I’ve seen one." I chased him off, red with anger, shouting, "Get out of here, you stupid clod!"

          "My God!" I thought, astounded, "to think that in a country which produced Liszt and Bartók there are still people who’ve never seen a piano in their lives! There’ll be a fine lot at the Major General’s social-cultural evening! Even after his military service that poor fellow is as oafish as the day he was born. Fancy confusing an upright piano with a chest! How daft can you get? I’ll really have to set to if I’m to restore the reputation of my cupboard in the eyes of that twit and others of his ilk," I said to myself resignedly as I went off to take a look at the amazing chest which makes music – when you bang on it.

          I did not have to look far. In one corner of the yard, six hefty soldiers looked as if they were scrimmaging for a ball. They sweated like oxen as they heaved the poor old upright in all directions. The instrument would have looked well in a brothel. It was smothered in gilded bronze Muses, their languid arms and thighs wrapped around it, and looked as if it had been got up for a carnival parade.

          The six privates saw to it that the removal was suitably staged, grunting like beasts of burden and swearing at the lascivious dream maidens enfolding the absurd coffer. They tottered under their burden as far as the ex-gymnasium where we were billeted. Just for a laugh, a few conscripts with nothing better to do followed closely behind. I thanked the perspiring privates and chucked the skivers out, having no wish to hear their army-style jokes. I wanted to be alone at this moment which I had looked forward to – and feared – for so long. During all those endless years of war, whether on manoeuvres or capering on horseback, crouching behind the porthole of a tank, stagnating down a mine or in a concentration camp, I had often felt an almost sensual desire to touch, caress or simply place my hands on a keyboard, no matter what its condition. At last I had achieved my ambition. There in front of me like a mirage the angelic vision of the chest-which-plays-when-you-bang-it stared at me defiantly. My hands trembled like those of an addict in need of a fix as I raised the varnished lid, which had been cunningly tempting me like Pandora’s Box. One glance at the keys was enough to bring me down to earth again. A good third were depressed and it was quite impossible to restore them to the position intended by the maker of this daft allegory on wheels. This was worrying and I hurried to unbolt some of the Muses and take a look inside. What I found made me think of the young booby I had dared, in my anger, to call an ignorant peasant. He had been all too right. Though the piano looked seductive enough from the outside, it really was no more than a chest containing the story of my life.

          I looked on the rubble of my career, the ruins of my former ambitions, through a mess of hammers and tangled, broken strings beneath a sounding board which was split down the middle.

          "Perhaps it’s all for the best," I thought, looking at my hands as calloused as any old soldier’s, all blistered and cracked, not to speak of the scar across one palm, the result of a knife stroke during close combat training. Miraculously, the deep gash had not had any serious consequences. There was a striking similarity between the state of my hands and that of the piano. Horses for courses. I cussedly turned up my nose at the obstacle ahead. Sick and tired of all the disappointments in my life, I remained glued to my chair for a while and then, rising to my feet, stood there motionless.

          And that was the historic meeting with the object on which all my resentment was focussed. Like a robot, I fitted the cream-coloured Muses back on their stands and, thoroughly dejected, left the scene of my shattered illusions like a sleepwalker and took refuge in my hut. I sat on the edge of my camp bed not knowing where to hide my callous-covered paws and took a perverse pleasure in analysing my conflicting feelings. The cave-dwelling Tommy with his knotty fingers and ape-like habits was beginning to weary of sharing his body with the hyper-sensitive one-man band. Though cordially detesting one another from the depths of the same heart, each a projection of the other’s alter ego, they were both past masters in the art of humiliating me. I was tired of the tyranny of two old blimps who could only follow orders and took turns at greedily lapping up the other’s venom. The bumbling monologues addressed to the musician with his head in the clouds by the randy soldier, and vice versa, left me giddy. I decided I had had enough of agonizing and prepared to go and tell the Commandant that the old honky-tonk he had requisitioned would make excellent fuel for a barbecue or would, if he preferred, make a silk farm.

          There was no other solution to the problem of the artistic doldrums in which I and the troops were becalmed. The incident was a sign from above that my activities as a dream-maker were over. The Major was of a very different opinion. His lynx-like eye had already spotted that his toadies were somewhat lacking in common sense. He took the view that culture was what remained when all else had been forgotten. For a start, the unfortunate crew which had dared bring back the ‘canteen-on-wheels crawling with women in filthy postures’ was confined to barracks for a week. He then selected twelve worthy warriors who, judging from their CVs, were not the sort to confuse a cottage organ with a German concert grand. I went back downstairs feeling quite sprightly at regaining my freedom and was halted in my tracks by the stentorian voice of the Camp Commander bellowing in the yard: "This time, try not to come back with a kneading trough encrusted with bronze tarts before checking it’s a proper grand piano in working order! I want you back dead or alive with the squeeze-box by curfew! On your way!"

          Once more, some vindictive shark had decided on my fate before I had had so much as time to ready myself. Because of a nonsensical piece of bravado on my part, I was obliged to keep my promise to transform my carter’s paws into a musician’s hands within ten days. There was no putting a spoke in the wheels of the diabolical machine I had set in motion.

          That evening, at the agreed time, the lorry rolled up and a squadron of temporary Salvationists heaved out a stylish grand piano of manageable proportions. They seized hold of it and bore it triumphantly into the room, setting it beside the antiquated, mortally wounded instrument the Muses were still ostentatiously embracing. This time I simply looked the instrument over casually as if it had been an ox cart. To my amazement there was not a gaiter button missing, to quote the group wit.

          They all slipped away, leaving me agonizing. By now it was late. Even so, I wanted to get down to work straight away. But how to avoid disturbing all my fellow soldiers sleeping the sleep of the just, dreaming of those bronze beauties? I knew plenty of makeshift tricks for muffling the sound of a tank engine going flat out, but to do that to a piano there and then without any tools right in the middle of a barracks full of men peacefully sleeping… The shifts of the nonchalant goddesses gave me an idea. I knew the Captain often used to take a tumble with the Colonel’s chambermaid. I crept into his room and commandeered a long, dainty shawl and a pair of chamois leather gloves: he must have caught the habit from the Germans as there were an incredible quantity: lambskin, suede, pigskin. The gent certainly looked after his mitts.

          Bearing my booty, I went back to the piano, dismounted the keyboard and slipped the shawl beneath the strings in line with the hammers then put everything back into place. In this way, I had at my disposal a muting device, rough and ready to be sure but effective for all the keys as it did not prevent the hammers striking them. In this way I could play at any time of the day or night without being heard or disturbing anyone. The ultimate refinement was that I could just hear sufficiently to know what I was doing. Since then I have often used this rather primitive method, always with success.

          Once that chore was over, I put on the chamois gloves and began playing cascades of scales. I hoped to be able to dispense with them by the end of the week so that my hands would have full control of the keyboard. I spent some time sizing up the extent of the damage to them and their weak points. I virtually had to start all over again from the beginning.

          A distant church clock sounding four brought me back down to earth. So sleepy I could barely stand, I shut the piano lid and groped my way back to the ‘isba’ to get an hour or two’s sleep before first bugle call. I slept fitfully until dawn, pursued by a nightmare in which I was battling against a sea monster, a sort of gluey, transparent octopus that I attempted to wrestle with. I was in such a sweat that my batman had to massage me with his well-practised slaps. In accordance with a prior agreement between the Camp Commander, who understood all us heroes who had lost touch with their libidos, and myself, I was exempted from all duties and training from then on. Knowing what I was in for over the coming ten days, I wished I could have invited him to dinner like Don Giovanni inviting the statue of the Commendatore he had killed. Meanwhile, to get over the restless night which had nearly cost me my food and drink, I went off to the kitchen to restore myself with a large bowl of hot stew full of bacon and runner beans. After this I returned to the gym to continue, or rather re-start, my crash course.

          Apart from half-hour breaks for meals, I did nothing else. Not even eight to ten hours of daily practice could satisfy me. Often, once dinner was over, I put my muting device in position and continued to mortify my fingers. At first, I always wore gloves. I worked exclusively on ‘technique’: every type of scale, thirds, octaves and leaps. It seemed wiser not to start on complex pieces until speed and accuracy had been fully mastered. It was not that I felt no urge to press ahead: like anyone else, I inwardly wished I knew it all already, but I was also apprehensive.

          Thus the first five days accorded me went by. Whether discouraged by a blunder or encouraged by success, I made my hands labour like convicts. Some times a few pals, intrigued by my fanatical zeal, came quietly into the room ,leaned against the wall and dreamily watched the harsh training of my ten slaves. A few lads, full of common sense, and aghast that anyone should drive himself so hard, profited from the odd short pause to make me the timid offer of a drink from a flask concealed in a uniform pocket: "Chief, you’d do better to take a swig than make yourself ill," they whispered. "Just a drop and you’ll have wings on your fingers!"

          That was precisely what I did not want. I know they thought I was like the madman banging his head with a hammer just to see how much better he felt when he stopped. Perhaps there was something of that about it. I never worked in gloves when they were there or they would have thought me unfit for service. I drove away the temptations of the bottle (far from unattractive under normal circumstances), shaking my head and getting on with my practice for the grand Battalion celebrations, while the bacchic revellers crept outside to slake their thirst wit a draught strong enough to have fuelled an Air Force plane. Aside from such occasional visits, I was able to work undisturbed.

          My barfly pals spread the news of the David versus Goliath combat round the village. As for the inhabitants, "They watched new stars arise from the ocean depths to an unknown sky," to quote Heredia. They really did think of my deeds as a tour de force worthy of respect if only for the effort involved. I was getting along nicely. My hands were in good condition once more. They were subjected to hours of disciplinary torture – like telling the beads of an endless rosary – and this had almost entirely restored that sixth sense which increases an interpreter’s sensitivity, as it does the receptiveness of an audience. Mastery of the instrument was mine once again – something only those who have never experienced it can look upon with hypocritical incredulity. To give an example, I invented a very good exercise to test the autonomy of my hands: I superimposed the American and Russian national anthems, each in its own key. As one is in triple time and the other in quadruple, harmonisation was rather complicated with each hand playing a different melody. Perhaps that is why the two countries have never been able to fall into step.

          The main part of the programme I had in mind was based on patriotic songs intermingled with folksongs and dances, all played as if by a mob of volunteers disguised as innocent maidens. There were also a few sketches richly seasoned with rustic wit, full of very obvious misunderstandings, relating in a very corny style the endless misfortunes of a soldier surrounded by enemy troops searching for his battalion.

          The great day was approaching. Our barracks were beginning to look like a fairy tale garrison run by operetta soldiers doing their best to transform their quarters into a casino. Some of them helped things along by working from dawn till dusk cutting out fancy paper garlands which the dummies, hastily retrained as lace-makers, transformed into paper lanterns. As a final touch, they set their dainty fingers to painting them, with an expression of beatitude like monks engaged in illuminating manuscripts.

          Another squadron, reputed for its initiative, was ‘delegated to outdoor work with a view to conveyance’ – in the broadest sense of the term. It was better not to ask too many questions about the articles ‘under conveyance’, whether they had been obtained by the might of the sword or, as was more likely, looted, appropriated, pilfered or, to put it bluntly, swiped. Once the invading forces had passed, the Liberation army, according to the principle of the biter bit, became more or less tacitly tolerated by the authorities, who had other things to do than spend their time checking up on the morality of soldiers a little over-zealous in their ‘requisitioning’. The piano I was using had probably belonged to one of those families which had been deported and sent to the gas chambers as soon as Hungary was forced into the position of ally of her former benevolent protector. There was, alas, no lack of abandoned homes full of easily removable objects. In short, our battalion, a close ally of the Red Army’s and as popular as it was independent, quivered to the cultural cry of, "Halt! Who goes there?" However, no-one had as yet been authorized to take over the physical training room where, protected by special orders, I barricaded myself to put the final touches to my Herculean labours. Forty-eight hours before the Great Day, the valiant task force invaded the place jubilantly, cleaning and polishing everything in their path until the last bar of soap was used up, at which moment the exhausted saurians scuttled away from the battlefield, by now transformed into a recreation hall. The results were amazing: the rotting boards shone like a ballroom floor and were, in the opinion of the Commandant, decidedly cleaner than the canteen cutlery. The little windows shone so brightly that the intertwined rays of the spring sunshine caused young flies in search of a cool spot to shelter to fly smack into them. The more experienced knew where the missing panes were.

          As I put the finishing touches to my transformation from a beggarly François Villon to an Omar Kayam, a new choir of angels arrived with orders to sandpaper a freshly cleaned section of wall over which spread the tentacles of a huge Swastika. They set to with all the perseverance of the Danaides. A square-shaped patch in the centre of the hated emblem was all that remained of the spot where the once obligatory official portrait had hung. It had no doubt depicted Admiral Horthy, the ruler of Hungary, congratulating a certain Austrian colonel with the wind in his sails after signing their notorious agreement.

          Our celebrations were due to take place the next day. After two hours’ hard work, the gravediggers of outmoded ideologies had come to the conclusion they would need three days to make the place presentable. Desperate ills call for desperate remedies. After consorting with his mates, one off them went off, returning with a roll of blood-red tinfoil. He unrolled it on the floor and cut out a star slightly larger than the faint traces of the Swastika. His accomplices carefully stapled the new emblem over the now-despised old one. The brains behind the operation went off yet again, returning proudly with a portrait of the new arbiter of peace who, with his benevolent smile, was to dictate at Yalta a whole new distribution of power. I gazed perplexedly at the allegory of the joint rule of the new era. By force of circumstance, I had borne both emblems on my tank turrets and my lapels and my enthusiasm for the new decoration was muted almost to the point of indifference. What significance could this new emblem have for my life? The naturalist Buffon has written that the warbler symbolizes fickleness just as the turtledove symbolizes fidelity. Did this signal the dawn of a new life or was it no more than a trademark, merely bringing a change of shape and colour to my Witches’ Sabbath of an existence?

           The preparatory stage of my training was nearly over. To the greater joy of my at long last free hands, I had stopped mortifying them with Dervish-like exercises two days before. For the moment, I was restricting myself to Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody and the outline of improvisations on a popular tune which, I hoped, would provide a firework display at the appropriate moment. While the lads, good tummies that they were, put the final touches to their decorations, I slowly and resignedly shut the piano lid and watched them. The situation was urgent. Yet another team of strongmen, with a trace of alcohol-induced squint in their eyes, was waiting to carry the instrument off to its makeshift platform. The podium was a good example of Darwin’s theory that nothing is lost or created, only transformed – even in politics. Despite the weight of the piano, the resourceful fellows who had constructed this masterpiece had found nothing better to support it than the metal pieces of the proud Swastika adorning the hall not long before and which had been recuperated form the dump. There stood the platform, on the ruins of the former household god and beneath the enigmatic gaze of his successor, and from it I was to try and make the village folk forget that they had already had more than enough of both.

          The fateful hour of my gala concert was fixed for ten o’clock the following morning. I was off duty so I decided to walk round the town as a reward for my ten days’ solitary confinement. I had to get out of my head the absurd idea that having served under the banner of Charybdis I was now under Scylla’s. It was a lovely day. The inhabitants were solemnly taking their daily stroll along the main street. I stared in amazement: it was like a vast floral float with the people dressed all in their finery, including many in multicoloured costumes.

          As in all truly rural villages where the people live off the land, no-one paid any attention to city fashions. For the elderly they were too modernistic, for the young too costly. So everyone dressed according to what suited their age or situation. The girls had put on their organdie dresses and wore wooden clogs or even went bare-footed. They wore a few wild flowers in their hair rather than patchouli. The more mischievous made the young regimental priest blush scarlet by heaving deep sighs of longing every time they passed him. Men of the older generation proudly wore the old Hussars’ uniform. It was an extraordinary one: despite its distant Turkish origins, it was still very popular and carried considerable prestige. It consisted of a brightly coloured frogged jacket, richly decorated with gold trimmings, with trousers and sometimes even silver-spurred boots to match. Compared with these splendid uniforms, real collector’s items worn by toy soldiers, we looked as though we were dressed in second-rate mercenaries’ rags. The women had eyes only for them. Even when it came to pleasing the eye, we were fighting the wrong war.

          After ten days of enforced isolation, I drank in this multi-coloured procession bathed in the spring air. To complete the illusion of being transported back in time, there were even a few implacable old ladies who, disdaining all this fancy, were ostentatiously decked out in traditional folk dress with its innumerable petticoats, while on their white chignons they wore a variety of local coifs of heavily starched lace. Seated on the stone benches along the street or near the thatched-roofed washhouse, they chatted quietly to the old men with their great handlebar or pointed moustaches, preened specially fir the occasion.

          How good it was just to be able to stroll along with nothing in particular on one’s mind. I breathed in the scents of spring, wafted on the playful breeze from the woods and fields round about. All of a sudden, I found myself surrounded by a gaggle of beauties: "Here’s the drill sergeant who’s killing off our boyfriends!" laughed one. "No, it isn’t," said another nymph, He’s a musician. He’s the one-man-band. I know him – he’s all right." "People say you know just how to handle it," added another lily-of-the-fields, a tow-haired blond. "Is it true you’re going to give us a little something tomorrow?" "Give you what, sweetie?" I quipped, sensing she was a bit of a tease. "A piano with only three legs," the pretty girl replied, adding sympathetically, "The battalion could have found something a bit less shaky, couldn’t it?" "Even the greatest beauty in the world can only give what she’s got," I replied learnedly, trying hard to remain serious, as became my new role as ‘man of the moment’. "I’m looking forward to it just the same," replied the pert charmer, looking me over admiringly as if I had been a prize bull at an agricultural show. "You don’t often see an instructor in close-combat fighting change into an ivory-tickling dandy in his spare time, do you girls?"

          They shrieked with laughter. I found the voices of these flighty huntresses soothing and, with all the wisdom of my twenty-odd years, declared that, deep down, the heart of this bloodthirsty mercenary was brimming over with noble feelings reserved for lovely washer-girls and shepherdesses. Darkness was falling. Regretfully, I was going to have to leave this pretty bunch of primroses with their forget-me-not-blue and sea-green eyes, and bodices more enticing than any service medal.

          As I left, I realized that the village people were virtually all interrelated since, from great-great-grandfather down to the tiniest baby, they referred to each other as cousin, uncle, etc., etc.. In short, this great rural family had dressed up to the nines for the sole pleasure of holding a dress rehearsal for the next day’s festivities. I said goodnight to my by now unconditional admirers and went very grandly back to barracks, where a great plate of oat flakes, which was supposed to be my dinner, was awaiting me. Bucephalus himself would have found it difficult to digest that lot. The orderly on duty – the one I used to instruct in crawling through puddles – clicked his heels at my approach with all the respect due to one returning from the hunt bearing Hitler’s hide in the form of a bedside rug.

          "So tomorrow’s the great day, chief," he said, standing rigidly to attention. I nodded solemnly, looking up at the sky like all great generals.

           * * * * * * * * * *

          It was five o’clock. The day looked like being a sunny one. I should have gone back to sleep or at least taken advantage of my last day of VIP treatment to laze in bed but four years of patriotic wanderings had rid my system of such decadent bourgeois habits.

          I got up, washed quickly and hurried down to the canteen, where my pal the cook, who had a degree in maths, was already waiting for me with a huge plateful of salt pork. All that was needed to help it down was a few lentils. This great admirer of Newton, as well as of units, had an unfortunate habit of pouring huge quantities of salt and pepper into our grub while his thoughts were engaged on quadratic equations. He had as much enthusiasm for his saucepans as I for the innards of my tank when it needed a repair. In the course of our morning chats, he discovered I was a musician and, since he was a little batty, claimed we were kindred spirits since the same laws governed sound and mathematics. On this day of days, what weighty arguments could I oppose to such reasoning?

          Speaking with my mouth full, I reminded him that the Emperor Claudius had been transported in all haste to the Senate by litter so that its members could decree without delay that life would be pointless if salt bacon did not exist. Stimulated by our discussion, I went off for a walk simply for the pleasure of not hearing that wretched bugle braying.

          I walked on over hill and meadow for a good two hours. It was a glorious day. The countryside was so beautiful: the blue forget-me-nots were opening, the rising sun tinted the primroses mauve and a whole mass of wild flowers with long graceful stems were overflowing with heady sap so that it was hard to believe that just a few weeks previously whole divisions had been trampling this ground, fighting for it inch by inch. I felt relaxed and carefree.

          I was lost in thought as though praying at some great pagan altar. When after some time I remembered the concert, the sun was high in the sky. I had to get back if I was not to be late. Far off in the distance, people all in their best were beginning to leave their houses. Young and old alike seemed very excited. I was soon to find out why.

          I pushed my way through the crowd, slipped into the hall and went behind a curtain made out of tattered sacks which had contained the regiment’s potato stocks. They now served as wings where the artists tried to control their stage fright by going over their lines and feeble jokes. The local bright spark was the worst affected of all. Normally a loudmouth, he was slumped in a corner, teeth chattering at the idea of having to welcome the locals in dialect on behalf of the regiment.

          Suddenly all talk ceased. The Commanding Officer entered in full regalia with half a pound of sparkling medals hastily pinned on his chest. "He really must be in the soup to have got himself up like a Christmas tree so quickly," the man next to me whispered. Our dear, crestfallen chief must have felt like the Pope would have done had he learned that god was arriving in ten minutes to dine with him.

          "Friends! Dear friends!" he said, trying to control his tremulous voice, "The Generalissimo of the Hungarian Army together with a Marshal of the Soviet General Staff and their retinue, on a tour of inspection, have just telegraphed a message announcing their wish to honour our cultural event with their presence. I’m counting on you," he concluded, more dead than alive, standing to attention with corpse-like rigidity.

          The news spread like wildfire and made the artists even more nervous. Indeed, they would sooner have flirted with some jungle beauty than gone onstage. Other soldiers and officers, eager to be in the know, crowded backstage where we were already packed tight and could have done without their presence. There was no longer any question of starting on time: we had to wait for our illustrious guests. To fill in the time, certain kindly souls went round jollying up those among the artists who looked as if they might faint at the sight of so many glittering decorations.

          As for me, a young officer (blast him!) felt it his duty to ‘keep my morale up’, as he put it. I could not remember ever meeting him before whereas he claimed to have known me for years from reading all about the incredible story of my entry into the Franz Liszt Academy, which had made headlines at the time. In typical officer’s jargon, he made a long speech about excessive nervous tension draining an artist’s concentration, plus other similar queer ideas, until the tense atmosphere started to affect me. He punctuated his Ciceronian oratory with double swigs from a largish bottle kept in his pocket and went on chatting blithely about paralysing stage fright. After I had refused his offer several times, this devil’s disciple started to expatiate on the worst thing that could happen to a pianist: a memory lapse. After half an hour of this, I realized to my dismay that I had been drained of every drop of self-confidence. When this dratted lieutenant held out his bottle to me for the umpteenth time, his hand ever-shakier, I gave in and with my own trembling hand took a couple of reluctant sips. It was a mature walnut brandy at least ten years old and of exceptional quality. He asked me what I thought of it and reverently concurred, confessing with tears in his eyes that the delicate ‘bouquet’ of this essence was nothing less than the distillation of his dear mother’s soul. It would profane her memory to refuse this nectar. He took back the object of his worship, held it up like the holy sacrament and made a further loving sacrifice to his mother’s soul. I did not wish to appear boorish and offend such filial devotion and so took yet another dram. This time my paralysing anxiety evaporated and a soothing warmth spread over me. From time to time I looked impassively through a hole in the curtain: the hall was full. We were only waiting for the High Priests so that the junketings could begin. Meanwhile, my lieutenant friend kept urging more of the anti-stage fright potion on me: "Nothing better to help you face a crowd," he said with a rumble and a burp.

          Soon, blissfully unaware, I was knocking back walnut liqueur like mother’s milk. By the time a speech welcoming our guests and singing the praises of our victory was over, my apparent Olympian calm was more a case of comatose sleep than loss of faculties. If only I had drunk just that much less, a last-minute return to consciousness, aided by fear, might have burnt up the excess alcohol in my system and restored some of my vitality. I was not drunk but my body was rigid and my eyelids were drooping. To crown it all, I was aware that though I could still walk straight the will to go onstage had evaporated. I stood staring ahead, sluggish and complacent. By then, both my back-slapping benefactor and I were downing, rather more often than just praising, the quintessence of his mother’s soul. Luckily, this did not continue too long. My benefactor, who had been paying homage since daybreak, suddenly dashed out at a speed I would have believed him capable of. Knocking over chairs and plunging through scenery, he staggered to the exit, sounding like a boiler on the point of exploding. That is where filial piety gets you, I thought, nodding sagely.

          The euphoric lieutenant’s hassle with the props was perfectly visible to the audience, which reacted with a mixture of hilarity and indignation. A few zealous corporals blasted them with ‘shhs’ which I must have been alone in thinking it sounded like a distant murmur. My thoughts were becoming more and more muddled. I was on the point of going into hibernation once and for all when I became vaguely aware that someone was pulling me along and forcing me onstage before a vague mass whose indistinct murmur barely attained my nirvana.

          Some impetus or other carried my rigid legs along. I looked out over the stalls, managing somehow or other to conceal my somnolence. I stood quite still in the middle of the little platform staring blankly at the packed audience. Just below, in the first row, shone a line of glittering epaulettes while an assortment of jutting chests sparkled with myriad medals. I felt as welcome as a dog on a putting green. A shout would have gone unnoticed, yet I felt the rustle of silence round me like a shroud. Then my mind went quite blank, apart fro the odd hallucination. Quite despite myself, I found I was sitting on the stool. Before me was a huge black piano with an immaculately white keyboard dotted with little patches of shiny black shadow grinning at me.

          My arms hung inert like a disjointed puppet’s and seemed to weigh a ton. Besides which my fingers had grown so numb that they barely seemed to belong to me. At that precise moment an electric shock ran through my clouded brain. As I looked down, I realized that those generals with their distinguished phizzes and those peasant girls all dressed up in their operetta flounced skirts were my audience waiting for me to play something for them. I was quite incapable of concentrating on my hands to coordinate the complex movements and tried desperately to recall a mere fraction of the countless warhorses my brain and fingers had struggled so hard to master. I was obliged to concede that all that remained of those hours of self-communing and painstaking preparation was a pile of rubble. All I could do was finish off my recital – and I mean finish off. I did manage to disinter Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody from my memory. How I did it remains a mystery to this day.

          After this odd performance, I left the podium in a daze. True, I did not stagger off, rather I moved like a sleepwalker. I do not even remember taking the customary bow. As soon as I had started, I had had the uneasy feeling that my playing was unspeakably awful. I could not say, though, to what extent such a mixed audience was aware of the desperate struggle being fought against my inner void. What exactly is ‘quality’? For me, being qualified means being apt. On that dread day I failed lamentably on both counts at one and the same time. Even the little circle of rustic dilettantes had realized it. Of all the performances that morning, mine was received with, or rather penalized by, the feeblest applause. I was not sufficiently intoxicated for it to be evident why my hands had lost the power to convey the magic which is normally one of the most notable features of my playing. I had taken such pains to restore it to its former level and now it had sunk lower than ever, if that was possible, and for such a ludicrous reason, depriving the audience of the spell that coherent playing might have cast over them. My last public concert had been at least five years ago and was no more than a faint memory. Most of what had happened in the meantime had put my original goal even further from my grasp. And this was the result of my first attempt to rise from the ashes!

          As far as I can remember, the festivities ended round one o’clock in the afternoon. The audience dispersed and we were free till evening. As for me, as soon as my tribulations were over I hurried away from the jolly clique of celebrated nonentities and went straight to bed. I slept deeply, unperturbed by dreams, right through to the following morning. When I awoke, the events of the previous day came back to me with astonishing vividness. I was overcome with shame. I ruminated over my dishonour and humiliation with a feeling of opprobrium under which good lost its lustre and evil its ugliness. I broke down and wept unashamedly. For having put up with too much abuse, as well as for all my errors. Then there was the loneliness, my loneliness, the ghost of solitude that I had stoically been pretending to ignore over the past four years. So far I had managed to a greater or lesser extent to beware of underhand attacks on my only companion during this barren period of my life. From now on, this elemental power could dispose of me as it thought fit: I was throwing in the towel.

          During all this time, the patrol was searching for me everywhere. I was discovered in my room lying in a faint on the floor with my arms outstretched. Later, when I had recovered somewhat, I began to worry about the sentiments of my superiors towards their drill sergeant. It turned out that no-one had noticed anything abnormal about my conduct.

          The Camp Commander asked to see me but not even he, with his considerably broader intellectual horizons, made the slightest insinuation about my buffoonery. Perfectly straight-faced, he handed me a new list of warmongering exercises to be tried out on the trainees. In short, no disciplinary action was taken over my blunder. I got away with it, as they say. Time passed and the festivities were soon a distant memory – for everyone except me.

          Memories of the fiasco gnawed at me inwardly like an agonizing wound and for years to come haunted my days and, worse, my nights. In fact, it took me a good twenty years of irreproachable professional life to forget it. No other ointment could have healed the wound and effaced the deep inner scar.

          Meanwhile, for want of a better scapegoat, I took my bitter feelings out on those around me. I gave free rein to my baser instincts and soon became a regular slave driver. On the pretext of training the recruits, I took great pleasure in exhausting, breaking and martyrising them and even physically abusing the unfortunate recruits Fate threw in my path. I treated them arrogantly and harshly. Such an attitude was not healthy: I hated everything and everybody – and it goes without saying that the feeling was reciprocated. As my despotic cruelty worsened, my friends melted away. Cursing me under their breath, my subordinates gritted their teeth and crawled, ran and jumped without let-up and at dizzying speed. It was all the same to me. Their antipathy was, if anything, a relief. My superiors were not in the least bothered about my sadistic methods so long as the rebellious shirkers were transformed into disciplined cannon fodder without a hitch and, believe you me, there was never a word of protest.

          During the time spent drilling a love of the fatherland into my brothers, I spent my nights walking till dawn, trying to rid myself of ‘that’ obsession. Those sleepless nights spent out of doors redoubled my severity, which had long lost its ability to surprise, the following day.

          A succession of events enabled me to rid myself of the shadow haunting me. The war was nearing its end. Hungary was free of Nazi Germany’s unwelcome friendship. Certain economic deals had been imposed on us in addition to political protection, by no means to our advantage. The Great Reich was to have lasted a thousand years, so that when it collapsed, a new period of inflation set in. Certain cabarets in the neighbouring village opened up again as far as possible, in view of the curfew still in force, only to be invaded by local tipplers, who engaged in a little barter while waiting for the currency to become more stable so as to be able to quench their endless thirst. I longed to join them to avoid being alone with myself and organized my rake’s progress accordingly. I did shift work, as they say.

          Each day from dawn till dusk I yelled myself hoarse and reduced the joints and cartilages of my underlings to jelly. Once dinner was over, I went off to a bar to drink my fill. It was the sort of place where, during the week, the distinguished clientele enjoyed a hearty punch-up at closing time. On the whole, they were a pious lot: they rarely broke the rule of not using knives, except after High Mass on Sunday night. I sometimes joined in their jousting in honour of the knife, the secret emblem of ‘Angel Court’. It was as good a way as any of passing the time. Once the circus games were over, it was rare if some kind soul did not invite me in to join him in a final drink, though I hardly needed one. "We can’t just part like this," my host for the evening would say. I accepted gratefully, for although the bars closed at ten I did not have to be back until midnight and nothing in the world would have made me go back to quarters before I was certain I could at least knock back a liqueur. True, I only slept from midnight till four o’clock: quite enough for me to recuperate. After which I got up and went and did a few menial tasks for one or other of the early risers in the village, such as the blacksmith, until first bugle call. That was how I earned a little money to help me see my existence through rose-coloured spectacles each evening.

          Weeks turned into months and I sank deeper and deeper into a life of drunkenness and violence. I was, not for the first time, wading through a swamp and losing touch with myself. My new acquaintances had a strong influence on me: I fought, swore and got drunk with all and sundry. I found the company of these knights of decadence soothing. Just as I was about to sink without trace in a fury of self-destruction, the postal system started up again by fits and starts. Little by little, all my fellow soldiers got news of their families. I was staggering back one night, stinking of wine, after getting into a scrap with a braggart of a farmer I had had to chuck into a slurry pit to stop him altering my features with the aid of a broken bottle, when I found an envelope on my camp bed. I sobered up immediately on recognizing my wife’s handwriting. Even so, when about to pick it up, my hands hesitated for some time as though it was no concern of theirs before eagerly grabbing the letter.

          It was addressed to a certain "György Cziffra, pianist".

 



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