The music shop's plate glass is shattered. A youth
hunches over the grand piano, its lifted lid
the glide of a shadowed wing. The melody's
a funeral march, the triplets restless,
nervy, obstinate. Between movements
notes hang in the dust, linger
for their companions in another key. He straightens
his spine, his fingers dance the minuet
in darkness. His collarless shirt open
at the neck, his brown waistcoat torn,
the heels of his shoes worn away. The last movement -
an inferno breaks loose. His fingers
pale blurs of skin. Flames pause
only to explode sforzando
with each indraft of air. His heart flutters,
trying to escape its cage. The fire
burns itself out, his clothes are sour with smoke.
© Mary Robinson 2018
I was researching the wartime history of Birmingham in the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research at the Library of Birmingham when I came across an account in one of the scrapbooks of Second World War reminiscences.
The writer [why wasn't he in an air-raid shelter?] described walking up New Street, in the city centre, on a dark moonless night, the air filled with the continual drone of bombers and anti-aircraft fire and the occasional whine and thud of a bomb. At the corner of Lower Temple Street he heard the beginning of Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata'. Two grand pianos stood behind the shattered windows of a music shop. A young man was playing one of the pianos. His appearance suggested that he could never afford to own such an instrument - he had simply stepped through the broken glass and seized an opportunity he might never have again.
His total absorption in the music and his complete indifference to the air-raid going on around him reminded me of the lines of Yeats:
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
We tend to think of the opening of the Moonlight Sonata as slow, peaceful, languid. It's an interpretation reinforced by the sonata's nickname, which was not given by Beethoven. But the pianist Andras Schiff, in his excellent lecture on the sonata (on Youtube), explains that the first movement's triplets should be played considerably faster than has been traditional and the melody is borrowed from death music in Mozart's Don Giovanni. His lecture imbues the sonata with a powerful energy, especially the restlessness of the last movement.
It is a bizarre coincidence that the Germans used the code name Operation Moonlight Sonata (Operation Mondscheinsonate) for the Coventry Blitz.
What was the gold lettering above the piano's keyboard? Steinway perhaps? Hitler converted the Hamburg factory to aircraft production. Bechstein? Their German factory was destroyed by allied bombing.