Notes Give Pathos to Clouds

Artur Schnabel Plays Beethoven, Volume 1

Sonata no. 19 in G Minor, op. 49, no. 1

My father bought my first piano from the Briscoes in Sumter, South Carolina. We knew the Briscoes from church and because Brother Briscoe, as we called him, was in the Air Force like my father. They were poor, like all large Mormon families I knew. Sister Briscoe was thin and tall, with dry white skin and straight black hair that I would ponder during the long hours in church because it had been combed but not washed. It was impossible for me to imagine sacrificing so much of yourself that you gave up washing your own hair. Sister Briscoe had five children and she stayed home with them, as the Prophet urged. When we went to buy the piano, their house was small and dark, decorated with knick-knacks from military duty in Okinawa, Japan.

I was 11 and I had been pleading for a piano for a long time. My parents weren't musical, and I didn't know anyone who played, so I imagine my yearning for it had something to do with the contrast between religion, which was full of mystery and beauty, and our lives, which lacked both. We spent three hours each Sunday in church, and we believed in the Holy Spirit, resurrection, redemption, and the King James Bible. I sat on the pew and pretended to play, moving my fingers over imaginary keys. To play classical piano, I believed, would lift me like the words Thee and Thou to a state where the air trembled with revelation.

So my parents, who had two children and two incomes, bought Sister Briscoe's piano. If she missed it, I never knew, never even wondered. I began to take lessons from a small-boned neighbor whose hands flaked and reddened with eczema. I rode my bicycle to her house once a week and sat before her plain beige upright piano, the only furniture in a bare carpeted room beyond which we could hear the thumping sounds of her children, forbidden to interrupt the ticking metronome, the playing of scales, the graceless attempts to speak a language that had no words. The double flats and double sharps, the trills, and Italian notations, directing me to play "dolcissimo" or "agitato" made me feel as I had felt when, for a brief period, my parents had hired a French tutor, and I sat in the kitchen of Madame Gregoire, repeating "Comment vous appelez-vous?" True revelation came in a foreign tongue, half understood, still mysterious, not quite translatable.

I won a small piano competition in seventh grade, the first and last of such prizes, and the next year we moved away from the south. A moving truck delivered the piano to a plain wooden house on the edge of the Great Salt Lake, a farm town where irrigation water flowed through ditches and Mormons were everywhere. A woman at church said her sister Beth Ann taught piano in a town 30 miles away at the base of Mount Olympus, and we began commuting there once a week by back roads, crisscrossing the farmland that was slowly disappearing under subdivisions.

The mountain peaks were always white above Beth Ann's house. Like my first piano teacher, she had an ordinary woman's life, one that musical talent had not visibly transformed. Married, devout, and efficient, she had twin boys, one of whom had been deformed in the womb, and a daughter who aspired to be a country-western singer. In her basement she corrected my fingering of Beethoven, Debussy, and Chopin, penciling marks on the chords I'd mangled, the notes I'd missed. The metronome ticked, and her children's footsteps hammered overhead.

Still, I believed that playing the piano would transform my life. I practiced after dinner every night. I played Beethoven's sonatas until the spine of the book broke and the pages were soft at the edges. To make those sounds with my hands would change everything, I thought -- did change everything, when I played well enough. The notes gave pathos to the clouds moving over the Wasatch Mountains, the flat green farmland that I longed to leave, the darkening living room, the women making dinner in every house along my street, the long straight roads, the plain ugly houses and the silvery shimmer of the lake I could see when I stood on our driveway. In the first line of Opus 49, "Sonata Facile," in the falling down trill of those plaintive notes, lay both solace and escape, revelations too mysterious for words.

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