Music Notes: The importance of music in my writing and in my life

Guest post by Karine Hetherington

Music has always been an important part of my life.  I started playing classical piano aged six, did the usual grades, then abandoned the instrument for two decades.  I picked it up again aged forty.

My Russian grandmother was a very accomplished pianist.  She had attended the prestigious Sergei Rachmaninoff Russian Conservatoire in Paris in the 1930s and encouraged me when I came back to the piano. She would invite me to perform at her annual concerts in her Paris apartment every year.   It certainly kept me on my toes as long as she was alive! She played chamber music until the age of 94 and was tackling physically demanding solo works well into her eighties. It is no accident therefore that when I wrote my novel ‘The Poet and the Hypotenuse,’ music and my grandmother were going to feature heavily. I decided to set my book in 1930s Paris because this city is my second home, and I am fascinated by the period.

I took as my starting point the fact that my Russian grandmother had worked in a record shop in the Latin Quarter during this era.  She loved her work, the proliferation of artists and music styles was exciting for her and she took great pride in assembling the record displays in the shop for jazz artists such as Django Reinhardt, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway or for very exciting newcomers such as singer Edith Piaf.

Taking my grandmother’s story as an inspiration, I threw myself into the period, using the music as my guide.  I have always been interested in the impact of music on people, its mood-enhancing qualities, its ability to bring people together, to comfort them.  For musicians, playing music is a drug, an experience hard to beat.  But music isn’t everything.  This is the conclusion that my main character, Tatiana Ivanov, arrives, at after some life-changing experiences.  But it is music, which forms her and makes her who she is.

Music list: Chopin’s Etudes played by Horowitz 1935

Schubert’s Sonata in B Flat Major

Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ Symphony No 9

Josephine Baker – ‘J’ai Deux Amours’

Edith Piaf – ‘L’Etranger’ (The Stranger)

Tino Rossi – ‘Marilou’

Cab Calloway – ‘Keep That Hide-di-Hi in Your Soul’

Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique Op 13.  Adagio cantabile

Karine Hetherington is a teacher and writer who lives in London. A dual-British and French national, with a Russian ancestry thrown in, her short stories and novels reflect her passion for both the detail and grand sweep of European history. After studying creative writing at Birkbeck College in London, Karine has been telling stories that have brought history to life, with tales of love and adventure that draw on the detail of real events and real lives.

Karine’s novel ‘The Poet and the Hypotenuse’ is available now. Read an extract below

2 The next morning Tatiana was at the shop counter, running her finger along the register of orders, when in stepped a small, pink-faced man with round spectacles and straggles of grey hair escaping from under his cap. It took her a second to recognise her old piano professor, whose once seal-slick dark hair and trim body had at one time energised her playing. Not wishing to offend his vanity, she made an effort to avert her eyes from the small mound that stretched the lower buttons of his tweed jacket, and threw her hands in the air with genuine delight: ‘‘Professor Conus, how wonderful to see you!’ she said, lifting the flap of the counter and walking out to greet him. 

Pleased to see her but maybe conscious of his altered appearance, Conus removed his cap and patted his unruly strands of hair. ‘How are you my dear?’ he said, now reaching out to squeeze her hand as she stood before him. 

‘Well, thank you Professor, and you?’ 

‘Oh, I can’t complain,’ he said in a distracted way, looking away for a minute. Bringing his gaze back to her, he gave her a pained smile, exclaiming: ‘But Tatiana please, call me Sergei. No more of this ‘Professor’ business.’ 

‘Very well Sergei,’ she replied, feeling a little coy and letting go of his grasp. It would take some getting used to, for she had been his student for four years, to the age of eighteen. 

‘Yes, fate and our old friend Horowitz have brought us together,’ he said, eyeing her wistfully. Has his recording of Chopin’s Etudes arrived by the way?’ 

‘I’m afraid not,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘We have a backlog of orders at the moment. But I understand your anticipation.’ 

‘A genius that Horowitz,’ he said, half-closing his eyes. ‘I am quite convinced that one hundred years from now, he will still remain recognised as one of the Chopin’s greatest interpreters.’ 

‘Yes,’ she said excitedly. ‘Such energy and urgency in his playing that I find myself wishing to. …Oh I don’t know…’ She shook her arms in front of her. The sentence hovered in the air. 

‘To play them?’ he said, glancing at her affectionately. 

‘Yes.’ Though a little surprised, she was grateful that he fathomed her frustrations without her needing to explain. 

‘You still could.’ He stopped and gave her a quizzical look. 

‘I know, I know,’ she said, conscious of her voice dropping a few tones. She had been working on the Etude in G flat Major, the one on the Horowitz record, when she had stopped coming to his classes.
 

‘Why don’t you come and see me at the Conservatoire?’

How insistent and determined he could be. And how well he knew her.
She glanced up at him.

‘I have so little time Sergei.’

There was a little embarrassed pause as she recalled the ending of their professor-pupil relationship three years previously, when her father had been unable to keep up with the Lycée and Conservatoire payments. Overnight, her musical hopes had been brought to an abrupt close. As he stood before her, giving her that understanding smile, she found it hard to believe that she had been so nervous meeting him. Perhaps it was his brilliant reputation, which her father had impressed upon her on the way to the first audition. “Tatiana, the Bolsheviks have chased him out of Leningrad and inadvertently sent him to us. Their ignorance in all matters of the arts is our gain. Hurry up and stop looking so glum!” 

They had been early and had had to wait, she on an uncomfortable chair wrapped up in a woolly hat, coat and gloves, while her father paced the dark, drafty corridor of the Russian Conservatoire. When the professor had eventually arrived, flustered and irritable, she remembered the terror of stepping into his enormous study – his realm — and hearing him sigh as he pulled back a dusty curtain to let in the morning light on her.

“What are you playing for me today?” 

“Schubert’s Sonata in B flat major,” she had replied, trying to keep a measured tone as her father had advised her to do. 

‘Hmmf,’ he snorted. ‘Difficult, but no matter.’  Sitting on the stool, twisted towards him, she had made an effort to smile. 

‘Begin,’ he had said in a gentler tone. 

Swivelling round on the piano stool, she had removed her gloves quickly and stared at her hands fully stretched over the cold, white keys. It was all she remembered for her fingers from then on had just taken over. 

‘Good. Good, Mademoiselle.’ Such words of praise from such an exacting teacher! His analysis had filled her with hope: ‘your voicing and timing in part needs work but you have the touch my dear. It is not given to all. We can start next week.’ 

From the age of fourteen she had played for him and it had felt like a whole life had elapsed in his presence. He had overseen her development from a shy, timid girl to young woman who believed in her ability to become a professional pianist. But that was in the past. 

‘Tatiana?’ Conus brought her back to the present.

‘Oh sorry, I was just thinking…’


‘Yes, my dear,’ he said, mouth drooping as if he were just on the point of saying something but thought better of it. He put his old leather music case on the counter and stood back, giving a tug on his short, grey beard: ‘And so you are working here. All this music around you.’

And to illustrate the point, he lifted his short arms and turned his small, still agile body this way and that.

‘Perfect,’ he said, his eyes alighting on the Louis Armstrong display in the Jazz section. ‘Do you like it?  

‘I do enjoy working here. No need to go to musical concerts at the Salle Pleyel, when everything I want is…’ She stopped. The professor was looking bothered. 

‘But I do hope you get out a little bit, Tatiana.’ He pursed his lips and shook his head. ‘An attractive, talented young woman owes it to herself to be admired.’ 

Caught off guard, Tatiana felt the blood rush into her cheeks. She had never been easily able to take compliments from men. 

‘A little thin though,’ he added in a half-playful, half- concerned voice.  She bristled at the remark and started to walk back towards the counter gripped with a sense of injustice. He was not the only one who made her feel awkward in this way. After church she was teased by her parents and their friends, who could not understand why she was so opposed to meeting eligible young Russian men. Her father, dismissing her reticence as shyness, had already designated Sacha Kirov, a rich nephew of his previous and now defunct business associate, as a candidate for her affections. They had met, at social occasions and had been friendly towards another. But that had been all. Vladimir, who still joked about it, told her that, she had acquired a reputation of being choosy and independent.  ‘It’s all right for you, brother,’ she would think to herself. You can go anywhere you please, while I have to have to be escorted!’ 

The professor realised his indiscretion and trotted after her, flustered.

‘That is not to say that you are not beautiful, my dear.’ 

She now wished Mme Clerc hadn’t gone out to the bank and left her alone and vulnerable to a conversation of this type. She snapped the counter down, turned back towards him, her back straight, her eyes she hoped, a little cold. 

‘And now I see I have offended you. Too much time spent in stuffy music rooms. All I am saying is that you are young my dear. This is the time to enjoy yourself. For years you were always playing. You are living in the most exciting city in the world!’ 

She let out a laugh of resignation and shook her head. It had always been impossible to stay angry with him for long. Conscious, however, of time passing, she took out the heavy leather order book from the drawer below the counter. Mme Clerc or another customer would soon be walking back through the door and she couldn’t be seen to be talking idly.  The book was marked at Monday – today — and her eye fell upon the first entry. “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9. A faint tingle of warmth rose in her breast.

‘And where am I to meet this Prince?’ she said glancing up at the professor. 

‘Ta, ta, ta, a prince! Why not just settle for a mere muzhik,’ he said, throwing up his arm impatiently.  Tatiana raised her eyebrows in surprise.

‘A peasant?’ 

‘Well, not quite, my dear.’ The professor stretched his palms in front of her to placate her.  ‘But you know, a commoner. With talent of course. Energy and generosity of spirit. It goes without saying that he is to be an Adonis and to be madly in love with you. But he mustn’t fawn over you, otherwise you will tire of him,’ he said, wagging his finger.  She crossed her arms. Really the professor was such a nuisance. 

‘Always such high standards. Do not forget that women,’ he paused, to check that she was listening. 

‘Yes Professor? Women …? ’ 

‘… Are like flowers. They wilt if they are not nourished by some sunshine!’ 

Tatiana threw her arms up, letting out another laugh; this time more exasperated than weary. She had never discussed such things with him, or anyone else. There had always been the music and it had been enough.