Capturing a Special World

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Why did I write The Nightingale’s Sonata? In the opening pages of the book, I give one answer.  My mother had entrusted to me a beautiful silver podstakannik or tea-glass holder with an enameled portrait of my two uncles as children.  My family had smuggled it out of Russia and eventually my mother passed it on to me along with boxes of family material. She had said, “You must tell the family story.” I promised I would.

But I had another reason for writing the book.  I wanted to capture certain feelings I had had growing up and later as a young man.  I considered my family special — just as I am sure so many other people do.  For them and for me, there were those magical moments that crystalized what it felt like to be part of a family like no other.  I wanted readers — especially those in future generations of my family — to experience these moments as I had.

In writing The Nightingale’s Sonata, I kept the promise to my mother. I went through the boxes of articles, photographs, and letters. I researched the family in archives and travelled to many countries where my relatives had lived and worked. I got in touch with relatives (some of whom I had never met) to learn more. In the end, I cobbled together the relevant events both familial and historical.  But describing feelings was ever so much harder.  One can fairly easily recount facts and dates and write about people, making them interesting and amusing.  But capturing one’s internal states in special moments of happiness or pain or wonder is infinitely more difficult. Many times, I would spend an afternoon writing about such moments only to toss out the material when it failed to convey viscerally the impressions, sights, sounds, pride, joy, love, and anger that was so much of my growing up.

How does one convey, for example, the special feelings as a youngster associated with the much-anticipated arrival of my Uncle Boris? He would come to our mother’s (his sister’s) house periodically from a nearby tour date and spend a night or two.  My brother and I, just old enough as budding musicians to be familiar with much of the 19th century piano repertoire, would sit my uncle down at the piano before he had removed his coat and hat and gloves and pelt him with requests.  “Play Liszt’s ‘La Campanella,’” we would insist, selecting one of the more difficult show pieces from a composer who specialized in such virtuosic works.  And Boris would take off his gloves and play the piece by memory.  It was a game.  We would try to come up with something he didn’t know or didn’t remember and we never could. Who had an uncle like that!?

But that wasn’t all.  My mother, who had been around musicians all her life and was unimpressed when someone sat down at the piano and played something off the cuff, would come in and ask Boris when he wanted dinner.  And as he was playing this fiercely difficult piece, he would calmly begin a conversation with her, sometimes in English, sometimes in Russian, or perhaps in French if there was a French speaker around, concerning the time of dinner or his schedule for the next day or some other topic. How to describe our amazement in being related to someone who could pull off such a feat?

And he did not behave like some distant grand artist we saw regularly in concert halls and whom we would meet when our grandmother, Lea, dragged us backstage afterwards.  To them, we could only mumble our admiration.  To Boris we could talk about anything and always did, including, I am embarrassed to admit, complaining about how he was playing the various pieces.  This was the same Boris Goldovsky who spoke to millions of listeners on Saturday afternoons during the intermission features of the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts, explaining the finer points of the work being performed that day. And there we were, telling him all the things he was doing wrong.  We might criticize him for the way his bass notes did not line up exactly with the treble notes on the beat or the fact that he would repeat sustained octaves in the bass when only one note was called for. We were obviously trying to impress him.  And as he played, he would talk to us about how Schnabel or Dohnanyi (two of his teachers) or Hofmann, who he hated as a man but whose piano playing he admired, had demonstrated why this was the more musical way to convey the melody or to provide support for the bass line.

I would look around the room.  That enchanted chamber with its two Steinways, filled with magnificent Pennsylvania and Swiss painted antique furniture that my parents collected. I would smell the fresh flowers with which my mother decorated the house each day.  The furniture may have been museum-quality (it did in fact end up in the Philadelphia Art Museum after my parents died), but the feeling in the room, with its plush couches and chairs, was one of comfort and informality and there would often be many people sitting around reading or listening with half an ear. Only our grandmother Lea, if she happened to be there, listened carefully. The smells from the kitchen added to the feeling that this was a world I never wanted to leave.

But as I wrote passages like this, I realized I was no Marcel Proust, nor a Tolstoy or Henry James.  It is ever so much easier to describe what happened, when and to whom, than it is to capture fleeting feelings without resorting to purple prose or worse, describing things that others in this age of cell phones and social media wouldn’t “get.” And it took me so many words to paint a picture of those moments – words that, an editor would gently suggest, might be a little excessive.

Perhaps I came closest to what I had hoped to achieve when I described my brother’s final performance of the Franck Sonata for Violin and Piano, the eponymous sonata in the title of the book. It is a section that many people have said is the most moving account in the entire story. But ironically, after trying so hard and unsuccessfully to write in a similar vein about other moments that were special, this section was one of the easiest to write.  I wrote it at one intense sitting and except for some light copy editing, never had to revise it. Why is that the case?  I have no idea.

So I continued to work toward more tiny flashes of such Proustian moments in this book. And if those moments are fewer than what I had planned or hoped for, perhaps there will be other opportunities in the future. Stay tuned.