I met your music against all odds. I was on a very short business trip to Norway and I was stunned when I heard this song on the TV, by sheer chance, while randomly flicking through channels to keep the lonely silence of the hotel room away.
It was a Monday evening, and Norway will never be the same to me.
I met her on a cold winter evening. She was laying on the sidewalk, in the pouring rain, abandoned there by her last abuser. She was visibly broken by years of hardship. The old scars were still visible. The more recent ones were alarming.
I was in my car rushing somewhere when I saw her. I picked her up before the reaper did. She had many broken bones and a dislocated hip, which seemed to have been treated by less than qualified surgeons. Battle wounds really.
We would share stories over a cup of coffee with an orange peel every evening for the next week or two. I would tell her the tales of a small country on the verge of oblivion, and bit by bit, she would tell me her story, or at least the parts she could speak about without putting to jeopardy whatever sanity she had left. I had to figure out the rest.
I took her in and cared for her. She started to open up when the fog and doziness of homelessness lifted, but more so when she realized she could stay for as long as she wanted. She was safe here.
She was born in East Germany, during the cold war. Blonde, feminine, not as tall as you would expect, which suits me fine. And one could guess she once had a warm alto voice. The thing is, by the time I met her, she had not sung anything meaningful in years and her voice was only the shadow of what it used to be.
She had probably been an artist in a previous life, or longed to be one. She could have had to leave the totalitarian state where she was born, her art having become too heavy to bear behind the Iron Curtain. Or could she have been given up for adoption at birth, moving in and out of foster care until coming of age? Whatever it might have been, the life she was made to live took quite an expensive toll on her.
I tried to bring back the shine she had lost over years of sorrow and abuse, and I think I did a pretty decent job. I cleaned her up, put her back to shape, oiled her fretboard, refurbished her tuning mechanism, set her up with new strings and gradually tuned her to pitch. I left the scars though, as a tribute to her survival on a more than dodgy path, and they make her beauty stand out. She has been my go-to guitar ever since.
I do not know who played her before me or what was her repertoire back in the days. She never told me and probably never will. I just hope that she finds my music interesting enough, and I think she does. Otherwise, she would not bless me with this warm alto voice of hers when I play her.
Here she is, as if waiting for me to fix her a drink. Enough with coffee, even with an orange peel. She likes Bourbon. Fair enough. So do I.
Apart from the fact that they do not exist, perfect humans would still have one real flaw, that of being perfect.
A parallel with music
Chances are you have heard of musical notes. Of course you have! You might have even heard them too if you listen to music. They’re called C, D, E, F, G, A, B, or more poetically, Do, Ré, Mi, Fa, Sol, La and Si, in French.
Now here comes the interesting part. Every note can be associated to a major chord, by simultaneously playing the root note, C for example, the major third which happens to be the E for this example, and the perfect fifth, the G.
The root. The third. The perfect fifth. And this is why the major chord sounds, well, perfect to the ear. Maybe a little bit too perfect.
What if we tried to play something a bit more flawed, just to see how it would sound? Something with a seventh, rather than a perfect fifth? Or even a ninth? What if we tried to play a C major 7 instead of a C major? How about a Bm7? A Cadd9?
There are many flavors to a given chord actually, and if you take the time to listen to some of them or try to play them on a piano or a guitar, you will come to realize that a perfect major chord sounds quite dull next to most of these flavors. The “flaws” make them way more interesting.
A C major is just happy. Lame happy.
A C minor is sad. Lame sad, but still an improvement over perfection: sadness is a more interesting feeling to explore than lame happiness.
A Bm7 would trigger a mix of optimist melancholy and hopeful nostalgia I would say.
A Cmaj7 would send you surfing in the clouds, comfortably numb, with a very distant afterthought to the vicissitudes of your human condition.
I can only speculate on the feelings a C7sus4 would trigger.
The flaws which make us perfect
Same goes for us mere mortals. You see, apart from the fact that they do not exist, perfect humans, like major chords, would still have one real flaw: they are perfect. They are boring. This is why people displaying their perfect faces, hair, bodies, homes, and lives on social media are annoying at best.
It is partly through our flaws and idiosyncrasies that we become interesting to our fellow humans. A scar. A birthmark. A weird hobby. A strange name. A one-off characteristic which hooks people for reasons they do not consciously realize.
Some of these actually define who you are. Cyrano’s nose and his irreverent poetry. Django Reinhart’s fingers. Rick Allen’s left arm, the one Def Leppard’s current drummer lost in 1984. Hellen Keller’s eyes, her ears too.
If a large nose, a missing arm, missing fingers or blind eyes and deaf ears are flaws in the eyes of the world, then God knows how perfect and flawless they have made Cyrano’s poetry, Django’s music, Rick’s drumming or Hellen’s speech.
Some others become a tag, a moniker. The Edge’s beanie or Bono’s sunglasses. Freddie’s moustache. Brian May’s PhD in astrophysics. Churchill’s cigars. But also your dad’s 1965 Chevy Impala he’s been driving around the block everyday for the past 57 years.
And some are just pleasant traits, rays of sunshine in a dull day, like your neighbor’s French accent or your colleague’s infatuation with Sidsel Endresen, and the many more interesting features of the many more illustrious unknowns you have yet to meet. All weird chords, all m7, add9, sus4 and the likes.
A word of caution though, you can only find the major chords on Instagram.
All the others you can hear playing through the lives of real people. Flawed people. Beautifully flawed.
Here’s how it goes if you ever feel like playing it, dear potential newbie guitarist. It only takes three very simple chords: A, E and D.
A E Happy Birthday to you EA Happy Birthday to you AD Happy Birthday dear Rabih AEA Happy Birthday to you
La simplicité fait la beauté, as we say around here. Nonetheless, there is a problem with the simplicity of this version: it is dull. Too sweet. Too optimistic, like a fairytale. Like everything is going to be OK. Like you’ll never stumble and fall. No illness, no hazards. No Coronavirus. No Sub primes. No war. No inflation.
You can however add a chord to the last “Happy” to save the day: the B minor, or even better, the B minor 7th.
Bm7EA Happy Birthday to you
This chord kind of breaks the happy path to which the birthday song was heading, making it more real. The B minor 7th does not sound happy, it does not sound sad either. It sounds, well, mellow, I guess. Nostalgic. Like a reminder from an old friend who’s been there before, that this new year on which you are about to embark will have its share of bliss but also its share of sadness. That you need to better manage your expectations and that time is flying. That today is gone forever, and tomorrow is not yet. That the past will always look brighter.
Trust your ear nevertheless, the chord is not sad. You can even notice an after taste. Something like Italian coffee with an orange peel. The story this chord will be telling you is one of hope. However rough, everything will be all right eventually.
In the end, when you find yourself playing the birthday song to your child or your parents, on the eve of leaving your home country to head back where you belong, it brings tears to your eyes and hope to your heart, hope for the impossible reunion, one day, with all the parents, siblings, friends, and memories you are about to leave again. That life will somehow bring us back together somehow, for good, in the country of our childhood.
Right now, on the plane back to Paris, I can hear the B minor 7th version of the birthday song resonating in my head, and I find myself hoping that the promise it seems to hold is as real as the mellowness of its sound.
To my parents who are celebrating their 42nd wedding anniversary.
Images and impressions on a piano improvisation by Elie Maalouf — Images et impressions sur une improvisation d’Elie Maalouf au piano
Listen to this Summer improvisation on piano. Let it take you places. Here’s where it took me. In English and in French, because why not?
A languid question, one that awaits an answer, slow to come. And then, an anxious lover who wants to know.
Is it true? Say it is not so! Tell me! Tell me… Is it true that you’re leaving? Is it true that you’re staying?
And the answer, the one he wishes to hear, which oscillates between the quiet happiness of a summer evening in the Levant and the torpor of an August afternoon.
This is the story that I hear playing out on the ivory and ebony keys, these are the characters and the moods that I glimpse between the notes, and which, through an eighth, a modulation or a silence, meet, dispute, discuss, or hold their peace.
And leave us dreamy and nostalgic of the summers of our childhood.
Thank you Elie
. . . .
Une question languissante, une interrogation qui attend une réponse qui tarde à venir.
Et ensuite, un amoureux anxieux, qui veut savoir. Est-ce vrai? Dis-moi! Dis-moi… Est-ce vrai que tu pars? Est-ce vrai que tu restes? Et la réponse qu’il veut bien entendre, qui oscille entre le bonheur tranquille d’un soir d’été au Levant et la torpeur d’un après-midi d’Août.
C’est l’histoire que j’entends jouer sur les touches d’ivoire et d’ébène, ce sont les personnages et les états d’âme que j’entrevois entre les notes, qui d’une croche, d’une modulation, d’un soupir, se croisent, se décroisent, se parlent, se taisent.
Et nous laissent rêveurs et nostalgiques des étés de notre enfance.
I’ve been listening to this piece of music in near-repeat mode for the past couple of years now. It is an instrumental rendition by a Lebanese flutist and a Lebanese pianist of a love song written by Zaki Nassif decades ago and interpreted by Fairuz, called أهواك (Ahwak) , which I think applies to us, the orphaned Lebanese, crying for a country on the verge of oblivion.
The song goes like this:
أهواك، أهواك بلا أملِ وعيونك، وعيونك تبسم لي وورودك تغريني، بشهيات القبلِ وورودك تغريني، بشهيات القبلِ
أهواك ولي قلب بغرامك يلتهب تدنيه فيقترب، تقصيه فيغترب في الظلمة يكتئب، ويهدهده التعب فيذوب وينسكب، كالدمع من المقلِ
I always imagine myself singing it to my home country. This song describes exactly what I have been feeling these days, especially the second verse. Hopeless love.
I love you and my heart burns for your love You decline it, still it approaches Estranged, it becomes alienated In the dark, it is hopeless and tired It melts and spills like tears
Look at us poor folks, scattered around the world, trying to rebuild a dream dreamt by those who came before, who shed their blood for it, hoping we will see it blossom. A dream to which we are still holding, to which we are still bleeding, hoping our children will see it blossom. Hopeless dream, hopeless love.
In this recursive maze of hopelessness, we are but shadows, writing from the end of the world to a lost love, orphans to a forgotten country, for the country where we grew up is no more, and we remain heartbroken over the shadow of what was once the land of milk and honey.
Anyway. Here’s the instrumental version of the song. Piano and flute. Give it a try and let me know if you can hear my home country. Or yours.
Or how a cryptic song from the eighties can take us places
I have always been intrigued by Nik Kershaw’s The Riddle. I first heard it when I was ten or eleven years old. My ears were still completely deaf to English back then but the words (as far as I could tell), the groove and the music were interlocking perfectly.
I would get to know more about it years later, and the more I knew, the less it made sense. Its lyrics were, and still are cryptic beyond redemption. Nik called it The Riddle for a good reason. Here, listen :
I got two strong arms Blessings of Babylon time To carry on and try For sins and false alarms So to America the brave Wise men says
Near a tree by a river There’s a hole in the ground Where an old man of Aran Goes around and around And his mind is a beacon In the veil of the night For a strange kind of fashion There’s a wrong and a right
Kershaw would explain later that the lyrics were randomly put together to match the music but had no hidden meaning, or any meaning at all for that matters.
But what if they did?
First trial at solving the riddle
I bet the key to this riddle would be lost somewhere in the Old Man of Aran’s mind. Let us focus on the lyrics again… An old man or Aran… Ah! The Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland! Nick would deny it of course, but again, what if? Why not?
So now we have a place. We still need an old man, and I think I have a decent candidate: Saint Enda of Aran, a warrior king turned to monastic life an founder of the first Irish monastery, on the island of Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran islands. He is even linked to an old well near Galway, St Edna’s well, which seems a good enough candidate for the hole in the ground where the old man of Aran goes around and around. The trail however seems to end there. No trace of a river. And the beacon seems quite dim from the distance. As for the fashion, I see none, that is unless the monastic life counts as fashion.
Wrong path? Unless…
Let us call a friend
Seamus Heaney. Irish Poet who was awarded the 1995 Nobel prize for literature, for Death of a Naturalist, a collection of thirty four short poems, one of which happens to be called Lovers on Aran.
The timeless waves, bright, sifting, broken glass, Came dazzling around, into the rocks, Came glinting, sifting from the Americas
To possess Aran. Or did Aran rush to throw wide arms of rock around a tide That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash?
Did sea define the land or land the sea? Each drew new meaning from the waves’ collision. Sea broke on land to full identity.
I can see a link with the two strong arms and America the brave in Kershaw’s The Riddle. The link to the Aran Islands is obvious, and the beacon would be the poet himself, or his mind actually, to match the lyrics. Or would he. You see, there is another poem in Heaney’s collection which qualifies, one called Synge on Aran. Synge, as John Millington Synge, another Irish poet and writer who would spend time in the Arans and write The Aran Islands,among other works. He would stay in the Arans in the first place at the advice of Yeats, yet another Irish poet, writer and Nobel prize laureate, for the few who have not heard of him yet.
As for the key to decipher Nik’s cryptic song, well, would anyone care to take over solving the riddle? I need to rush, I have some Irish literature to attend to.
Or why not actually. All it takes is the right hook.
A fellow author recently sent me an article about a musical experimentwhich took place in 2007, where a world-renowned violin virtuoso would pose as an ordinary busker in a metro station, playing well known classical pieces from Bach or Schubert on his 300 year-old 14 million dollar Stradivarius violin, hoping to get recognized, or at least get some attention from the crowds. Out of the 1097 people passing by during the 40 minutes this experiment lasted, 27 put money in his violin case, 7 took the time to listen to what he was playing for more than a few seconds and only one person recognized him.
How unfortunate might you think, but think again before you forsake your humanist ideals and embrace the claim that mediocrity is humanity’s common denominator. Why would have people stopped in the first place? Chances are they had already been through the ordeal of mediocre shows in their favorite metro station and they would not have stopped for what they though was one more, because that’s what it was supposed to look like on first sight, regardless of what it actually was. Or perhaps they were in a hurry, as most commuters are.
And what if classical music on its own is not enough to hook people? It is after all quite elaborate and can take inattentive people off guard. What if it needed something extra, like a hook? A twist to get their attention and slowly bring them to the inner circle? You see Bach’s music is classified as Baroque, a savant and sophisticated form of quite organized music, which could seem a bit rigid to the untrained ear, and boy are our ears untrained. Besides, your ears might recognize a classical piece of music they’ve heard before but still, you would struggle to put a name on it since most have cryptic names. Some of them, the happy few, end up being known by a moniker, like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or Chopin’s Waterfall Etude or his Grande Valse Brillante, but most keep their original name, which sounds like Etude in C sharp major op 5 N° 12 for instance. A mouthful. A turnoff.
I bet however that a Paganini piece would have gathered more people around it, maybe not so much for the music itself but more for the show around it. Here you are, that’s your hook. You see, in his time Paganini was a violin virtuoso, as much a great showman as an astounding musician, whose strategy was to demonstrate his musical abilities through the most technically demanding compositions, awing his audience by speed, dexterity and showmanship even more than by music itself, which removes nothing of the intrinsic beauty of his compositions by the way, quite the contrary actually. Check Paganini’s Caprice N°5 being performed on stage, you will see what I am talking about.
Rock stars have always had a magnetizing effect on the crowds and Paganini was the Rock star of his era. Talking of rock stars, many centuries later, Yngwie Malmsteen would take Paganini’s style to the electric guitar through what some would later call neo classical metal, and carve a name for himself following the footsteps of the virtuoso violin master.
I credit him for putting a guitar on my lap 25 years ago. I also credit him for hooking me to classical music in a way. Him, and my dad. And a couple of years spent in Abu Dhabi, but that’s another story.
This story takes place somewhere in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, in an area delimited north by the Place d’Italie, and south by the Poterne des Peupliers.
An area less walked by tourists and typical Paris enthusiasts but not less interesting in my opinion. Nothing can illustrate it more than a walk down the typical Rue du Moulin des Prés to the Abbé Georges Hénocque Square and the lovely tiny little house-and-gardens leading to and surrounding it, then west through the Rue de la Colonie and the intersection with the Rue Tolbiac right at the Saint Anne church, and north through Rue Bobillot passing the municipal pool which waters are heated by the data center severs computing below it, up to the Butte aux Cailles and its many small restaurants and alternative bars, where you can finally take a stab at the escalope montagnarde, an institution in its own right courtesy of a cosy and casual dining room from Southwest France,right at the end of the walk. Worth a thousand words.
You will not be walking by famous iron towers or triumphal archs, and even less by paintings of mysterious half-smiling ladies from the Italian renaissance, but the area has a distinctive atmosphere which you can only feel by walking its streets.
Somewhere on this pathway lies a musical instruments shop, held by old school blues musicians, which meant there was no bling there, no fancy useless gimmicks, no lame talking. The guys used to cater for Hugue Aufrey’s guitars. That says it all. I was a regular customer of theirs.
This is where I met her, on a Saturday morning 13 years ago.
She was not thin, at least not in the traditional sense, and she had these shapes and curves which drove me crazy. A dark red belly-shaped maple top on a solid mahogany body, silver hardware, and no compromise on her beauty, even at the expense of ergonomics, especially at the expense of ergonomics actually. And the roar… a creamy roar sending shivers down the spine of whoever would pretend to tame her. She was a hard player, smooth to the touch, harsh on the back, not only because of the weight of the legendary names behind her kind like Jimmy Page, Les Paul or Neil Young, but also because of the 10 pounds of unchambered mahogany straining your shoulders, heavier than any of the other roaring hot rods out there.
I had been fantasizing about her since my early teens.
She was a 1994 Gibson Les Paul Standard in Red Wine finish. A guitar of legends, a roaring beauty. A Rock and Roll icon. The F50 of guitars, like an iconic car which few could tame at the speeds it was supposed to reach on track.
She would follow me to Paris, London, Abu Dhabi, Beirut, any place in which I lived or spent a significant amount of time and for years would be pretty much the only constant in a hectic life spent on roller coasters.
Until I met a girl with a sweet smile and a gentle creamy roar, somewhere in Paris, but that’s another story. Maybe for a later post?
Here’s a short one on a masterpiece I would like to share with you dear reader.
Now close your eyes. And listen…
His right hand was set in ample motion. Left to right, right to left, and again, left to right, from the lowest octaves to the higher pitched notes, in a magnetizing movement.
His fingers were flying over the white and black keys in an intricate and delicate ballet. Notes were flowing in waterfall, at the speed of light.
The performance seemed to require godlike pianistic abilities to the eyes of a romantic era piano enthusiast whose inner metronome was already lost between the third and fourth measure.
A significant part of the beauty however was conveyed by the left hand. It barely moved and would play quite simple chords, nothing too fancy or difficult. The chord progression however, the choices the composer made of when to play them and in which order just made perfect sense.
Beautifully stunning. Like love at first sight. Like fine wine tasting.
You could hear subtle melodies within the complexities of this Etude. Orange, chocolate, berries. Like a palette of emotions which would shift from joy to melancholy, from astonishment to fulfilment, with every wave of the right hand, with every chord fading away.
Beautifully stunning can be very personal of course. Many might not see the same beauty, some might not see beauty at all in Chopin’s Etude Op 10 No 1 in C major. The world is made of different tastes and colors after all.
So why does love fall apart sometimes… Many times…
If you’re a regular visitor, you might have read one of my previous posts which deals with closure, that very final stop on the side of a love and hate bumpy road, a “face à face” hopefully leading to some peace of mind and to the solo highway you probably wish you never left.
Well that’s a couple of steps forward actually. You first need to realize what hit you, accept it after having denied it, and then move on.
So here’s what could have been a bumpy road ultimately leading to closure after love fell apart.
You left me here with childish dreams and teenage memories To sink in the oblivion of a timeless remedy I took the weight of the years on my shoulders and your sorrows in my eyes But you left me here to cry all the tears you would not cry Anymore
You turned your back on our sunny days, embraced the lonely nights You laughed your way out of those years, gave in without a fight You say it’s better to be safe and cold than burning and alive Living someone else’s dreams, your fantasies won’t haunt you Anymore
Days and weeks and months and years, are slowly passing by Time one day will cast its spell and bring the morning light And if we meet again, I may show you all the stars you left inside Then turn away, walk towards the sun, and you won’t see me Anymore
I heard it for the first time eleven years ago, on a Wednesday evening in Abu Dhabi. It felt like a call. More than a call, an invitation. A portal to end-of-19th-century Paris. Don’t ask, it just took me there.
To a place and an epoch close enough to our time to make the French Terror and the Napoleonic wars become knowledge which people of that place and time learnt, rather than memories they recollected. Close enough in time for Paris to have already been transformed by the works of Haussmann and his contemporaries into a very viable first version of the lovely city it is today.
Close enough in the mist of time to keep shining this specific Parisian touch which spanned from the end of the 19th century up until the great war. La Belle Époque, as it came to be known in retrospect.
La Belle Époque can hardly be framed in words to try to explain what it was or how it felt. Two world wars and a cold one right after, two major economic depressions, many global scale pandemics and the rise of terrorism, among other horrors since that time, made sure it would not be possible. Words hardly have any meaning after that.
We could try to imagine it though, with the help of some music, or a painting, or a book maybe… It might have felt like being in one of the adventures of Arsène Lupin, not one revisited by Netflix with a 21st century twist but rather one crafted by Maurice Leblanc, the father of this peculiar gentleman burglar.
But back to Abu Dhabi. It was 2010, on a Wednesday evening, and I had just heard Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane in F sharp minor for the first time.
Composed as a piano and chorus piece in 1880, then re-arranged as an orchestral version in 1887, it was a perfect fit for the time and place it stood for: 19th century, Paris. Coordinates to which this time machine would hook me up ever since.
It would also put a pen in my fingers and some thoughts in my head. This is how it all started, in French of course, on a moleskine notebook, on a Wednesday evening in Arabia, leading years later to the post I am wrapping up today, in English, on a Friday evening in France.
Let the board sound
PS: If you like Paris and words which take you places, meet an author doing just that. The posts are not always about Paris, but they always take you places… Try this one for instance.
Pink Floyd playing in the background, and I, wrapping up my previous post before publishing it. Comfortably Numb. Or Confortablement engourdi since we are somewhere in France. A masterpiece of progressive rock if you ask me. And by the time David Gilmour was kicking his haunting second guitar solo, hell was breaking loose in a sunny Levantine country which until then thought it had struck a golden deal with time… The post was nearing the end. You probably read it a couple of days ago.
“We ended up believing that judgment day would never come…”
Hell broke loose on a Tuesday evening at 6:07 PM local time, when 2750 metric tons of unaccounted for and ill-stored Ammonium Nitrate went off in the port of Beirut in what would be later described as one of the largest artificial non-nuclear blasts in history, obliterating significant parts of the capital and causing 218 deaths, more than 7000 injuries and making thousands of people homeless.
I will not dwell on the causes. There is rant all over the place on the criminal carelessness of Lebanese officials or the endemic corruption undermining the country, including in some of my previous posts.
However, I cannot help but notice that the story leading to the disaster had been unfolding in broad daylight in the previous years, in general indifference. You know, the story on how 2750 tons of an explosive substance made it to a warehouse in the port of Beirut from an odd ship which would later sink in the port itself without anyone taking notice. “A ship? What ship?“
Weirdly enough, you can find hundreds of documented stories, news and articles on the port of Beirut and its tales over the past 7 or 8 years, from stories on customs seizing anything between 3.6 million Captagon pills and 20 smuggled iPhones to information on the port revenue, year in, year out. You can even find articles on the customs fight against corruption. Ha ha.
But not a hint about the elephant in the room: A 284 feet long cargo ship, the Rhosus MV.
Stranded there since 2013, abandoned by its Russian or Cypriot owners who allegedly went bankrupt, owning the port of Beirut more that 100 000 US dollars in accruing unpaid fees, with 2750 tons of a potentially explosive substance on board, and which ended up SINKING in the port, on its own, in February 2018, out of lack of maintenance, after its load had been confiscated by the Lebanese authorities and stored in one of the port warehouses a few years earlier.
And nothing either on the six warnings formally issued by customs and port officials to the (not so) competent authorities about the danger presented by the substance stored at the port, in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. It unraveled too late, a couple of days after the disaster…
OK. For the sake of argument, let us put aside the warnings, the explosive substance in the ship or out of it, the Russian owner and those behind him. And maybe even the port administration and customs, or especially those actually, and the hidden hand behind. Maybe these factors and actors were not so obvious. Maybe they were out of reach because we were too busy finding a place in the sun. Or surviving. Or not in the details of an opaque administration, and its corrupting volutes let us say. Or too afraid, standing to loose too much. Too exposed.
Or maybe they were out of reach because of our acute intellectual laziness, and God knows how much of that we have to spare.
But a ship sinking in plain sight in the port of Beirut?
I met him many years ago. I was new in town and like most people missing home, I would go there looking for, I don’t know, solace, or maybe memories. I found this old piano instead.
He was sitting in a corner of the western lounge in the Lebanese parish of Our Lady of Lebanon in Paris. He seemed old, very old. Very lonely too. I would sit next to him with a cup of coffee, no words spoken, just two lonely beings in the cold Parisian winter.
Most old timers like him do not speak much. They have been long forgotten and very few people actually care to hear their stories, but you see, a piano still has a soul as long as he can sing. So one day, I thought I would start a conversation. I lifted the lid, tried to play a few notes. And boy was I surprised when I found out.
He was a Pleyel.
It might not mean much to many, but if you are a piano enthusiast, the name must have sparked some excitement. A vintage Pleyel to other pianos is like a vintage Ford Mustang to other cars: it cannot rival the modern day Aventadors or other Veyrons and R8s in performance, and maybe not even the 21st century version of itself, but it still has an aura and an appeal that eclipse more recent muscle cars and Italian prancing horses. At least in the eyes of a certain breed of car enthusiasts.
But back to Pleyels and what makes their legend. Or who actually: Chopin for one. Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin himself played them almost exclusively. The Grande Valse Brillante was most probably composed on a Pleyel. The Fantaisie-Impromptu as well. His Nocturnes in B flat major were even dedicated to Marie Pleyel, wife of Camille Pleyel, owner of Pleyel & Cie. Following his footsteps, Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Debussy were also known to compose on Pleyel pianos.
But as far as my new acquaintance is concerned, there is more to it than famous composers. What really made the legend of this piano to me is a tie it has to a country now on the verge of oblivion.
This particular piano was born in 1913 according to his serial number and his birth certificate which I could find in the Pleyel & Cie archives, digitized by the Museum of Music in 2009 and made available online. I found another interesting information in these archives, on the same page: he had three brothers, three Pleyel pianos, n° 159937, 160328 and 160329 who were manufactured around the same time and shipped to Beirut in 1913 on the 12th of April and the 22nd of May, to a Mr. Wadia Sabra. Who happens to be the composer of the Lebanese national anthem and the founder of the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music if the name does not ring a bell. The father of Lebanese art music or musique savante.
From then on, my piano friend also became a distant cousin: three of his Pleyel brothers settled in Lebanon and taught generations of Lebanese musicians the basics of music at the Conservatory. As for him, God knows what journey led him to retire in a Lebanese parish in Paris, down from good old Brittany and his first owners back in 1913, the Gauvu and sons house in Saint Brieuc. I tried to uncover the full story but to no avail, the Gauvu house seeming to have closed its doors before the dawning of the Internet age. I like to think he felt homesick to a country he had never really seen but only knew about from the postcards his brothers would send him from time to time… And decided to retire to it in a way. For many years, I sought professional advice on restoring it and pulling it out of retirement and into a real home but as time went by, I came to understand that some things are just meant to be the way they are. And although this piano is very old and very tired, he bears a name and a hidden story which make him part of a legend no illness or aging should take away. Hence this post.
If you happen to be in Paris, feeling lonely, and having some time to spare, I think you would enjoy a cup of coffee with him. I can imagine how it could have worked for Sabra when he was in Paris in 1922. He could have met him. He might have. The Pleyel was only nine years old then…