The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Category: World Literature
Author: Xiao-Mei Zhu
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by crdb   2017-08-19
This thread is turning into a set of recommendations related to Bach. So here's mine.

Zhu Xiao Mei is a Chinese pianist who teaches in Paris. She grew up during the Great Leap Forward and spent 5 years in a reeducation camp, never giving up her spirit and illegally importing her parents' "bourgeois" piano at great risk to her and their life, via friends doing her favours, storing and playing it in a freezer. Teachers stored the Western scores that had been banned by Madam Mao in a room on the 3rd floor which they never dared visit again.

Out of the camp, she emigrated to the US at the merest sign of the border opening, having heard Western playing and realised the gulf that stood between her understanding of what great music was and what was actually possible. She did small jobs like cleaning houses to survive until she ended up in Paris where she was noticed and her career could take off. [1]

She discovered Bach's Goldberg Variations almost by accident. The person in whose house she was staying could not stand hearing piano being practiced, except for that piece, so that's what she practiced for hours every day, gradually learning it inside out, and it became her favourite piece. Her performance on an Asia tour shocked a friend by its sensitivity and wisdom and he recommended it to me. Maybe you need something a little different from Gould.

I recommend reading the book before listening to her playing the Variations [2], there is an entire world in that performance and the knowledge makes it more personal.