The other morning, while driving to work, I twirled the radio dial over to WMHT just as the announcer was cueing up the honeyed opening allegretto to César Franck’s A major sonata for violin and piano. I yelped quietly with thrilled anticipation. Yes. Yes. I turned up the volume. Gripped the steering wheel a little harder. Leaned toward the speaker. And there they came, those first, quietly inquisitive chords on the piano. That lovely, lilting answer on the violin. The dialogue that followed between the two instruments and their players (Jeremy Denk, Joshua Bell) was performed with an exquisite and subtle joy that made me weep.
The Franck Sonata is one of those pieces that always prod my tear ducts into action. The last movement of the Sibelius Fifth is another. The Ode to Joy. The Moldau. A bunch more. But the Franck is special for me, because I first heard it one winter sometime in the mid-to-late 1970s, when my brilliant violinist-mom and just-as-brilliant pianist-sister started prepping for a recital together in the summer to follow.
It took place one breezy summer day in a barn-like hall in Litchfield County, Conn. They split the program between solo works — Beethoven for Lucy, Bach for Mama — and a duet. The Franck. It was the one piece that Lucy hadn’t memorized, so I had been recruited to turn pages. This was the only time I ever appeared on stage in any capacity with either of them, and the experience was transporting. I was terrified of screwing up. How could I not be?
And I did screw up, just once, early on: I was late on a turn, and Lucy had to reach up and whip the page herself in a blur of sudden motion. But my blunder didn’t stop them. They kept playing as though music were the only thing that mattered, lighting that allegretto and the movements that followed with a fierceness and a delicacy that carved out beauty from the air. And as those lush and liquid motifs spilled around us, the music overcame not just my fear but my ego, too, arousing within me a sense of art as something larger, more layered with meaning, more perfect than its most imperfect parts.
That performance of the Franck was the most beautiful work of art I’ve ever played a role in, no matter my feeble contributions. It still is. Nothing I’ve written comes anywhere close to it. It was the moment when I first spied the divine and felt myself a part of it, no matter my human fears and shortcomings. This is the gift of all great art.
So of course I never forgot that afternoon on stage with my mother and sister, two of the most profound musicians I’ve ever known and heard. And of course I’ve often pictured them together in Some Otherworldly Place on Some Otherworldly Plane drinking Otherworldly Tea, shooting it through their Otherworldly Noses as they cracked each other up with Otherworldly Awful Puns. Maybe, sometimes, they join in on Otherworldly Music with Otherworldly Instruments.
But until Monday morning, tooling along in tears as Denk and Bell became Lucy and Mama through the magic of radio, I had not imagined them playing the Franck in heaven. I think they must be. I think they have been all along. I think they were that day onstage in that distant Connecticut summer, when I screwed up, and they kept playing, and art transformed us all.