Sunday, May 10, 2009

The feeling of Sunday afternoons

The daughter of one of my neighbours a few floors down has been learning the piano for the past three or four years. Her progress in that time has been slow, although she has moved on from Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star to the largo from Dvorak's New World. Her practising fairly regularly wakes me up, when I am attempting a lie-in at the weekends, but I find it impossible to rouse any resentment. There is something deeply comforting about the sound of a piano afar off, even when played poorly.

I wonder if my particular affinity for the instrument can be traced to the period when we were living with one of my grandmothers after the failure of my father's business (he was one of the many people in Britain in the 50s and 60s who were conned into paying an inappropriately large sum of money for a franchised petrol station on a road that was about to be bypassed). I was not yet four years old, and most of my earliest - and perhaps happiest - memories date from that time. My granny had an old upright piano in the dark, dusty (otherwise largely unused) 'parlour', and I would spend hours banging away on it, untutored, and mostly unsupervised. It must have sounded dreadful, but I was in heaven.

And I think I catch glimpses of that lost world of innocence whenever I hear a piano now - perhaps especially when I hear a piano played badly.

Here are two favourite poems that touch on the emotional resonance of music and the nostalgia for childhood. For reasons beyond the tinny early morning tinkling of my teenaged neighbour, I think, such wistful reflections on the past, and on my distant childhood in particular, tend to overtake me on a Sunday. Perhaps because it is the only day on which I have time to stop and think...

The first of today's poetry selections is by Lawrence, who I've quoted on here a number of times before.


Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings back home, with the winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast down
In the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930)

And this is a great favourite I had long feared 'lost'. I hadn't seen it in nearly thirty years, and could only remember the barest outlines of it, a half-phrase or two, and a not-very-confident identification of the author. My estimable blog-friend JES, who has of late become my 'personal search engine', was able to locate the full text online for me - something I had often tried and failed to do. 'Thank you' is inadequate. I absolutely love this piece.

Suburban Dream

Walking the suburbs in the afternoon
In summer when the idle doors stand open
And the air flows through the rooms
Fanning the curtain hems,

You wander through a cool elysium
Of women, schoolgirls, children, garden talks,
With a schoolboy here and there
Conning his history book.

The men are all away in offices,
Committee-rooms, laboratories, banks,
Or pushing cotton goods
In Wick or Ilfracombe.

The massed unanimous absence liberates
The light keys of the piano and sets free
Chopin and everlasting youth,
Now, with the masters gone.

And all things turn to images of peace,
The boy curled over his book, the young girl poised
On the path as if beguiled
By the silence of a wood.

It is a child's dream of a grown-up world;
But soon the brazen evening clocks will bring
The tramp of feet and brisk
Fanfare of motor horns
And the masters come.

Edwin Muir (1887-1959)


JES said...

More than welcome. As you know, those searches just feed my addiction.

A blog topic which seems right up your alley might be one on great piano scenes in movies. Obvious ones, maybe -- like the not-really-"Play it again, Sam" one in Casablanca -- to the more obscure number (don't know the title) which 1900 plays while observing the beautiful woman outside the window in The Legend of 1900. And since you seem to be in something of a wistful spirit right now, I'm assuming you know the moment in Fanny and Alexander when they come upon their father's ghost at the grand piano, and he turns his head to look at them, and there is so much sadness in that look that you weren't sure you could watch the film any longer? (Er, maybe that was just me.)

And maybe the piano(s) in Dead Again -- wonder if movies ABOUT playing the piano should be excluded, though? (In which case, bye-bye 1900, too.)

Hmm. Now I'm trying to remember if a piano figures in anything by the Coens... You always seem to have that sort of detail ready at hand!

Froog said...

Yes, that is an intriguing theme - but I fear I don't have that particular attentiveness (or retentiveness) for 'great piano moments' in films that you have.

I find it hard to remember particular scenes with pianos, and - outside of films about musicians, or films featuring nightclub or saloon scenes - it's pretty difficult to remember the presence of a piano at all.

I have had a good bonce-scratch about the Coens' oeuvre, and can't think of any pianos, but....

The music in 1900 is all supposed to be improvised, but in fact I think they're all original compositions by Morricone. You'd have to consult the listings for the soundtrack album to try to find what that particular piece is called.

My only offering on this at the moment is a favourite piece of trivia, concerning Jane Campion's The Piano. I gleaned it from a newspaper article on great technical gaffes and anachronisms in famous films, and found it a useful addition to a favourite recurring conversation I used to have with my great drinking buddy The Bookseller about such quibbles.

At the end of the film, of course, Holly Hunter pushes her piano into the sea, and it sinks like a stone, nearly dragging her to the bottom with it. Apparently - that particular brand of piano, at the time the film was set, was of all-wood construction, with no metal sub-frame, and would have FLOATED.

The champion quibble in these contests for me now is always Titanic: much is made early on about how the coldness of the water in the North Atlantic at this time of year will kill you within a minute or two; yet Kate Winslet spends half the film sloshing around below decks, waist-deep in the stuff, completely soaked, wearing only her nightie - with no apparent ill effects. The water doesn't get WARMER just because it's inside the ship (well, not appreciably so, anyway).