It is a quiet and sunlit morning, Sunday in a country village, with church bells pealing every so often.
The puppies have been brushed and tidied up and they are going to the vet in Worcester, about two hours by car. They will be vaccinated and given booster shots, given new rawhide chews and sterilised hoozes to gnaw on. The vet, Ilse, is excellent with animals and the puppies run to her and jump up for hugs.
While Una takes the puppies to Worcester I am going to play the Intermezzo in C, Opus 119 from Brahms. It is such a luxury to be able to sit all alone in the living room with the windows open and just listen to that music breaking open the locked doors within. As I listen to the range of tonal feel and the orchestra like a magnetic deflected conversation, pauses and interludes and cries of anguish or joy, I will be thinking about the young impetuous Brahms at 21 so desperately in love with Clara Schumann, herself an older woman married to the crazed alcoholic Robert Schumann, flinging himself into the Rhine to stop the chords crashing inside his head; Clara the outstanding and gifted pianist of her age, thwarted, hindered, caught between raising children and touring, practising her art.
As a young woman my mother was a concert pianist, travelling alone from the British colonies of Africa to study in Leipzig and Vienna. In Vienna, her hands began to tremble on the keyboard as she played Chopin and she was sent to a doctor in a quiet back street lined with linden trees. He prescribed Valium to calm her nerves. When she returned to Africa, she was able to get more Valium. Then she began to wash down the Valium with gin and orange juice, brandy and ginger ale, imported wines. The gift died in her little by little although she would sit at the piano motionless for hours. She could not practice because she fumbled the chords. After my brother was killed, she would listen to Mahler, the Kindertotenlieder, Songs on the Death of Children, over and over again until I thought I would go mad with that heartbroken and unanswerable music echoing in my head.
For years I could not listen to many composers, would leave restaurants if certain symphonies were played. I listened instead to jazz, especially when drunk and maudlin. I blocked the hunger for Brahms and Schumann and Bach within me.
Sobriety has freed me of the past and I am rediscovering the beauty and power of those great Romantics once again, their Sehnsucht, the yearning and mania for soul-filled experiences and the Eternal. As I listen, the shackles within me fall away and I can begin to fly. All that choked grief and anguish from my childhood is comprehended and transformed in the great musical passages of the composers that once inspired my mother.
When I was nine years old, my mother glanced at my hands and said dispassionately,’You will never be able to play, even though you have a fine ear: the span of your hands is too narrow.’ And I inwardly sighed with relief, that I would not have to sit and practise for seven or 12 hours each day, that I would be free to write. That I would not enslave myself to that making of art, that I would not have to make the choices made by Clara Schumann. When she was elderly and suffering from arthritis so that her finegers slowed on the keys, she was given opium. The undoing of the artistic impulse through addictive remedies that poison the well at its source.
The tragedy of my mother’s life and eventual suicide would seem impossible to bear without that music she loved so deeply and which comes to me now, so late in my life, another undeserved gift free for the taking.