The musicians who live in Rossini’s old housemain
by Ruben Greenberg, exclusive to Slipped Disc
There are two excellent reasons why our retirement home was named after Rossini. Rossini’s country house originally stood on the grounds of this residence and was donated by the great man in order to establish a retirement home for impoverished retired artists. The second reason is that Rossini himself retired at the age of around 36 and remained so for the last forty years of his life. He thereforeknew more than anybody what it was like to be retired. Alas, none of us here are 36 years old, but rather of an age closer to Rossini’s when he died.
There is little left of Rossini’s country house, but his office has been preserved exactly as it was at the time of the composer. In our auditorium, which is in constant use, you see, through a large picture window, another room: Rossini’s office, perfectly preserved with his
furniture and decor and we get the feeling that the genial old composer is sitting at his desk watching over us as we perform in his
ministering presence. His critical eye inspires us to do our best.
After the war, the home was taken over by the nuns, who turned half of it into a convent. There are still a few kindly nuns looking after us; a half dozen or so. Nuns are becoming extinct, whereas the world will never be lacking in starving artists of all ages. I would say most of my fellow residents are former professional musicians. However, we also have retired actors, down-and-out writers,even ex-circus performers. It hurts to see an old lady hobbling down the corridors and imagine that she once walked the tightrope. The tremulous old man you see struggling to cut his meat at the dinner table was once a famous knife thrower. What do we all have in common? -the fact that we’re old and poor. We almost all had rather obscure, modest artistic careers, but a few people here are ex-stars now down on their luck. Gambling, drinking, unsuccessful marriages and fizzled-out careers are various factors that have got them into this dead-end job which is called retirement.
Yet let it not be said that I am painting a dark picture of our penultimate destination. We have great fun here and the Rossini home is a veritable beehive of artistic activity: concerts, plays, you name it. True enough, some of our wind players have lost their chops; some of our singers are vibratos in search of a voice. Some of our string players sound scratchy, some of our actors forget their lines and our juggler breaks a few window panes with his stray balls and once even broke a spectator’s nose, but we are still capable of moving performances and we get people from the neighborhood coming in to watch us; even a few members of the younger generation. We like to think that contrary to chartered accountants or bank clerks, we artists are ageless. Father time has caught up with us, but we live with him in relatively good harmony under the same roof.
The members of the different guilds that make up our community tend to stick to their own kind. The actors ham it up; are theatrical in
their display of emotion. The circus performers have the gypsy in their soul: knock back inferior-quality wine at the dinner table and break out in song. We Classical musicians interact constantly and fight over the length of notes, tempos, all sorts of musical matters.
But we always make up, even after we feel somebody has scandalously held a fermata too long or a violinist’s high register is infuriatingly flat. When my fellow musicians give me a hard time, I threaten to run away and join the circus: to eat at the other end of the dining-room where the circus clowns and lion tamers hang out. As for the writers, they tend to be solitary and sullen and end up setting all of their stories and novels in a retirement home as that is the only raw material they have at their disposal these days. A circus bird trainer advised me to stay away from them: “they seem half out of it, but they’re actually very observant and if you’re not careful, they’ll steal your soul. Everything you do or say, they can use against you,” he warned me.
There is, needless to say, a regular turnover among the residents of the Rossini Home. New residents walk in through the front door.
Departing residents are discreetly carried out the back way. Little had prepared us to welcome our illustrious new-comer: the famous-or
notorious, depending on how you look at it- music critic Anton Beziers. It appears Beziers wasn’t really his last name. He was
Bulgarian and Beziers was the first town that he set foot in when he arrived in France so he decided to adopt that nice-sounding French
name with its musical vowel sounds. How had Beziers sunk so low as to become a resident of a charity institution specializing in housing
elderly welfare recipients? It’s a long story that I will try to condense.
Beziers was for a long time the most feared music critic in the country. He once boasted that it gave him a thrill to know that he could walk into a concert hall five minutes before a performance and make the orchestra, soloist, conductor…even audience shake in their boots. He had such a large following in his newspaper and was so vehement and viper-tongued in his criticism that he had the ability to make or break a career. Power corrupts and Beziers was no exception to this hard rule. I once found myself sitting behind him at a concert at which he nodded off after the first few bars and snored his way through a whole Bruckner symphony, his snoring almost covering up the characteristic Bruckner tremolos. The next day there was a very critical review of the concert by him in the newspaper in which he analytically criticized the conductor’s poor choice of tempos and sloppy accentuation. He added that the horns were continually out of tune and cracked several notes.
Beziers had a wife that fancied herself a singer, though actually she sang about as well as a kangaroo. His wife, Benita, was half Beziers’ age and was the apple of his eye. He promoted her career by offering to give the clients of major agencies good reviews if the latter agreed to handle her. Conductors, and opera houses that employed her were also given good reviews in exchange. So how did such a powerful critic end up in our poorhouse? What happened was that he made a major false move that brought his career to a close.
He wrote a scathing review of a symphony concert: the orchestra had no sense of style in Beethoven’s Fourth and Sixth symphony. The pianist, Dimitry Strapontinsky was heavy-handed in Brahms’ First piano concerto.. The ensemble was not together. But this time Beziers got
caught with his pants down. The concert he reviewed had never taken place. It had been cancelled because of a transport strike. This
incident put an ignominious end to Beziers’ long rein as our country’s leading music critic.. His wife left him shortly after this incident because he was no longer of any use to her and she shacked up with the director of a minor opera house that cast her in small parts
and guaranteed the continuation of her singing career.
So here was Beziers among us, shabbily dressed and older and
squatter than I remembered him. The circus clowns and lion tamers
were totally unaware he ever existed, but my fellow Classical
musicians had bitter memories of him, though most us of were far too
insignificant as performers in the past to even merit his scathing
reviews. He seldom visited the minor concert venues in which our
careers had taken place. By virtue of what was he a new resident here?
He wasn’t a musician, wasn’t an actor and wasn’t a magician, though
granted, he did write a review of a concert that never took place.
Some might argue that this requires at least as many magical powers as
pulling a rabbit out of a hat. He was with us officially passing
himself off as a retired writer.
Beziers attended our little concerts. If the Amadeus String
Quartet didn’t get his seal of approval, there was little chance we
would. He was present at a performance we gave of Schubert’s Trout
Quintet and just sat there at the end with his hands on his lap, an
ugly scowl on his face, and didn’t applaud. Two days later, our
favorite soprano sang the operetta aria “poussez, poussez
l’escarpolette” and Beziers walked out of the room in the middle of
her song. Some of us were tempted to ask that he be banned from
attending any more of our concerts, -to let our knife-thrower
suffering from Parkinson’s disease practice his act on him or to
firmly press a pillow against his fat face during the night and make
it appear as though he had died peacefully in his sleep. but I asked
that he be allowed to go on living because my big project was to
figure out what made this ex-influential man tick. I have always
taken a keen interest in what makes people tick, what makes artists
tick, what makes music tick. On the other hand, now that time is
running out for me, what makes a clock tick leaves me cold.
Beziers would sit alone at his table in the dining hall for meals.
“Do you mind if I join you?” I politely asked him one evening. He
made an unfriendly gesture which obliquely meant: “go ahead..seeing as
there is nothing I can do to prevent you from doing so.” “So how do
you like it here?” I asked him. “You mean how do I like being among
the living dead?” he asked. I thought it best not to pursue the
conversation and we finished our meal in silence. But I would not be
daunted. I would try again some other time. With some people, it
takes all the the ability of a safecracker to unlock the door that
stands between them and the outside world; the skill of a safecracker
or a stick of dynamite.
A few days later, I walked past his table and surprisingly he
indicated a chair that was already half pulled out, as though
fatalistically resigning himself to inviting me to join him for
dinner. I sat down and a sudden inspiration made me go for broke.
“What have the last ten years been like?” I asked him. “Why the last
ten?” he asked. “Why not the last 70?” Point blank I replied: “the
last ten; the last ten since your downfall?” He was taken aback but
didn’t recoil. I was emboldened. “What have you done these last ten
years?” He answered in a very matter- of -fact way: “I wrote a book
on Beethoven’s 16 String Quartets: the most important piece of work I
ever produced. No publisher accepted it because of my rotten
reputation. I suppose they reckoned I had never actually heard these
string quartets. I had a nest egg that kept me going for ten years,
but its amount wasn’t infinite. The money ran out and I have ended up
in the poorhouse. In other words,here.” I thought to myself: “that
will do for today. I’ll gnaw away at him, but piano, piano and
ritendendo”. We finished our meal in silence, but a rapport had been
struck up, albeit small.
From then on, I would sometimes have dinner with Beziers. Not too
often because the gloom that emanated from the man was liable to get
me down. He spoke about himself a little more openly as time went by.
On the other hand, he took absolutely no interest in me. This didn’t
upset me in the slightest. As I am a double-bass player, I am used to
people taking no notice of me. One thing I couldn’t understand was
why Beziers chose to live out his remaining years in a retirement home
for artists. Given his negative attitude and his participation in our
activities which was close to nil, he could have just as well lived in
a home for retired rabbis or retired vacuum- cleaner salesmen. Rather
than condemn the obviously unhappy man, I sincerely wanted to help
him. I’m no psychiatrist, but I had carefully observed members of
their profession in movies and television series so I knew how they go
about treating problem cases.
We were once chatting about a Bottesini double-bass concerto.
Beziers was what he was, but nobody could deny his impressive
encyclopedic knowledge of music. Suddenly I changed the subject: from
the impersonal to the highly personal. “You know, Beziers, you won’t
ever be leaving this place except to go you know where. This home is
the exit lounge of life for all of us. Don’t you think it would be in
the interest of all concerned to make the best of your stay here?”
Beziers was caught off guard by my remark. His lips trembled, he
tried to mutter something, but nothing came out. We finished our meal
One day, we were rehearsing a little-known Hindemith quintet for violin, trumpet, clarinet, double-bass and piano. For some reason,
Beziers was curious and attended our rehearsal, something he had never done before no matter how bored he was. In the corridor, I asked him why. “I knew Hindemith personally,” he answered. ” I took a few composition lessons from him. He’s seldom played in this country…
His music is considered too Teutonic. You’re not playing his quintet so badly.” “What?!!” I thought. “-a compliment?! That isn’t at all
like him. Is Beziers going soft?!” That was part of my psychological tactic: to make him go soft. The next day, Marie-Claudette our lovely
violinist, stopped in the middle of our rehearsal: her nagging tendinitis had come back. We had other violinists at our disposal, but nobody that didn’t have an aversion to Hindemith. Marie-Claudette turned to Beziers who was sitting at the back of the hall. “Monsieur Beziers,” she said addressing herself to him. “I’ve heard that you were once a fine violinist. Would you consent to replacing me? We really would like the performance of this piece to come off.” I saw Beziers’ lower lip tremble, as it always did on the rare occasions when his armour was chinked. “may I borrow your violin for a couple of weeks?” he asked with a shaky voice. “…I’m not promising anything….”
From that day on, every time I passed Bezier’s room I would hear
him practicing like mad: hours a day. At first he sounded awful: like
a pig squealing; an unmusical pig at that. But his playing got better
by the day at an amazing pace. Why had this man wasted his time as a
critic when he obviously had so much talent as a performer? I would
try to find that out later. Three weeks after “going back to the
woodshed” Bezier declared: “I’m …I’m ready…” in a voice that
sounded more like that of a timid schoolgirl than that of the
thick-skinned potentate he had been.
We began rehearsing the Hindemith. As the violinist of the quintet
and the one that had the biggest part, it was only natural that
Beziers should be the leader of the group. And what a fine leader he
was: perceptive, patient, encouraging and not allowing anything to get
by him. He heard every little thing, every nuance, had an incredible
ear for harmony and for the architecture of a piece. His violin
playing had perhaps known better days, but he was well on the way to
recovering the old splendor of his musicianship. I personally was
having perhaps the finest musical experience I had had at the Rossini
Home. Beziers’ personality underwent a totally unexpected change. He
became friendlier, warmer. He asked that we call him Anton. This was
like General Charles de Gaulle asking people to call him Charlie!
Beziers now sat at the dinner table not only with me, but with other
residents, sometimes even laughing and telling jokes. A date was set
for our little concert.
Then, all of a sudden, Bezier grew gloomy again. He was as anxious
about our insignificant little concert as if he were about to make his
debut at Carnegie Hall. He became testy during rehearsals: hard on
the rest of us and even harder on himself. I decided to have a little
talk with him. “This is exactly how it went before I switched to a
career as a critic,” he admitted to me. “Stage- fright paralyzed me,
made my life miserable. As a critic, I didn’t have to experience the
horrors of performance anxiety. I made other people anxious, which
was unconsciously a form of getting my revenge. Then came the
hobnobbing with rich and famous musicians, politicians, people of high
society…people I had never had access to when I was but a mere
obscure chamber and orchestral musician. It went to my head and I was
so madly in love with my wife that I would stop at nothing to further
her career.” “But that’s all over,” I said soothingly to him.
“There’s no doubt you love music and have a tremendous talent for it.
For the first time you can simply partake of the enjoyment of it
without any unhealthy ulterior motives.” He listened and was
convinced by the intellectual honesty of my arguments, but he was not
coping with his feelings of misery and fear.
The afternoon of the concert, Beziers walked onto the stage on
wobbly knees, sweating profusely and his hands shaking. I had
experienced performing anxiety in the past, but nothing like what
Beziers was obviously going through. At least I had always been able
to hide behind my double-bass. Nevertheless, Beziers began to play.
The first few bars he played were weak, almost apologetic, but then
for some reason the ice suddenly broke. Not only was he playing as
well as he did during rehearsals; he was playing far better and with
fantastic inspiration. The nuns, circus performers, musicians,
writers and actors plus a few neighbors that were in our audience
were swept away by our playing, as Bezier carried us to new heights.
Thunderous applause followed our performance and we played the last
Hindemith piece of his quintet again as an encore. This was Beziers’
shining hour and I was proud of him and proud of myself: of the work I
had done on him. A lesser man would have given up on him after five
minutes, I thought , congratulating myself. Beziers from then on
became an active member of our community and somewhat like a
professor emeritus for us string players. Every rehearsal with him
was like a fine master class, a free one into the bargain.
He even wrote a musical play that enabled our circus performers,
actors and musicians to join forces and it was so successful we
organized performances of it in other retirement homes. Its title:
Rossini’s Retirement Party.
The pictures in this article are real; the rest is not.