Maestro by Peter Goldsworthy

“I find it hard to understand how much I came to love the man, to depend on him,”  says Paul Crabbe as he comforts his teacher, Eduard Keller, at the end of Maestro. Paul also concludes that he was the “worst possible teacher” as well as the best. This contradiction informs the novel and fuels the dramatic tension between maestro and protégé and reflects their personal development. It is reflected in the pre- and post war settings of Vienna and Darwin as well as in their dreams as Keller comes to terms with his personal demons and Paul pursues his.

Creating a difficult but poignant relationship between the maestro and pupil, enables Goldsworthy to explore the paradox of perfection. It is something worth striving for, but at the same time it can paralyse the seeker. In this case, Keller challenges his budding prodigy to follow his dream of becoming a concert pianist, but he also encourages him to think about the limits of his talent. Paul Crabbe, though, has been conditioned to become a star and is intent on realising his parents’ and his own goals. He keeps searching, perhaps longer than he should.

The narrative structure is complex; the author interweaves the story of the young Paul with the recollections of a mature adult. He is “reliving his memories”, but also commenting on Paul’s responses at the same time. This creates a multi-layer structure for readers and creates a distance between us, as readers, and the experiences of the young Paul. The voice of the older Paul also deepens and enriches our experience of the younger Paul and helps to fuel the ambiguity associated with his dreams.

Who is Keller?

Keller was a brilliant concert pianist in Germany—a “genetic lifeline back to Liszt” — and so becomes the perfect teacher for a supposed child prodigy. Paul is fortunate that “Europe has come” to him.  Keller was also a pupil of Lecherovsky, with links to Beethoven, but the enigmatic and curt teacher begins by forbidding him to play.

Striving for perfection

  • Keller offers Paul a new method of playing piano, which is innovative and unorthodox. His philosophy is that you must be “cruel to be kind”. In this case, Paul must learn to listen well before he begins to play. Keller insists that Paul goes back to basics. He has to forget “everything” he has been taught and learn with such simple fundamental pieces as The Children’s Bach. He tells him, “first you must learn to listen”. He is forbidden especially to play “unsupervised” at home and must learn that the “self satisfied go no further”. The return to the Children’s Bach, makes Paul feels as if he has been “re-enrolled into kindergarten”. Paul is infuriated and offended.
  • Taking Paul into unfamiliar territory, Keller hopes thereby to train Paul to play with greater intuitive feeling so as to discover the “soul” of music. Specifically, Keller believes that each finger has its own unique personality. This should help Paul gain self-control and discipline, especially if he wants to be a musician. The best music is “infinitely complex. Full of nuance. Rich beyond any reduction” (50) He believes Paul must discover these nuances and explore the personalities of each finger in order to discover the heart and soul of music.

Keller’s criticism: theme of forgery

  • Paul plays  Beethoven when Keller comes to dinner. The parents think that it is an excellent rendition. But Keller calls it a “forgery” like a forged painting of Van Gogh that he saw in the museum.  It may have been technically “better than the original” but it was not brilliant and “yet something was missing”. The analogy reflects Keller’s belief that there is a difference between  technical perfection and brilliance or genius. In other words there is a difference between musical competence and genius, which is also the difference between a “great and a good pianist” (113). “Never trust the beautiful” says Keller, because the forgery may be technically flawless,  even better than the original, but it lacks the ingredient of greatness.  In Paul’s case, his playing lacks flair, feeling  and rubato.

Paul has been conditioned to see himself as a child prodigy and the fact that the maestro withholds praise annoys him. He knows Paul is clever, but doubts if he has the makings of a genius. One of the few times he receives praise is after the competition, and Keller tells him “you were the best”, but he refuses to acknowledge Paul as “one in a million” which is what you have to be to become a concert pianist. He is particularly insulted that Keller has earmarked a lower step on the dias for himself and so in an ambiguous way Keller’s reservation also fuels his desire to impress his teacher and strive for perfection.

Life lessons – Keller also becomes a father figure or mentor to the young Paul

As a great teacher, Keller e also instructs Paul about life and encourages him to be a morally decent person. Music becomes a metaphor for life. In life as in music, arrogance can be detrimental. Accordingly, Keller teaches Paul the virtues of restraining one’s excessive pride. He also mentors Paul about the importance of negotiating his life goals and tempering his ambition so as to avoid disappointment and the futility of striving for the unattainable.

Arrogance versus humility

  • In this regard, Keller wants Paul to have the benefit of his own life experience.   In particular, he does not want him to make the same mistakes as he did.   Keller believed that owing to his musical genius he had a special  relationship with the Nazis that would help protect his Jewish wife and son from the gas chambers. He believes that such arrogance contributed to  their deaths. Therefore he warns Paul about excessive arrogance. To strive for musical perfection, Keller believes that Paul must humble himself and  learn to temper his arrogance. He warns him that the “self satisfied go no  further”. Later, the mature Paul looks back on his life as a teenager and  believes that he was “irredeemably smug” and comes to understand what Keller was trying to achieve.

Limitations

  • Although Keller does not discount the need to strive, he also reminds Paul that a person can waste a great deal of time pursuing unrealistic dreams. Keller believes that it is important for Paul to come to an understanding of the limitations of his ability and to learn when he should “let go” of his ambitions.  He prophetically advises  Paul that “to search too long for perfection can also paralyse”.  He teaches Paul the importance of being truthful and helps him to gain the “self-criticism that would never allow” him to forget his limits.

Paul’s pilgrimage to Vienna highlights the value of his relationship with Keller. Paul comes to appreciate the importance of Keller’s lessons.  In front of Henisch, “an audience of one”, he plays the finest rendition he has ever given of Beethoven’s Ariette, Opus 111, and believes that despite the technical and “spiritual difficulty” of the piece he has performed brilliantly. However, Henisch deflates his enthusiasm when he states that he lacked the “rubato” that was typical of Keller’s students. Paul finally understands Keller’s point about the paralyzing effect of the search for perfection. (He prophetically advises Paul that “to search too long for perfection can also paralyse”. ) He comes to realize that it is definitely time to move on. s.

The two Kellers

Paul realizes that there are two different sides to the maestro. In his heyday, he was a romantic specialist and Henisch only knows the maestro that played them brilliantly and with so much feeling. Paul has been brought up on a diet of Bach and the classical composers, perhaps showing Keller’s regime of austerity and punishment. As his wife was a Wagnerian specialist, we can understand his aversion to the romantics after her death.

What does Keller learn?

From early on we suspect that the relationship is reciprocal because there is an element of therapy in the teacher. He imparts his wide bank of knowledge during lessons that can take several hours depending upon what he “wanted to get off his chest” and he only finishes when he is “emptied”.

Keller is very lonely and withdrawn and does not communicate well with others, because of his troubled past and his guilt. Keller cannot forgive himself for his family’s death. In some ways, he sees Paul as a substitute son and tries to help him achieve success in his life.

At first Keller is very dismissive and secretive about his past, but he does come to open up to Paul and this becomes a form of therapy for him. When Paul questions Keller about his photograph on the piano Keller is serious and “proprietorial”.  During a vulnerable moment, he does reveal the names of his wife, Mathilde, and his son Eric.

As a mark of his own humility and compassion, Keller shares his own invaluable lessons with Paul. This means that he has to constantly deal with his own faults but he does this to help Paul. As a mark of his greatness, he tries to deal with his past as honestly as possible and recognizes the consequences of his own pride and arrogance. He believed that no one would “harm the wife of Eduard Keller”.  Keller was so disgusted that he became a Jew and ended up in a camp himself.  Keller has only nine fingers. He refused to play for the SS guards in the camp, because he was so ashamed of having played for Hitler. He preferred to die than to play for the Nazis ever again. “He told me that if he ever felt the desire to play again he would hack off his fingers, one by one.”

Paul joins the band – Rough Stuff

  • Paul’s involvement in the band, Rough Stuff,  provides an important counterpoint to Keller’s unattainable ideals of perfection. The band members become “small-town heroes” and to a certain extent Paul compromises his integrity and ideals. But the band also allows him to break away from Keller’s      shadow as he runs the risk of suffocating. Band membership also provides Paul with a refuge from bullying.
  • Paul admires Bennie Reid’s  courage because Paul does not have the spirit to confront Jimmy. Bennie labels him a “greasy crawler” because he is after all “that sort of person”. Paul’s actions indeed confirm Bennie’s low impression of him; Paul betrays Bennie when he tells Jimmy that Bennie placed the “dogshit” in the caravan.

Importance of place

Vienna is a place of ambivalence and so reflects Keller and his larger than life personality so perfectly.  Vienna stands for cultural perfection and musical genius. Vienna is his place of origin and symbolizes both his musical and historical background. It is steeped in culture and for this reason Keller has the brilliant credentials to be Paul’s teacher. Vienna is also about grandeur and pomp and ceremony.

However, underneath such beauty, lies tragedy.  Vienna has a tragic past. Hitler, the war and destruction loom large in Keller’s life and affect his personality as well as his relationship with Paul.  At the height of his fame, Keller flew to Germany in Adolf Eichmann’s personal plane to give a private performance to Hitler. He thought such fame and recognition would protect him but it led to the destruction of his family.  (136)

Vienna is also a place of mystery; it contains a secret and fuels much of the suspense in the novel. Mysteries surround the identity of Keller who neither confirms nor denies that he is a war criminal. It is not until Paul makes the pilgrimage, the climax of the novel, that he discovers the secret of Keller’s past. Coincidentally, he also discovers the answer to Keller’s critical question — that we need to know when to move on. Ironically, though Keller did not profit from the same advice.

Darwin makes a stark contrast with Vienna because it appears small-town and parochial. It places Paul on a pedestal and enables his parents to believe that he is a child prodigy. Darwin consists of Gilbert and Sullivan nights in church halls and small town institutes. Darwin is a town of “booze and blow at first sight”. It is a “sweet and sour air”. It has a special smell of “hot, steamy perfumes”. “Everything grew larger than life in the steamy hothouse of Darwin, and the people were no exception.” It lacks academic possibilities. After all, the Southern school was 300 miles from the next school and 2,000 miles from the nearest university (24)

Goldsworthy deliberately places Keller in the shabby and seedy motel, the Swan Hotel, to create the stark contrast between Keller’s flamboyant past. Darwin.  It is almost as if Keller seeks to deprive and punish himself for what he believed was his arrogance that led to the deaths of his wife and son. The setting reflects his desire to humble himself and to withdraw from society. (He is forever haunted by his private performances to Hitler which seemed to lead to the deaths of his family in his absence.) It also gives rise to the gossip that makes him larger than life.

 

©  English Works (2014). Please attribute quotes.  Disclaimer: These notes are designed as teaching aids only to be used in conjunction with workshops conducted by English Works.

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