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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Play It Again

An Amateur Against the Impossible

Alan Rusbridger

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Friday, 6 August 2010
The annual holiday begins. It's unadventurous of us, but for the past few years we've taken the same house on the La Foce estate in the Val d'Orcia in Italy. It's an old farmhouse with a pool and works fine for someone who, once they're on holiday, has no great inclination to move more than a hundred yards from the kitchen, a deckchair or a swim. The landscape all around is baked and agricultural – day after day a vast tractor ploughs the soil which breaks into such great boulders of heavy clay that it seems impossible that anything could grow in it. In the 1920s, the Anglo-American writer Iris Origo, who lived on the estate with her husband, Antonio, an Italian duke, described the area as marked by ‘low clay hillocks' which are ‘as bare and colourless as elephants' backs, as mountains of the moon'. The UNESCO World Heritage List calls it: ‘an exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was rewritten in Renaissance times to reflect the ideals of good governance and to create an aesthetically pleasing picture'. The Renaissance flavour certainly hits you on rare sorties out of the house to the extraordinary hilltop town of Pienza, whose fifteenth-century cathedral and palaces tower over a valley with a view which can't have changed much over the past five centuries.
The holiday villa consists of four bedrooms above a ground floor which would once have been a winter shelter for animals and is now a very large ping-pong room with futons for spill-over guests. And, this year, a piano – quite unexpected and unasked for. It transpires the previous occupants had ordered it and the rental company has so far failed to collect it. So there it is: a shiny Yamaha upright in the corner of the downstairs room.
Saturday, 7 August
The La Foce estate is dotted with houses tucked away on hillsides or on the edges of forests. Mostly, you never discover who is staying in these houses: there is just the distant sight of a car kicking up dust along a winding white road, or the echoes of laughter. But there is a bush telegraph at work, with the occasional invitation to a drink or meal.
In the evening, Lindsay and I take a twenty-five-minute drive up a tortuous, rutted track to a hilltop house with spectacular views over the valley below. And there among the guests, sipping a glass of wine and gazing out over the volcanic valley, is none other than Alfred Brendel. He is looking good at eighty, and much more relaxed and easy-going since playing his last piano recital in Vienna, in December 2008 – I had reviewed the Musikverein concert in the Guardian. Over a drink Brendel says he's perfectly happy with his post-performance life. He didn't, he insists, live for applause or accolades. Lots of people may have shed tears when he gave up, but not him. Is he happy talking about the piano? It's difficult to tell, but he is extremely graceful in answering my questions, which I hope don't fall into the category of ‘Where, as an editor, do you get all your stories from?'
He talks about the age in which he grew up – where you had to choose between the classical tradition (Haydn–Beethoven–Schubert) and Chopin (and, to a degree, Liszt). Brendel made one Chopin recording – and then, with some regrets now, decided not to play any more Chopin for the rest of his career. But he did play the G minor Ballade before the curtain came down on Chopin. I ask him about it. It is, objectively, not the hardest, he says, but it is very difficult to interpret. He tells me that the thing one has to realise about Chopin is that he was the only composer who wrote purely for the piano. The music grows out of the instrument. With all other composers you feel they have a symphonic side, or a choral side, which comes out in their piano music, but with Chopin it was all piano music.
Sunday, 8 August
Today, when the house is empty and there is no danger of being overheard, I decide it's time to begin. The girls will sleep in late. Lindsay is down at the pool. I have two hours to myself. I sit down at the shiny Yamaha and for the first time try sight-reading Chopin's G minor Ballade. I've known the piece since university, but it has never once, in the intervening years, occurred to me to try to play it. Turns out I was right to avoid it: it is surely an impossible piece for any amateur pianist to pull off. As I sit with my fingers fumbling their way laboriously over the notes at snail's pace, I am immediately overwhelmed with frustration. The technical challenges are so enormous. What if I'd not left it so late, if I'd kept up twenty minutes a day from the age of 30 instead of 50? Maybe then it wouldn't be so impossible.
The first of Chopin's four Ballades was probably composed around 1834–5. Chopin was about 24 and was living in Paris, having left Warsaw for an unsatisfactory nine-month stay in Vienna around the time of the 1830 uprising against Russian hegemony. Various musicologists think all these historical details help understand what's going on in the piece. A listener, they say, has to understand this is a work of exile. It's a piece composed during a revolutionary period when Polish nationalism found its way into culture – in the case of music, by virtue of folk songs or by drawing on folkloric forms from literature. Chopin, unable to return to Warsaw, wrote mazurkas and polonaises. He read the ballades of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz and moved away from many aspects of the classical tradition which arguably reached its peak with the late works of Beethoven. The Ballades were complex and revolutionary pieces in every way.
The Ballade lasts just under ten minutes – at least in the hands of professionals – and begins with a declamation. If this is a story, the storyteller is calling everyone to attention. For five bars there are only octaves, with no internal harmony or colouring. The starkness of the notes is compounded by confusion as to where they lead. It's not entirely clear what key the piece is in or where the tonal centre lies. The introduction ends with an extraordinary chord (bar 7) known as a Neapolitan sixth. This is an ‘unstable'-sounding chord which has to be resolved – not straight to the key of the overall piece, G minor, but to the ‘dominant' key of D before finally reaching G minor in bar 9.
By now we're into the first theme – theme A, which is certainly in G minor. But there's a little motif in that introduction which is worth noticing, a little ‘sigh' in the second half of bar 3. We hear it again in bars 9/10 and across 13/14 – and then repeatedly and wistfully through the opening Moderato. Theme A is tender, yearning and built around a tentative two-bar phrase which Chopin keeps restating, each time with a slight harmonic or melodic variation. It's a lilting fragment of a tune at this stage, not quite a waltz, but with the hint, or echo, of one. There's also the suggestion of a heartbeat in the throb-throb pulse of the left-hand (LH) chords, the first maybe a tiny bit louder than the second. Only at bar 22 can we sink into a longer, more fluent statement. Then for a moment the music swells in confidence, only to become more hesitant again by bar 29.
From bar 36 we're into a linking passage – once more with a hint of the sighing motif from the introduction. At first the mood is still tender and wistful. But this four-bar phrase is repeated agitato and suddenly we're jolted out of a gentle, if sometimes edgy, world into something more menacing. The music is much faster now, more percussive and fragmentary. As before, there's a suggestion of a waltz, but a rather demotic one.
At bar 48 the mood changes again. Everything – at least in a professional performance – has been speeding up. Suddenly there's a torrent of sound – the left hand hammering and insistent over a cascade of right-hand (RH) notes with syncopated cross-rhythms. A series of rippling arpeggios and thundering LH octaves firmly establishes that we're rooted in G minor.
And then there's a simply magical transformation. The insistent hammering LH G minor chords in 56 and 60 become – in 64 – a far-off horn call. And then another and another. The music fades as the call becomes more distant. And we've changed key. Are we in F major now or F minor? Everything, within a bar, melts into E-flat major for the second tune – theme B. Once again, there is the lilt of a waltz to the tune, but this is the most exquisitely tender love music – sighs and all. Throughout the piece, Chopin never allows one mood to prevail for long. Within fifteen bars (at bar 82) there's an apparently new motif introduced – a little triplet ornament in the RH. In fact, it's a speeded-up variation on theme A, though not explicit enough for most ears to recognise it as such immediately.
At bar 92 the mood changes again. The temperature drops around 10 degrees in the space of a few notes, the harmonies wither away to a bleak and bare E. The throb-throb – so tender in the first hearing of theme A – is now a little menacing. The heartbeat is quickening a little as theme A returns in a much edgier way. The sigh has become anxious and, by bar 99, almost a question.
But then sunlight floods into the piece. At bar 106 theme B returns – by now not a whisper of love, but as something majestic or triumphant. It's large, expansive, grandiloquent music over grand fortissimo chords in the LH. Or is it? Pianists can't even agree over the key here – some think it's A major, some E major. And some urge you not to be seduced by the apparent grandeur. Listen more carefully: it's ironic, can't you see?
By 119 the grand mood, ironic or not, is dissipating. The LH chords become more dissonant, while the RH has ever more and insistent octave runs up to a dramatic fortississimo climax which lasts precisely one beat before it comes crashing down to something like pianissimo two bars later. Now the mood, with the goading LH interruptions and quickening tempo, is positively anxious. The clouds are once more casting a shadow of doubt.
But then what happens? Chopin – out of nowhere – gives us a real waltz (bar 138), not an implied or twisted or suggested one. We're back in a major key and the RH has a piece of filigree ornamentation over the elegant three-step LH. We could be in a Paris ballroom. But are we? Is this more irony? Is that the ‘sigh' returning in the LH, with its feeling of regret and longing? Is the RH actually a distorted version of theme A?
In any case – and long before you have a chance to decide on any of that – the waltz is over as suddenly as it began. It's lasted precisely seven bars – in the middle of which (bar 141) Chopin subverts the whole thing by writing cross-rhythms into the RH which make the ear hear a bar in four time rather than three time.
Virtually throughout the piece the music is either falling or rising. Now, at bar 146, it starts rising chromatically and then in angular repeated patterns leading to another fortissimo one-beat climax – a second inversion (hence very ‘unstable' F-sharp major chord) followed four bars later by a sforzando second inversion E-flat major chord at 158. The music rises again. And immediately, at 162, cascades down to another fortissimo restatement of theme B at 166. We're in B-flat major now – closely related to the original G minor. For some twenty-five bars the LH ripples away with an arpeggiated bass as the RH sings the theme … majestically? It certainly could be. But maybe by now the listener has learned to mistrust any of the surface moods of the music. It is never quite as tender, nor as sweet, nor grandiloquent, nor charming as it seems at first. Perhaps we simply suspend judgement and let the great heaving ocean waves of glory roll over us. By 180 the alert ear will pick up the double-speed variant of theme A that Chopin first introduced halfway through the first statement of theme B. Now (bar 180) it's a con forza – but soon melting.
By 194 it's melted. Precisely a hundred bars earlier the temperature dropped to a single note of doom. It does so again now, but a note lower. We're back with theme A, with the heartbeat LH. But no one could mistake this for tenderness now. It's an adrenaline heartbeat. There's worry, barely controlled panic in the sound. By 202 the RH sigh has been repeated three times. Theme A – remember how lilting, gentle and waltzlike it first sounded? – is turning to terror.
At 206 Chopin lays down an organ-like pedal in the dominant D and tells the pianist to play passionately and as loudly as possible. Something terrible is coming. In 207 he winds the spring to a pitch of unbearable tension which is only released with the arrival of G minor at the start of the coda.
The coda is the bit nearly every pianist fears, no matter how good they are, no matter how many hundreds of hours they've put into this piece. It explodes. It's presto con fuoco – extremely fast and fiery. The syncopated rhythms can throw and confuse the ear, the feet, the brain and the fingers. The RH is soon flying up and down the keyboard in trapeze-like leaps completely unrelated to the LH's own jumps. Something diabolic is happening – the listener must hear that – a sense of loss of control and a shattering of all earthly order. But how to convey that abandon without a loss of technical control?
By 230 the music is edging up chromatically, suggesting creeping horror. By 238 everything is falling to earth. Four bars later we're on our way back up – another chromatic sweep in the RH against a LH fanfare. And, at 246, the reverse – plunging from the top of the keyboard to the bottom, arriving on a knell of G minor. A moment of still. Then – whoosh – back up. A quiet chorale G minor chord. Theme A in its manic form breaks in. Silence. Again, another upward swoop – four octaves of G minor, this time in tenths. Silence. Chorale. Manic theme A. And – the most revolutionary ending to any piano piece ever written to that point? – a crashing convergence of octave chords. They start from opposite ends of the keyboard at first getting slower, then faster and faster. Sometimes harshly dissonant, sometimes not, they end with two octaves of a chromatic G minor scale. A final doom-laden knell of G minor.
* * *
So what's going to stop me being able to play this piece? I start to construct a list of the horrendous technical challenges which – at any other point in my life – would have deterred me from even trying. Here are a dozen immediately obvious reasons why the piece is unplayable … by me.
This sort of stuff at bar 33 – squashed flies on a page – happens all over Chopin. One moment everything's calm, the next the right hand is fitting in millions of notes for every note in the LH. Well, not millions, but enough for the little black dots to blur in front of the eyes and beads of sweat to form on the forehead. Four per note for the first three beats. And then – count them – eighteen for the next three. Six a beat, strictly speaking, except that would sound rather mechanical. So perhaps split them six-eight-four? They have to sound effortless. But that means a long time with a pencil writing in exactly which finger is going to play which note and then memorising it all.
The first bit of passage work which hits you three pages in. This is really hard. The LH starts in one octave and then plummets an octave. So does the RH, but exactly a bar later. The LH figure is a clumsy mixture of third fingers and fifth fingers – they'll have to find the leaps on their own because the eyes are going to be on the RH, which is darting all over the place – difficult fingerings, difficult leaps, twisty shapes. And the fact that the eyes are not going to be on the music means that every note must be memorised. And the rhythm is disconcertingly syncopated. The RH looks and (without the LH) feels as if it's written in patterns of three, or even triplets. But add in the LH and the strong feeling is in two, not three.
Same passagework a little later. Nearly ten bars of broken chords in the RH, over three octaves and in three different keys and far-from-obvious fingers. I haven't practised arpeggios for decades, or I would have a more instinctive idea of how these should be played. And, for added complication, Chopin's written in horn calls (in two different octaves) in the LH. Assuming eyes transfixed on RH fireworks (more memorising), how is the LH going to find its way to exactly the right spot for the horn calls?
The big second tune – so sweet and melancholy in its first outing, now returns very grandly in A major or E major, depending on which pianist you talk to. Once again, as with much Chopin, the two hands have different problems to confront. The LH lays down a carpet of chords – changing key every bar, if not twice a bar and arcing over four octaves with each chord in a different inversion. So that, on its own, is an hour of fingering and a month of memorising. The RH is playing in large infilled octaves, trying to sing a triumphant melodic line over the LH, with some tricky triplet turns along the way.
Just when you were getting the hang of the chords Chopin writes in three octave runs in the RH. But what on earth are they? Is the first B minor? But with an E sharp thrown in? The second C-sharp minor apart from an F double sharp? The third G-sharp minor? Even if I knew the vanilla version of these keys I'd still struggle because each scale is slightly ‘wrong'. As it is I'll have to learn each one individually, together with the right fingerings. And memorise.
I find this extremely tricky. The RH is a filigree moto perpetuo waltz – OK once you get the hang of it – but the LH has got big leaps (so that rules out looking at either the music or the RH, which is just going to have to play on autopilot) and these sighing chords, which don't fit naturally under my hand at all. Playable adagio – but anything faster than that sends shooting pains up my left arm.
Passage work. Fingering. Notes. Memory. Coordination.
Fairly horrible. A long descending scale which begins as one thing (?B-flat major, but with an E natural thrown in just in case that's too obvious). And then – with a large spread chord in the LH to distract you – it changes into something else. Nearly seven octaves in all.
One of the most unnerving bars in the piece. Let me count the ways:
1) a trill on the first note in RH (with two weakest fingers, 4 and 5) while thumb holds the octave.
2) It's six beats in the bar. LH twelve notes. Outer part of RH seven notes. Inner part of RH seven notes. But a different seven. Middle part of RH two notes.
3) So get a pencil out and work out which note falls where. Draw lines on the score to show exactly where individual RH notes sound in relation to the LH. There's maths involved in working out the relation between a crotchet quadruplet (four single notes, or beats, in the time of three) versus a quaver triplet (three half-beats in the time of two) versus three quavers (three half-beats) versus two crotchets (two full beats).
4) Now you've marked it up, try to play it. And make the melody (in outer fingers of RH) sing over the musical quadratic equation going on underneath. With a bit of rubato please.
So this is where the real fun begins. The nightmare coda, which the best pianists in the world fear. It's presto con fuoco – demonically fast – and syncopated. The LH is making large leaps which confuse the expected rhythm. You're anticipating an oom-pah bass, whereas he's actually written a pah-oom bass. There's no time to catch breath or think – it's either there in the fingers or it isn't.
A nightmare for the RH, which is required to perform death-defying trapeze artist leaps in mid-air. The hand has to take off at the speed of sound, arriving precisely six and a half inches to the left, substituting a little finger for a thumb on a ridge of wood. This swoop down the piano is immediately followed by a swoop up – another leap of faith, with the thumb replacing the little finger, and then straight back down. The melody is essentially in the thumb, so everything else is decorative. But the thumb-melody is an octave apart. Once again, the eyes will be in two places at once (the LH is making its own octave leaps), so there's no possibility of looking at the score at the same time. More memorising.
Having taken you right down to the bottom of the keyboard, Chopin races you back up again – twice. The first is a three-octave G minor scale, both hands in parallel. Too easy? OK, try this for size: two hands, four octaves and a tenth apart. So, each hand is playing a G minor scale, but starting on a different note.
* * *
At any other time in my life, I would quietly have closed the music and put it back on the shelf. The added fear overlaying the entire enterprise is that I have never memorised a note of music in my life. I can't remember poetry, dates, phone numbers, films, novels – or music. Given that half of the piece is unplayable unless the eyes are on the hands and not on the score, I have no idea how, in my late 50s, I am going to retrain my brain.
Tuesday, 10 August
Not only is there a piano in our villa, I've discovered there's a piano teacher on hand too. The people staying at the house next door have hired him from the local town of Sarteano. Would I like to share?
So a few days after our evening with the Dworkin/Brendels, I make my way across the little valley between the farmhouses to meet the teacher, Francesco Cioncoloni. Francesco speaks very little English and I speak very little Italian. He is in his mid-20s and, these days, primarily a church organist. His eyebrows arch at my holiday choice of piano music. He's never played the Ballade himself, but he knows it by reputation. He takes the first lesson gently – none of the really frightening stuff over the page, just the slightly easier first section. He wants me to think of it as bel canto – something beautifully sung. And, indeed, he sings it. Hearing him, I understand why people make the connection between Chopin and Vincenzo Bellini, the nineteenth-century opera composer.
Thursday, 12 August
Two days later, I cross the valley again for a second lesson. This time there's no avoiding the arpeggios. I've already spent hours over the holiday pencilling in how I intend to finger the piece, but now Francesco gets out his rubber and erases all my marks in these sections. Yes, it would normally be logical to have G minor arpeggios with the thumb on the G, but not in this passage. Here it makes more sense to have the thumb on the D, he says. I go back to the villa and play it very slowly, just the RH. One bar at a time. Trying to think of the notes in two groups of three – thumb, two, three; thumb, two, three – rather than in bars.
If I were truly disciplined I'd probably just stick with this passage for the time being, but I'm curious about the later bits – like the crashing chords around bar 106. My current bible on how to practise is a yellowing second-hand copy of Playing the Piano for Pleasure, a 1940s book by a former New Yorker writer, Charles Cooke, himself an amateur pianist. His technique was to identify the weakest moments in a piece (like my twelve horrors, above) and turn them into the strongest. He called these sections ‘fractures'.
I believe in marking off, in every piece we study, all passages that we find especially difficult, and then practising these passages patiently, concentratedly, intelligently, relentlessly until we have battered them down, knocked them out, surmounted them, dominated them, conquered them – until we have transformed them, thoroughly and permanently, from the weakest into the strongest passages in the piece.
I mark this section at bar 106, with its very large chords and octave reaches, as a ‘fracture' in 6B pencil and then look again at the next passage – a series of rising octaves in the RH splattered in sharps and naturals. This is a whole new fingering feast. The thumb does all the work, playing all the lower notes. But Francesco has told me there are differing views about the right combination of fourth and fifth finger on the upper line, and just to make life more complicated he has suggested trying the odd third finger to get smoother runs – so 3–4–5 – but I've never played octaves with the third finger before, so that feels too strange for now. I look at other sections and they all contain myriad fingering complications. But they are a doddle compared with what happens at 130 – a four-bar passage with a little rising figure which repeats itself every sixteen notes. This is where music becomes maths. I count them: forty-eight notes in all, beginning on a second beat just to complicate matters. So how does this pattern work? There are eight notes – a mix of naturals, flats and sharps – starting on a B flat. And then, on the last beat of the bar, eight notes starting on an E natural and including a C flat. That means it's not in any recognisable key, so each note will have to be memorised and fingered separately, not in distinct patterns.
But by the end of the day I have managed to finger most of the piece bar the coda. The bareness of those pages makes the passage look even more frightening than it is already: there's something comforting about seeing lots of pencil marks above the notes. I begin to work out the patterns in the coda – a four-bar pattern which repeats itself; a two-bar repeating pattern. But the moment you look closer you see the ways in which Chopin constantly changes the pattern, subverts it, switches the beat, tweaks the harmonies. I am beginning to understand why he is so absorbing to listen to and so difficult to play: he keeps confounding the expectations of the ear. There are patterns here – God knows, I've just worked it out note by note – but it's almost deliberately written so that it would not be obvious to the listener.
There is, though, a kind of satisfying holiday rhythm in going through the piece with my 6B pencil working all of this out. Not the sort of thing you'd want to do back home in London with work pressing in, but pleasantly absorbing now. And I am beginning to grasp how I'll have to approach the piece. There's going to be no alternative to learning it inch by inch – you have to understand how it works and, once you understand, finally try to play it.
Thursday, 19 August
Our fortnight's holiday is almost over. Only a couple of days left, just as everything adjusts to the slower pace of life. But over the space of the last week – and with at least an hour a day of quite concentrated practice – I've gone from feeling that the Ballade is a completely unplayable piece to thinking it's just very, very, very difficult – and possibly, just possibly, within my grasp.
Last Friday, having spent the previous day sketching out the fingering, I tried to play some of the piece again. I started with the first six pages, which, with all kinds of qualifications, I could begin to play. Well, a bit. But not really. I still panic at the squashed flies at bar 33, and there are hideous wrenches of tempo as I slow down for the hard bits, and then (I hope no one's listening) speed up for the occasional easier bit. The big E major section has been a bit of a shambles – I still haven't remotely mastered the LH chords.
Instead of skimming over the panic moment of the squashed flies in bar 33, I went back to it to work out precisely what's going on. I spent fifteen minutes on the bar, working out the groups of six, practising them in different rhythms and experimenting with varied fingerings, questioning the marks I'd sketched out the day before. Would I ever have time to concentrate in this detail when I'm back at work?
But it's still holiday time, so I then apply the same concentration to the G minor arpeggios at bar 56, forcing myself to remember the new fingering with the thumb on the D not the G, and then trying consciously to remember (because otherwise it's total instinct) where exactly the left-hand horn calls come. The thumb-every-three-notes makes me think of the arpeggios as if they were triplets, but the LH breaks that into two notes, not three. So I forced my right hand to play in two, not three – ta-ta, not ta-ta-ta.
I then skipped forward and tried to work out the cross-rhythms in the little waltz. It's the LH that's the bugger here. There are huge leaps and, with the second trio of LH notes, a very awkward movement involving the weak little and fourth fingers – a shift which, for me, appears to involve a manoeuvre of the entire body. I seem to have to bend over rightwards in order to be able to move the two fingers. If I was a proper pianist, I would know how to angle the hand differently – I've been told that Russian pianists are taught to play with their hands at any angle to their arms – but for me, just getting that flexibility into my LH could take some weeks. Then at our final lesson, when I showed Francesco what I'm doing, with my rightwards tilt, he told me I should be moving my body out, not sideways.
I have also been confronting the coda. The last four pages of the Ballade must be the most exciting pages of piano music imaginable – if only one could play them. They involve a collision of so many technical challenges: enormous leaps in LH, very fast repeated chords RH, vast sweeping ‘trapeze leaps' in RH, chromatic rising bass chords in RH with continued trapeze leaps, a three-octave chromatic scale RH, then an eight-octave swooping cascade of notes and G minor ascending scales in octaves and tenths. Each one of these elements is brutally hard. Put them together and play it presto and it becomes truly terrifying.
On all previous form I'd have somehow glossed over it, or simply given up, but with my new methodical approach I break it down. Three notes in one hand position. Then five in the next, then three. On their own they are playable – just at an embarrassingly slow speed. But I resolve to be patient about practising these individual clusters of notes. I can worry about putting them together later.
Friday, 20 August
Our final day in Italy, and I plunge into the coda once more. This time, I start with just the LH. Played slowly, it seems almost unrecognisable from the recordings, which – at presto – have a kind of forward momentum which makes the piece sound utterly different. I'm playing it at = 40 – which is slower than largo – and at this speed the music doesn't make sense at all.1 It has no line or progression. So this is definitely going to be a nightmare passage. On the other hand, what had seemed completely unplayable a week ago, I can now play at paint-drying pace.
So much practice brings with it reminders that piano playing is an intensely physical business, one which has done actual harm to countless people who have overdone it, or started out with faulty technique. I've been putting off revisiting the broken chords at 166, because the big stretches in the LH required there are quite painful. If there is one bit of the piece where I am going to get some form of repetitive strain injury, it's going to be here. In fact, I have already started to get a burn in my arm muscles. This is probably the first warning sign about practising too intensively or too fast.
Over this final week of the holiday, I've also realised that it will be impossible to play some sections of the piece without first memorising them. It simply moves too fast to be able to switch attention from the notes on the page to the hands on the keyboard. This is making me anxious about the whole project, given the problems I've always had with remembering music.
And, of course, above all this, there remains my major worry. I've had the luxury of almost two weeks with the Ballade, and a week of really good, slow practice. Whenever the piece is really not clicking, it's because I'm playing too fast. Learning music is something like healing – something which takes time and can't be rushed. Back in London, as life speeds up, will I be able to transport myself back into this slow-music frame of mind? Is there any chance that I'll be able to carve out the time?
Saturday, 21 August
August is supposed to be the silly season, the period when there's no important news – though just as often it's the month when wars break out, famous people die and stock markets crash. Today I receive an immediate and startling reminder of the news cycle and its pressures within minutes of touching down at Heathrow: a text telling me that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been arrested in Sweden on suspicion of rape.
We've been waiting for some kind of attempt to discredit him and this is surely it. Though it does seem remarkably crude. Part one of WikiLeaks – the publication of a ton of material about the war in Afghanistan – already feels like the distant past, though it was only a few weeks ago. At the Guardian, part two of the project, which will constitute the biggest leak of military and state secrets in history, has been poised and ready to go for a few weeks now. The plan has been to delay publication until September, but it has been such a complicated partnership to coordinate, with a German weekly, Der Spiegel, and the New York Times. Never mind Assange, the difficult, brilliant, elusive, slippery wizard behind it all. I email David Leigh, an investigative reporter at the paper, to find out what's up. He and our colleague Nick Davies have worked most closely with Assange and have more or less got on with him (though Nick's enthusiasm has been cooling of late). David – who has even had him sleeping in his flat for part of the collaboration – has nursed a theory that Assange is not quite of this planet. He emails me back: ‘Apparently they have bad sexual manners on Alpha Centauri, where he comes from.' But Nick is worried. He has spoken to Assange's associates in Sweden, who insist this is not some kind of CIA smear – i.e. Assange hasn't been framed, but may well have done something problematical, which will need dealing with and explaining.
For a few hours we phone, text and email. We all agree we will have to report on whatever it is that's been going on. It would be fatal to the credibility of all involved if it looked as though the newspaper partners were protecting Assange simply because he had been a collaborator and/or source. In fact, it's even more complicated. He's both a collaborator and a source – but also not a source, in the sense he was not the original leaker. And he's a publisher in his own right – and an activist whose vision and aims will only partly coincide with ours.
Sunday, 22 August
From London, we head to Blockley for the final few days of our holiday. Blockley is a little village in North Gloucestershire halfway between Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon and two hours from North London. We've had Fish Cottage, a little house there, for twenty-odd years. It acquired its name from a wooden gravestone to a fish, which now hangs in our dining room.
Died April the 20th 1855
Aged 20 YEARS
The cottage owes a very modest fame to this artefact, which is mentioned in one or two books about architectural oddities or follies. Once a fortnight in the summer a car or a rambler will arrive outside and demand to see the gravestone.
Blockley was built on numerous springs, around which grew a mill trade, with about a dozen mills recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. In 1682, James Rushout, the son of a prosperous Flemish immigrant, came to the parish and built the first of the Blockley silk-throwing mills. This started a business supplying silk to the ribbon trade which would bring Blockley considerable wealth for the next two centuries – hence the rather imposing church at one end of the honey-coloured stone high street. It reached its peak in the 1820s when eight silk mills were operating along the brook and its tributary. But within fifty years the silk trade was on its knees – brought low by a free-trade battle won by the French. Two of the silk mills were turned into piano factories.
When we arrive at the cottage this morning there are two builders from Port Talbot in the garden driving piles twelve feet into the Cotswold clay where, only a month ago, there had been a tumbling down shed and garage. This needs a little diversion to explain …
Fish Cottage stopped being conventionally pretty the day it caught fire, maybe eighty or ninety years ago. Until that point it was a snug three- or four-roomed single-storey cottage with thick wattle and daub walls under a heavy thatch. Faded nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photos show it nestling in a bustling garden beneath a sparsely treed wood climbing up the hill behind it. The fire was an excuse for someone to build a second storey on, complete with a cantilevered balcony. The result is something between a Cotswold cottage and a tea planter's hill station. We bought the cottage from the late Mrs Dalrymple, who had, very aged, lived with the rats, the asbestos walls, the leaking asbestos roof tiles, the dry rot and the woodworm. We gutted and rebuilt the inside, running out of money before we could afford central heating. Over the years we did manage to add warmth, and built on one more bedroom and a small dining room. But swinging a cat in any of the rooms would not be advisable.
I did, however, contrive to squeeze a modern upright piano – a Danemann, once the official ‘Harrods' piano – into the sitting room along with two armchairs. But that was it. Over the years, though, a fantasy grew that one day it would be nice to have a proper space to play music at Fish Cottage, not just alone, but with friends – an impossibility in the cramped confines. The dream had been fed some years before by visiting Benjamin Britten's Red House in Aldeburgh, with its own music room/library, built in a converted outhouse. This contained all the composer's music scores and was a place where, after dinner, he would retreat with friends to play chamber music.
And so perhaps I could construct something outside the cottage. But how? All we had was an enclosed cottage garden of about a third of an acre, bordered by a wood on one side and a brook on the other. And then one day, looking out of the bedroom window, I looked down on the tumbledown old wooden garage and wondered whether I couldn't simply knock that down and replace it with something a little larger.
It seemed a small enough matter to replace the garage – which sat on a concrete base – with a slightly larger room, enough for a baby grand, room for a string trio and three armchairs, perhaps. That was the theory. My father had died a couple of years previously, leaving some money to my brother and me. We found an architect based in nearby Moreton-in-Marsh – mild, soft-spoken Ed Tyack – and explained the vision. He agreed it was a plausible idea and thought it could easily be done within the modest legacy from my dad, with perhaps a little left over to buy a slightly better piano.
There are few things duller than other people's building stories. So here is the merest summary of the factors which we soon discovered complicated this otherwise straightforward fantasy.
Flood risk. The little brook running in front of the house had swelled to an overflowing torrent in the 2007 floods. So the Environment Agency had to sign off everything from the drainage, the roofing materials (for run-off), the bore size of the culverts, you name it. A few months to sort.
The water table. Blockley being a village of springs and streams, the moment we knocked down the garage and removed the concrete base on which it stood, we found nothing but rivulets and quagmires of mud. Thick cling-to-your-boots chunks of clay and mud. Sink-into-your-ankles mud. It may only be a music room, but it was going to need serious piledriving and water-piping to get the site remotely usable. Maybe a month's work just to prepare the ground.
Planners. Well, they were OK really. But they did change their minds very late in the day. One minute they were minded to approve Ed's original design with a pitch slate roof. The next they were minded to refuse. Back to the drawing board. Lower the height, curve it over and cover it in sedum. Better? Yes, much better in their view.
The hill behind the cottage. Which needed heavy-duty concrete retaining walls to stop it slipping down once we started levelling the site.
The trees. Over the years four or five pine trees in front of the cottage had tapped into the water and grown into straggly giants. They needed to go.
The dry stone wall in front of the house collapsed.
Which is to say that the fantasy was destined to be very earthbound indeed. And the estimate for the little room – so easy, so modest – soared. And then soared again. And my fantasy of throwing something up in weeks was punctured.

On the other hand we had a perfect local builder, Henry Goodrick Clarke – so calm, intelligent, cheerful, capable and such a generally all-round good guy that he has become known as the Messiah. Or, He who shall be called Wonderful. Or, as my friend Henry Porter dubbed him, Walk-on-Water. Which was just as well, as he had to do a fair amount of that.
Monday, 23 August
Now that the fantasy of the music room is beginning to take shape out of the mud, maybe it's time to start indulging the fantasy of what piano to put in it. I've sort of earmarked about £8,000–10,000 from my father's money for the piano, but I have no idea what this will buy, or indeed where to look. But today at Fish Cottage, I was flicking through Pianist Magazine and saw an advertisement for Shackell Pianos, in Witney, Oxfordshire – the heart of David Cameron's constituency and thirty-five minutes from Fish Cottage. I make an appointment and drive over. The address is ‘Nimrod', redolent of rolling Malvern hills, tweed, pipe smoke, handlebar moustaches and sit-up-and-beg bicycles. But ‘Nimrod' is in fact a modern prefab warehouse space of the sort that have been thrown up on the edges of most English towns.
Inside I find Jeff Shackell, the 50-ish mild-mannered owner of the business. His work overall covers a T-shirt and jeans. He's open, chatty, warm and a bit geeky. Downstairs he has a showroom of gleaming second-hand pianos – mainly Steinways. And upstairs a larger hangar with twenty or so piano hulks – some working but dishevelled, some in need of complete rebuilding. Downstairs the atmosphere is half showroom, half mausoleum – red carpet, respectful, hushed. Upstairs it's more like a factory – bare boards, metal walkways and dismembered parts of pianos in various stages of build. I have a sudden urge to cancel the rest of the day and work my way round both rooms, trying every single key of every single piano.I tell Jeff my budget, which has already grown a bit fuzzy at the edges, as in ‘£7,000–15,000'. Jeff points me to an old Bechstein he sold the previous day for £5k. It has a very subdued tone, but is already several notches up on the Danemann piano currently residing in Fish Cottage. The skill of a piano dealer, like car dealers or estate agents, is presumably to get the client on the hook of a dream and then reel them gently in. And to do it imperceptibly. So the next thing Jeff does is encourage me to try a couple of Steinway Model A pianos in the showroom. There's a 1961 Model A, which is just beautiful – soft, quick, responsive, subtle. I move sideways to two Yamaha grands, one new at £17k, the other second-hand. They're both crisp and clear, but a touch soulless after the gorgeous Steinway. I'm on the hook already. Jeff makes me a cup of tea and talks lovingly about how he plans to rebuild one particular 1930s piano with modern Steinway pianos. He touches on the way the actions have changed over the years and on the differences between the Hamburg Steinway and the New York version. He's straight into the detail. It's obvious he has an obsessive and loving knowledge of the mechanisms and engineering and knows how every part is produced, how they've changed over the decades and why. Mention other pianos, and his interest fades. Clearly, he's an out-and-out Steinway nut … and it is infectious. I leave thinking it's going to have to be a Steinway A. But I'm not entirely sure how I will afford that if Henry hits any further complications in putting up the music room.
Wednesday, 25 August
There's an email from Jeff:
The 1961 Model A has been sold as the financial arrangements for my client have been approved and the 1984 Model A is also more or less sold. It is not always like this but the fact remains that the Steinway is the most sought-after high-end piano.
So, whatever else is going on in the economy, the market for second-hand Steinways is pretty solid. Another email comes soon after:
There is a 1972 Model A coming up in an auction in early September, it is estimated at £12,000 to £18,000 depending on the condition of the piano and bidding competition. My company is hungry for stock at present and I am sure I will bid on this piano …
I don't know if you feel comfortable with auctions. Perhaps I could help take away some of the uncertainty by inspecting the piano with the option for you to then try it in more relaxed conditions in Witney if indeed I am successful in purchasing.
I realise that, in the space of three days, I have become resigned to the piano budget being twice where it started.
Sunday, 29 August
The holiday is now at an end, and this is the last day I can practise for some time. I play everything with a metronome so that I can judge progress. If I set it at = 63 – still painfully, unrecognisably slow – then I can get through most of the piece, but still with all those horrid tempo-wrenches and innumerable stumbles and pauses. Looking out of the window at Glan and his mate, the pilers from Port Talbot, I realise my musical endeavours are the equivalent of what they're doing – building the foundations. I'm not yet remotely ready to build the walls or roof. But, if this three weeks of fingering and slow working out has achieved anything, it ought to have established a solid platform on which to build. A thought strikes me: can I learn the Ballade in the time it takes Henry and his team to build the music room? They're estimating four to six months. Doable. Surely?

Copyright © 2013 by Alan Rusbridger