In 1961, when I moved from L.A. to the San Francisco Bay Area to attend U.C. Berkeley, I knew that the great virtuoso pianist Egon Petri lived nearby; I learned this from the liner notes on his recording of the late Beethoven piano sonatas, a recording that initiated me into hearing these works. Petri lived in Oakland, the border of which was located a few miles south of the university. Still seventeen years old, I looked up his phone number, called, and talked my way into a meeting. So it was that in October, I took the bus from campus to a stop near his apartment.
I met Petri twice. During the first session, we (and mostly he) talked – about music, about my studies and hopes, about his life and health, but mainly about music – about his teacher Busoni’s Bach transcriptions, about Busoni’s “objective” tone when he played Beethoven’s late sonatas. [Here is an Amazon.com link to Petri’s remarkable 1954 recording of those sonatas: http://www.amazon.com/Beethoven-Sonatas-Egon-Petri-Recital/dp/B00005Q636/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1296339508&sr=1-1 ]
Only at the end of this first session did he have me sit down at the piano and play – “whatever piece you would like.” It was a case of ‘where angels fear to tread.’ Naïve and oblivious, I started playing for this master of Beethoven’s art the opening of Beethoven’s opus 111. [here is a YouTube link to Rudolf Serkin’s great performance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qs-Jn13FOIg&noredirect=1 ] After the opening Maestoso and a half page further, he interrupted me. “Yes, I see,” he said. “Now please play the opening of the Arietta.” And so I began playing the slow first page of this second movement, the last one of all of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, his valedicory to a form of which he was the foremost practitioner. At the end of the page, he interrupted me and said. “Your playing, it is very sensitive, very musical. But your technique! Primitive! You will need to work very hard.”
Petri was short, bald, a little stooped, but his wide eyes were full of wit and humor. He lived with his daughter and wife, and I heard sounds of them several rooms away. At the end of the hour, he invited me back in two weeks. In that session, we returned to opus 111, but this time he sat at the piano and showed me how to resolve some of technical problems I had struggled with – what pattern to notice, how to finger it, how to hold the hand to play it – for page after page. Then he put the book of Chopin’s Etudes on the piano rack and showed me how, in the Winter Wind etude, Chopin adapts some of the opus 111 patterns and harmonies, but without Beethoven’s brilliant structural innovation – the movement of harmony let alone the growth of motifs.
I did not see Petri again. At the end of the second session, he told me his health was weakening further, and he was going to live for a while down the California coast. He died a few months later. I felt (yet kept the realization at bay) how rare and valuable was the time I had spent with Petri; he embodied the searching spirit and intellectual acuity of a European sensibility that was dying even as I was growing into the 1960s, and that realization that death was part of this legacy was what I kept at arm’s length – not only Petri’s own closeness to death but also that twentieth century Europe had put to death many intellectuals along with all the rest. Yet I had kept persevering – contacting Petri, opening to him, learning what I could from him.
Just before I left his apartment, he handed me a note with the name and phone number of one of his favorite pupils, Julian White, from whom I took lessons for the next four years. “A fine pianist and a great teacher,” Petri said, gnomish, wide eyed, and he squeezed my hand. “You will learn very much from him.” And I did.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]