I have a memory from very long ago, when I was maybe three or four. I was playing in the basement, when I began to hear the most beautiful music. I could hear it very clearly. It filled the air around me, but it was quiet. I remember now the same way I first experienced it as a child: climbing up the stairs, searching the house, no one else was there, not my brothers, not my father. It was daytime, and the light fell full on the carpet in the living room, which is where I found my mother, sitting at our piano, playing Für Elise.
It was the first time I had ever seen our piano being played, possibly the first time I had ever seen any piano being played. Certainly, I had never any idea that my mother knew what to do with it. I don’t know of any other piece of real music my mother ever played on our piano, and even this one she didn’t play very often. It was never important to me that my mother learn anything else. The only song I cared for was Für Elise. I used to dance to it. It sounded sad, and joyful, and frightening, but always beautiful. Like deep purple lace, and velvet, and silk all stitched together, but worn through with time. Old, faded luxury, half-forgotten, but rich in memory.
When I was ten, I started learning to play piano. I was impatient to get through the beginning scales as quickly as possible so that I could learn my favorite piece. As soon as I knew enough about music to read notes, I began teaching myself Für Elise. I only took lessons for three years, before my mother decided I should stop piano lessons, and learn guitar. I hated guitar. It lasted two semesters, and after I quit, I didn’t start piano again. I never learned to play the piano correctly. I know very little about music theory, I have a poor sense of tempo, and it takes me a long time to work through a piece of sheet music one note at a time. But I learned just enough to play Für Elise. I think I learned the piano for Für Elise.
Whenever I watch the 1995 BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice,” and Elizabeth tells Mr. Darcy that “I do not play this instrument so well as I would wish to, but I have always supposed that to be my own fault, because I would not take the trouble of practicing,” I think ruefully of the piano in the living room. Every three or four months for the past ten years I have sat at that piano, usually for only a week or two, and tried to “get back into practice.” When I hear piano music, my fingers start to itch. Sometimes when I hear a piece, I can almost feel the satisfaction that would come to me if I could master that sequence of keys. Whenever I come up with an overly ambitious schedule for my life that plots out all the times I can fit in all the little things I want to do, spending more time on the piano slips in. I never live up to the plans I make for myself, but I always plan to live up to them.
When I went to Germany, the only piano available was an electric keyboard without a full eighty-eight keys. I only played it once or twice, because it was too sad to be forced to stop because I’d run out of notes. There was one time, however, when my German family took me on a retreat with their church to a little abbey in Bavaria, an I found a piano tucked away in a corner that I could play. I tripped over Für Elise for a few minutes, until a group of women poked their heads into the room to see who was playing. “Keep going,” they said. “We didn’t know it was you. We thought it was someone on the radio.”
The family for whom I did nanny work until just a few weeks ago had a beautiful piano in their living room. When the kids were playing nicely, I used to practice at it. The littlest child liked it best when I played Für Elise. She would twirl around in circles while I played, and when I stopped, she’d ask me to play “the scary song” once more.
I don’t play Für Elise well. Someone once told me that I play the piano like a typist. I believe it was a reference to a movie, but they were wrong. In the movie quote, the pianist is being criticized because she plays with absolute precision, and no feeling. I haven’t any precision at all. And if Für Elise and I have any problems with each other, it is because I am too emotional. I don’t give her the attention she deserves. She turns her back on me and won’t let me in, and then I get angry with her, and stop part way through playing, close the lid, and walk away. When I come back, I sense I’ve hurt her feelings. Some days, after months of neglect, when I first sit down to play, I feel as if I have never played her better my whole life. I feel like she’s trying to convince me to try again, but then the next day she’s toughened up and as hard as I try, I’m clumsy and useless. Sometimes we fall into a rut together, where each of us has become a habit to the other.
I play Für Elise when I am happy. I play fast and loud and giddy. I also play her when I am sad, homesick, and heartsore. I have cried playing her. I have also laughed.
On the best days, I am so absorbed that I could repeat the same lines again and again, and never grow tired, because I’m saying something different each time. Sometimes we connect so well, that I have to stop playing, because I’m afraid anyone listening would hear something secret.
If I were the Little Prince, Für Elise would be the rose I left behind.