MY EPIPHANY

The events recounted here occurred when I was a small child, so my memory of them is necessarily imperfect. Much of what I narrate here was told to me by those who were involved. Only much later, on rethinking the whole affair, did I come to realize its meaning for me, and to appreciate how it affected others. Three moments, however, are indelibly etched in my memory both visually and audibly, and I can still replay them in my mind as if they had happened yesterday. I will describe them, each in its place.

My mother married a lowly collector of insurance premiums, and they were poor, barely able to make ends meet. My mother's youngest sister, with whom she had always been especially close, married a successful dentist, and they were wealthy. We lived in a cramped apartment in Brooklyn; they lived in a spacious mansion on Long Island, complete with servants. They were very kind and generous to us. They often invited us to spend the day at their house, or to accompany them to Jones Beach, then inaccessible by public transport and frequented only by the rich.

This aunt was an accomplished pianist, and her husband was an accomplished violinist. They both loved music. In their living room stood a huge Steinway grand piano, and a huge Magnavox phonograph. Their favorite pastime was to play sonatas together, and they did not do things by halves. They hired a professional violinist, a member of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, to coach them. They set themselves a massive challenge: to play Beethoven's Kreuzer Sonata -- and on one of our visits, they decided to try the first movement on us.

This is the first of my imprinted memories. I am five years old. My parents sit in two chairs, and I sit on the floor between them. In front of us are the two performers. I see them from below, so that they appear larger than life. The hired coach hovers apprehensively in the background. The violin alone utters its intensely passionate introductory proclamation. The piano alone answers with its own no less passionate declaration. And then, after a few short hesitant phrases, comes the whirlwind drama of the first themes. And I am overwhelmed as if by a tidal wave.

When we returned home, I declared that I wanted to play the piano. At first my parents thought this merely a childish whim, and dismissed my demands, explaining that the cost would be beyond their means. But I wept and wailed, threw temper tantrums, and drove them crazy with my obsessive insistence. My mother told my aunt the pianist about this unwelcome development. I remember overhearing her telling my aunt that it was most upsetting, and that I was like a wild animal.

My aunt offered to take me to the piano teacher who had taught her in her youth, to get an expert opinion. My mother was only too pleased to grasp at this straw. My mother and my aunt brought me to the studio of a wise, perceptive, and lovable old Viennese lady, and left me alone with her for an hour or so. When they returned, they sent me to another room, and the piano teacher gave her report. She said that she had never encountered such an extraordinary talent in all her life; that it would be a crime not to cultivate and educate me; that she understood my mother's inability to bear the cost; and therefore that she undertook to teach me free of charge.

Of course, at the time I did not know most of this, but I was too young and too obsessed to care. I only knew that my life had suddenly become beautiful, filled with music. My aunt and uncle bought a Steinway baby grand for me, which took up half of our small living room and made the apartment even more cramped. Twice a week my mother took me to the studio of the marvelous old lady who revealed to me the wonders that I thirsted to understand and control.

The old lady was indeed wise. She began with eurhythmics, ear training, and music notation, adding actual playing on the keyboard only gradually. As a result, I could read music and sing at sight before I could play. I suppose that is why I have always thought of myself as a musician and not merely a pianist.

This is the second of my imprinted memories. The old lady and I sit together on the piano bench. We play and sing the C major scale, discussing the fact that it employs only the white keys. Then she asks me, what would happen if we began the major scale on D instead of C? I glance at the keyboard without touching it, and answer that the scale would have to include F-sharp and C-sharp. She asks me, how do I know? I reply that it is obvious, and play it for her. She exchanges looks of astonishment with my mother.

My uncle empathized with my obsession. When we visited them, my brother would go outdoors to play with their four children, and the adults would sit on the veranda drinking coffee, but my uncle would put a stack of records on the phonograph in the living room and leave me alone to listen. At that time phonograph records were 78 rpm's, and each piece was a stack of seven or eight discs, handled by the automatic changer. His favorites (which now became mine also) were Paganini's first violin concerto, Zigeunerweisen by Sarasate, and Symphonie Espagnole by Lalo.

This is the third of my imprinted memories. I sit on the floor, opposite the cavernous loudspeaker of the phonograph. The recording has arrived at the beginning of the final movement of Symphonie Espagnole, where the introductory phrase is repeated eight times, with a crescendo and a diminuendo, before the soloist enters and the repeated phrase becomes the accompaniment to the first theme. The troop of five rowdy children gallops through the living room, engaged in some barbarian game. I ignore them because I am concentrating on the music. They stop for a moment, eyeing me with puzzled expressions, and then return to their uncivilized activities and exit. I am relieved that they have gone without disturbing me, because the final movement is the most beautiful part of Symphonie Espagnole.

Thus the direction and the nature of my life were irrevocably determined before I was old enough to understand what had happened.