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In the Key of F

(Eugenio Montale — In Chiave di “Fa”)

‘Starting from this D you must enclose the voice, wear it in a mask,’ explained my old teacher, performing arpeggios on the keyboard. ‘Later you can open again on the E flat, if necessary, but for now… Say u. Like this: o-o-o-uuuu… Very good.’

It seemed to me that I’d uttered a groan from the underworld, an unearthly whistle; but the old teacher was satisfied. Small, bent over the keys, both venerable and ridiculous, he sang the notes with his tiny mouth puckered like a pigeon’s egg, barely opening between the baldacchino of his great hoary moustaches and the trembling upright posts of his snow-white patchwork beard. He warbled like a hundred-year-old nightingale, and his little eyes shone behind thick lenses.

The windows (we were at the top of the house) opened onto a wide rectangular piazza, strewn with sunshades and market stalls. In the distance, on a bronze horse permanently reared up, an Argentine general heroically brandished his sword in the air. The avenue leading to the sea, to the right, was quiet, and you could read there the nameplates of midwives and obscure dental assistants. The old teacher lived a bit out of the way, but I had to be understanding. He alone, who had rubbed shoulders with Maurel and Navarrini and had won applause which brought the house down at the Imperial in St Petersburg and the Liceu in Barcelona, he alone was in a position to save me from the incompetence of the professors at the conservatoire. Lessons began very early, at half past eight in the morning, and usually lasted thirty minutes. Not long after nine I was in the public library, which was more or less deserted at that hour. The choice of books wasn’t large, and the attendant didn’t allow himself to be disturbed. But on a shelf which was always open I grazed for several months. (I read there, during that period, I don’t know how many books by Lemaître and by Scherer, the discoverer of Amiel.) Meanwhile my regular lessons continued. Gradually, I was becoming resigned to saying farewell to the voice which — let us say — I had mentally assumed to be mine. No longer Boris Godunov, no longer Gurnemanz, no longer Philip II; I was going to have to forget the notes in the lower register, the sepulchral sounds of Osmin the eunuch and of Sarastro. The old teacher was firm on this point; and he even gave me excessive hope that in the new register I would one day be able to wear Iago’s plumed fez or don Scarpia’s monocle and carry his snuffbox. He abhorred the ‘modern’ and, so far as he was concerned, he had hauled me back from ruin. My style was going to be traditional bel canto: Carlo V, Valentino, Germont père, Sergeant Belcore, Doctor Malatesta. That was what I was suited to.

Giardini dell’Alcazar, de’ mauri regi delizie, oh quanto…Do do do do beaten out like a gong, then a tangle of arabesques and swirls, up and up until the great ‘crowning glory’ of an F sharp which reached beyond the general’s statue before a resolution onto C natural, achieving an irresistible effect. That was how Alfonso XII, the King of Castile, came on stage; that was how my old teacher had won his own battle forty years earlier, when Don Pedro of Brazil had been seen applauding until his hands were raw. But what sadness! I no longer recognised my old voice and I had no way of assessing my new one. I owned a different instrument, and it didn’t interest me. When my half hour was over, various pupils arrived, whom I soon got to know: a bespectacled accountant from Lloyd Sabaudo, a sergeant of the carabinieri (Signor Calastrone), and a lady with a slim waist, short legs and a pagoda of ringleted headpieces on top, the wife of a businessman who didn’t understand her (as she told me immediately). After my lesson, they used to attempt the terzetto from I Lombardi. One day, sitting outside, near a stall selling mullet and calamari, I stood for a long time listening to the racket — ‘Qual voluttà trascorrere…’ — flooding down onto irritated passers-by. Madame Poiret invited me several times to her house. She lived in a crenellated, turreted villa reached by a drawbridge. She was from Caravaggio, in spite of her husband’s French name, and she addressed me as voi twenty years before that unfortunate fashion became obligatory. She made her debut in Cavalleria Rusticana at Pontremoli, then disappeared from circulation. She had nothing but her voice. She told me that the old teacher, who was always reticent with me, thought that I was the only pupil good fortune had granted him in fifteen years of teaching: the only one apart from madame, of course. I thought I was going crazy. Maybe they had all plotted to take me for a ride. I cautiously asked the old teacher, and he dispelled any doubt. I must resign myself to it: neither Madame Poiret (out of the question!), nor the engineer from the city trams, the howling Signor Amonasro, who caused the fishmongers to raise their heads in stupefaction, nor the daughter of the director of the lunatic asylum, the dusky, miniature, generously proportioned, feline princess from Eboli, nor the quavering and prissy Nemorino from Lloyd Sabaudo, nor even (oh dear me!) the unhappy Signor Calastrone, were in his opinion worthy to lace up my boots. The voice, said the old teacher, counted for nothing. What you needed was axillo (as it was termed in the dialect), or, if you will, the fire in the belly, the pepper under the tail. In Gounod’s Faust, when Valentino, the adolescent hero with the mop of pale blonde hair, sings ‘Santa medaglia’, or in the scene with the crucifixes or in the death scene, I’d be able to rival Kaschmann if all went smoothly. I emerged from that conversation embarrassed and ashamed, like a whipped dog. Did I, a weedy little library bookworm, really have a touch of axillo? And if I did, what use would I be if they didn’t give me the starring roles in the lyric repertoire?

With or without pepper, it was the devil who came to set my tail between my legs. One day, returning from a brief trip to the country, they told me that the old teacher had suddenly died. I saw him laid out on his single bed, dressed in black and surrounded by his mane of silver hair. He had become tiny. In his room were his diplomas, medals from the Tsar, wreaths of artificial flowers and framed cuttings from newspapers. His favourite pupils took turns around the room uttering little squeaks (E E E), like mice, to keep their voices going. When the funeral was over I went back to the country, and shortly afterwards I was swallowed up by military service in the Pilotta barracks at Parma. The incanto, though not the canto, was over for me. And I think that the old teacher even took with him, into the life beyond, that musical phantom, that vocal alter ego of his which, almost without my knowledge and certainly to my cost, he had diligently discovered and constructed in me, perhaps in order to revisit his distant youth. When, years later, I took to the keyboard again, I found that the Grand Inquisitor’s cavernous E and portly Osmin’s deep bass D were back in place after all. But what could I do with them now?