A Rondo in Letters

Photo by Stéphane

Photo by Stéphane


8, Kelsey Drive,
Stoke-on-Trent,
Staffs.,
28th March 2004

Dear “Dad”,

Please can you stop sending the box-sets of Bach et al to our Gary? I know it’s you that’s sending them. And he doesn’t want them any more than I did when I was three-or-whatever years-old.

            Alan


Flat 73a,
Seebald Towers,
London
30th March 2004

Dear Alan,

Sorry, I just thought he might enjoy them. These first two or three years are vital if he’s going to be a Bach or Mozart when he’s older. I mean, by Gary’s age, Mozart was already playing the “clavier”. By the age of five, you know, he’d composed his first music – the Andante in C and other stuff. So you’ll need to work fast with Gary if he’s going to keep up. It’s now or never that the right hemisphere of the brain – the musical side – needs feeding with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, so it’s not overtaken by the stupidly-conventional left side. I read about it the other day in a magazine article called “How Child Prodigies are Made, Not Born”. It said that sometimes infantile meningitis can help retard the growth of the left side in favour of the right. Of course, it goes without saying that no-one would wish that on anyone, even if child prodigy-ness is the result. But you have to look on the bright (or should I say “right”?) side of these things, don’t you?

Best wishes,

            Dad


8, Kelsey Drive,
Stoke-on-Trent,
Staffs.
7th August 2004

Dear “Dad”,

I’ve already asked you to stop sending these damned box-sets – and what do you go and send for Gary’s third birthday? For Christ’s sake, other grandfathers give their grandkids teddies or sweets or cash, but Gary gets the Complete String Quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich. For Christ’s sake, Dad, for Christ’s sake: what’s he going to do with them? Chew them? Are Dmitri Shostakovich’s bloody String Quartets as tasty as Turkey Dinosaurs?

Another question: have you been to the doctor recently?

Alan


Flat 73a,
Seebald Towers,
London
9th August 2004

Dear Alan,

Sorry – I seem to have miscalculated again. Honestly, it was with all the right intentions. I was just thinking that, well, unless Gary becomes a prodigy soonish, how can he expect to produce enough to compete with your Bachs, Mozarts and the rest? You’ll have seen the quantities I’m talking about in the box-sets I’ve sent. I’ve been spending the last few months looking into it, doing some sums, and I tell you, some of it beggars belief – Bach wrote over 160 CDs worth of music in his 65 years, during which time he also fathered 20 children, and married twice. That’s roughly 2.462 CDs of music, 0.3 children and 0.0307 wives a year, if you count from age zero. All of which is more than you or me, Alan – but it’s not yet beyond our Gary. Not yet.

Think how hard it’s going to be for him, though, unless he gets up to speed: unlike our non-existent works, Bach’s are published in a 65-volume edition, which would take two musical copyists at normal speed 30 years apiece just to copy out. I bet you didn’t realise that? There are 1,126 works listed in Bach’s BWV catalogue, plus over 146 works which are probably not by him but might be. Then it’s reckoned that he probably wrote another 1,000 works on top of these that have been lost. Idiots. Anyone stupid enough to lose music by J. S. Bach should have their hands cut off … well, something horrid should happen to them anyway.

Personally, I’d say the same on behalf of Schubert. Did you know that his scores were “recycled” by idiot publishers after his death? Nevertheless, over 998 songs, symphonies and sonatas survive him, which I’ve calculated means that, during his 31 years of poverty, depression and syphilis, he produced 32.193 masterpieces a year. In that rate of production, he trumps even Mozart, who wrote over 626 compositions in his 35  years, averaging 17.886 a year; and he really did start writing from almost zero years-old. That’s roughly 14.307 works less than Schubert per annum. Final score from Vienna: Mozart 17.886, Schubert 32.193. Still, you could hardly accuse Mozart of slacking, could you?

Papa Haydn wasn’t slacking either when he wrote his 20-or-so concertos, 83 string quartets and 104 symphonies. Gosh, I worked out that’s 1.351 symphonies a year – or, if you count only the 34 years he was writing symphonies, it’s 3.06 a year, a quarter a symphony per month, 0.0085 of a symphony every day.

What do we do every day by comparison? I barely manage to feed the fish, read a magazine, make the tea and practise my mental arithmetic. One magazine I was reading the other day told me that if I carry on with the sums, it’ll pay off because I won’t get dementia …. Problem is, I sometimes think a bit of forgetting wouldn’t do me any harm. Perhaps it wouldn’t do either of us any harm.

Best wishes,

Dad


8, Kelsey Drive,
Stoke-on-Trent,
Staffs.
19th November 2004

Dear “Dad”,

Now you’ve stopped sending us the box-sets, please-please-please-to-the-power-of-10 can you also stop sending us these endless lists of calculations about long-dead composers? Gary can’t read them and frankly I can’t be bothered.

Have you been to see the doctor yet?

Alan


Flat 73a,
Seebald Towers,
London
21st November 2004

Dear Alan,

But you’ve got it wrong – they’re not just calculations about “long-dead” composers. I did some more number-crunching, and lots of modern musicians have been as prolific as Haydn et al. Look at Shostakovich, Darius Milhaud, Heitor Villa-Lobos. Look at Gustav Mahler: 100 years after Haydn, and stupid people might say he was lazy, only writing nine symphonies (if you don’t count the Song of the Earth and the unfinished 10th). But people who say that are missing the point: Mahler’s symphonies are much longer and he’s juggling over 100 instrumentalists at once.

I spent the other day going through his scores, counting the notes. I worked out that he averages about 75 notes (not including rests or other notations) per bar of an orchestral score. That’s approximately 135,225 per symphony, 1,217,025 over the nine symphonies. That means he wrote 66.641 notes every day of his life. Yes, it’s less than Bach, but it’s still not bad for someone who was conducting the Vienna Opera at the same time.

If you were to listen to Mahler’s 1,217,025 notes, Haydn’s 104 symphonies, Mozart’s complete works, Schubert’s complete works and Bach’s complete works end to end, I’ve calculated it would take you around 612 hours and 45 minutes. This is a very approximate calculation, but it means that you could do it in 25-and-a-half days if you didn’t sleep. I’d like to try it sometime, when I have 25-and-a-half days free of feeding the fish, making the tea and doing sums. These days, the sums seem to take up more and more of my time.

When you were three years-young, it would never have crossed my mind to listen to 25-and-a-half days of music. I wasn’t into all this classical stuff back then, unlike your mother. You know, she used to play the piano all the time, particularly Mozart’s sonatas, fantasias and rondos. You were too young to remember. Still, there’s no point getting all misty-eyed-and-Tchaikovskyish about these things. When I listen to real pianists like Alfred Brendel, I can tell she wasn’t very good, poor old girl.

Back then, of course, I wouldn’t have known good from bad. I just wanted her to shut her Mozart up. But you change when you get older – I hope you do, anyway – and since she died I’ve amassed quite a CD collection. It’s much bigger than when you last saw it, metres long. The internet’s to blame. Online, you can buy, say, the box-set of Beethoven’s Complete Works for a snip at £139.99. It’s amazing: all you have to do is fill in your credit card number and delivery address, press “order”, and four mornings later a new box-set arrives. I unwrap it and put it in pride of place next to the other great composers on the living-room shelves. You remember the ones – they used to have our photos on them. Now Beethoven takes up 14cm x 12cm x 40cm of the shelves, Mozart 14cm x 12cm x 45cm, but Bach dwarfs them all size-wise because he is 14cm x 12cm x an impressive 55cm.

At the moment, I can’t quite bring myself to take down any of these 40cm-plus composers and actually listen to them – or, at least, not for more than, say, 10 minutes and one second a day. It takes a long time to listen to 45cm of music in snatches of 10 minutes and one second – it’s the equivalent of only 0.0491cm per day.

10 minutes and one second … you know, conveniently enough, that’s the precise length of Mozart’s Rondo in A minor (K511) when played by pianist Alfred Brendel in my box-set of Mozart’s Complete Works for Solo Piano. So I can listen to that piece over and over again. When it comes to a Mahler epic, though, the 10-minutes-and-one-second rule makes things rather tricky. You kind of lose your thread when you return to one of his symphonies 24 hours later, in the middle of some apocalypse or other. How did we get here, I keep wondering, how did we reach this point?

Sometimes, I rewind the CD slightly – perhaps by one minute and 30 seconds – to lead into the apocalypse, so I can hear how the music built up to it. But then I can’t make out where that bit comes from either, and I press rewind again. And then again. Eventually, I end up recapping the whole 10 minutes and one second that I listened to the previous day, and I get nowhere. I tell you, at times like these, I feel as if I’m doomed to keep listening to those same 10 minutes and one second on a loop, never reaching the final chord, never reaching the Resurrection at the end of the Resurrection Symphony, 69 minutes and 20 seconds later. God, Resurrections don’t half take a long time.

I think Bach probably felt the same too. Everyone thinks he’s so religious, but Bach never reaches the Resurrection either. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, Alan: the St. Matthew Passion is all about Jesus’s suffering, and doesn’t get round to the Resurrection bit. When I first listened to it, in 10-minute-and-one-second snippets, I kept expecting the Resurrection to turn up, but it never did. By the third CD, I started thinking Bach was cutting it a bit fine. And then it just ended with “We sit down in tears”, and no-one seemed to have got anywhere, and all Christ had achieved was a lot of whipping for his pains. Bit sadistic, if you ask me.

Best wishes,

Dad


8, Kelsey Drive,
Stoke-on-Trent,
Staffs.
28th December 2004

Dear “Dad”,

In one of your last letters, you used the word “sadistic” about something or someone, can’t remember what or who. Look, Dad, I’m sorry to have to say this, but I can’t help thinking the word could be applied to you sometimes. Honestly, what you did to our Gary at Christmas was pushy to the point of sadism. It’s the same old story, isn’t it? Round and round the garden we go: after everything that’s been said and done between you and me, you seem determined to repeat it all with our Gary. Leave the kid alone, for Christ’s sake. If he doesn’t want to produce piano concertos at the age of three – if he’d rather play with his bloody toy cars – well, let him.

There’s only one way out here: unless you get round to the doctor sharpish, I don’t think we can have you visiting for a while, upsetting him like that. I think it’d be best for us to have a rest from each other and, to be frank, from your bloody Mozart sums.

            Alan


Flat 73a,
Seebald Towers,
London
31st December 2004

Dear Alan,

I received your letter 25-and-a-half hours ago, and have since had four (yes, four) 10-minute-and-one-second sessions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It was only when I got to “The Sacrificial Dance” that I felt a bit better and able to reply.

I’m sorry I was “sadistic” in buying a £1,245 piano for my grandson’s Christmas present. Things seemed to get all mixed up when I was visiting, especially from about 9.34am on Christmas Eve, when the removal men came to deliver the present. It was their fault really: they rang the doorbell and, when you answered the door, they didn’t explain who they were, so you didn’t get chance to understand what was happening. You were just faced with two Laurel and Hardys (as I call them) trying to squeeze an upright piano into your hallway. They kept banging the piano against the door frame, the piano kept clanging like a gong, you were shouting at them that they’d delivered it to the wrong address, I was shouting at you, trying to tell you that it was the right address, and even little Gary was joining in, holding his hands over his ears and wailing. This wasn’t how I’d planned the piano surprise at all.

When the Laurel and Hardys had finally heaved the piano into the living-room, smashing cacti and ripping wallpaper, I tried to explain calmly that it wasn’t the wrong address – that it was a present for Gary from me. You asked me if I was serious, I said yes, and that was when you first called me “pushy-and-obsessive-and-sadistic.” Gary had taken his hands off his ears, and started jumping round the room shouting: “Saddyistic! Saddyistic! Saddyistic Grandpa!” I know you know what happened – I’m just trying to get it all straight in my head.

And look, I’m sorry for being “saddyistic.” I hadn’t meant it to happen that way. Everything just got confused and the piano was a lead balloon. Because of that, I bet you’ve never sat him at the keyboard to give him a chance at prodigy-ness. When you were young, I tried to give you a chance, plumping you on the piano stool over and over again – at least (I reckon) 260,000 times over nine years. You kept crawling or jumping or toppling off it, and I kept putting you back on, guiding your little fingers to the keys. It was hard work, and all I got for my pains was being called “sadistic” and zero symphonies. If you were Haydn, you’d have produced an average of 33.775 symphonies by now. But you know, don’t you, that I don’t hold that against you? And, well, at least you’ve produced a Gary.

I hope you will forgive a “saddyistic” grandpa, and that we will all see each other soon.

Best wishes,

Dad


Grimmet & Timms,
Solicitors (Est. 1796),
Terrence Row,
Staffordshire
3rd March 2008

FAO Mr. Alan Forster,
8, Kelsey Drive,
Stoke-on-Trent

Dear Mr. Forster,

RE. ITEMS RECOVERED FROM 73A SEEBALD TOWERS

Further to our correspondence concerning the sale of your late father’s remaining property, the executor has advised me that the CD collection, hi-fi and piano (complete with stool) have now been sold at auction for a total of £145.30. A cheque from the executor is enclosed as well as receipts of sale. Also enclosed is a letter from your father, addressed to yourself and dated 18th July 2007, which was clearly never delivered. It was discovered by the purchaser of the piano, taped under the lid.

Please can you acknowledge receipt of the cheque and the enclosed documents?

Yours faithfully,

M. G. Grimmet

Enc.

Flat 73a,
Seebald Towers,
London
18th July 2007

Dear Alan,

I haven’t heard from you in, well, a while. I hope after this time I’m no longer “Sadistic Grandpa.” I’ve been good, Alan, honestly: I’ve been to the doctor, and remembered not to send Gary CD box-sets, mathematical calculations or pianos. Problem is, that means I’ve run out of things I can think of doing for him.

Perhaps there’s one thing I can do, though, which is something I never did when you were a kid: I could tell Gary a story. It’s a story the doctor told me, about a “Sadistic Father” (not Grandfather this time).

This Sadistic Father’s wife died when his son was three-years-11-months-and-six-days old. Sadistic Father was sad because he had loved his wife, even if he hadn’t loved her piano-playing. His son carried on laughing, crying and, well, poo-ing regardless – roughly 2.6 times a day.

The son also started climbing onto the piano stool – where Sadistic Father’s wife had sat not long ago – and thumping forwards onto the keys. Sometimes, the son would glissando his toy cars up and down the 88 keys, up and down, down and up, chipping the ivorine. Sometimes, he’d head-butt the keys and burst out screaming. Sometimes, he’d punch as many keys as his little hands could manage, over and over again, in heaps of discords. “Stop!” Sadistic Father kept shouting, “Stopstopstopstopstopstopstopforchristssakestop!” But the discords wouldn’t stop, and the “stops” themselves became part of the discords, and weeks and weeks went by in a Rondo-without-variations of discords and “stops” and toy-car-glissandi and head-buttings …

… until the Sadistic Father felt like he was being buried alive in childish dissonance …

… until one day Sadistic Father found himself running into the living-room where his son was pommelling discords and grabbing his son’s tiny wrists with one of his hands and pinning them to the keyboard and slamming down the wooden lid of the piano onto the podgy fingers …

… and he was going to do it again – and again – and again …

… but then, halfway through doing it again, the lid poised just above his son’s fingers, Sadistic Father stopped – and something in his brain rewound to 16 seconds before.

16 seconds before, he’d been in the kitchen, crying and burning crumpets. The connecting door with the living-room was open, and all he could hear in the world were his son’s dissonances. He’d nipped himself with a knife and looked up.

At that precise micro-second – before he stormed into the living-room, before he smashed his son’s fingers, before the piano took its revenge for months of abuse – he’d heard something he didn’t absorb, didn’t register till 16 seconds later, 16 seconds too late. Only then did his mind rewind and he recovered something precious hidden amongst the discordant rubble. Only then did he hear five tiny notes stolen from another world, the world of Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, distilled into that five-note chromatic turn with which it starts: E, F-natural, E, D-sharp, E.

He hadn’t noticed the Mozart turn the first time round, when he’d found himself running into the living room and grabbing his son’s tiny wrists with one of his hands and pinning them to the keys and slamming down the lid of the piano onto the podgy fingers. Only afterwards did the scene replay itself in his head, and he picked out the Mozart amongst the din, crying, broken bones.

It was all he could think of at the hospital – where they believed his story about the piano lid falling onto his son’s fingers accidentally. It was all he could think about when they came home, his son in plaster and bandages. It was all he could think about for months, years afterwards, when he tried to sit his son at the piano stool, tried to induce him to repeat the Mozart turn, perhaps develop it into a whole Rondo. It was all he could think about: his son’s early piano abuse might have been a prelude to Mozartian genius. But his son never repeated the chromatic turn, and – although later he didn’t seem to remember what his father had done – didn’t like the piano any more, didn’t want to go near it. So the Rondo theme never came back.

Gary, Alan, after the doctor told me this story, he said that the Sadistic Father was sorry.

With love,

“Dad” and “Grandpa”


8, Kelsey Drive,
Stoke-on-Trent,
Staffs
5th March 2008

M. G. Grimmet,
Grimmet & Timms, Solicitors,
Terrence Row,
Staffs.

Dear Mr. Grimmet,

RE. YOUR LETTER OF 3RD MARCH 2008

As requested, I hereby acknowledge receipt of your letter of 3rd March 2008, plus the enclosures – ie. cheque and receipts from the executor, and the letter (dated 18th July 2007) from my father.

Yours faithfully,

            Alan Forster

Jonathan Taylor

About Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the novels "Melissa" (Salt, 2015), and "Entertaining Strangers" (Salt, 2012), the memoir "Take Me Home: Parkinson's, My Father, Myself" (Granta Books, 2007), and the short-story collection, "Kontakte and Other Stories" (Roman, 2013). He is director of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Comments

comments



5 thoughts on “A Rondo in Letters

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *