A hopeful day today. Bowing the the Phantom, I have been taking Variation 2 apart, thinking of it as he does: two violins and a cello beneath. It makes perfect sense, particularly when I listen to Glenn Gould. Boy, can he pick out the lines. It’s been useful playing both ‘violins’ with two hands, since in my book, many of the variations are played as a duet between Monsieur Belladroit and my girls. You hadn’t forgotten I was writing a book, had you? Sometimes I forget, or choose to. The piano is one of the very best forms of procrastination, since you feel creative and disciplined as you practise, and so can put off, with a clear, even a smug, conscience, the evil hour when the blank screen awaits. Anyhow, in my book, Variation 2 is played by timid Georgiana. She has supple fingers – yes, supple fingers indeed. She will not always use them to play the piano.
And now I must go to London until Thursday. A fold-up piano would be so useful, although my car will be stuffed to the gunnels with Daughter 2’s belongings. She has just moved to London. I miss her. I shall miss my Goldberg. If I’m brave, and if I pass one, I might totter into a piano shop and sit down like a prospective purchaser. I did it in Paris once. ‘Quite nice,’ I said airily, getting up from a beautiful Steinway concert grand, ‘but not quite what I’m looking for.’ The man knew I was a fraud. He absolutely knew. He never asked exactly what it was I sought. He simply gave me an old-fashioned look and closed the door behind me very firmly.
I have a Goldberg friend – I hope he doesn’t mind me referring to him as the Phantom, since his role is invisible teacher. He emailed today. Sometimes, when unknowns get in touch through a blog, one hesitate before pressing the reply button. I hesitated, but my stabbing of the button was rewarded. The Phantom is not a CyberNat (google that if you’re not a Scot) or a member of the green ink brigade (ask a journalist). He’s an experienced Goldberger. He has advised that I may be approaching things the wrong way round. I’m stressing about fingering when I should begin with phrasing. Phrasing is the key to fingering. Of course, I think! I rush to the piano. This evening, in Variation 1 alone I’ve been tempted by at least ten different phrasings, not because I’m a genius but because the patterns are so inviting. No more of that! I’m going to choose my phrasing and stick to it. And he also said to start with the Aria because it’s one of Bach’s ‘greatest and loveliest creations’. What better reason. I started today, suddenly nervous that if a bus ran me over, I’d have missed my chance. I didn’t play it well. My fingers kept bumping into each other. But I got to the end, so if I do meet that bus tomorrow, I can shout ‘better today than yesterday’. That should puzzle ’em. Now for dinner. Goodness me. Cyril Connelly banged on about ‘the pram in the hall’ being ‘the sombre enemy of good art’. We’re passed that stage in this house. The new enemy is the reproachfully empty casserole dish and the unlaid table.
Variation 2 retaliated; my attempts to surprise it were met with a surprise all of its own: the fingering is impossibly complicated. So complicated, indeed, that I’m in touch with a music shop that purports to offer a manuscript with fingering suggestions: the Peters edition, I think. I’ve been working out how long this venture – tackling the Goldberg – might take me and on balance, it will probably take until I die, which is ok. Could even be a relief. I’ll never have to buy any more music. For light relief yesterday, I went back to Clair de Lune. Oh, the forgiving sustaining pedal. But I did discover something marvellous. However slowly the Goldberg is going and however ridiculous my performance, my technique has improved. Thank you, Mr. Bach. And Debussy thanks you too. I have been asked for how long every day I practice. It’s a troublesome question, on which more tomorrow.
To memorise or not to memorise my attempts at the Goldberg. This is still undecided. As a rule, I make myself memorise what I learn because it would be too pretentious for words to carry a load of music about, and ‘I can’t play without the music’ sounds pretty feeble. But since I’m never likely to attempt to play the Goldberg anywhere but home and with the silencer on, perhaps memorising doesn’t matter so much. I’m also investigating investing in another edition – one with suggested fingering printed. It takes me absolutely hours to work out any kind of fingering. Who said maths and music went together? Sometimes I can barely count how many fingers I’ve got. Not enough is the only certainty. Today I crept onto Variation 2. I thought I might take it by surprise. It was certainly surprised, but possibly not in a good way.
Well, whadayaknow. Somebody’s just given me a 2001 copy of Granta, and inside I find an essay by Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, all about playing the piano. Called ‘Mozart, Not’ he reveals an obsession that led him to purchase a 9 foot Fazioli grand costing ‘roughly one and a half Volvo estates’. That’s a lot of piano. Indeed, that’s one hell of a lot of piano. If he was worried about the neighbours being upset by his practice on his old Challen upright, what on earth can they have made of this monster? When the essay was written, he had not (and may still have not) discovered the neat little gadget that is the silencer.
Oh, glorious silencer. What would I do without you? I’d be paralysed, that’s what. Mr. Rusbridger wonders what his neighbours make of his practice. I don’t wonder what mine make of mine: the thought of them hearing any part of it is really quite horrible. But if I don’t want anybody to hear me, why do I play? I don’t know, is the answer, except that, just like Mr. Rusbridger, a day spent without practising, even for ten minutes, is a bad day. And then there’s this. The work banks up. At the end of every week, I know for certain that whatever else has gone awry I’ve achieved something. For a writer who’s best friends with the delete button, that’s a bit of a life-saver.
Memory is a funny old thing. There are two types for musicians: muscle memory and brain memory – probably not the right terms but who cares. I train my fingers like performing ants, repeating and repeating and repeating. It’s alarming how long they take to remember a phrase, and then suddenly they go all peculiar and try to usurp each other’s place all of their own accord. As for the brain memory, all I can say is that I see no evidence that all this practice is staving off Alzheimer’s. Luckily, if it doesn’t, I suppose I won’t remember.
Fingering is all important. It should be easy to work out in Bach, since so much is patterned, but I still have trouble. In the Goldberg Aria, I’m always running out of fingers, and sometimes in Variation One – whisper it – I don’t end up with both thumbs on G. That would be enough to get my wrists smacked if I had a piano teacher, but though I could certainly use one, I’m not sure anybody would really want the job. This is not false modesty. I have much to be modest about. Perhaps it’s an age thing. Though in these straitened times, there would, I dare say, be many people willing to teach me, nobody could really enjoy it and I dread being dreaded so I shall carry on using YouTube to see how things should be done. So far, I’ve lowered my hands and flattened my fingers slightly. I’ve tried it with the Bach, then I had a small shot at the third of Shostakovich’s Fantastic Dances. Can’t say it sounded like a dance, but at least two bars sounded like Shostakovich. I call that a victory.
Drink and the piano don’t go well together. I know this, yet I’m always testing it out, just to make sure it hasn’t changed. That’s the definition of madness: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Still, lots of musicians have been a bit crazy and I can be crazy too. Learning these variations is crazy so I’m already half way there. The wine makes me bold. I sit, open the music, think for a moment, then begin. All will be well. I will play Variation 1 in all its glory. Right hand second finger G, F sharp, G, an octave run of semiquavers. Left hand fifth finger bottom G, semi-quavers octave B A B quaver G octave G. Repeat pattern. How hard can it be? Answer: hard without wine, impossible with. I retreat, humbled again. No wine tomorrow, but then a thought: perhaps I’m just not drinking enough of the stuff. A whole bottle tomorrow. Then we’ll see.
It’s good to get into a routine, and it’s good, for an obsessive like me, to have it broken, or so I’m told. Anyhow, it’s broken tonight for the best of reasons. Daughter 1, plus new husband, returned to the fold and the house is humming not with Goldberg, but with family chatter. I expect Bach liked a bit of family chitchat, and I didn’t abandon the piano entirely. 20 minutes was done, in between burning the rice and laying the table. A takeaway person arrived at the door with next door’s order. Oh, the temptation to grab the bags and say ‘thanks so much’. Instead I made Delia’s winter roasted vegetables. Greater love hath no mother …
Posted in Blog
Tagged Bach, Goldberg