Dusk — piano & poetry
A friend told me about an author, who took a year off to master a piano recital to write a book about the experience. Have no fear that this will become a book. Just before Max, my partner, became ill, a pianist played Schubert’s last piano sonata as part of the summer noon-time concerts at the church. I was taken by her performance, but even more by the music itself.
Schubert never wrote that this sonata was composed as a confrontation with his own early death at age 31. But that narrative became more and more compelling for me as I practiced the music. From the deep bass trill that interrupts the opening phrase to the insistent octave that propels the finale, death keeps inserting its claims. Yet in the midst of what must have been a horrible, ugly ordeal, Schubert poured out forty minutes of intense, glorious music.
The grand piano in the summer always invited me to
practice. After I heard the Schubert sonata, I quickly
down-loaded the score and started in on the slow movement.
I told Max that I had discovered this piece, and was enjoying it, although I would probably never be able to play it.
I could manage the slow movement. His ears no longer worked well, but I sang the ascending phrase. Max whistled the next part. He was not a musician, but he had an encyclopedic knowledge. Of course, he knew the piece.
Not too long after that he was hospitalized. Others helped me keep vigil, and during the breaks I would sometimes sneak to the church to play Schubert. Schubert’s confrontation with death merged into my dealing with Max’s.
When I play the opening theme, I never fail to want Max to hear it, to cherish it with me.
Sometimes loss overwhelms me. Sometimes I can almost hear Max wonder if I am making too much rubato or not enough. I would need to reach back to some old hymns to find music that has become such a part of me. Of course, in the midst of the solace there is that threatening trill.
After Max’s death, Schubert became my friend.
Some days, I would need to play it, almost like a fix. The third movement is a real terror and the fourth has some sections outside my abilities: all those notes under a never-ending melody, with bass notes on the offbeat just to keep things unbalanced.
Then I started to work with Matteo Magistris, who opened new possibilities that I have never seen.
What a delight to work with him, and to discover how much better I could play.
Then came the idea of putting words alongside the music. I wanted others to see something of the narrative I was seeing without making the connections so strong that it would close off imagination. Poetry makes suggestions outside the normal explanations of what words mean. It could serve as the vehicle. At first, when I had thought the program might be part of the Summer Music series, I was going to find an actor to do French poetry. My French would have been more opaque than illuminating.
When it was decided that poetry didn’t quite belong at noontime, I felt free to choose poetry in English and do it myself. It didn’t take me long to find what I wanted. I already had decided there would be one psalm. John Donne had long fascinated me. Dickinson as well.
Then I realized that I needed someone to watch me, and work on the delivery of the poems. Douglass Fowley took the time to show me myself. This work became valuable for understanding not only the poems, but what it means to see death through other eyes.
Dusk seemed an appropriate image for the program and for the time of the recital.
Many people came. It was not too hot, thank goodness. My nerves were not too bad. Douglass and Mateo had been right. I was performing for friends and I felt encouraged by the chatter in the gathering dark. The audience seemed willing to walk with me and Schubert into the face of death, and find there not only an ominous trill, but melodies to buoy the spirit, triplets with which to dance in the dusk, and a redeeming grace as a melody suddenly turns to a major key (seven sharps) with an Amen hidden in the middle voices.
A neighbor of Max’s, Woody Lauber-Zand, came with her pencil and drew during the performance (above). It is a kind of summation of the night, as is the video lovingly shaped and available here and on our web site. (https://luther250.com/concerts/concerts-dete-2017/dusk- schubertpoetry/)
The last poem was by a poet previously unknown to me, Sean Nevin. It is part of a series of poems about grieving.
Self-Portrait as the Emptied Closet
I fan a stack of Manila folders across our bed, warranties
the deed to the house. I remove your suit coats, ties—
the shoebox of letters home. I am the emptied closet, the
unearthing my own past. In the widow house everything
is boxed. Moth balls in lace satchels swing from
and I hear your impossible footsteps echo
across the hardwood. Recollection
is a treasure map, the fool’s errand,
it’s flawed, encoded and incomplete. I write history here
on the floor
I still lose. I must.
When I first read this, I remembered looking into Max’s closets and seeing the moth papers hanging there all alone. I still hear the impossible echoes, especially when they are bathed in the sounds of Schubert.