Monday, October 3, 2016

Chapter 11

“Do you ever wonder,” I asked Lady, “why there are so many great female pianists? I know that sounds dismissive, but consider: from way before Clara Schumann and right up to the present day, women have been at the top of the piano world. But violin? Yes, today there are some great women violinists, as there always have been, but nothing like the pianists. Anyway, so it seems to me….”

“Well, perhaps it’s because the piano tended to be the instrument that every comfortable home in the 19th and early 20th centuries had to have. And since every woman was expected to play, there naturally were more women pianists than, say, women oboists.”

“Hmm,” I told her, “a very good point. I think you’re onto something there….”

We had just listened to Natalia Karp playing Chopin, and there was melancholy in the air.

“So who was she,” asked Lady, “and what’s her story? Wonderful, by the way, to see that posture at the keyboard….”

“She’s a true pianist,” I told her. “The problem with Chopin is that you can’t be in the least mawkish: there’s so much expression and feeling in the music that anything you add just pushes it over the top. On the other hand, you can’t play it utterly straight—I mean, it’s not a Sousa march. So getting that balance is really tricky. But she does, every time....”

“Maybe that’s it,” said Lady. “She plays with restraint, and leaves you satisfied, but still wanting more….”

“A German woman once told her after a recital that she had given as a young woman something like: My dear, you’re a wonderful pianist now, and after you have lived, you’ll be a wonderful musician.”


“You know, it’s a very romantic notion, but I wonder if for all of that it isn’t true. Because I have to watch all of these clips on YouTube of six-year olds playing Liszt on the piano, and yes…it’s wonderful. It would also be wonderful if we could devise a computer program that would play music perfectly from a score. Or perhaps we have. Anyway, the point is that I can’t think of a child prodigy that moved me, emotionally. And maybe that’s why so few child prodigies turn out to be great musicians in adult life….”

“Well, she certainly seems to have lived, and probably to have suffered.”

“When it came to suffering, they had to get the back hoe out to shovel it into her life. She was born wealthy, which is always a tricky thing….”


“Of course: let’s imagine she had been a Rothschild. Would she ever have had the drive to succeed? Would she have been encouraged to? I wonder, sometimes, whether great wealth hasn’t robbed us of great talent or genius than poverty has….”

“Marc, honey, would you like me to take your fever?”

“OK—but you know what I mean. Anyway, Karp was a student of Schnabel, and for pianists, there’s no higher accolade. So she made a career for herself, or was beginning to, and then a series of misfortunes befell. Her mother died, and then Natalia married, and her husband disapproved of her playing professionally. More proof, by the way, that wealth….”

“He was wealthy?”

“Apparently, and certainly his family was. And so then her husband died in a bomb raid. Then she got sent off to the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, along with her sister. So someone tipped off the commandant that there was a concert pianist in the camp, and then, half-starved, Natalia had to go to the party. Yes, there the commandant was, and all the women beautifully dressed, and everybody on their best behavior, drinking and smoking. And Natalia, who sat at the piano—for the first time in several years….”


“You know, it’s such a good example of the—to us—almost unfathomable mindset of the Germans,” I said. “The amazing ability of people to hold two completely different ideas in their mind at the same time. Yes, because the commandant was quite aware that he was killing Jews, whom he saw as little more than animals. And at the same time, he was craving beauty and music, and petitioning a Jew to provide it.”

“And did she?”

“Yes, and very slyly, she chose to play the Chopin Nocturne in C sharp minor, opus posthumous.”

“Why so sly?”

“Well, she sad that she played it because it’s so sad, and she felt sad. But I think there was another reason, of course. Remember, she hadn’t played in a couple of years at least. And however good you are, you get rusty if you don’t play every day. So she chose a piece that made—at least for the first couple minutes—relatively few demands, technically. Smart move, really….”

“Did it work?”

“Absolutely, since the commandant of the camp, Amon Göth, was so moved that he told her, ‘you shall live.’”

“And her response?”

“She said, ‘and my sister, too.’ And so Göth agreed.”

“Hmm—the champagne must have been flowing….”

“You know, it’s great news for Karp and her sister, but what about all the other people in the concentration camp? All of those mother and fathers and children—humans, people with families, with dreams, with hope. Should being able to play a Chopin nocturne really be your ticket out of the camps?”

“Of course not. It’s hideously unfair. But there it is….”

“So then what happened to her?”

“Well, she married, had two children, and resumed her career. And while she may never have gotten to the very top of the pianistic heap, she didn’t do badly, by any means. And she must have been a strong character: she always wore short sleeves, and refused to hide the tattoo that the Nazis had put on her. And she bought, soon after her release from the camps, a pink handkerchief; it was a symbol, for her, of her femininity, which despite the camps had survived. So she carried the handkerchief out and placed it on the piano at every performance.”

“Wow—what a story!”

“It is, actually. Well, she died at age 96, which must have been a great satisfaction. I mean, you really don’t want to survive the camps, just to be hit by a bus the day after your release….”

“Absolutely! Do you ever wonder, Marc: could you have survived the camps?”

“I have no idea. From her daughter’s book, you get the sense that most of the people in the camps were simply existing. They were so beaten down, so hungry, so tire, and often so sick that—well, they were just putting one foot in front of the other. And as horrible as that is, maybe—just maybe—there’s also a compensation.”

“What? How could there be?”

“You know, when I broke my back, there was absolutely nothing but physical pain: the worst I’ve ever had. But also, my world telescoped down: all I had to do was breathe, survive, and live for another day. I did, and now I worry about money, hurricanes in Haiti, Facebook posts from my son—all kinds of stupid stuff. So I wonder if being in the camps wasn’t a bit like that. And whether the real challenge wasn’t faced by people like Adam Czerniakow….”


“I know: tomorrow’s story….”