I grew up surrounded by classical music and musicians. My aunt, a composer and pianist, established a music school on Long Island with twenty teachers, eighteen Steinway pianos, and, at its height, 260 students. From age six, I was tutored by her three days each week, two hours per session. During opera season she’d take me to the Met matinees and to piano recitals at Carnegie Hall. Between acts and after curtains we trek into the bowels of those music halls to meet her friends who had been her fellow students of European and American musical notables. It never occurred to me that there was anything special about this world. In fact, I did my best to escape it. I perfected my ability to sleep during the operas without detection. Behind their backs, I’d make fun of the singers and pianists I’d meet, especially the oversized Valkyrie women who performed in the Wagner operas.
But then, when I was fourteen, my father died, and my attitude changed. During the funeral period I dusted off the Chopin piano music that had lain idle in the cupboard. Investigating it, I found myself a part of Chopin’s funeral world of elegant sorrow. As Ernesta says, “I was a single dancer in a crystal ballroom, solitude and grace propelling my fingers across the keys.”
From that time, I began to practice the piano seriously. If nothing else, it was a protected private world I conjured keeping me safe from the brutal life of the military school to which I had been remanded earlier.
Eventually, at sixteen, my aunt allowed me to study with one of personal piano teachers, the Mexican-born maestro ERNESTO BERUMEN. Each Saturday afternoon during the summer I’d walk from Penn Station to Carnegie Hall on 57th Street and take the side door elevator to his eighth-floor studio.
Occasionally, during our after-class coffees at the nearby Russian Tea Room, Sr. Berúmen would tell me about his own beginnings. He had been a student of THEODORE LESCHETITSKY in Vienna. He had known the composers Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms. Liszt and Leschetitsky were the premier pedagogues in late 19th century Europe. (Once, Sr. Berúmen told me, when he had attended a soiree at a palace in Vienna, both these maestros were present holding court, each with his own admirers staked out in positions at opposite ends of the hall. “They were like two society beauties,” Sr. Berúmen told me. “Always posing with their backs turned against each other, bathing in the adulation of their fans.”)
What fascinated me most about his stories was not so much the musicians he had known (and whose music I’d attempted to play), but the fact that they had all lived in the 19th century, one hundred years removed from my own time, the late 20th. How old could he have been alive to straddle those centuries? Sr. Berúmen was an old man, but hardly, I couldn’t believe, one hundred years old.
In any case, when I began to imagine “Ernesta” I focused on the impossible longevity of my characters, which has allowed them to act upon a history impossible for the reality of their own dates.
“¡Ay! That old bastard Leschetitzky…” Theodor Leschetizky (22 June 1830 – 14 November 1915)
“Old Glück’s funeral—four months long!” Christoph Willibald (Ritter von) Gluck. As with many of Ernesta’s claims, this one, that Gluck’s funeral lasted for four months, is a ridiculous exaggeration.
“Old Beethoven in his time laughed at his audience…” Ludwig Van Beethoven. As a young composer and performer, Beethoven was delighted with the ability of his musical genius to bring his audience to tears.
“Señora Ernesta Pleases.” This is the invariable description of Ernesto Berumen’s concerts at the Aeolian Hall in New York City.
“… my special piano made for me by mad Clement of New York.” Classical music recitals over the centuries have been programmed for the range of high brow to low brow audiences, with the lower brow programming meant to include extra-musical diversions (“At my whim it would chirp like a bird, croak like a frog, boom like a thunderclap, howl like a dog in heat, shriek like a parrot, or emit rude sounds of the water closet.”)
“The Poet Speaks,” “Der Dichter Spricht” is the last piece in Schuman’s “Kinderszenen” (“Scenes From Childhood”) It has a wistful theme that meanders into a lyric if disjointed finale, a kind of vague dream, perhaps ironically illustrated here, in this performance.
Clara Weick: “It’s a conceit, affectation, indulgence to pretend music has pictures, has a story to tell.” This is the definition of PROGRAMME MUSIC, the kind of music that attempts to render an extra-musical narrative musically. Weick blames his composing and playing music with programs on Schumann’s mental collapse, and warns Ernesta about its dangers Because of her own psychotic experiences “dreaming” her music as she attempts to play on stage, Ernesta confirms this theory of causality: Music with a program leads to insanity.
“The horror of them! ¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Ay!” When Weick takes Ernesta to Richard Wagner’s operas, Ernesta believes that she sees the end result of programme music: “Through their music I saw what Wagner saw: shades of the monumental: males and females towering above mountains, lumbering over the earth, lathering bloody ancient primitive ritual, never intended for modern life.” In the events that lead to the Second World War, Ernesta would recognize the full horror of this through the example of Adolf Hitler, a great fan of Wagner’s mythical works.
Despite her mental difficulties, Ernesta enters middle age and continues her successful career. Her musical competitors “were nothing, no threat to me, not like the real threat of Enrique Granados.” In Granados, Ernesta recognizes not only her nemeses but also her chance to accomplish the leap to real fame that she craves.
“I could have told him British ships would be torpedoed. But, no. I did not. A terrible sin of omission? Or was it the tact of a lady?” Here, Ernesta reaches her villainess apotheosis.
“If I may present you a proverb of my own invention: ‘Music,’ I will caution you. ‘Music will watch us drown.’” Her ultimate lie: she has stolen this quote from the poet James Tate.