John F. Hanley

Chopin marks time

Chapter Thirty-nine Page 371

Chopin: Polonaise No 3 in A - Military

This is the opening salvo in the piano battle between Caroline and Rudi during the Palace Hotel meal when the 'Dutchman' is goaded into demonstrating his belief that the Poles are not really militaristic and will be no match for a modern army.

I glimpsed a secret smile on Caroline’s lips. So was this her plan? To encourage us to provoke Kohler into defending Germany so openly he might confess his nationality in public? It couldn’t be too obvious though — he might just walk away. We had to suck him in a bit more. ‘You might be right there, Rudi. It is a complicated situation and we mustn’t be hypocritical. Besides, international affairs are far too contentious. Why don’t we talk about music?’ I nudged Caroline gently with my elbow. ‘What do you think? Is music international or tribal?’ ‘What are you talking about, Jack? Tribal music?’ she asked. ‘I meant, does each country have its own identity in music or is it universal? I know the Italians seem to have hijacked the language.’ ‘How observant of you. Are you suggesting that only Italians identify with Verdi and Puccini, that the French only love—’ ‘Themselves,’ interrupted Saul. ‘No, Jack’s talking about identity in music. I think he means, can you tell the nationality of composer by the way his music sounds? Am I right, Jack?’ ‘Sort of. For example, Beethoven. He’s Austrian. Are the emotions his music provokes really those peculiar to that nation? Are Tchaikovsky’s just appropriate for the Russians? Are Chopin’s for the Poles—’ Kohler interrupted. ‘What about the English, Jack? Don’t you have any composers of your own?’ Caroline turned on him. ‘Yes, of course we do. And bloody emotional they are as well. Think of Elgar and Land of Hope and Glory.’ Kohler pushed his chair back. ‘I think I understand what Jack is talking about. The British are militaristic and so is their music. The Italians are romantic and theirs reflects that. The Germans, who I believe would lay claim to Beethoven, are strong and emotional —’ ‘What about the Poles, though, Rudi? Are they militaristic? Will they fight?’ I spoke softly, daringly. Kohler twisted his napkin in his hands as he looked around the room. ‘I’m not a musician but perhaps I can answer that with an example. Chopin is a typical Pole, is he not?’ Caroline answered, ‘Yes and a real patriot.’ Kohler pushed himself up and stood behind Caroline’s chair. ‘Well, let me play you a short piece by Chopin and you tell me. He stepped out towards the bandstand, rolling slightly as if the dining room was on a cruise liner at sea. ‘Can he play?’ I asked Caroline. ‘I have no idea. This should raise the temperature though — assuming he doesn’t fall off the stool.’ ‘Was this your plan, to provoke him?’ ‘He’s not as bad as you think, Jack.’ …………………………………………… So you invited us just to show off your new friend.’ She glared at me, her colour rising again. ‘Grow up, Jack. Don’t be so prejudiced.’ I clenched my fists under the table, not daring to ask the questions I really wanted answering as Kohler fiddled with the piano stool. Without any warning to the other diners, he started to play. The music was slow, deliberate, precise, but lacking in emotion. It conjured up images of slow moving troops, smartly dressed but without menace — on parade. I hissed at her, ‘What’s this called?’ ‘It’s Chopin’s Polonaise Number Three — the Military. He’s playing reasonably well — too much pedal and the left hand is rather pedantic, but he’s making his point in a ponderous way.’ ‘Which is?’ ‘Chopin and, by implication, Poland, is military. It’s strong but not powerful. There’s no emotion in the notes and it ends without any crescendo. He’s actually a lot more subtle than I thought.’ I sensed a disagreeable measure of admiration in her tone and said, ‘So he can play the piano but I’m not sure what the guests make of it.’ There was a scattering of applause as Kohler walked back to the table, though I could see that his uncle, Kempler, looked rather puzzled. Caroline’s mother seemed delighted and clapped enthusiastically. Saul stood and applauded him ironically as he took his place back at the table. Rachel clapped politely. ‘That’s very good, Rudi. But what does it mean?’ ‘It shows the Polish temperament.’ Kohler emptied his glass of Chablis and held it up for a refill.