By Kate Mueser
“So, is it autobiographical?”
Those who know me well will ask that question when they read my debut novel, The Girl with Twenty Fingers, about an American used-to-be pianist in Germany who plays Mozart’s works for piano four hands with an elderly German man.
“Absolutely not!” I would reply.
“But Kate,” they would argue, “You also used to be a pianist and lived in Germany.”
“True,” I would have to concede. “But unlike Sarah, my protagonist, I never bombed a performance of Mozart’s D Minor Concerto. In fact, many years ago, I did play his C Major Concerto with an orchestra and had no major complaints from the audience.”
“But didn’t you once tell me about playing the piano with an elderly German?”
Ah yes. The initial inspiration for The Girl with Twenty Fingers was indeed rooted in reality, even if the book itself is fiction.
When I was twenty-two years old and moving back to Bonn from the US after spending several months there the previous year, I needed a place to stay temporarily while I looked for an apartment. Through the pastor of a local church, I was connected with an elderly couple at the far edge of town, whom I’ll call Herr and Frau S. The pastor knew I had a degree in piano performance, and the couple had a grand piano and an extra room. It was a perfect match.
I arrived late one January night, stepping out of the taxi with a large suitcase holding all of my belongings, jetlagged from the long flight. The winter chill felt inhospitable after my time in temperate California; the snow on the ground was not fluffy and picturesque but clumped in dirty, icy chunks. A pang of fear and regret struck me: Was I doing the right thing, coming back to this faraway place to start a life? Calling the taxi to take me straight back to the airport where I could catch the next flight home suddenly seemed a lot more appealing.
Thankfully, Herr and Frau S. welcomed me warmly, offered me a comfortable room upstairs, and insisted I share meals with them. Nevertheless, it seemed like there was an insurmountable gap between me and Herr S. in particular — not least the multiple generations that divided us. My German was not yet fluent; he was difficult to understand and acted gruff at times. I was a stranger in a country that was still strange to me.
It took a few days before my fingers thawed enough to try out the piano. While it was not nearly as spectacular as the Bechstein grand in my book, it was a sturdy instrument with a friendly sound.
“Mozart wrote many lovely works for piano four hands,” Herr S. said after I’d spent a few minutes coaxing contiguous notes out of my memory and the keyboard. “Perhaps you’d like to play a few together?”
I knew the Mozart sonatas for twenty fingers quite well; in high school I’d spent several summers at the San Francisco Conservatory working on them as part of their chamber music program for young musicians. As Herr S.’s houseguest, I couldn’t say no.
Our first attempts were awkward. Piano for four hands is an intimate and athletic undertaking. It’s not like playing with a clarinetist or cellist — someone who hides in the crook of the grand piano, someone with whom you share the occasional nod. Piano duets mean bumping bottoms and rubbing elbows; they require inhaling your partner’s aftershave while you overlap your hands to reach the opposite register. Mozart wrote those sonatas for himself and his sister: The two of them were conveniently small in stature and obviously well acquainted with each other. With Herr S., sitting side by side at his grand piano seemed decidedly less natural.
He was, I had deduced while living in his house, well over ninety. His fingers bore the stiffness of age, but he played remarkably well and was familiar with the repertoire. After a few Mozart sessions, his gruffness waned and it became apparent that he was deeply enjoying not just making music, but making it together. It must have been years since he had played with anyone.
What Herr S. didn’t know was that my relationship with music was complicated at the time. My plan to become a concert pianist had not panned out. The classical music world had demanded more than I was able to give and one degree did not suffice. I was angry at my instrument, and I didn’t know what to do with my life. (Yes, ok — admittedly not unlike my protagonist Sarah.)
At times, we would nail the brutal Mozartian runs and bring those piercing second movement melodies to sing. But there were also stumbles on the scales, the pianissimos that didn’t sound at all, the rests that were miscounted. For mistakes like those, I would have been yelled at at music school. With Herr S., there was plenty of grace. Experiencing his joy in the imperfect music we made was refreshing and healing.
After two weeks or so in the spare room upstairs, I signed a lease on an apartment a block away from the center of Bonn and was looking forward to getting out of the distant suburbs and into the city. Before I packed up my suitcase and stripped the bed, I asked Herr S. whether I could pay him for room and board. A fee hadn’t been part of the arrangement, but I didn’t want to commit any cultural faux pas.
“Yes,” he said, “Yes, you can.”
For a split second, I was concerned. Had I misunderstood something? Should I have paid in advance?
“It will cost you one American dollar,” he said stoically.
Relief! I was glad my language skills hadn’t failed me after all, but still unsure whether he was joking or serious. Fortunately, I still had a green dollar in my wallet, which was otherwise populated by colorful euro notes.
He accepted my dollar with a kind laugh and asked, almost bashfully, “Maybe you’d like to keep playing together?”
As so, for the following year, I hopped on the bus every two weeks for the long trek out to the edge of town. Frau S. baked a different cake each time and Herr S. and I would play Mozart until we were out of breath and then chat over coffee, creamer, and homemade dessert.
I never found out what Herr S. did during the Nazi period. Because he is not Otto Steinmann and I am not Sarah Johnson, Herr S. gave me no past to unravel. Instead, we talked about Bonn, that little city on the Rhine that played such a big role as a Cold War capital and reinvented itself after Reunification. About raising kids and not seeing grandkids often enough. About rising prices and the nice little bakery around the corner, the only one for kilometers.
My visits with Herr and Frau S. became for me a window — however unsettling — into the future: We all get older; we all eventually get old, as unimaginable as that was at twenty-two. Our meetings were also a window into a culture and a language that I was only beginning to get to know. Two people may not be a whole country, but each country is comprised of single souls. Now, twenty years later, I am married to a German and mother to three more and have since become more German than I’d ever planned to.
Most importantly, my friendship with Herr and Frau S. taught me to see music more simply. It could be something to casually share with others; neither was it confined to a practice cubicle nor was it worthless without a stage. Music could be a hobby that could last forever, well into old age. I did not have to become music’s eternally bitter divorcée at twenty-two. And maybe music and I didn’t have to become lovers at all. Maybe we could just stay friends. Forever, like Herr S.
After about a year of biweekly bus trips to the grand piano on the outskirts of Bonn, I started working more, picking up additional classes as an English teacher. I could no longer keep up the commitment. At the same time, Herr S.’s health declined. While we kept in touch, the Mozart scores were closed and shelved. It was time to move on.
When Herr S. passed away several years later, the pastor who’d brought us together asked me to play something at his funeral. I chose one of the Mozart sonatas for four hands that we had played together in his living room but performed only the primo part. The piece was half empty, void of its roots. The secondo solo bits were replaced with gaping holes. Sometimes silence speaks louder than music.