Chains of Pearls…Pearls of Grief

28 10 2007

It’s Sunday morning and I have a 3PM flight to the island of Cebu. I’ve already had my inevitable cup of coffee (my first); I don’t feel like going to church; I don’t even feel like packing. Instead, I’m sitting here in front of the computer, listening to a Live365 station featuring nothing but piano instrumentals, and floundering in such thoughts and emotions that I can only describe as despondent.

Most of you may not know that the full name of the instrument we call the piano is really fortepiano, which literally means “loud-soft”. This is likely due to the fact that the percussive hammers that strike the strings allow the piano to play softly, loudly, and everything in between – a feature unknown to its predecessor, the harpsichord (who’s strings are plucked by plectrums).

I have in my hand a volume on piano-playing with an article written by Franz Kullak (b.1844), describing his father’s piano playing and teaching style. Despite the somewhat musty smell of the paper (it has that “the-last-time-it-was-opened-was-in-the-sixties” smell) and the decidedly racist stance of some of the contributors to the book (who were alive during the time of Liszt and therefore Paganini), I am struck by his description of his father’s tone at the piano.

“His scales were the acme of perfection in every respect; piano, they were chains of pearls; forte, with both hands, express trains storming on their way.”

Now I don’t really play the piano (or any other keyboard instrument for that matter); it never really appealed to me the way the orchestral instruments have. Sure, I can plunk along a few chords and maybe on a good day play the  introduction to Suteki Da Ne from Final Fantasy 10, but otherwise, I am content to just sit and listen while others play.

Nevertheless, I do love the sound of the piano, especially when the musician plays something beautiful and not merely virtuosic; it really is like chains of pearls, where even a happy tune is imbued with a certain introverted sadness – a certain loneliness – that can only come from one man or woman sitting at a piano and really pouring his or her heart out; their joys become my joys, their pains become my pains.

And today, as I make my way through my closet to prepare my luggage and eventually through a busy airport and into a woolly, gray sky, the sound of strings and horns and woodwinds will not follow me; only the sound of a single piano, patiently turning out its strings of pearls for others to crush underfoot and shatter into a million, brilliant, heart-breaking pieces.

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