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A close read: “Mozart’s Final Hour”, a poem from the New Yorker.(Feb 26, 2018 issue)

My father is playing the B-Flat Sonata
Hidden under the rented baby grand
I press one pedal or another,
“damper,” “sustain”—

My father is playing the B-Flat Sonata,” begins this poem, Mozart’s Final Hour” by D.Nurkse, in a recent issue of the New Yorker. In this short, but redemptive poem about a child and his father, the narrator—ostensibly, the poet himself— takes on the great themes of filial love and mortality in the fraught, but primal bond between father and son. Without wasting any time, the scene is set. The child seated, “hidden under the rented baby grand” is not merely innocent, and trusting, but filled with awe of his father, the pianist. Why else does he hide? In the act of hiding, with its echoes of wonder and shyness, perhaps even fear, and in the father’s blindness to the child’s position under the piano, literally at his feet, the poet captures an age-old trope of the relationship between boys and their fathers: the child’s yearning to be seen and recognized, and the parent falling short. The awe-filled child, rendered so real, by the grown son, who looks back at that awe, and at that parent, with sadness.

The opening movement of Mozart’s B-Flat Sonata has a quietness and yearning to it; even when it launches into a glittering piece of virtuosity, a liminal melancholy hovers over it like a cloud. The poem reflects this floating, lingering quality. The child attempts to help his father realize the piece by pressing the pedals that extend the sounds, or muffle them, but in doing so, the emotive register of the music changes. The music becomes inaccessible — the father is unable to evoke the musical magic of Mozart’s work; it is as if the music is no more able to speak to him. He cannot capture its magic in his playing even though this is all he wants to do.

Mozart grows pompous, prissy,
or strangely tongue-tied.

Is the joke on Mozart, or on the father, trying to play the piece to his best ability? Note that the poet calls Mozart pompous and tongue-tied, as if the entire interaction between father and child whittles to a stale, unemotional performance. Rather than directly criticize the father, the poet addresses the quality of his playing. This is the child’s reading of his father, and his accusation: even the beauty of Mozart turns into something cold and distant in his father’s hands. If Mozart’s sonata is representative of beauty, including the beauty of love between father and child, then the pianist has failed in his rendition of both music and love.

There is also the sense of how the child manages to distort his father’s earnest efforts. The child is well-meaning, just as the father is dedicated. Yet the music they produce together —the child at the pedals, the father at the keys—falls short, too.

You can watch the shadows come—
the elm in the French window
impenetrable as a score.
Rain is a diminished chord.

The weather changes, day moves into night, as if mimicking the difficulty and unpredictability of the father’s efforts. It is no surprise that the shadows of evening, the inner darknesses of boy and man, appear in the windows. Even the elegant elm is an obstacle. It begins to rain. Nothing provides inspiration. 

I press those huge slippers
that smell of fart and wax,
gently, and my father
adjusts his timing delicately.

Now the child inches closer, ensconced in the dark womb created by his father’s presence and his piano-playing, so close and so real that the rest of the world, the intruding elm, the rain, all cease to exist. With tentative hands, he presses his father’s slippers. Larger than life as his father might seem, his slippers quickly remove any pretense of this. They smell of “fart and wax”, and yet, the child touches them. He does not touch his father though. It is enough just to touch the old, smelly slippers. The little concert continues at the piano, and momentarily, something of beauty is born.

Its late.

Perhaps it is, too late.

Mozart bloated with sepsis says:
Fetch me my quill. I have an idea
that will make me famous.

The pathos of the dying artist, wanting to create — even when there is no hope left. Bloated Mozart, whose intricate genius the father tries to grasp in his playing, died prematurely, his work on earth incomplete. The poet’s repeated references to Mozart as arrogant, as remote, and finally as a sick man on his deathbed, are at odds with how we are used to thinking about a man of incredible genius and fame. There is a shift in language, from the lyrical (rain is a diminished chord) to the brazen (fart and wax) and a shift in subject. A dying Mozart reappears.  And in this dying, we see the failure of the promise of fatherhood. The child is the audience, the father the performer who cannot impress—don’t talk about ideas and quills, says the poet.

Now the room is entirely dark.
My father is playing by heart.
That stupid grief—he memorized it.

This is where the poem comes to a head. All its force collects in this one line: “That stupid grief—he memorized it.”  The narrator, disgusted and disappointed, finally breaks out of the trance of childhood and identifies his father’s mistake. His voice is conversational and furious—he abandons formal language and bursts out. The father could not forget his sorrow. It made its way into the Mozart piece, and it made its way to the little boy, who sat beneath the piano, looking up, to his father, for reassurance, but was denied it. The paternal figurehead is incriminated.

Our love is like nightfall
or a trill: you can see through it
but not it.

These simple lines appear at the end of the poem, full of grace and wisdom. The son, despite his deep disappointment with his father, recognizes that there is love, no doubt. He knows his father loves him, but the affection is inexpressible. Like nightfall or a musical trill, the son senses its existence, but does not have the luxury of experiencing it. This is not enough, and this is the poet’s sorrow. The observation is a commentary on poetics too. How does one express the inexpressible? Their interaction on a rented piano, however tender the image, in the end, just did not cut it, did not make the mark. 

Delicate lyricism is offset by a fierce thesis.

Then time shall be no more.

This line, which comprises the entire second section of the poem, is a double allusion. James Joyce was paraphrasing the Bible in “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,” when he wrote, “Time is, time was, time shall be no more”. The meaning is that we are out of time, that time has run out. The narrator is in the present, when time is no more, and there is opportunity only for recollection and synthesis, in poetry. One day soon (if not already), the poet says, his father will be no more. And then, so shall time—his chance for change, for making amends to his son—all of these, will be no more.

I don’t think its a coincidence that the shape of the poem on the page is lean, like a column or a narrow pillar, and its language so simple. Neither its form nor its content convey abundance or excess of emotion. Though the themes of art are universal, we look to art –to stories and novels and poetry and movies– to bring those themes home, to situate ourselves in these investigations into life’s emotional truths, because art is the apotheosis of individual, human experience.  Art does not rationalize. Pure art possesses and projects pure emotion, and when we hear  from the son in this poem, who remembers sitting at his father’s feet as a boy, at the piano, listening to the longing in Mozart’s music, while filled with a longing of his own, we understand fathers and sons everywhere.  In Mozart’s greatness and in his death, we see the figure of the father.  Yet both are only human, and both are tragic, their creations fragile, left to fend for themselves. Mozart’s sonata does not live and breathe in the pianist’s hand in the way he wishes it to. It is the same with the child he created. Like shadows, they touch without meeting, they inhabit the same spaces, but without speaking and celebrating their bond.  In the end, they are tied to each other by the the very gulf of sadness that divides them.

Mary Ann Koruth


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