When I was twelve my sister won a piano competition at the college she attended, in Maine. She played the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto 3 in C Minor, at a concert in a chapel on a hill. The chapel surrounded by dark pine trees emitted an aura of warmth, as if the building were lit by candlelight. It was like something from a miniature winter village, the kind that come with an old-fashioned train set, except it was alone on top of the hill, and it was real.
Uncles, aunts, cousins came. We sat where we could see my sister’s fingers. The musicians dressed in black. Laughter birdlike in the long nave. Faces red from the cold, the unbundling of scarves and coats. On hearing the tuning of instruments a certain thrill, the promise of things taking shape. In my memory of the inside of the chapel, garlands of holly along the windowsills and vases of flowers beside the piano, but mostly what I remember is the light, which was caramel-colored, and the sense of importance that filled the air.
The first movement begins dramatically. Strings come first, followed by wind instruments, followed by the orchestra at large. The piano announces itself with fierce confidence. Seven minutes in, it trills. Violins soar up and in—I think of the movement of dancers—before the piece softens, slows, and there’s a new, more subtle, conversation. The clarinet becomes seductive; the timpani rumble. Hesitation, foreboding, before the movement picks up power once again.
Notes tumble. My sister’s hands are thick brushstrokes of energy—moving yet somehow poised in my mind. They are part of, then the core of, something larger.
The piano unspools, cascades like water, and the drama is no more. In the swelling and fading of this slower movement I think again of the evening in Maine. Recently, my sister told me two things about that night that took me completely by surprise: 1.) She had only played the first movement of the concerto; and 2.) Another student—a singer—had been featured.
As I remembered it, all three movements of the concerto had been performed, and my sister had been the sole focus of the concert. I had no recollection of the singer. I’d simply erased him.
It sent me back to the memory itself: Were there really garlands in the church that night, or had I been thinking of the holly that lined the sills of the church I sometimes went to as a child, at Christmas? (The church was not dissimilar in size and style.) Had pride for my sister heightened the grandeur of the night? (I am significantly younger than my sister: Everything she did was important.) I felt unsettled and vulnerable: I wanted so badly to remember how it was. What else do I not remember? I wondered, struck with a desire to access all the forgotten scenes of my life, imagining them locked up like Cubist paintings in a gallery in a country whose language I no longer spoke. I thought of Beethoven, who, as he went deaf, must have known something about feeling vulnerable.
The slipperiness of memory, coupled with the power of Beethoven’s concerto, leads me to write about it—however flawed—so that I might try to remember it, and in my remembering, remember more.
A flower blooming over and over again.
The French horn is lovely and blue.
In the third movement, a sense of joyous unity—a gathering, a drama barreling toward its ending—which excites me every time I hear it. Beethoven repeats the sounds and themes of the first movement, calling up an earlier exhilaration but in a way that is new.
In this music, there is a thing I cannot name, which is perhaps why I’ve been listening to it so often: so that I might chase after this wild and nameless thing. I listen to it, if not for comfort, exactly—it contains too much of life for it to be called comforting—then because it stirs in me a sense of hope, which only art can conjure up: I am twelve years old again, inside the chapel, watching my sister’s fingers fly over the piano keys. The musicians are leaning into their instruments, and there is warmth, and music, and light.
Hannah Jansen‘s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry Ireland Review, Southern Humanities Review, and Santa Clara Review, among others. A graduate of the M. Phil. program in Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin, she is at work on her first collection of poems, among other projects. She currently works as a bookseller.