Opening Lines: Rhapsody in blue

The column Stumbling across a Paganini concert on the radio unlocks the stifled passions of an unfulfilled life for Howard Jacobson's mother- in-law
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
The function of women, if you are a man, is to break your heart. When you're young they break your heart because you want them so much, because there are so many of them, and because you cannot have them all. Later they break your heart because you have broken their heart. Their final and most exquisite trick is to break your heart because of all the unused life that is in them.

How do they do that, women? How are they able to simultaneously make you feel that you have taken everything from them and taken nothing?

Fortunately I am not to blame in regard to my mother-in-law's unused life. I wasn't around when she should have been using it. But never seek to ask for whom the bell tolls, blah blah. It's sort of my fault in the sense that one of us is all of us. So when my father-in-law took her away from the life she loved in Perth and plonked her in Melbourne half-a-century ago, he was preparing the ground for my guilt. You'd feel guilty, too, if you could see the unemployed energy which assails her body whenever the person she was in Perth is recalled to her.

It's music that starts her off. For that was what she used to be in Perth, before we all dragged her away - a thing of music. A formidably accomplished pianist. The nuns of the Blessed Mary MacKillop taught her originally, then she won a place at the Adelaide Conservatorium of Music, which her parents insisted she decline. Playing for pleasure was one thing, but making a career of it was not ladylike. They still think like that in Perth. To this day it remains a nun-ridden place.

But my mother-in-law did make half a career of her music - wowing the visiting examiners from Trinity College of Music who descended on Western Australia like gods from Olympus; accompanying silent movies; becoming renowned for her crystal radio broadcasts; playing in trios and quartets with her husband and friends; and enjoying a reputation as an excellent teacher. If it wasn't the international career she might have had, it was a satisfying life. Then came the unwanted, undiscussed move east. From heat to cold, from light to dark, from fame to obscurity. She knew no one in Melbourne - no one who wanted her to teach their children, no one to make a quartet or trio with, so she quit, gave it all up, never played publicly again. One in the eye for the man who had uprooted her! No point moralising. Punish others and you end up punishing yourself. Sure, sure. So what are you to do? Go without the pleasure of punishing anyone?

It hurts my heart, though, to see the paroxysms that shake her when she hears music she remembers. It was Rachmaninov that claimed her most recently. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Blatantly emotional, but I've said I don't intend to moralise. A Frenchman in a cerise jacket was playing it on television - a Christmas Day reshowing of an emotional Last Night of the Proms, put on especially for the half-dozen Australians not at the beach. We found it only because we were channel hopping, trying to find the Queen's speech to the Commonwealth.

She is 83 - my mother-in-law, not the Queen - and dresses not unlike Huckleberry Finn. My wife's doing. She likes to keep her mother looking true to herself. She has become easy to shop for, too, now that she forgets to eat and so has the figure of a person one-sixth her age. You could put her on a catwalk except that she'd overdo the hip swaying. And object to the music.

She was in her armchair when she thought she was going to get the Queen, in an attitude of semi-republican skittishness, her bare feet up on the sideboard like some disrespectful chit's. No calcium or circulation problems there. But when the Rachmaninov began she went very quiet, listening like a cat. Slowly she started to nod her head, to tap the arms of her chair, and to slap her thighs in time to the music; then suddenly she jackknifed, bringing her knees up to her chin and pummelling the sides of her face as though she was trying to din something into (or out of) herself.

I've seen her lost in music before, gone into that trance of utter self- forgetfulness which is reckoned to be art's supreme justification. But this time she wasn't simply transported, she was the music, she was the pianist, from the way she was striking herself you would have to say she was the piano.

She rocked into herself, bruising her ears with her fists, now acknowledging the cerise Frenchman interpretation, now competing with him. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, written sometime in the middle-1930s - she would have played it when she was a girl. It would have been contemporary music for her then. The latest thing from Europe. Worrying for the nuns. And now here she was performing it one last time with the BBC Philharmonic.

"Second to none in urgency and excitement," is how Greenfield's Penguin Guide describes Cecile Ousset's version of this breathless piece. Well, Greenfield never got to hear my mother-in-law.

She set about teaching me the piano once, 20 years ago in a rented house in Wandsworth. She would stand behind me, lightly touching my fingers, guiding them, infinitely patient, literally inspirational in that she put feelings into my fingers that hadn't previously been there. Had she stayed in London I would assuredly have learnt to play - I the least rhythmic and coordinated of men - so urgent and exciting was her influence. So don't Cecile Ousset me.

But after the rhapsody the self-reproach. "I should never have stopped," she says to herself, loud enough for us to hear. "Perhaps I'll take it up again."

And we say nothing, because were we to start to reply to that, we for our part would never stop

Comments