Excerpt from Some Trick by Helen DeWitt, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Some Trick

Thirteen Stories

by Helen DeWitt

Some Trick by Helen DeWitt X
Some Trick by Helen DeWitt
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  • First Published:
    May 2018, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2019, 208 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Below is the full text of this short story

The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto

He was a pianist. He was born on the island of Shikoku, where his father had some kind of post in the administration of the prefecture of Tokushima. His mother was from Tokyo. When she married his father she had her piano brought down on the ferry to her new home. He was taught from the age of two by his mother, and from the age of eight by a woman who had studied in Paris with Koslowski until the mid-40s, when she had cut short a promising career to keep house for her widowed father.

Koslowski had said

Of all my pupils the one who showed the finest sensibility in the interpretation of Chopin was Mlle Matsumoto. To praise her technique is to say nothing. The simplicity and ease with which she executed even the most difficult passages, the absence of any kind of affectation or showmanship in pieces where it is too common to see talent on display, while the pianist plays the virtuoso, all this gave one some notion of the style of performance favored by the composer himself. We know for example on the authority of de Bertha that Chopin obtained his effects by methods very different from those of today, relying not on brute force but on gradations achieved through an infinite extension of the piano. This was to have the nuances, the expressive shading of the human voice or of that instrument which comes closest to the voice, the violin. His masters were a Paganini, a Bellini, a Catalani. What was remarkable was Mlle Matsumoto's ability to realize the impossible, to transform a percussive instrument into one which had the fluidity of the voice.

Her retirement has robbed music of a precious ornament but it is impossible to regret it, for it springs from the very thing which made her playing incomparable - I refer to the complete absence of self ...

This was not the opinion of the pupil of Koslowski's who achieved the greatest renown. He did not hesitate to express his views on the Automaton in the most intemperate language.

Morhange said later

All sorts of contemptible things were done during the War and even later, and they did not stop at the door of the Conservatoire. One of these was old Koslowski's retention of Mlle Matsumoto, undoubtedly to curry favor with the Nazis, while at the same time washing his hands of anyone with any sort of Jewish connection -

Elle avait du talent, oui, mais elle jouait d'une façon tout à fait machinale, there was a tiresome perfection about her performance -

Koslowski said later that he had been obliged to cut back on his teaching and that M. Morhange had always shown himself so absolutely indifferent, if not positively hostile, to all suggestions on his own part that he had not supposed it would be a hardship to the young man to be deprived of them.

Morhange said that after the War it was of course even more necessary for him to present his actions under the guise of a simple pedagogical decision, one could naturally not admit that anyone had been excluded on account of the Semitic factor, it was therefore necessary to insist on the lack of talent, on aesthetic defects, which by coincidence happened to be found in Jewish persons.

The virtues of the French style were usually said to be clearness of phrasing, richness of shading, a predominance of the legato element, a strict avoidance of tempo rubato. While it was not true that Morhange had the vices which were the opposite of those virtues, his attack on the keyboard was something very different. The massive shoulders hulked over the keys; fingers like cigars grabbed at chords like bunches of bananas.

Morhange had extraordinarily long arms and a powerful upper body which he had developed further through prolonged exercise on a set of rings and bars at the local gymnasium. He was known to his fellow students as the Gorilla. One of them said later that one of the strangest sights he had ever seen was that of the Gorilla going through his daily gymnastics: he had a strong, though not particularly attractive, voice with a huge range, and as he went through the various contortions of the ring or the bar he would sing phrases from Alkan's Funeral March for a Dead Parrot. Oddest of all, he said, was the way no one else in the room took the slightest notice, for it was apparently by now commonplace. Above his head a figure hurtled through the air -

Excerpted from Some Trick by Helen deWitt. Copyright © 2018 by Helen deWitt. Excerpted by permission of New Directions Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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