When I was a little girl about four, my parents and grandparents – after hours-long Sunday afternoon dinners with extended family – would gather us all to watch “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It was then that I first saw some amazing performers play brilliant piano and realized I wanted to learn it.
One night, the guest pianist on the show was Liberace. This was prior to his glitzy flamboyant Vegas-style act; he was a young, handsome performer in a grey silk suit gliding across the floor toward the long concert grand. He briefly introduced the music, and my grandmother said, “You’ve just got to hear this man play.” He smiled as he began, the orchestra joining right in, and brought to life what was buried in the heart of a displaced Russian composer – lush, piano-driven full orchestral beauty so mystical and other-worldly. Like a mighty ocean, each spellbinding movement swelled and dipped, surged and slowed, led by resounding piano forte on an astounding voyage. I’ve loved the music and the great composer behind it ever since. It was Peter Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor, created in 1875.
To this day when I listen to it, I still think about the depth of soul Mr. Tchaikovsky must have had. His moving music and esteem didn’t compensate for his personal problems, depression, and suicidal tendencies. His compositions seem a raw reflection of heartbreak and disenchantment; grief over loss of traditional Russia as he knew it; yet somehow a keepsake of God’s promise and triumph sheltered secretly in his heart. His ethereal melodies and spectacular orchestrations cut to the bedrock of man’s awareness, bringing tears and joy at once – catapulting a listener right out of himself to something immeasurably higher.
The early lesson I learned, apart from being mesmerized by Liberace’s stunning talent and interpretation, is that gorgeous music can greatly elevate the heart and soul. I’d never heard music like that, and wanted to capture it.
Later my piano teacher – a displaced Catholic concert pianist from Hungary – taught me what was behind each composition he assigned of Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Handel, Schubert, Beethoven, and many others. Each composer had a story laced right into his music, and many were devout Catholics. Once I learned a bit about him, I had a much greater empathy for why a composer expressed himself as he did. It helped me play his music.
One afternoon, he played for me a piece by Franz Liszt, so I could hear how it should sound. It was the greatly emotive Consolations. Liszt, a mid-19th-century Hungarian composer, had wanted to become a priest, but his attempts were frustrated first by his parents, then his confessor. Thus he lived a life of writing some very wrenching music, but also of deep contemplation over a missed vocation. A sadness and abandonment to God seems embodied in Consolations.
On those pensive days when it seems like God is my sole confidante, I play that piece – just for Him.
CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s editor.