The Last Ballade
When love came back, my left-hand fumbled in B-major. My fourth finger collapsed at the joint closest to the fingertip. If it had been my ankle, I would have sprained it. Instead, my hand rolled off the slender black ledge of f-sharp. I cloaked the warble with the damper pedal pressed like a car’s accelerator only to move through mud. I tried to voice the melody, an aria carried in the fifth finger and weight of my arm. But it was no use. The sound I produced spread over the music in my head, a reality that rivered past my elbows and pooled in my shoulders. I’d forgotten to breathe.
I hadn’t played piano, much less Brahms, seriously in over a decade. It felt like pushing my body through a sludge made of years. Impossible. Abstract. To be someone who used to play piano is to inhabit a body that’s been twice removed from a former form. It only remembers remembering. Which is to say being a musician is intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual. And it is motherfucking physical. When I quit Brahms, I left my body behind too.
I first heard Johannes Brahms’ Opus 10, No. 4, the last of four short pieces for piano, while in my freshman music history class. I studied classical music in college because I’d played piano since I was seven and had career aspirations ranging incongruously from concert pianist to local West Texas piano teacher. And I majored in music because, as I told Dr. W, my professor of practice, I liked piano.
“Well, I like Belgian chocolate,” Dr. W replied. “But I can’t major in it.”
As memory condenses timeline, I elide the months between lectures on medieval and romantic periods. I remember my music history professor telling us his own music history professor habitually mispronounced organum as orgasm. I also remember him saying that most people can’t appreciate Brahms until their thirties. Then time slows down again. I can close my eyes and return to the moment my professor stoops to punch play on the classroom stereo. The opening chords of Opus 10, No. 4 unfurl. The melody climbs then sighs and descends. I sit back at my desk and silently cry. I am seventeen and convinced by the time Arthur Rubinstein plays through measure four that I have an old soul.
After enough time, the beginning of all love stories sound the same. I remember nothing after the lecture on Brahms but my rush up the fifteen blocks from the university to Jent’s House of Music, the town’s one music shop. I asked Kim, the only employee there any pianist trusted, for Opus 10, No. 4. Other staff would have simply said, “um, no.” Kim thumbed through a long archive of sheet music and retrieved it. I still have that copy, though its worn, red cover fell away some while back. At my next lesson, I presented the piece to Dr. W, whose lessons with me were as much an act of compassion as expertise. Unlike his response to the time I brought Rachmaninoff’s G-minor Prelude (to which he said, “it’s too early,”) and the Chopin Ballades (to which he said nothing), Dr. W embraced my choice.
“I can see that you’re into it,” he said. “Though, I’m not sure why.” It was obvious I felt a connection to the piece. I kept saying I thought it was just, ugh, so beautiful. There was something about its relative obscurity, too, that I liked. I was definitely the only person who brought the ballade to Dr. W’s office so enamored of it, and I loved the music all the more for that.
Understand that Opus 10, No. 4 is not difficult. Nor is it as beloved as Brahms’ other short works for piano, like the Intermezzo from Opus 118 or the lullaby from Opus 117, pieces that showcase a pianist’s musical sensibility and depth. Musicians often skip Opus 10, No. 4 with no dent to their study and analysts find the piece rarely worth the trouble. But if Theodor Adorno is right, and true analysis of a piece produces the ability to play from memory, then I analyzed Opus 10, No. 4 down to the very nerves. Not the spinal fluid of the piece, but my own. I believed Opus 10, No. 4 mirrored my biography. I heard in the warmth of the opening song the ephemera of childhood. In the muted and sorrowful second theme’s harmonic ambiguity, the double sharps that pretend to carry you out of F-sharp minor, the syncopated rhythms, the buried melody—my coming of age. The longing of prayer in the hymn of the final pages distilled my religious background of high-furied evangelicalism into a remnant of holiness I could bear. In the cadences at the end, I heard the grievous tug between longing to return and the impossibility of doing so.
A ballade, my music history professor told us, is a story. One with a main character who overcomes much adversity, as in a novel. She emerges in the end changed. Of compositions like Brahms’, Adorno writes that the music listens for the listener. This is why we love harmonic progressions we recognize, and forms that are familiar. We anticipate them, and thus feel welcomed by each arrival.
Opus 10, No. 4 was listening for me.
“You love Brahms!” my friend Jonathan said. He was another piano major and played expertly by ear though, like me, he couldn’t sight-read for shit. He used to interrupt my practice and sit next to me on the bench. He liked to dazzle me with his dexterity while bemoaning how badly we both played. Whatever his scruples, Jonathan was able to harness his sense of failure. He went on to earn a PhD in music theory from Yale. I went on to write this essay.
Indeed, the expression I’ve found as writer is hemmed by the longing I feel each time I walk by the piano sitting closed in my living room. What accomplishment I know as an essayist is grounded in the strange reality that the same hands typing these words are haunted by a musical knowledge they can no longer execute.
When I saw Jonathan for the first time in the twelve years after graduation, he reached for my hands.
“I’ve always remembered what your hands looked like when you played.”
“They don’t look like that anymore,” I said.
The truth is, my whole body has changed since I stopped playing ten years ago. My back sways. I slouch when I sit. My fingers handle thickly a pen and fork. I have paws with opposable thumbs. With these changes to my body have come alterations in my memory. I pause to remember how many sharps are in the key of G-sharp minor. I look up the year Brahms wrote his strange and overlooked ballade. I remember only what it felt like to remember each note of Opus 10, No. 4. Like the music was inscribed into some tissue of my body. But I live in a different body now. When I sit to play Brahms today, I hear only echoes of the ballade, and my mistakes.
Why did I stop playing piano? I would need many nights of drinking to talk through this question. I had one such night recently on a bar patio in Chicago. My husband’s coworker brought her new beau, a high-powered lawyer with a quiet sense of humor and a watchful look. He said that he briefly majored in music.
“I played saxophone.” When I asked why his study of music in college was so short, he said he didn’t have the talent for it.
“What did you major in instead?”
“Physics. It was easier.” He lifted his beer and finished it.
“The thing is,” he said, “I was at my peak in college. I practiced four, sometimes six, hours a day. And I still wasn’t good. It’s hard to imagine how much I would have to practice just trying to get back to mediocre.”
As I write his words now, I feel the same thing I did that night. A tension between my shoulder blades. If I’d never played piano, this tension wouldn’t be there. But my relationship to anything I write or listen to now is circumscribed by the negative. I once played piano, and then only as an average pianist. It’s a truth I can only relieve by stretching my arms overhead. Flexing my fingers. An ache I release through a sense of acceptance, through breathing out loss.
I sat down to play Opus 10, No. 4 seventeen years after the first time I played it when I was seventeen. Maybe I liked the symmetry of this. Maybe I didn’t want more than the second half of my life to pass without piano. I’m in my thirties now; my music history professor said the force of Brahms should reach me fully in this decade. I’m supposed to really get it.
This is what happens when I hear Brahms now. I remember. This is so different than memorizing Opus 10, No. 4, as I once did. Memorizing a piece is a paradox in memory. It doesn’t really mean that you remember it. Rather, your body knows it. Memorizing collapses time into a complete presentness. You can trust your mind and limbs and fingers to execute, at any given moment, something totally aesthetic and temporal. This intimacy of knowledge shapes your hands into those of a pianist’s, your ears into those of a musician.
Now I am writer who used to play piano. I’ve got this body of a thirty-year-four-old woman beset by an upright Yamaha. But it’s not all bad. Rubenstein plays and I remember. My back twitches a little. There’s got to be some synaptic firing in my brain, nerves lighting up in old pathways. This, I think, is longing. The tingling in my fingertips, remembering. Intimacy with music my body once knew. I loved Opus 10, No. 4. It wasn’t enough, but I still listen. When I hear Opus 10, No. 4, I like to believe the piece hears me, though years have passed between us, and I am changed.