The Piano Teacher
Essay : Hilda Bor, pianists, Jewish, England, Cambridge, Russian, memoir, war, musical pedagogy
Wednesday, March 21, 2007 20:11 GMT
This essay appeared in the Winter 2006 edition of the Missouri Review.
Hilda Bor at the piano, from the 1920s
My mother came with me; I was about thirteen. The house was sturdy and Victorian. The woman who opened the door was not Miss Bor but her sister. We went through to wait.
There were old photographs on the walls, and the rosewood Bechstein, which took up half the room. It was dim, and probably winter. There may have been a dog barking from somewhere else in the house.
Miss Bor eventually pushed at the door, saying, “Hello, hello!” before she set eyes on either of us, emerging slowly. Thick¬set, with grey hair and bright upward eyes from beneath her stoop. An accent like old films.
Outside was a dull Cambridge afternoon, with bicycle helmets and droning Volvos crisscrossing on the main road. I was probably nervous.
“So what are you going to play?” she asked.
“Ah! My favourite composer!” she said, rallyingly.
Mrs. Taussig had apologised to me. “I’m sorry I can’t teach you anymore. I’m giving it up. I’m going to be a psychoanalyst.”
I was not completely surprised. The study where I used to wait for lessons had become oppressively full of books with “Freud”on the spine. When I asked my mother who Freud was, her answer was confusing; but I sensed nevertheless a shift of emphasis in Mrs. Taussig’s house.
Mrs. Taussig recommended me to Miss Bor, who had at one time been her own teacher.
“You will have to impress her,” she said. “She only takes advanced pupils. I am sending you to her because you show a lot of promise. But she will make you work very hard.” She helped me perfect my audition piece, a movement from a Mozart sonata, and sent me on my way.
Miss Bor seemed pleased. “Very musical,” she said.
When I began my lessons with her, Miss Hilda Bor was in the middle of her seventies. She shared a house with her two younger sisters, Miss Margot Bor, also a piano teacher, and Miss Silvia Bor, a cello teacher. I rode there on my bike every Monday evening after school; in my memory it is perpetually winter, my hands always too cold to play for the first half of the lesson. When I go back through my scores now—Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms—I am impressed at how much music we explored together, and how thickly covered are the pages with her pencil markings.
I loved Miss Bor. She was dignified and intelligent, and she was a musical mentor with enormous reserves of experience. She was thoughtful and affectionate, often giving me presents of scores she had unearthed in second-hand music shops; my treasured three-volume edition of the Beethoven sonatas, German, from around 1910, she salvaged for me from the collection of a friend who had died. And she was charismatic, with a sense of humour that in another place and time might have been called “wicked.” She especially liked stories that poked fun at the high seriousness of classical music: “When we were children I used to teach Margot, who was several years younger. Whenever she didn’t practice I used to hold her upside-down by her heels and shake her until she screamed.”
Miss Bor had a pragmatic method. To describe someone as “musical” was as mystical as she got in her discussion of the vocation that was hers; and her language of aesthetics was unpretentious in the extreme: a symphony would be “lovely,” a particular piano performance “dreadful.” She thought that people were either “musical” or they were not; teaching music was primarily about providing students with the necessary technical ability to realise this inherent sensitivity. We talked about mechanical problems: wrists and fingers, pedaling, effective practise methods, finding creative ways of making challenging passages more manageable. Her insights were practical: “The secret to a good crescendo is to not to finish very loud but to begin very softly.”
Miss Bor’s uncomplicated vocabulary opened, however, onto a great subterranean system of musical feeling, and in her, “marvelous” was an authentic exhilaration. What little I knew about her life indicated that music had been her single transport, from her earliest days as a child prodigy: it filled her up quite, and no engagement with her about it could remain neutral. For a faltering teenager, our matter¬of-fact exchanges in that front room generated something immense and private: a life principle, a world of possibility. Perhaps she did not even realise how altered I felt every time I departed from her house; and yet she cannot have been unaware that between our lessons I practised for hours every day and listened to all the recordings I could find, in the attempt to live up to this most high of all my conversations.
One day, while I was learning Liszt’s third Liebestraum, Miss Bor came into the room saying,
“Did I ever tell you, dear, that Liszt was your great-great-great-grandfather?”
“Liszt taught Leschetizky, Leschetizky taught Weber, Weber taught my father; my father taught me. And now I’m teaching you.”
I have searched since and found no evidence that Liszt ever taught the Polish pianist Theodor Leschetizky, though both were pupils of Czerny, himself taught by Beethoven. But that is not the point. Miss Bor’s comment placed her father in the category of such central European pianists as Artur Schnabel, Paul Wittgenstein (the pianist brother of Ludwig) and Jan Paderewski (the pianist who became Prime Minister of Poland) - all of whom were pupils of Leschetizky - and made certain what I had previously sensed: that despite the Englishness of her speech and affect, England was not enough to explain her. But I never felt it was appropriate to ask Miss Bor questions about her life.
In the unchanging household that I visited every week, some things did change. The Bechstein piano was refurbished, and Miss Bor proudly showed off the new felt in authentic “Bechstein blue.” At some point, the routine of the three unmarried, septuagenarian sisters was surprised by a wedding: Silvia, the cellist, married an elderly painter, who moved into the house and shared the attic with her.
Most seriously, as far as I was concerned, Miss Bor had a stroke.
When I first arrived at the house after she came out of hospital, I could hear her playing children’s exercises laboriously with her left hand. Her left side had been partially paralysed; her face sagged, and her speech was thick. Needless to say, her playing was destroyed.
She remained bright, however. She told me with some enjoyment how the nurses in the hospital had been “so surprised” when she asked to be wheeled to a piano on the day after her stroke so she could start to exercise her bad hand. “I’ve already made a lot of progress. It’s not a pleasant business, but it’s all right as long as I know I’ll get it back. That’s the main thing.”
She helped me prepare for a public recital, but she was too frail to attend. I phoned her afterward, and she questioned me through it, phrase by phrase.
She walked laboriously, and with a stick. She became more sickly and absent-minded, and she put on a lot of weight. Her hand improved, but only enough to skim the notes.
She planned a party for her eightieth birthday. She would play an entire suite of piano duets, Bizet’s Jeux d’Enfants, one with each of her pupils. She and I practised our duet for a few weeks before the big day; her sister Margot took a photograph of us both at the piano during one of these sessions, which Miss Bor later presented to me, saying, “Have a picture of yourself with a hippopotamus.” She omitted to tell me where the party was, however, and I, assuming wrongly that it was at her house, did not ask. I knocked at her door on the day to find no one there. In the unseen celebrations, our duet went unplayed.
Shortly thereafter, I left Cambridge to go to university and never saw Miss Bor again.
Hilda Bor (pianist at left) playing Bach's Concerto for Four Pianos with the Queen's Hall Promende Orchestra conducted by Sir Henry Wood.
This photograph hung by her piano in Cambridge.
Every time I returned home, my mother said,
“You really should visit Miss Bor. She’d love to see you, and you know she’s not well. You never know what might happen.”
I knew she was right. But there were two good reasons why I couldn’t go. The first was that I had more or less given up playing the piano. I was studying literature at university, and there was little time to practise. I did not feel I could face my old teacher with nothing to play. I was still a teenager, and I must have felt that there was an immutability to the relationship - that we could not depart from our traditional roles: me playing the piano and her sitting in observation. I wish I had been more mature and realised I had the freedom to propose new things, that it was possible to conceive of simply dropping in for tea.
The second reason was also born of immaturity. I felt if I was forced into going to see Miss Bor by the possibility of her death, it would give that death a place in my life and thus a ready hold in the world. I did not want to do Miss Bor’s mortality the honour of allowing it to dictate my actions and so acknowledge it as a real principle. It is only later that I realised how much life is missed out on as a result of the fear of recognising its end.
So I did nothing. I found myself back in Cambridge every holiday and looked through the window into her piano room every time I passed her house, but I never went to visit her.
Two years later, during a year out in the south of France, I resumed my piano studies.
My teacher at the Conservatoire was Madame Woringer. She was what the French might call “superbe.” In her early fifties, with immaculate makeup and her dyed blond hair in a neat plait, she was large and imposing, and most of the students at the Conservatoire were terrified of her. She lived in the hills outside Aix-en-Provence, where twin Steinway grands interlocked in the main room and Picasso drawings hung on the wall. Her two husbands, ex- and present, were both piano teachers at the same Conservatoire, the first, her former teacher, thirty years older than the second, her former pupil; but no sign of this turbulent past ever disrupted her perpetual and perfect poise. There was something fearsome about the level of control she brought to every utterance and gesture: she had even chosen to dispense with “Rolande,” the heavy, Frankish name given to her by her parents, and to reinvent herself as “Clara,” after Clara Schumann, the nineteenth-century virtuoso and wife of Robert.
Her highly aesthetic teaching style was in marked contrast to Miss Bor’s pragmatism. Her response to a pianistic problem was not so much to find a technical solution as to propose a leap of the imagination. She would encourage her pupils to read a poem or a book of philosophy in order to understand how better to play a piece. She would find metaphors that would shift you out of a rut. After I had spent weeks working strenuously over a fast section from a Chopin waltz, she said, “This isn’t about athleticism. It is just a string of pearls that you have to let slide away.”
My year in France represented the apex of my musical career. I practised as much as five hours a day. I was obliged by the Conservatoire system to attend theory classes and play chamber music as well as give periodic solo recitals. I fell in love with a pianist. We read biographies of composers together, and Glenn Gould’s essays; we discussed music endlessly and spent our money on scores and recordings. At the end of that year I played a forty-minute recital of the most complex works I had ever attempted.
Afterward I returned to Cambridge for the summer. I was a better pianist than I had ever been, and I could have visited Miss Bor with my head high. But I did not.
It therefore became plain to me that, of my two reasons for not going to see her, the second was the real one. I realised, if I had not already, that I had become entirely paralysed in her regard and could do nothing but wait for news of her death.
Miss Bor died on 19 December 1993, aged eighty-three.
I did not hear about it until a few weeks later. I instantly wrote a long letter to her sister, Margot. It was not a letter of condolence so much as an outpouring of panic. It was full of feelings and intentions protested too much, and it was utterly futile with respect to its true object.
Despite the fact that I had known for some time that I would fail Miss Bor in just this way, I still managed to be shocked and devastated that it had actually occurred. I could not easily think about her for a long time - years, perhaps. It is miserable to discover that you have not lived up to something; that you have failed, not in some intellectual question or practical challenge, but as a human being.
A long time passed. I gave up playing music and even lost my appetite for listening to it. It seemed to have become flat, and I was bored around it. I became more interested in verbal and visual things. I read about art and photography and began writing. In the various places I lived - London, Kuala Lumpur, New York - I did not have a piano. My writing became serious. I moved to Delhi to write a novel.
Delhi is a place that produces an astonishing dream life. Summers are extremely hot, and sleep is parched and full of fitful impressions, while in the winter your breath can mist the air in the unheated, stone-floored houses, and you go to bed under a pile of blankets so thick that you seem to sink below the earth for your dreams.
It was a winter dream that woke me, a couple of years ago, in a state of the most terrible despair. One of those dreams so awful that suicide would be the only response to its unbearable world, were it not possible to wake up, sweaty and aghast.
I cannot remember any detail of the dream, except that it was about Miss Bor. I got up immediately - it was about six in the morning - and wandered around my apartment trying to absorb this traumatic resurgence she had made into my life. By now it was more than a decade since her death.
I suddenly had an intense desire to make contact with her, in whatever way possible. I searched “Hilda Bor” on Google and came up with just a few entries. A vintage music shop in Australia kept a seventy-eight she had made in the thirties of “Flight of the Bumble Bee,” which the seller offered to restore and transfer onto CD. A memorabilia site advertised a signed photograph of Hilda from the same time; when I tried to buy it, it had already been sold. The other entries were all about other pianists who had studied with Hilda at some time.
That morning I made a note on my website:
I am seeking any information available about my old piano teacher, Hilda Bor.
Hilda died in 1993 aged 83. She was a prominent performer in the 20s and 30s, and made a number of recordings. She used to have a photograph on the wall of a performance she gave in the Proms of Bach’s concerto for four pianos conducted by Sir Henry Wood.
In later years, she focused on teaching. She was for some time piano teacher to Prince Charles and Princess Anne.
If anyone has any information about Hilda, her life, her recordings or any photographs, I would be very grateful. Thank you.
Someone wrote to me from Singapore: “She was my piano teacher too, but I haven’t seen her since 1974.”A year went by. A historian of British Jews wrote from England to say he had some information about Hilda since he was researching her for his book. He provided a list of references to her in The Times between 1922 and 1951, and gave me the name of her father. This name took me to an online genealogy maintained by extended family members in Denmark and Israel. I wrote to them and received a mail straight back:
I am writing a musical history of the family, and have a great deal of information. However, Hilda’s brother, my cousin Edward Bor, who lives in Cambridge, U.K., has even more information, and also a copy of my manuscript "Harmonious Relations: the Genealogy of a Musical Family."
Edward Bor had no email address. I decided to go and see him when I was next in Cambridge.
Edward Bor, Cambridge, December 2005 (photograph: Monica Narula).
I was in a Waitrose supermarket with my sister, when she pointed out Edward Bor, having lunch in the cafeteria with his wife. I went to introduce myself.
“Ah, yes. The name is very familiar,” beamed Edward.
I said I wanted to talk about Hilda, and he invited me to tea.
Two days later I arrived at his house, and he opened the front door with a finger to his lips.
“Come through,” he said urgently. “There’s a Bach sonata played by Grumiaux on the radio: I’ve never heard it before. We’ll just wait till it finishes.”
It was mid-December, and the light in the room was made rosy by the Christmas tree. Christmas cards hung either side of the fireplace.
Edward and I sat in adjacent armchairs listening to the unaccompanied violin. His skin had the quality of Hilda’s, and his smile had her glint.
The other two sisters had died since I had last had news of the family; he was the only surviving sibling.
His wife brought a tray of tea and biscuits and apologised that she could not join us: she was preparing for a houseful of family. Photographs of grandchildren covered the bookshelves.
“So you want to know about Hilda,” he said after the music had finished.
He started to tell me stories about his dead sister, beginning, as I suspect he had done often before, at what seemed like the beginning of things, long before her birth.
Hilda’s father, David Bor, had arrived in England in 1888, aged four, from Dvinsk, in Russian-controlled Latvia. His father played the violin, which had been the family instrument since the days of gypsy bands, but David quickly chose the piano. It was a time when every large restaurant had its own orchestra, and there were many opportunities for talented musicians. At a young age, David joined his father playing popular dances under a well-known bandleader named Stanislav Würm, whose orchestra was variously dubbed “Hungarian” or “Gypsy” or “Imperial Viennese,” depending on the occasion. Gustav Holst, also of Latvian origin, was known to play the trombone alongside them when his finances demanded.
When David was twenty-two, his cousins, Anna and Afsay Paikin, fresh from the loss of their brother in the 1905 Russian revolution, came from St. Petersburg to join him in London, and soon afterward David and Anna were married. They moved to Bexhill-on-Sea, where David and Afsay, a violinist from the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, established the Bor-Paikin Orchestra.
The thought of so many bands playing music in cafés and parks seems exotic today, but it is possible that the Bor-Paikin Orchestra was especially glamorous. Edward played me an old recording of his father at the piano in a light waltz, and even now, through the noise and crackle, it is a stunning combination of virtuoso technique and salon swagger. Judging by a photograph of the dashing young men on the bandstand, dressed in suits edged in gold, they must have presented an impressive spectacle.
A local widow, Mrs. Few, came to sit in the front row at all their performances and fainted, dependably, whenever Afsay played a violin solo. She requested in her will that he play “Ave Maria” over her grave when she died, and she left him the entirety of her substantial fortune. With it he took his family away to South Africa, leaving David to continue on his own.
"In my younger days I was, you know, a bit of a leftist," said Edward, with the same underground chuckle that Hilda used to have. "I loved the Soviet Union; I thought any place that could produce violinists like that must be good. But it was all dashed for me when Stalin signed the agreement with Hitler. After that I never believed in them again. And some terrible things happened. Look at - "
He spent time searching for the name of Yulian Sitkovetski, the Russian Jewish violinist who was runner-up to the American Berl Sanofsky in the Queen Elisabeth violin competition in Brussels in 1955.
"His Tchaikovsky was extraordinary and everyone - everyone - thought he should win. And they gave it to the American. Yehudi Menuhin cast the deciding vote. When Sitkovetski’s second prize was announced, the audience applauded for twenty minutes. I am not exaggerating: twenty minutes, because it was a protest against the decision, which was purely political, not about music. Oistrakh, who was also on the jury, was terribly depressed. 'His career is over,' he said. 'These people don’t know what it will mean for him when he gets home, to have come second.' And indeed, Sitkovetski was sent to lead a Siberian orchestra and died in a couple of years, hardly more than thirty. His son came over here after that, also a violinist. Yehudi helped him out a little."
Edward himself has had a distinguished career as a violinist and, like Hilda, he has spent his life consumed by the world of music and musicians. He is full of stories about the musicians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and from them emerges, gradually, a grand genealogy.
"Nearly every violinist is descended from Viotti, who in turn was descended from Corelli. We can all trace our roots back to there."
This sense of extended kinship lends great mobility to his imagination; he is at home in the early Soviet Union or in nineteenth-century Berlin, and long-dead performers are vibrant and detailed in his mind, as if they were famous great-uncles still invoked at family gatherings. Speaking to him, I have a clearer sense of what always remained vague when I was a pupil of his sister's: the classical music tradition, in the form in which they received it, as an inheritance beyond sound - as a disposition in the world. It is difficult to name this disposition, since it emerges only through distinctive turns of phrase, or the surprising empathy of a narration. Perhaps it could be described as a kind of immanent humanism, with an undivided Europe as its geography, which may once have lent a spiritual urgency to the middle-class drawing rooms in which it was passed on from teacher to pupil, but whose gentility and inexplicit logic now make it seem irretrievably, if endearingly, anachronistic.
As the only one of his siblings with children, Edward has had the opportunity to pass on his family’s long tradition, but it has taken on new forms with the times. His younger son, Andrew, a pianist who decided not to make performing his career, is now training to be a music therapist, after having been a piano tuner for some years. His daughter, Rachel, a singer and cellist, formed a cult girl-band in the late '70s called the Dolly Mixtures, whose music is described by the All Music Guide as "infectious pop, self-proclaimed as post-punk, that would go on to influence the entire genre of indie pop." The band later achieved fame when it backed Captain Sensible, of The Damned, on his UK number one hit, “Happy Talk.” Rachel still composes songs, which she plays with her husband. All of Edward’s eleven grandchildren play music.
Since the death of his sister, Margot, Edward has also inherited the role of family archivist. As a pianist, Margot always lived in her sister’s shadow - "With Hilda being what she was, no one else should have tried the piano," said Edward - and she had considered being a writer. She wrote a number of short stories, often about brilliant Russian pianists coming to terms with immigrant status in London. From the beginning of her life, she also took upon herself the job of collecting every news clipping, concert programme and letter relating to her more successful sister's career.
As I looked through the documents that Margot had collected, I realised that a lot of Edward's stories had come from here, and not from recollection. Memory defers, often, to the authority of what is tangible, written and official, and relegates the other things that fill up a life - the quotidian, inconsequential things and all the ghostly and inexpressible impressions that animate the remembrance of a human being. Edward said almost nothing about the last five decades of Hilda's life. His stories were drawn from her charmed youth, which the press had eagerly recorded and thereby rendered solid.
Hilda Bor was born in 1910, into her father’s world of concerts and musicians, and took up her own place there effortlessly from the earliest age. The Bexhill Chronicle, describing a concert in aid of servicemen’s children in 1916, recounts that:
A very tiny artiste next filled the stage in the person of little Hilda Bor. Certainly she was tiny in person but her performance was "great." First of all she roguishly sang "I'm in Love" in a charming manner, and followed that up by a beautifully executed dance, and then as further proof of her versatility, she gave a skillfully executed little pianoforte solo. Truly a wonderful performance for so wee a mite.
By the time she was a teenager, Hilda was a minor local celebrity, whose musical development was avidly followed by the town press. Her performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto slightly before her fourteenth birthday received a movement-by-movement commentary in the newspapers.
In 1929, Hilda gave a recital at the Wigmore Hall, which was an essential venue for aspiring performers to be heard in; in those days they were required to rent it themselves. A Bexhill correspondent followed her to London:
Miss Hilda Bor’s recital at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday evening was attended by a packed and enthusiastic audience... The recital lasted nearly two hours and was played through entirely without music - a wonderful feat of memory. Miss Bor was applauded again and again and was compelled to play several more selections before the audience would finally let her go. She was the recipient of twenty-four beautiful bouquets.
By the end of her teens, of course, Hilda had ceased to be a merely local figure, and she had to contend with the more magisterial national press. The Sunday Express, for instance, which dispensed with the trivial when it declared in 1933, under the headline, "She Dances Too," that Hilda was "Not only clever but pretty: of medium height with dark brown hair and grey-blue eyes. Unmarried."
But "unmarried" was not the whole story. At the time, Hilda was engaged to a fellow alumnus from the Royal Academy of Music, Eric Brough, with whom she regularly performed piano duets. There were obstacles to the marriage - Eric's mother thought her Jewishness inappropriate ("How can you be Jewish and yet so lovely?") and tried unsuccessfully to convert her to Protestantism - but the two were in love, and resolute.
By this time, Hilda’s father was back in London. His orchestra had hit harder times with the departure of Afsay Paikin, and he had come to London in search of better work. There he ran into Jack Waller, a childhood friend from a penniless immigrant family who had since become a composer of blockbuster musicals, a theatre owner, impresario and millionaire. Waller invited David to put together an orchestra for a new musical called Please Teacher; the money was good, and David asked Hilda to join the band as pianist. (One of the many visitors to this show was Sergei Rachmaninov, who had heard of the young Hilda and requested a meeting with her after the performance. They shook hands; she did not wash hers for days afterwards.)
"It all happened in a terrible way," said Edward. "It was in 1936. Eric had gone off to adjudicate a piano competition in Canada. Hilda arrived in the orchestra pit for the evening's performance and found a copy of the Evening Standard on the piano. She flicked through it and of course she saw Eric’s picture there and read that his plane had crashed en route, killing all the passengers. She went on with the performance. I can’t imagine what she was feeling while she played."
When, later, she began an affair with another pianist from the Academy who was then killed in a climbing accident, she decided she was bad luck for men.
A publicity shot of Hilda Bor aged 17.
I met Edward a few times for just the sort of afternoon teas I did not have with Hilda. He was a prolific, enthusiastic raconteur; he stood against the warm radiator and told stories and ran off to retrieve documents he thought I might find interesting.
"Did you ever hear any of Hilda’s recordings?" he asked.
Very few of Hilda's recordings survive. In the 1930s, she had a recording contract with Columbia, but the company cancelled all such contracts when the war broke out, and hers was not renewed afterwards.
He put on a hissing recording of a Chopin waltz, played very fast and with an almost daunting unsentimentality. We were both silent while she played; and I suddenly had a séance-like sense of ghostly visitation. In our electronic age it is rare that the supernatural quality of recording strikes you - perhaps only when it resurrects someone you once knew and hurls you into their youth, their passion, and the spectacular exploits of which their body was capable.
One day Edward handed me a blue ring-binder and said, "Take this home. I think you’ll find the story interesting."
It was an archive of Hilda’s exploits during the war.
Queues waiting for a piano recital in the Royal Exchange by Leff Pouishnoff, 1942
London’s musical community in the first half of the twentieth century owed its cosmopolitan force, in part, to the prominence of musicians of Central and Eastern European Jewish origin, who had arrived, like Hilda’s father, in various waves of immigration over the previous fifty years. So pre-eminent were they that aspiring British musicians often adopted Russian or German names to further their careers. The pianists included such names as Myra Hess, Leff Pouishnoff, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Artur Rubenstein, Artur Schnabel - and Solomon, whose name I cannot hear without feeling the awe with which Hilda used to speak about him. Yehudi Menuhin was also mostly in London in those years, as was the child prodigy violinist Ida Haendel. The Viennese members of the future Amadeus String Quartet were among the many German and Austrian Jewish refugees interned on the Isle of Man when the war began; Myra Hess and Ralph Vaughan Williams secured their release, and they too came to live in London, where Hilda later performed Schubert’s "Trout" Quintet with them.
When the war began, the British government closed all places of entertainment in order to reduce the likelihood of large assemblies being struck by bombs. Myra Hess was one of many artists who found this edict unacceptable, and in defiance of it she worked to establish a series of lunchtime concerts featuring London’s greatest soloists and chamber musicians. She enlisted the support of Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, and together they lobbied for the concerts to take place in that building, which had been closed and emptied of its art treasures at the beginning of the war.
The concerts ran five times a week from October 1939 to April 1946 and were phenomenally successful. The National Gallery was filled to capacity every day, and the music provided a cultural focus for the city during the black-out years. In 1941, Myra Hess was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire for this work.
Hess's objection to the government’s prohibition arose, in part, from her conviction as to the redemptive role of classical music at this particular point in European history. The centrality of German composers to the classical repertoire gave many musicians in nations newly at war with Germany a poignantly political sense of their work; and for Hess, a German Jew best known for her performances of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, classical music was the most perfect incarnation of the liberal, cosmopolitan values for which Britain was supposedly fighting - and it was vital that the exigencies of the war be prevented from extinguishing it. It is not difficult to see why the series' self-conscious display of artistic freedom, harmony between peoples and unshakeable civility in war might capture the imagination of the British government and press at that time; and indeed Myra Hess's own serene piano arrangement of "Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring," played several times to a varied assortment of Londoners, became one of the theme tunes of the British war effort.
It was after one of the National Gallery lunchtime concerts, on 3 September 1940, that Hilda Bor met the other love of her life. Richard Pinney was a well-connected businessman who at that time was directing the Red Cross and St. John Appeal, launched with the outbreak of war to coordinate British first-aid operations around the world. During the course of the war, the fund raised the astonishing figure of £4 million, the largest-ever voluntary contribution, in real terms, by the British public to a single cause. Richard was a busy man, therefore; but he was a born organiser, and even his spare time was spent thinking up new schemes. Before his death in 1989 he typed a memoir of this period of his life, which Edward Bor filed in the ring binder he lent to me; in it, he recounts an evening spent with Hilda in 1941:
With London now enjoying a respite after the blitz, social life of a sort was showing signs of revival, albeit with a depleted range of places to eat, to dance, or to find any other sort of entertainment. The Café Royal remained intact, and in the large central salon patrons could still lunch and dine and have their drinks.
On one particular night during this lull, I was having a rare evening off with Hilda, dining in the salon. We had been debating a wild idea of mine for bringing her into the Red Cross (I thought she could sit on our "Ladies Committee" which arranged receptions and concerts of every kind, all aimed at raising money in one way or another.) But she said an emphatic "No," then, "Why don’t you use your City connections to explore the possibilities of staging concerts in the Royal Exchange? It's an empty shell and I'm sure we could do something with it. It's rather like the National Gallery was. . . ."
While we were chewing the cud over this question and related matters, who should walk into the Café Royal but Myra Hess herself, escorted by the eminent conductor, Basil Cameron. They took a table not far from our own. Myra was then at the peak of her international fame, a marvellous pianist who coaxed the fullest emotions from every note she played...
Myra Hess and Hilda were fellow professors at the Tobias Matthay [Piano School], though the disparity in their ages meant that they moved among different circles of friends and acquaintances. The two exchanged greetings.
"Why don’t we put the suggestion of National Gallery Concerts at the Royal Exchange to Myra after dinner tonight?" Hilda suggested.
The Royal Exchange, now a luxury shopping centre next to Bank tube station, had long since become inadequate to its original role as a commodity market and had finally fallen into disuse in 1939. It required substantial architectural adaptation, and therefore money, to be fit for concerts; but this was where Richard excelled. He writes at length, and with a touching kind of bureaucratic romanticism, about the affability of the Trustees of the London Parochial Charities and the good people at the Licensing Authority, the Gresham Committee, and the Council for Encouragement of Music and the Arts, who all pulled together to get this worthy thing off the ground. Steinway & Sons lent a piano; the Council loaned chairs; various places lent kitchen utensils; the Women’s Volunteer Service made sandwiches; workers from the City volunteered to man the ticket booths... And thus it was, on 30 June 1942, that Hilda and Richard’s grand scheme came to fruition. The inaugural concert, played by Myra Hess herself, was so packed that hundreds of people had to listen from outside the building. It was simultaneously broadcast on BBC radio.
Immediately afterward, Margot wrote to her parents, who were kept away by sickness:
Here we are, Hillie, Sylvia and I, sitting in Hillie's office, seething with excitement. We don’t know which side up we are! Everything went off marvellously. People had to be turned away from the doors, and there were three hundred people standing. Hillie looked like something out of Vogue... The acoustics are very good, Myra got a terrific reception. Did you hear the broadcast? I was covered in reflected glory and all our friends asked after you both and were SO sorry you weren't there - but not so sorry as we were! The family should have been complete on such an auspicious occasion!
Forty years later, Richard could still write this dreamy account of the evening he then spent with Hilda:
I took Hilda to dine that night at the Savoy. As we entered the dining room, Jack Salisbury and his small orchestra struck up Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, as he often did on seeing us. It was a private joke... Instead of facing his players he beat time as if addressing us. Had he read the evening papers, we wondered. Was he saluting the two begetters of London’s newest concert centre?
After dinner we stood outside in the warm moonlight awaiting our cab. But Hilda linked her arm through mine.
“Do you feel you could walk?” she asked.
We set off, treading on air. We made our way across Cambridge Circus and Holborn into the labyrinth of squares and side streets towards Fitzroy Square where Hilda had her studio. As we walked we swapped memories of our wonderful day - Myra’s unrivalled musicianship and instinctive audience rapport, the hiccup when the signwriter’s mistake was discovered in the nick of time, his notice forbidding entry after all our efforts had been focused on inviting it, the unintended insult to our distinguished guests who couldn’t get in, and Hilda's graceful little speech of apology for our shortcomings; and her strictures silencing the picture viewers [the other side of a curtain from the concert area] who had ignored the "absolute silence" notice.
"Do you realise who you were shushing?" I asked the concert-preoccupied Hilda, and she bridled instantly to reply, "No, and I wouldn’t have cared if it was the Archangel Gabriel himself!"
"It was Holland-Martin from the Bank [of England], and [John] Maynard Keynes," I chuckled. "I bet no-one in the city has dared to silence them before!"
Perhaps too much of the context has fallen away for us to understand all the nuances of this exhilaration; but, as Hilda’s tone indicates, she and Richard had the sense of having achieved something extraordinary. The world of classical music belonged usually to a narrow clique, but the Royal Exchange concerts were aggressively democratic, and the novelty of what emerged was apparent to all. The combination of elite culture with an almost socialist concern for equality and pragmatism delighted especially the popular press. "Many City typists are having their lunches at the Royal Exchange lunch-time concerts every day" observed the Evening Standard, while The Star reveled in all the clashing details of cheap sandwiches and Beethoven:
Most of those who went to hear Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata and works by Scarlatti and Chopin bought a 1s. lunch ticket when they went in.
At the end of the concert, they passed to the serving counter, where members of the W.V.S. [Women’s Volunteer Service], under the direction of Mrs. I. Graham, were ready to serve a special sandwich lunch.
"Some of us were here at nine o’clock this morning, getting things ready," said Mrs. Graham. "We’ve cut 2,400 sandwiches - sardine, cream of salmon, ham, lettuce, tomato, and so on."
"Three triangular sandwiches and a cup of coffee are provided for a shilling. It is special Indian coffee, and so that it shall not be spoiled in the making, India House have lent us Mrs. Brady and another expert coffee-maker for the first fortnight of the concerts."
The literary English Review, however, maintained an aristocratic distance from such proletarian concerns in order to impress upon its readers the "true" significance of the whole thing. In the lunchtime concerts of a great nation engaged in a just war, it suggested, European classical music laid out a metropolis of freedom in which a universal citizenship might dwell:
The rapt attention of the overflowing audience in the transformed Royal Exchange was a pervasive delight. Words were unnecessary, for the craving of every heart was satisfied; we became translucent and communicable to one another. Were we a crowd of black-coated workers in the centre of the City of London? No, we were citizens of that immortal city that great artistry creates, knit together for the nonce in the freedom of pure enjoyment.
Even at the time, this must have sounded pretentious. But there is something more: for no reserves of bombast would bring someone to write such words today. They belong to a formation of ideas and feelings about classical music that was ultimately destroyed by the upheavals of the mid-century and that no lunchtime concert series could preserve. Hilda’s gaiety on the night of her first wartime concert, described so lovingly by Richard Pinney, seems to me now like a leap captured in an old photograph, from which the athlete will never fall back to earth.
After the war, Richard Pinney turned his back on London and moved to the Suffolk countryside, where he occupied himself with developing a rush-weaving business and an oysterage. Hilda spent long periods of time with him, practising the piano while he muddied his hands by the sea, but he could not interest her in his rural pursuits. On one occasion he took another woman to join him there for three weeks, and Hilda ended the relationship. He begged her to take him back, but she refused to see him again.
They did see each other again, however: in 1988, after a forty-year separation, by which time she was teaching Liszt to me. Richard went to visit Hilda in Cambridge, where she had moved in the '60s, in order to add her memories of the lunchtime concerts to his own so he might write an account of the whole episode. He was married, and frail; he went several times to walk up and down the garden with Hilda, discussing the details of their ancient achievement.
He wrote his memoir of the Royal Exchange concerts. He died just after completing the last sentence.
I return again to that same scene. Hilda is out walking at night with her lover in wartime London. "Treading on air," he wrote, decades later, at his typewriter, introducing a hint of fairytale into his otherwise precisely realist narrative. Was this the moment of romantic transcendence that stayed with him, the scene he always pictured whenever his thoughts crept back to the woman whose love he had mishandled? Did it give him a way back to her across the gulf of silence and separation?
For it was in his reminiscence that I saw my piano teacher afresh. In that far-off vignette, I felt all the distance swallowed up: in the happy sensuality with which she rejected a cab to enjoy the languor of the night-time streets, in the authenticity of her preserved chit-chat, so charmingly practical even in her moment of intoxication. A presence was stored there, as, a couple of years younger than I am now, she wandered alive through the heart of London, as she savoured the feeling - unaccustomed for a woman from an immigrant family of ordinary means - that the city’s most exclusive venues now welcomed her with her own theme tune. Her quaint outburst against reality exceeded its other-worldly formulation and landed, intact, in my evening at home with Edward’s ring binder. "I wouldn’t have cared if it was the Archangel Gabriel himself!" she declares, rounding with girlish rebelliousness on her man of the world, capturing everything in one spontaneous rejoinder and launching it across the years, twinkling in the curfew, laughing at the petty suggestion of social hierarchy at this moment when she flies higher than the worldly, and even the cosmic, order.
Recently, I went to visit Mrs. Taussig. It was about fifteen years since I’d seen her, and twenty since she'd begun her psychoanalysis practice. I went late, after she finished work; she now received patients from early in the morning until nine or ten at night, five days a week. She was unhesitating at the door, full of exclamation and affection, and she ushered me quickly into a house whose significance in my life I had quite forgotten until this moment. It was here, aged seven or eight, that I had been taught to play staccato by touching the hot Aga dartingly with my fingers, and here that I had first banged out the children’s version of "Ode to Joy" that inaugurated my lifelong love of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. All this came flooding back; and yet, returning as an adult, I was amazed that the house’s most obvious feature had never struck me during all those childhood visits. Its central--European Jewish lineage: Mrs. Taussig’s guttural roll when she pronounced my name, the rich Asiatic carpets and crowded European art, the pursuit of excellence in material and intellectual things, the music, the psychoanalysis, the echoes of so many other places in this corner of a mundanely British town.
Her sons had left home - still now, from her harsh, proud anecdotes, the geniuses I remembered from school - and she lived alone; the family room and piano room had both been turned over to consultation. We carried tea and cake up to the attic, which was starkly different from the rest of the house, all steel, leather and glass.
"The ground floor is too full of history. My patients' conversations are heavy, so they stay at the bottom. I need to get above it. This is where I rest and listen to music."
While I told the story of the last fifteen years in my life, she closed her eyes in concentration, interrupting occasionally for small clarifications and asking me how all the parts fitted together in my own mind.
She seemed intensely happy in herself. She said, "I liked teaching piano to children. But I needed to involve myself with adult concerns. Psychoanalysis gives me both: I deal with adults, but also with the children they have been. And all my musical skills are now used in listening. There are patients who have been talking to me five hours a week for fifteen years, and sometimes I have to make a connection between what they tell me today and a dream they told me years ago. Music prepares you to listen like that. I can hear all the melodies in a narration, and the meaning of all the pauses, all the silence. It comes naturally to a musician."
We talked until one o'clock in the morning, when she protested the need for sleep.
"I have a patient early in the morning and need to be fresh."
We gathered plates and tea cups and brought them down to the kitchen. She wrote down her email address, while I fingered my car key. She opened the front door and hugged me tightly.
"It is so wonderful to see you again," she said. "Please keep in touch."
"Yes," I replied. "I will,"
Dedicated to the memory of Hilda Bor, with enormous gratitude to Edward and Edith Bor.