The Reluctant Pianist

Over the last ninety years, the magnificent Wiener Konzerthaus in Vienna has played host to an improbably eclectic range of performers.  From world renowned orchestras and virtuoso soloists to controversial dance groups and experimental avant-garde mimes, the whole spectrum of the performing arts has graced its stage.  Tonight, however, the spotlight belongs to one of the most controversial musicians of recent years, and it promises to be a most remarkable occasion.

Not that this evening would be deemed all that notable by most casual onlookers.  The weather outside is cold and damp.  A light dusting of snow fell earlier, and most people are hurrying home, their heads down as they fight their way through the hazy sodium-lit streets, anxious to be indoors before the weather takes its inevitable turn for the worse.  But here in the Great Hall the atmosphere is altogether different.  A capacity audience excitedly awaits tonight's performance, chattering and gossiping amongst themselves.  They begin to fall silent as two stagehands wheel a grand piano onto the centre spot, its casters squeaking rhythmically as they shunt it upstage.  Then, having positioned the instrument, they disappear into the wings.   By now the babble of the crowd has fallen into a sea of whispers, and shortly even that gives way to complete silence as all eyes are trained upon the motionless piano.   Then suddenly the first note of Chopin's Concerto No1 in B minor signals the beginning of the programme, and is met with rapturous applause.  Of course, the soloist himself is nowhere to be seen, but then that's only to be expected - he's inside the piano.

Like most people possessed of extraordinary talent, Gregor Petrov is an extraordinary individual.  Born in Poland in 1952, Petrov knew few luxuries during his childhood.  His father worked as a senior riveter in charge of riveting in a riveting factory - a job which he round particularly engrossing.  Petrov's mother collected crumbs in the market square and compressed them together to make loaves, which she then sold to local government officials.  But, humble though they were, they both had high expectations of young Gregor, whom they hoped would one day become rich and successful, and finally get them all out of the shit. Such expectations finally took on a more substantial form one evening in 1960.  Mrs Petrov was busy constructing a wholemeal bap out of bits of straw and grit.  Meanwhile, Petrov Senior was sitting in the parlour thumbing through a copy of Riveting Monthly.  Suddenly he was struck by an idea.  He called the family together and announced that it was his considered opinion that young Gregor should become a great musician, and that the boy should set about this task forthwith.  And so, over the ensuing months, Gregor embarked upon his quest for musical excellence. Of course, the family could not afford anything as extravagant as tuition, or even instruments, but Mr Petrov did have a big stick and he regularly administered beatings until his son began to show signs of talent.  Enough talent, apparently, to earn young Gregor a scholarship to the famous Leipeski Academy of Music in Warsaw.

"She tearfully waved him off, mopping her watery eyes with a slice of wholemeal bran."

The day he left for the Academy is one that is forever etched upon Petrov's memory.  It was the first time he had ever been away from home, and he was charged with a potent mixture of excitement and apprehension.  It was, likewise, a highly emotional occasion for Mrs Petrov, who could not bear to look her son in the eye as he climbed up into the railway carriage.  Petrov Senior was also quite moved, in his own uniquely gruff way, and after a brief hug he gently smacked his son in the mouth and told him not to come back until he was virtuoso.  Petrov remembers leaning out of the carriage and watching them both as the train pulled out of the station - particularly his mother as she tearfully waved him off, mopping her watery eyes with a slice of wholemeal bran.  It would be the last time he ever saw her.

Life at the Leipeski Academy was completely different to anything that Petrov had known before.   It was cleaner, healthier, and people didn't hit him as much.  More importantly, his surroundings were decidedly more cosmopolitan, bringing him into contact with a multitude of influences and ideas.  Certainly, it was a very different crowd from the various rivets and assorted bakery operatives who frequented his parents' house.  Disappointingly, however, young Petrov was slow to adapt to his new environment.  He was shy, unforthcoming and reluctant to make use of the new opportunities that came his way.

He also proved to be something of a problem for his tutors. They had been expecting a new, fresh, raw talent in need of nurture and encouragement, but after an initial assessment of his abilities they found that he was lacking the essential building blocks of technical prowess and unique expression that would single him out as someone destined for greatness.  In other words, they thought he was crap.  Fearing some mistake, they went to the head of the board of governors, who explained to them that the boy had to be a genius, because his father had said so, and the strength of his language had left him in no doubt.  Furthermore, Petrov Senior had in his possession a big stick, and, as such, they might consider it prudent not to upset him.

And so Petrov's tutors had no option but to persevere with his musical education.   It was not an easy task.  They introduced him to a number of different instruments, but he seemed unable to grasp even the basic principles.  They gave him a drum, but he just put his foot through it.  Next they tried him with a clarinet, but he got it wedged up his nose.  When they handed him an oboe he got it wedged up someone else's nose. And when they tried him with a trombone, he somehow managed to straighten the thing out - which, if nothing else, at least indicated that he might have a gift for plumbing.  Finally, in desperation, they tried to teach him to play the bagpipes, but when he was first introduced to the instrument, he shrieked in terror and ran screaming from the room.  They eventually found him locked in a stationery cupboard, crying and muttering something about the pipes trying to 'eat his head'.

"The spongy feeling of its sack beneath his arm"

Nevertheless, they decided that Petrov would just have to overcome his fear and learn to play the bagpipes.  Step by step they tried to coax him to befriend the 'tartan octopus'.  At first he could barely stand to be in the same room as the thing, but gradually he became acclimatised to the strange instrument.  He was forced to endure its raucous, wailing cries, and the spongy feeling of its sack beneath his arm - and although Petrov grew to be slightly more comfortable with the instrument, it was rare that he could ever play it for more than two minutes at a time without soiling himself.

There was nothing more that could be done for him.  Petrov's tutors had applied themselves to the task as best they could, but it was clear that he would never be a musician.  Not even a bad one.  So they implored the governors to contact Petrov's father and express their grave doubts about the musical abilities of his son.   But when Petrov Senior wrote back to express his grave doubts about the continued integrity of their knackers, it became clear that they were stuck with him.

It also became clear that they would have to put him out of harm's reach.  Young Petrov was a source of constant disruption for the other students, and so it was decided to lock him away in the Academy's unused west wing.  Day and night, Gregor would wander the corridors alone like a living ghost, accompanied only by the strange, unnatural yelps and wails from his bagpipes.  Seasons passed, pupils came and went, and macabre stories and gruesome tales sprang up around this 'horrible spectre' amongst those who had never even seen him.  Sometimes new boys would dare each other to break into the west wing, and it was said that those few who had ever taken up the challenge returned ashen and shaking, and unable to talk about what they had seen - or worse, had never returned at all!

Gregor Petrov might have spent the rest of his days there, had it not been for the intervention of one man.  In 1968, Professor Samuel Winkel joined the academy as Head of Trumpets.  One day it was his turn to take Petrov's supper into the west wing. As was the custom, he left the tray at the 'feeding place' in the main corridor, then banged the big brass gong beside the doorway.  At this point, most of the tutors would hasten to depart, eager to get away before Petrov arrived to gorge himself.  But something made Professor Winkel pause, and as the noise of the gong gently died away, he fancied he heard a strange sound.  He was accustomed, of course, to hearing the distant, tortured skirl of the pipes echoing through the empty rooms and passageways, but the sound he detected now was very different.  It was the sound of a piano being played, and quite competently too.  Intrigued, the Professor tracked the sound back to a small music room adjoining one of the outlying corridors.  There was, or so it seemed, no one present - just a piano in the middle of the room, from which the wonderful music was emanating.  To all intents and purposes, the piano appeared to be playing itself.

Professor Winkel's blood ran cold.  Had he chanced upon something ungodly and supernatural?  Old buildings like this always attracted tales of spooks and spirits.  Was that the explanation?  Was he listening to the mournful playing of the restless shade of a former student, forever doomed to walk these corridors in torment?

But no - the Professor was a rational man.  Surely there was a more reasonable interpretation?  Cautiously, he approached the piano. The music swelled.   He could clearly see the keys moving, as if they were being played by ghostly fingers.  But it was a trick - it must surely be a trick.  There was some mechanism inside the instrument, he supposed - some contrivance at the root of this phenomenon.  He drew closer and closer, stilled his breath to a whisper, and carefully, cautiously he peered beneath the lid.  And that was when he saw Gregor Petrov.

"The most extreme form of stage fright that Professor Winkel had ever witnessed"

This discovery was to be the turning point for Petrov.  The lad had spent years trying and failing to master all manner of instruments, and had never once displayed even the merest hint of aptitude.  And yet there inside the piano, hidden away from prying eyes, he had finally been able to demonstrate his true potential.  What had held him back had been the most extreme form of stage fright that Professor Winkel had ever witnessed - so bad that Petrov could only ever perform whilst concealed within the piano itself.   Nevertheless, the boy undoubtedly had talent, a talent which could no longer be kept from the rest of the world.

Professor Winkel immediately took charge of Petrov's musical education, and made it his responsibility to hone and polish the boy's technique.  Using a complicated system of mirrors and communication tubes, the Professor was able to personally coach his young charge, and very soon he considered that Petrov was ready to be presented to the public.  The Professor's judgement turned out to be sound.  Petrov's unusual method of playing ensured that he got plenty of attention, and his exquisite musicianship made him an instant hit with the critics.  Very soon he was packing out concert halls all across Europe.  It was a whirlwind rise to fame, and the demands made on Petrov were great.  Others may have been fazed by the sudden change of pace, but Petrov was only ever concerned with the music, and as such he avoided the pitfalls associated with celebrity.

It was the most industrious period of Gregor Petrov's life, and it was also the happiest. But all that was to come to an abrupt end one night in Hamburg, when, just before he was due to go on stage, Petrov received a telegram from his father informing him that his mother had died of a broken arse. Petrov was devastated.  He had been looking forward to the end of his tour, and his return home to the tearful embrace his dear old mother, so proud of her successful, concert pianist son.  But that dream had been dashed.  His mother was gone, and all that waited for him at home now was his father, a moderately interesting collection of historically significant rivets, and a big stick.

He couldn't go on.  He cancelled the performance, then climbed inside his piano and refused to come out until daybreak.

It was this event that marked the beginning of Petrov's reclusive period.  He gradually began to spend more and more time inside his piano, until it got to the point that friends and associates hardly ever saw him.  He lived slept and worked inside the instrument, using his earnings to equip it with a bathroom, bedroom and a small front parlour, where, on special occasions, he would entertain guests.  Whilst his popularity with the public never waned, criticism of his strange new lifestyle only increased his sense of alienation, and soon Petrov withdrew from any kind of social interaction completely, content to let his music be his sole point of contact with the outside world.

"Sucking rather than blowing."

Until, that is, he met Greta.  He was introduced to her whilst she was performing with the Lusitania State Orchestra, and from the outset it was obvious that they had a great deal in common. She also suffered from stage fright, which was why she spent much of her time with her head jammed up the bell of her tuba, having ingeniously figured out a way of playing the instrument by sucking rather than blowing.  The two of them hit it off straight away, and married later that year.  Three children followed - the first had his elbow wedged in a mandolin, the second had a tambourine nailed to his head, and the youngest turned out to be half-boy, half-accordion.

Petrov got the builders in and had his piano completely refurbished.  He had an extension added to accommodate a nursery and two more bedrooms, and even invested in an ornamental lawn. And although he still rarely ever ventured from the piano's secure environs, he did begin to receive callers once more.  At last it seemed that Petrov had found contentment.  Then one night, as he was enjoying a game of Twister with the family, there was a knock on the lid.  Petrov answered it and found himself face to face with his father.

Petrov had had little to do with his father in recent years.  He had written occasionally, but since the death of his mother they had hardly communicated.  In fact, that night was the first time they had met since the funeral.  No one knows exactly what went on, but there was certainly no love lost between them.  Some say that Petrov never forgave his father for the beatings he had received as a child; others, that he was still haunted by the snarl of the bagpipes, and blamed Petrov Senior for his torment.  Whatever the reason, voices were raised that evening.  Witnesses report seeing Petrov Senior storm off into the night, whilst his son retreated into the bowels of his piano and began a drinking binge that took him through to the following evening, when he was due to give a concert.  It was a performance that would become infamous.

The fact that the concert began half an hour later than scheduled was the first indication that all was not well.  But the audience knew for certain that there was something seriously wrong just two minutes into the programme, when a series of bum notes was followed by a tirade of slurred curses.   There ensued several minutes of loud crashes and bangs as Petrov began to systematically trash the inside of his piano, and it was then that tragedy struck.  Petrov hacked through a supporting strut, the lid came crashing down, the audience heard an agonising scream from within, then all was silent.

It took a fire crew four hours to rescue the great musician from the wreckage of the instrument. He was taken to hospital with broken elbows and severe lacerations to the chin. On regaining consciousness he flew into a panic and would not settle until he was moved into a private room that had been made up to look like the inside of a piano. When he had finally calmed down, doctors broke the news to him that he had fractured thirty-two bones in his left hand - that's six more than he actually had - and would probably never play the piano again.  If this wasn't bad news enough, he then received a visit from his wife, he told him that she was appalled by his behaviour, and the she was taking the children away and would be suing for divorce immediately.   This was followed by a message from the police, informing him that his father had been so distraught at their last meeting that he had gone out, bought a gun and shot himself in the spleen.  To cap it all, he learnt that he had just got eight score draws on his pools coupon, but he had forgotten to post it.

"Prosthetic rubber hands and a serious addiction to paraffin."

Such a massive tide of misfortune would have crushed most men - and indeed, it crushed Petrov. He was released from hospital with prosthetic rubber hands and a serious addiction to paraffin.  With nowhere to go, and with no one willing to give him a second chance, he took to wandering the streets dressed as a xylophone, playing popular TV signature tunes in return for small change and scraps of food.  No one remembered Gregor Petrov; no one gave him a second glance.

No one, that is, until he met Father Eustace Mole.  Father Mole, a keen connoisseur of classical music, had been at one of the very first concerts that Petrov had given, and when he saw him staggering down the street, tapping out the theme to The Man From UNCLE on his xylophone overcoat, he recognised him instantly.  Father Mole offered him lodgings inside the organ at his downtown church, in return for accompanying the choir during Sunday services.  More importantly, Eustace Mole made it his business to restore Gregor Petrov to his former glory.

It isn't easy to get back onto the straight and narrow, especially when you think that life has dealt you a poor hand.  But Father Mole's faith and commitment had a profound effect on Petrov.  Besides which, he was performing again - even if it was just for the small handful of people that made up the congregation - and he found this to be an excellent therapy.  Petrov sobered up and learnt to overcome his disability by playing with his feet.  Before very long, the shadow of his former tragedy were behind him.  And when word of his return to form spread, and Father Mole's services began to attract larger and larger audiences, it became clear to all concerned that the time was ripe for a return to the international stage.

And that return happens here, tonight, in Vienna.  It is an event that has been anticipated for a long time, and the audience is buzzing.   Oblivious to the swirling blizzard outside, they are transported by every note that sweeps over them and soars up to echo in the vaulted spaces above.  They listen, enraptured, to this magnificent comeback, and when the final encore fades, they are up on their feet, whooping and hollering and cheering for more.  Meanwhile, on stage, a pair of tearful eyes peers out from beneath the piano lid, and a brief wave of a handkerchief acknowledges their applause.  Was tonight a triumph for Gregor Petrov?   It certainly was.  Was it a memorable occasion for his many devoted fans?   Without a doubt.  Was it a peerless performance by a musical master?   Well, no, not really.  But - to be fair - the guy's a reformed alcoholic with rubber hands, who plays the piano from the inside, with his feet.  What do you expect?

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