Robinson_Girl_at_Piano

 

It dawned on me the other day that the piano pieces I play now, I actually learned in 5th and 6th grade. Twenty three years ago I deciphered the notes, rhythms, intonation, but the process of inbuing the composition with content has been ongoing. Some of the works, like Tchaikovsky’s “October,” are still alluring and mysterious, but already, somewhat familiar on a personal level. Having this sense of mutual understanding today between me and the composer, I cannot help but look back on the twelve-year-old self, and, by extension, on my twelve-year-old daughter, and wonder what content I could have possibly filled the music with then.

The first chords of October ring ponderously, dripping foggy precipitation from smoldering autumn leaves. This was my filling, I recall – the melodiously dying, decaying foliage that lives in my marrow and under arm pits, as a child of St.Petersburg. A scuttling squirrel, a chance boletus. Sweet sadness, the end of the line, a natural terminus that comes before the big sleep. Yes, there are some questions posed by the melody lines, some answers, even, but as a child, you don’t know what you don’t know. Even – you don’t suspect that you don’t know it.

I do wonder now how children are able to play adult music with feeling. As my daughter chomps down indelicately on familiar motifs, I wail in exasperation, “For the love of all that’s holy, you’re not chopping down trees here! You are telling the story of love and loss and trouble and deep gratitude and mirth. Can’t you at least imitate emotion?!”   But she cannot help that she is asked to tell another’s story; she has no experience of her own to draw on. And what the child prodigies can do is feasible only because…well…they’re prodigies. Their capacity and ability must extend to an emotional intelligence far ahead of their years. Or perhaps, it is not even the feelings that they grasp through a powerful empathetic organ, but their ability to access a deeper truth to which truly fine art speaks. They tap into it, and are able to share it with others almost without understanding it themselves.

As I drift through another harmonic idea in the second movement, it tickles me to think of Tchaikovsky as a man in early middle age. Far removed in history and geography, we are still quite close epistemologically. We know the same stuff. We know. And we question. It is not a time of ecstatic exploration of one’s early 20’s, nor of resigned contemplation of the aging 60’s. It is somewhere in the middle – involved and thoughtful, comfortable with questions, thankful for a few solid facts. The conversation we can now have through Pyotr Ilych’s music is more intimate and concrete.

And so we converse. He has laid out the format of our discourse, but I provide the emphases, the exclamations, the shades of meaning; the questions. How lovely that this piece has traveled with me, lived in me, for over two decades. How much more connected to it do I feel now, at 35. A stray thought and a quick search leads me to the dates that confirm it: Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky was born in 1840, and was commissioned to write the series of The Seasons (including October) in 1875. He was 35.

Advertisements