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.
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…