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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


          In a semi-stupor, I was about to play my last card. The waiting room door opened and in came a young, slender subaltern. I leapt to my feet and stood to attention as he languidly returned my salute.

          As he came closer, his features seemed familiar. Wherever could I have seen him before? I was about to ask when the consulting-room door half opened and the major-doctor stuck his head out, apparently expecting him. "Hear you are at last, dear fellow! Delighted to see you!" The major, clearly moved, came up to his visitor, shook his hand warmly and courteously stood aside to let him go in first.

          I was intrigued by the medical officerís affability, which bordered on the obsequious. I had never before seen a senior officer treat a subordinate, who did not even appear to be a friend, in this way. As the door was shutting behind them I thought, "That man has already taken my place some time in the past." The feeling brought back childhood memories. Memories of a boy who had taken my place at the top. Every time I crossed his path at the Liszt Academy the feeling of jealousy returned. His playing had about it a halo of superiority which was reflected in his behaviour, and his exasperating dominance in every domain had plagued much of my childhood.

          Sitting in the Infirmary waiting room, I thought back to those times at the Academy and saw again the huge classroom where a great concert grand had pride of place. I met this particular boy shortly after being admitted on special dispensation. (I am not using the word Ďspecialí just to show off but because I passed into the top class almost at once without any preliminary study in other music schools.) I was nearly twelve while he, one of the youngest in the class, was almost twice my age. The confidence of his playing, a result of his adult strength and maturity, was incomparably superior to the performances of a budding eaglet like myself. If only I could have played like him! From a young boyís point of view, it was just not acceptable that our age difference should be my greatest handicap. If I could not be the best in the class of adults soon to take their final exams at least I should not be dragging behind and had at all costs to play like them. Instead of admiring his talent, I saw him purely as a rival. His virtuosity and the way he made childís play of the sort of technical difficulties the rest of us had such problems with made me sick with admiration. I was so fascinated by his technique that I did not even pay attention to the finesse of his interpretations. I am pretty certain the others in the class were just as fascinated by the aristocratic grace of his playing. While we banged away at our pieces for the teacher as best we could, he, on the very piano which had just received such a battering at our hands, was at one with the music and on occasion moved us deeply. Fortune smiled on him: being the only son of a very rich and influential family assured him of every success and consideration in society as it was then. He came to classes at the wheel of a splendid sports car, dressed in the latest fashion. The others were impeccably dressed too but I do not think I ever saw him in the same suit twice running. A feeling of shame and inferiority arose in me each time I saw him, all the more as my only pair of trousers Ė which my mother had to keep adding pieces to Ė was barely fit to be seen. The same went for my one shirt, which could not be enlarged and was not far off bursting at the seams.

          Shortly after winning his diploma with flying colours, he left the Academy to start on what promised to be an outstanding career. He was engaged straight away in towns in Hungary as well as abroad. He came on a farewell visit to the Academy before leaving on his first tour. Our teacher asked us to play something from his programme, which he did willingly, as always, playing us Chopinís Polonaise-Fantaisie. There was something visionary, even frightening, about his sublime interpretation. The piano sang, sighed and begged beneath his fingers as Chopinís wonderful morbidezza surged forth. To play this piece one needs all the emotions displayed by other composers and more, and this poses insurmountable problems to the musician who cannot fully enter Chopinís nirvana. By the end I was close to tears. Forgetting my shyness and the people round me, I approached the piano as the last sounds died away. He sat quite still, his arms hanging limply like those of an exhausted puppet. I asked in an unexpectedly deep voice for a child, "How do you manage to convey every tremor of your soul so perfectly?"

          He did not seem inclined to reply so I insisted, "What do you see and feel when you play this piece? The understanding between you and it is like that of an engaged couple. (Whatever came into my head to say that?) How do you do it?" He turned to me wearily, replying in an expressionless voice, "To write such music you have to be dying, as Chopin was. Either one has to be in the same situation to bring the work alive or perhaps some artists have souls older than their years." An embarrassed silence hung over the room while, with all the wisdom of my twelve years, I puzzled over the meaning of his words. It was the only time we ever spoke, though we were to see each other again.

          When hard times came I heard that my childhood rival had had to cut short a tour abroad and return at once to Budapest for military service.

          As for my medical, I was not as fortunate as my friend from the Academy. Indeed, I think he was partly responsible, if not consciously so. The doctor did not even examine me but threatened me with the military tribunal if ever I refused to get into the train with the other volunteers without a maximum of regulation patriotism. Whereas my pianist colleague had been accompanied to the door by the doctor, more obsequious than ever. From what I gathered from their conversation, he had been exempted from all military duties. As they went out, they were both laughing and chatting about the benefits of convalescence on the shores of the Adriatic.

          I was once again consumed with jealousy: "To think that while heís sitting under the palm trees with his family Iíll be crouching to avoid Stalinís missiles!" Truth to tell, I did not believe at the time that he was ill. Quite the contrary: I was certain that life did nothing but shower its blessings on him and that his indecent good luck had obtained his exemption. The enchantment of Montenegro for him, the Polish tundra for me. A mere slip of paper had saved him from the German whip, the Russian knout and even the Hungarian truncheon, which was much favoured by the police now that they were fully won over to the German cause.

          A few months later I found myself on the front somewhere in Poland. One evening I was returning with a friend, who acted as the campís radio. We were crawling through the mud in the direction of our lines after attempting to drive off a few soldiers and peasants trying, poor chaps, to defend their country with a machine gun left behind as scrap metal. Between bursts of firing, my companion came to a halt, sat down in the mud, rolled and lit a cigarette, then said, "I hear youíre a pianist."

          "Why do you say that? If you want to place an order for your funeral march tomorrow, I canít do it. Iíve got to mine the railway track," I muttered darkly. "No," he said pensively, "though Iíll make a note of your offer Ė you never know. I asked because I had a pal in Budapest. He had a doctorate as well as being a fine enough pianist to turn all the top ones at the Academy green with envy. His name was György Faragó ." [(1913-1944). First Prize Fauré competition, 1939, then teacher at the Liszt Academy until 1941, when he was dismissed due to anti-Jewish legislation]

          "Why do you say Ďwasí?" A very close shave awoke us to the fact that the glow of our cigarettes had betrayed us. "Because heís dead," said my pal, flattening himself in an even deeper puddle. A grenade exploded nearby and caused us to shift positions. I could not believe what I had just heard. "What did he die of?" My pal kept crawling all the harder and whistled between his teeth, "Cancer."

          I felt myself grow pale beneath the layer of mud on my face. The news was like an electric shock. I thought back to the rivalry which had kept us apart. The wretched, insurmountable class barrier that had prevented us from becoming friends. As I lay on the sodden ground that night, I vowed to myself never again to have any feelings other than forthright, humble admiration for anyone of artistic merit and ability, even if he did outstrip me.

          It was an ideal spot to atone for that final childhood sin with the first signs of adult perceptiveness. For the first and last time in my life, I had been jealous of someone else being the object of admiration. Just then, and for some time to come, I had had to ward off a flood of misfortunes while everything he undertook went right. In exchange, there was a special clause in his curriculum vitae that he was obliged to accept. I would not be so bold or presumptuous as to say to what extent he had realized he was doomed yet there must be some form of premonition by which certain people realize their lifespan is rapidly running out so that they have no illusions about the future. (No-one can tell what the morrow holds in store, and so much the better: if everyone knew what was going to happen the next day, there are not many among us who would not change their previous dayís plans.) Only those who have this innate gift are able Ė thanks to what I would called an Ďadaptedí subconscious Ė to sense how much time is remaining to them to fulfil their mission. Like faith it is a gift from God. Those to whom it is given make use of it, while others merely claim to have it. The greatest gift a musician can have is the possibility of lifting just a corner of the veil covering that mystery.

          During that outstanding young pianistís existence, he was granted permission from on high to cross the impassable line separating virtually all musicians from the true genius of the composer, and very few of those called are chosen to do so. The last time I saw him, his only wish was to live yet he was already Deathís chosen one. That invisible, pitiless shadow passed over us both that day. Most perturbing of all is the fact that I, in good health, had appealed to Him as a means of escape, were it in the form of a grave illness, from the constant ill-luck which had dogged my footsteps and was to go on doing so.

          Death had kept the appointment but had chosen someone else. It had come to take one of the chosen few who had been no more than a rival who could, better than anyone, have helped me discover those secret paths I was going to have to seek out alone. I still cannot help thinking how such a brief friendship might have developed. I will always regret it.

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