* The Maestro, as Horowitz would have everyone call him later in life, took on Kaufmann as a student, his first; what follows is a period of intense jealousy, denial, anger, passion and even love
* Set mainly in Switzerland in the 1980s, the novel begins almost like a thriller mystery
* Kaufmann comes across as a caricature — he is gossipy, attention seeking and boasts of his sexual prowess, though one suspects these are ploys to hide his many failures
Ideally, one should begin reading Lea Singer’s The Piano Student, translated from German by Elisabeth Lauffer, with Träumerei playing in the background. One of 13 movements from Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen, it is an achingly moving piece of music. It runs as a leitmotif of sorts through the novel, setting the early mood, so to speak, for the anguish, trauma, hope and love that control the lives of the people on its pages.
Inspired from real life, the novel is based on the letters Vladimir Horowitz, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, wrote to his alleged gay lover and student, the Swiss pianist and composer Nico Kaufmann, in the 1930s. Singer discovered in archives in Switzerland private letters that Kaufmann chose not to destroy, though Horowitz had expressly and repeatedly asked him to do so. She uses these unpublished letters to draw out the secret relationship the maestro and his student had when the former lived in Europe before migrating to America.
Horowitz’s legions of fans around the world are familiar with the public details of his life: Born in the former USSR, he moved to Western Europe as a young man, finding fame for the tonality of his music playing. Though married to Wanda Toscanini, the daughter of the famous Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, rumours of his homosexuality followed him all his life. Horowitz is known to have undergone shock treatment in the ’40s to try and change his sexual orientation, and repeated professional intervention to manage his depression.
Kaufmann’s relationship with his teacher is not part of any official history. In fictionalising what Singer found in the letters Kaufmann held on to, she imagines the pain of having to suppress sexual desires and the depression it birthed in Horowitz, a condition that would go on to plague him for the rest of his life.
The Piano Student follows a complicated structure. Set mainly in Switzerland in the ’80s, the novel begins almost like a thriller mystery. A Swiss diplomat in his mid-40s goes missing, just before the men he has hired to euthanise him arrive at his home. He is soon at a bar that has a piano, requesting the pianist to play him Träumerei. The pianist is Kaufmann, now a musician of “brilliant mediocrity”. Over the course of this new and unusual friendship, Kaufmann recounts to Reto Donati, the diplomat who changed his mind about dying, the details of his relationship with Horowitz.
The two embark on a trip, visiting places that were important in Kaufmann’s affair with Volodya, as friends called Horowitz. In the backdrop of that story is the devastating breadth of World War II adding another layer to the forbidden relationship between teacher and student.
Kaufmann was a young répétiteur, training to be a conductor, when he met Horowitz “…in Basel, almost forty-nine years ago exactly, also in April, only the weather was nicer”. The Maestro, as Horowitz would have everyone call him later in life, took on Kaufmann as a student, his first. What follows is a period of intense jealousy, denial, anger, passion and even love, constantly set to the tune of Horowitz’s frustration with his marriage, his career and, most of all, his repressed sexual desires.
The Piano Student is well on its way at times to being a chronicle of a moving love story. But the author gets as many things twisted as she gets them right. Anyone who has had to hide a great love for fear of retribution — homosexuality complicating the matter further — will identify with Horowitz’s innerscape of torture, self-loathing and depression. Add to this his father-in-law’s insistence that he become “exceptional”, by allowing political truths into his life when even in the thick of WWII, Horowitz is happy playing to grand applause across Europe rather than choose sides.
Conductor Toscanini thinks his son-in-law lacks education and breeding, and has no political stance or even fidelity to his work, an opinion his daughter gathers to herself, too, and “together, they’ve broken his spine”. Horowitz’s tortured genius produced some of the greatest music of the 20th century, but in his private anguish, as Kaufmann pointedly says, “It seems he was alone a lot and, in his loneliness, fixated on this ominous notion of being normal”.
Kaufmann, on the other hand, comes across as a caricature — he is gossipy, attention seeking and boasts of his sexual prowess, though one suspects these are ploys to hide his many failures. He does not have much of a career and there is “nothing great” about him, he admits, in a moment of poignant self-awareness.
The novel is populated with famous contemporaries — novelist Thomas Mann who Kaufmann claims fancied him, the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff who shared a trait of debilitating stage fright with Horowitz, the violinist Nathan Milstein and others of the classical music world. It is populated, too, with wonderful pieces of music — the publisher New Vessel Press has helpful playlists on Spotify and YouTube that chart the soundtrack of the book.
Singer’s imagining of how this alleged affair might have been conducted does lift the lid on the otherwise staid portrayal in popular perception of the world of classical music. However, the lack of quotation marks surrounding the conversations, while presenting at first an interesting pause in trying to make out who the narrator is and where we are chronologically soon become a tedious task. Coupled with the all-over-the-place nature of the writing, it merely distracts from the story on hand, adding little by way of a writing style. One is tempted often to look up the music peppered throughout the book, and fascinating as the previously undocumented Horowitz-Kaufmann love affair may have been, it is this music that mostly redeems the jerky structure of The Piano Student.
Deepa Bhasthi is a writer based in Kodagu