John F. Hanley

Chopin attacks

Chapter Forty Page 374

Chopin: Étude in C minor 'Revolutionary'

This is Caroline's response when Rudi suggests that women cannot possible have the skill to express a male composer's deepest emotions.

I waited then fixed my eyes on Kohler. ‘I think I understand, but that was quite a powerful piece. Not much emotion, granted, but strong, wouldn’t you say?’ ‘Ah, you mustn’t confuse strength with power, Jack. I do believe your Mr Chamberlain is about to make that mistake. The Polish Army is large, looks strong, very smart, lots of cavalry, good manoeuvres but it is a parade army. It lacks power. It is equipped —’ ‘Are you an expert on armies, Mr Kohler?’ Saul interrupted. ‘Is it as powerful as the Dutch Army, or the Belgian Army?’ Kohler laughed. ‘I am no expert, Mr Marcks, but Poland is a long way from England. Chamberlain’s armies would have to cross Germany to get there.’ Caroline tapped his arm. ‘What about the French Army, Rudi? Would they fight?’ ‘Only if attacked. They are not an army of movement. They are equipped to fight the last war, not the next.’ ‘What’s this got to do with music?’ Rachel seemed determined to get an answer to her first question. Kohler replied. ‘It’s about inspiration, as Jack said. A country needs passion to fight. The Poles, like Chopin, as you heard, march on the spot.’ I needed to probe for the button that would shatter his careful pretence and I had to needle Caroline into reacting to him. If what I’d read about Nazis was true then they had a very clear view of a woman’s place in their grand scheme. I kept the smile out of my voice. ‘Tell me, Rudi, you’ve obviously worked hard to learn to play like that — even though you say you are not a musician. I doubt any other man in this room could get up and play a Chopin piece from memory.’ Kohler looked at me quizzically but nodded his agreement. I ploughed on. ‘You speak of passion and emotion. All the great composers, poets, writers, are men. Is it possible for a woman to convey that power, in speech, in writing, in music, do you think?’ Kohler laughed again. ‘No offence to our beautiful companions, but of course not. No woman can display the passion of a man and be taken seriously. How can a mere woman harness the power of Beethoven? That is not where their strength lies.’ He swallowed another mouthful. ‘Some things are best left to men.’ I sensed a little volcano about to erupt as Caroline folded her napkin and pushed herself up from her chair. Keeping a straight face, I stood up and pulled it out for her. She leant forward and placed her face close to Kohler’s. ‘You shouldn’t believe everything you read, Rudi. Chopin didn’t just write polonaises you know. Just over a century ago, Russia invaded Poland and he wrote a little piece, which he wanted played con fuoco. Do you know what that means?’ Kohler glared at her. ‘I’m sure you’re going to tell me.’ ‘I’m not going to tell you — I’m bloody well going to show you.’ She spun around and marched across the dance floor towards the piano. The diners watched as Caroline raised the lid of the Steinway and settled herself on the stool. Their babble slowly ceased as they sensed the tension flowing from her. As she raised her hands to begin, the room was silent. I had been overpowered by her playing of Beethoven’s Appassionata but I had not been prepared for this. The piano roared as she swept her left hand at incredible speed over the base notes, rolling, dramatic arpeggios thundering through the room. Her right cascaded impassioned rhythms, crashing against the base notes almost crying out in revolt. It was defiant, raging, patriotic. A bravura performance. The most intense emotion I had ever heard. Short, dynamic, it was utterly absorbing. Her hands were a blur as she sped to the climax in a waterfall of crashing chords, which echoed throughout the stunned room. She rose from the stool and slammed the lid with such force that it sounded like a cannon shot. There was silence, and then everyone was on their feet thundering their applause. Even the waiters, and Miko, who had emerged from the reception area, applauded as she strode back to her seat.