Guest review by Michael Johnson
International Acclaim: One Piano, Eight Hands is a factional novel by Michael Lawson told by an omniscient narrator who slips seamlessly in and out of anonymity as the action unfolds. Four generations of the talented but fictional Steinfeld family parade through the plot, performing in the piano’s golden age, the height of the Romantics. Many of the greats appear – Rachmaninov, Godowsky, Taneyev, Siloti, Hoffmann, Medtner, Moiseiwitsch, Friedman, Gabrilowitsch, Blumenfeld, Schnabel and one of Lawson’s own teachers, the “tender tyrant” Nadia Boulanger.
Readers must be on their toes as 68 characters rotate to keep the narration spinning. Lawson’s knowledge of 19th century Europe through his Polish ancestors enrich the story, notably with several scenes of terrible tragedy – fictional injuries in fires, psychological conflict, the near extinction of the family name in a Polish pogrom, and finally the death in public of the latest family star, Daniyal.
This novel is nothing short of a Tolstoian epic.
Author Lawson is up to the task. He is an accomplished pianist and composer, retired archdeacon of the Church of England and author of some 14 books. Rounding out his career, he is also a trained psychotherapist who has worked with several pianists, including child prodigies. He brings all these strands together in a breathless story.
“I am and always have been fascinated by the great Romantic pianists,” he tells me in email exchanges over several days. It shows.
Originally inspired by accounts of virtuoso Simon Barere’s death in 1951 at a Carnegie Hall recital, Lawson says he “knew how the novel would end but not how it would begin”. The story occupied his attention for some 40 years, the last six months of which were dedicated to non-stop research and writing six days a week. For easy reading, he has structured his story in five ”movements”, each consisting of several brief chapters, some only two pages long.
He takes interesting detours to fill in backdrop of the environment – the German bombing of London, the pogrom in Lvov (now Lviv) in 1918, Jewish family life, piano competitions and the history of the piano. The subtitle takes its name from the fictional four generations of virtuosi – imagining his main players, Abramczyk, Aleksander, Daniyal, and Kovi making music together, on one piano, eight hands.
Lawson brings in a sub-theme of exceptional interest, the phenomenon of the child prodigy, an accident that he estimates occur once in five or ten million births. He invokes his therapeutic expertise to warn of over-praise of prodigies from family and the public. “Can a child ever receive too much love? … We are now discovering that sustained exaggerations of esteem from parents or any circles of admiring approval can be harmful.” (It) can inhibit the growth of a healthy and robust, self-critical super-ego.”
The great teacher Leschetizky carries on, cautioning that an “excess of applause at an early age may help cerate unhealthy performance appetites in later life”. Audiences sometimes help create such the prodigy, and, adds Lawson: “ … some will flock to see a child perform as they might jostle for the best seat at the circus.” Aleksander’s parents stepped in to slow the process. They decided that he would not undertake public concerts until his seventh birthday.
Lawson’s career at the piano also translates into some of the more dramatic passages in the repertoire. Discussing Chopin’s Etude No. 11 op 25 (“Winter Wind”), he writes of the pianist’s intense concentration in the slow theme at the outset. “Then, like an exploding volcano, a tumultuous cascade of sixteenth notes erupted from the top of the keyboard; the left hand leaping in punctuation fury, driving forward the rhythm of the raging wind and sudden lighting flashes, and the final theme, bringing Chopin’s death-defying Etude … to its breathless conclusion.”
(performed here by Yulianna Avdeeva):
Lawson takes a swipe at pianists whose acrobatics onstage “let us know they have danced with death and prevailed”. “Their shoulders rise and fall with their heavy breathing, their hands run maniacally through their tousled hair (and) they practically swoon there on stage in front of us.” He adds that Franz Liszt was the inventor of this “bizarre behaviour”. Many of today’s prominent players have gone further. Lang Lang, for example, wears makeup and winks at the audience between swoons while bouncing on the piano bench.
Family life is enlivened with the joy of Jewish humour and culture. At one point, Aleksander receives in the post an invitation to perform with the New York Philharmonic. The family and guests burst into a singing, dancing version of the popular Russian folk song “Kalinka My Kalinka” gradually ratcheting up the tempo to breakneck speed.
The dance is performed here:
The text is peppered with tips on piano performance, one of which is the need to practice relaxing. “Remember that tension is the enemy,” Lawson writes. “It squeezes glue all over the keyboard and in all kinds of ways gums up your playing.”
Critical reception to the novel has thus far been favourable, as has reader reaction. One reader wrote to Lawson that the connections and convergences in the plot are “so beautifully written, it brought me to tears.”
I know of no other writer who can draw on such a varied and pertinent background and weave them into a single tale.
Why did Lawson set himself the monumental task of researching and writing this epic? This book might seen as swan song or a cathartic exercise, but Lawson disagrees. He considers it it as “a celebration of music, musicians, and the creative spirit that animates my present and future.” I totally agree.
Michael Johnson is a music critic and writer with a particular interest in piano.
He has worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is a regular contributor to International Piano magazine, and is the author of five books.
Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux, France. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.
Michael Lawson is a Psychotherapist, Composer, Writer, Film Maker and Broadcaster. His varied career began in music as a composer and concert pianist in the early seventies, having studied with the great French teacher Nadia Boulanger at the Paris and Fontainebleau conservatoires, with the British composer Edmund Rubbra at the Guildhall School of Music, and at Sussex University with Donald Mitchell, the leading Britten and Mahler scholar. His piano professors were David Wilde and James Gibb.