The Maenad as Mother of a Musician

The mothers of certain pianists come from the Maenads who in their frenzy tore to pieces with their bare hands Orpheus, the greatest musician in Greek myth, and cast his head (still singing and whispering Eurydice’s name) and his instrument, the lyre, into the Thracian river Hebrus. Van Cliburn, André Watts, Dimitri Sgouros, and Ivo Pogorelić (who married his 20-year older piano teacher, a supreme mother figure), not to mention nearly all the eight Wittgenstein children (who could communicate with their mother only by playing one of the seven grand pianos of their Viennese Palais), are among the names that come immediately to mind. We discuss them often with my “other self,” Pantelis Polychronidis, himself a pianist.

The structure of the relationships of pianists with their controlling and oppressive mothers forms the basis of a common anti-Künstlerroman. Here are some of its basic elements:

– The mother of the pianist is domineering and manipulative.

– She must know at every moment where her pianist is, with whom, and why.

– The husband exited family communication long ago and lives in a literal or metaphorical asylum that takes care of his health till he dies, while the pianist has replaced him, becoming the only object of the mother’s desire.

– Communication between mother and pianist is a daily shouting match.

– Emotionally repressed and intellectually marginalized, the pianist cannot have any friends who are equals and possible collaborators.

– The mother has had dreams of artistic excellence only because she sees classical music as a means of achieving bourgeois distinction and separating her and her son from the low class people around them.

– The pianist can only become a piano teacher, cannot have a career as a performer, and will never be free to chart an individual and creative course as a musician and intellectual.

– Already late 30s, the pianist teaches at the Vienna Conservatory.

– The pianist is a thoughtful musician, deeply interested in the performance history and philosophy of music, but that is not something that would ever earn the mother’s respect.

– The mother will not allow the pianist to have any love life outside the house.

– Sexually deprived, the pianist develops addictions to pornography, voyeurism, and fetishism.

– Mother and pianist develop a sadomasochistic relationship that the pianist demands to duplicate in any other relation, even with students.

– The pianist tries to break free from the mother and cease being a substitute for the absent father but can only turn to the mother’s erotic fantasies.

– The pianist is reduced to desiring other “mothers” (in motherly figures of all genders and ages, and dominant personalities) and never seeking true friends.

– The pianist ends up a piano teacher who is professionally, psychologically and physically self-mutilated.

I am grateful to Ali Bolcakan, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, who brought to my attention Michael Haneke’s French-Austrian movie La Pianiste (2001), based on Elfriede Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher (1983).

March 3, 2015

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