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The Luxembourg Sonata

By Denis LABAYLE Sofitel Luxembourg Le Grand Ducal

I know nothing about Luxembourg except that its capital awaits me. At the train station, I come upon a poster announcing the concert tomorrow at the Philharmonie, a hall that in the past five years has become one of Europe’s finest. My name, Jean Kervenec, appears on the poster just below that of the great Michäel Sterner. Of course, my name is in small letters and his is all in capitals, but wouldn’t many of the world’s most illustrious musicians dream of being there in my place? This concert is my prize for winning the Great Amateurs competition, a victory that came just before I turned 20 years old. I read and reread the poster, but I’m not really sure what I’m feeling. There is a disturbing mix of disbelief, pride and trepidation. All that work, anxiety, hope and disappointment for the right to play 30 short minutes as the opener for a celebrity! A man and a woman dressed in brown interrupt my thoughts. She warmly welcomes me, he takes my bags. In the black limousine, the young woman explains that receiving such virtuosos is the pride of her hotel, Le Grand Ducal. She says that the grand duchess will attend the concert tomorrow and notes that the suite I’ve been given at the hotel is next to that of the maestro. The car stops in front of a large building with blue windows. In the hotel’s stylishly designed lobby, I am met with smiles. I do nothing; everything is taken care of. The hostess leads me to the sixth floor, opening the door to what appears to be a small apartment. There is a panoramic view of the city. I am told that to the left is the upper town, to the right is the lower town, the two parts of the city split by the “falaise.” With its slate-roofed houses, perched gardens surrounded by ramparts and the serpentine river, this Eastern city has a Breton air and seems almost familiar to me. I am impressed by the luxury of my surroundings. They are just like the maestro’s!

After nightfall, I’m feeling disoriented and not the least bit hungry. I lie down to watch 15 programs at once on the large-screen television, but this only makes me drowsy. Then, as I begin to unpack, I realize that the unthinkable, the unbelievable, the absurd has happened: Of the two scores that I have brought with me, one is not the right one. How could I have confused Schumann and Schubert? I panic. Who, at this hour, can help me? I call my musician friends, one after the other. To no avail. They are out or are too far away to be of any help. Only my old professor reassures me, reminding me that I know the piece by heart. I hang up, pacing back and forth in an effort to calm myself. It’s true that I have played this piece of music so many times that even my fingers know it by heart, but I feel like an actor who needs to reassure himself by reading his text up until the last second. Convinced that only alcohol can help me relax, I go up to the eighth-floor bar. It’s empty. The city by night is dark and anonymous. I sit at the phosphorescent-blue bar and order a drink, a strong one. The cocktail has immediate effects. It occurs to me how strange life is: We are constantly dreaming of something exceptional, of a momentous occasion, and when such a day arrives, nothing happens as expected, there seems to be as much anxiety as pleasure. It had taken me three years to convince the jury. Three years of hard work, and I owe my success to Schumann. For the first time, I had dared to play the first two movements of his Sonata Opus 11 in public. I had kept the piece secret for so long because of its association with a most painful part of my life. How nervous I was the day of the competition! It nearly ruined me. Playing the final notes, I was sure that I had failed. Yet turning toward the jury, I realized that I was mistaken.
It seemed odd that I had won, especially since the previous years I had played brilliantly. Too brilliant, perhaps. I had first tried to seduce my masters by choosing a little-known Szymanowski sonata. Its difficult melody, less rewarding than Chopin or Schubert, has harsh, disconcerting phrases and a number of octaves that require swift movements. Perhaps I had hoped to lose the jury, given that the complex harmony makes detecting an error possible only for those who have mastered the piece to perfection. My examiners were not fooled. Instead of surprising them, I had annoyed them. I thought I had marvelously translated the composer’s intent, but the jury was unforgiving: the rhythm was too fast, too jerky, my playing was too technical, it lacked feeling. Play with more humility, one woman added tersely. I had been the best, I deserved to be the winner; they awarded me second place. I had had to wait two more years for my victory, and now, because of a careless mistake, I risk wasting the good fortune that is mine at last. I must find a solution before tomorrow night or else …

I am startled from my dreams by a woman’s voice: “Good evening, Monsieur Kervenec. Is everything all right?” Surprised, I turn to see a young woman with short, dark hair, a round face, and a warm smile. Where did this stranger dressed in black come from, in this bar where I had thought I was alone? And how did she know my name? She puts me at ease by explaining that she is finishing a three-month internship in the hotel’s client relations department. She asks why I seem so worried. Is it pre-performance jitters? For a moment I have the strange impression that I have seen her before. But where? At another concert? Maybe she’s a musician? No, she says that she has never played an instrument but that she loves classical music. I hesitate before then telling her of my foolish error, as stupid as it is unforgivable.
She thinks for a moment. While I order another drink, she moves away, takes out her cell phone, talks at length with someone and then returns. “You will have your score tomorrow,” she says. “I’ll bring it to you myself.” She explains that her sister is a musician. I don’t know why, but I don’t believe her. As a token of thanks, I offer to buy her a drink. She declines. Hoping to keep her here, I suddenly have an idea. I have two free tickets to the concert. In the second row of the orchestra. My family? No, they won’t be coming. I insist, and finally she accepts. Naively, I ask for her room number so that I can drop off the ticket. With a mischievous smile, she replies: “I don’t live in the hotel. Go to sleep, you need your rest for the concert tomorrow night.” She shakes my hand and walks away. I hesitate, wanting to follow her, although I should not hesitate, for she is faster than my thoughts and disappears as mysteriously as she had appeared. I return to my room feeling less worried but more alone, adrift somewhere between calm and regret. Will I really see her again? The next morning, coming down to the lobby, I see her, a black silhouette in a white chair. She is waiting for me, smiling, and holds out the piece of music for me. The score is new, it has never been opened. Where did she find it? I thank her and, as she is preparing to leave, I quickly say: “Come with me to the radio station. I have to give an interview and I’m really nervous. In return, I’ll take you to lunch. You can chose the restaurant since you know the city.” In the taxi, I ask what her name is. She hesitates: Laure. “That’s a lovely name, if it’s really yours,” I say. Again, she smiles.

We leave the center of the city and enter a zone full of modern architecture. Outside the glass façade of the Luxembourg radio and television building, a man is waiting for us. He explains that the interview will be conducted in German and that the concert will be broadcast throughout Europe. My father, if he doesn’t come, will thus be able to listen to it. For half an hour, the usual questions come one after another: Why Ravel, why Schumann? Then they become more probing: Who introduced me to music? What does my father do? What happened to my mother? Who from my family will be present at the concert tonight? I am evasive, saying only that my mother died five years ago, when I was 15. She played a formative role in my career. The journalist is surprised that no one from my family will be attending tonight. For my father, I invent health problems, keeping to myself a secret wish that he will arrive at the last minute. I finish the interview annoyed at having had my private pains revived. Outside, Laure says nothing, respecting my discomfort and silence. She hails a taxi and tells the driver to take us to the Grund, the old quarter of the lower town. We walk silently in the narrow streets lined with old houses, crossing what resembles a village in the middle of the city. The inn that she has chosen is on the banks of the Alzette, a gentle river that it seems could sweep all my cares away. We are sitting face to face in the sun. We gaze at one another in silence. I don’t know why, but I then begin talking, I talk more and more, holding nothing back, as if to ease my anxiety. Everything that I could not say in the interview comes out freely now: my family, my two sisters, my brother. Especially my mother, gravely ill when I was 11. Her death after four years of struggle. Four years of anguish and secret complicity. Everyday I would come home from school afraid that I had arrived too late. Every week I noted new signs of decline. Her disappearance ruined everything. My father had been courageous until the end, but then …
I stop there, I don’t mention his sadness and descent into alcohol. Unlike me, he didn’t have the means to save himself. I didn’t choose music; it chose me. Very early on. When I was a boy, I sensed how demanding music could be, even sometimes tyrannical, but thanks to music I was able to overcome many hardships. My mother taught piano. She had taught me. My father is not really an artist … But why am I telling you this? She smiles, shrugs as if to say that she wasn’t expecting me to say anything, that she is just here to listen. And you? I know nothing about you, I say. She doesn’t answer, suggests that I finish eating because I’m expected soon at the Philharmonie. I will have two hours to practice. After that, the maestro will occupy the hall.

In the taxi that takes us back to the Kirchberg neighborhood, I admit that I’m nervous. Terribly nervous about the concert tonight. Those 30 minutes will determine my professional future. And I have never played the entire Schumann sonata in public. Laure reassures me, advises me: Tonight, ignore the crowd, she says. Ignore everything around you, think of only one person. Only one. Play for her, and everything will be fine. Our conversation is interrupted by the taxi’s arrival at the Philharmonie. I want her to come to my practice, but she declines the invitation, saying she must return to the hotel. She promises that she will be at the concert tonight, though, in the second row, as planned. Before I leave the taxi, I tell her that I will play my first piece tonight, Ravel’s Ondine, with her in mind. Only her. She smiles, wishes me good luck and is gone. I’m left alone in front of the vast white building. All around, as far as I can see, the modern buildings of the new Luxembourg rise. The Philharmonie is by far the best of them, smooth, light, elegant. It resembles a temple
surrounded by thin columns or a strange musical instrument with 1,000 strings, abandoned there on the esplanade. A young man greets me, pointing out the high ceilings, the beauty of the space. He opens the doors to the three concert halls. The imposing main hall is elegantly intimate, with orange and blue lighting. Behind the stage, the organ adds to the solemnity. I spot the black grand piano on the stage, a monster awaiting its hour. I approach it. A Steinway, of course. I caress the wood like I might a beast that I must confront. Every concert is a meeting with a new instrument. Each piano has its particularities that must be mastered. If the keys are a bit tight or a bit loose, the chords will be modified. An imperceptible difference, perhaps, but one that if overlooked can be destabilizing and may even lead to mistakes. The public, I know, will not be indulgent with me. I am nothing but an intruder in this evening devoted to Michäel Sterner.

From the first notes, I feel the piano’s complicity. The keys are docile, the sound is excellent and the acoustics of the hall are nearly perfect. I endlessly play and play again my two pieces. Without mistake, without anxiety, but also without spectators. Tonight everything will be different. I finish the second movement of the sonata when I am kindly asked to leave the hall for the maestro. Without meeting him, I take refuge in my dressing room. The room is quiet, secure, with a deep armchair for relaxation and an upright piano for calming any lingering doubts. Drinks and sandwiches are brought, but I’m not hungry. I prefer to rest, hoping this will help me endure the long wait. I doze off. When the director of the Philharmonie arrives to greet me, I know that the moment is near. I put on my new shirt, slip on my rented morning coat, check in the mirror that my white bow tie is straight. Now I only have to wait. My two scores are on the table. I read them one more time. I wipe my hands. They are sweatier than on the day of the competition. Supposedly, before a parachute jump the real fear comes only the second time around. The first time, you’re afraid of what you don’t know (falling into the void); the second time, you’re afraid of what you know (falling into the void).
I try to reassure myself by minimizing my role in the concert. The crowd is expecting nothing from me; they aren’t here for me. I’m just an appetizer. At best, they will be indifferent, at worst full of pity. And yet, if I could somehow touch them … From then on, everything goes very quickly. Someone comes for me. He says the hall is full, wishes me good luck and sends me onto the stage to polite applause. Greeting the crowd, I glance at the second row, to the right. She’s there. Next to her, my father’s seat is empty. I take my seat at the piano and suddenly all is silent. Not a sound, not a whisper or a cough. I need to quickly play the first notes in order to fill this void. I wipe my sweaty palms. The spotlight is blinding, but I must forget about it. Everything around me must disappear. As she said: Isolate yourself, concentrate, think of only one person. I start Ondine with her in mind. My fingers stroke the keys, summoning the rippling water. I have never played this difficult piece with such fluidity. And when the last notes sound, when I lift my hands slowly from the keys, I raise my head and imagine my stranger leaning on the piano. She is smiling. So? What do you think? Listen to the applause. You surprised them. Keep going, and you will move them, but be careful: Schumann is not Ravel, he requires more than virtuosity, he requires heart.
The crowd is silent, she disappears. This is the moment of truth. The silence is black and heavy. Solitude fills me. The stage is no longer present, I’m in the dining room. The room next door is dark from morning to night. My mother wants the shutters closed, as if she has decided that from now on she will have no more light. On the other side of the door, she is waiting for me to play — for her, just like every night. After school, I would kiss her emaciated cheeks without really looking, trying not to see the signs of decay on her face. I know that she has spent the day alone, in the empty house, stuck in bed, fighting the illness that is ravaging her. Since morning she has been awaiting this moment. I have nothing to offer her but my music and Schumann’s Sonata Opus 11, her favorite piece. Before, I could only play the introduzione . Tonight, for the first time, I will offer her the entire sonata, including the magnificent allegro un poco maestoso . The door is open, I’m thinking only of her.

But my dreams distract me, my hands are getting ahead of me. My god, they’re playing too fast, accelerating as if to be done with it. I must slow them down, they must listen to me. Fortunately, they know the way and have so far not made a mistake. So I use the allegro vivace to regain control, to impose my rhythm, the rhythm that we had always used to calm her pain. It is a harmonious mix of softness, poetry and introspection. Little by little, I feel the music working its magic. The melody slows her breathing. More than words, more than gestures, more than drugs, Schumann eases suffering.
When my fingers play the last notes of the final allegro, I feel as if I have been lost in a mysterious silence. I am exhausted, drained, depleted. I hear a sudden crackling. The hall is lit up, and the crowd is applauding. As if in thanks. I realize that they were there, behind me, in the dining room, that for a moment they shared my disarray. I stand, I bow, I even hear some bravos. I head off the stage and the maestro is coming toward me, clapping his hands.
He congratulates me, whispers to me, “You moved us.” As I walk off, Michäel Sterner sits before the piano and takes over the spotlight.
Backstage, I am congratulated and seated in the technical booth behind a window overlooking the stage. From there, I can follow the maestro’s skillful performance, but I’m not listening. I’m reliving in slow motion these moments that have changed my life. Slowly, I realize. I think of my mother, of how it had pleased her to listen to me play. Without our terrible afternoons of silent complicity, would I have played Schumann so truly? From my perch, I search in the darkness for the woman who had advised me. I’m sitting too far to the side to see her. I wish the concert would end. I feel more than gratitude toward her. The maestro bows amid a frenzy of applause. I am brought to a reception room, where admirers are crowding around the maestro. A horde of journalists is questioning him, and as there is not room for them all, some of them turn their attention to me. Who am I, where do I live, what are my plans? I am suddenly indifferent to this media attention about which I had long fantasized. I answer dispassionately. I’m thinking of the stranger.

She’s the one I’m looking for among the admirers. I would so like to take her far from this crowd. The room empties, there are handshakes, goodbyes and more bravos. I am brought back to the hotel, and still I have not seen her. Her absence deflates my joy. In my luxurious suite, I feel tired, disoriented, and alone. Early the next morning, I hope to find someone who knows her at the front desk. I ask them all. No one remembers her. I describe her to the hotel’s director of client relations, but she says there has never been a young woman with short, dark named Laure on her staff. She even says that she has never had an intern working for her. At 10, I take the train back to Paris, taking my strange memory with me.
Since then, at every concert I instinctively glance at the second row, looking for a woman dressed in black. And when solitude engulfs me, I turn to Ravel. Only he fulfills me: I need only play Ondine, the first part of Gaspard de la nuit , to see her again, leaning on my piano, smiling exactly like that September day when, in Luxembourg, luck brought me a muse.