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Music Lessons

Su Wu 蘇五 and Julie Lee Wei/DD 滴滴

Apr 21-22, 2010

Foreman or Foorman?

DD to SW | Wed, Apr 21, 2010

You have created a wonderful poem in cockney. I chuckled quite a bit.

Was it Foreman or Foorman? and I think apropos not apropo. Mrs. F and her husband were Jews from Prague. Mr. F would give piano recitals, but I remember that he didn't play well, and my piano teacher at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, Madame St. Anna, said she felt sorry for them. Mme. St. Anna was about 40, from Annam (Vietnam), and received her training at the Paris Conservatory of Music. She could play any tune she heard by ear, with accompanying chords. When Empress Bao Dai, the wife of the (former?) emperor of Annam, Bao Dai, passed through Singapore on her way to Annam from Paris or Switzerland, she would drop by the convent to visit Mme St. Anna, her first cousin.

Madame St. Anna had perfect pitch

I remember that Mme. St. Anna had perfect pitch. She would play on the organ in our chapel for mass. Whenever the priest chanted "Dominus vobiscum"; (God be with you) at High Mass, she would right away play in chords the response "Et cum spirito tuo"; (and with your spirit) at the precise correct pitch. Each priest who said mass had a different pitch, but Mme. St. Anna alway hit the right pitch (the right notes and chords) immediately. This too with the priest's other chants during mass, such as the "Credo in unum" (believe in one) or the "Kyrie eleison" (Lord, have mercy). I learned a lot about music from Mme. St. Anna's comments on music and on the piano-playing of various top students, hers and those of other teachers, who played the piano at our school. I once remarked that her students the Bacsafra sisters, from the Phillippines, were immensely musical, they played advanced pieces easily and fluently. She shook her head: "But they always add just a ti-i-i-ny bit of syncopation to classical music. They can't help it. It's very hard to correct." She thought it was the influence of the popular music that was always being played in the Phillippines.

Thank you again for the lovely and humorous poem SW.

It's Foorman, Fuhrmann from Vienna, not Foreman

SW to DD | Wed, Apr 21, 2010

Thanks for your email, glad you had a chuckle. Thanks very much for your lovely reminiscence of a very interesting Madam St. Anna, whom I never met.

I misspelled "apropo", it should have an "s". Thanks for being so vigilant and thorough, as usual.

It wasn't Foreman, Foorman, where "oo" rhymes with "you", was originally Fuhrmann, a typical German name which was "Anglicized" after they came to S'pore. She told me how to pronounce it once, and was happy that I was the only one to remembered how to address her correctly, since all the others called her Mrs. "Foreman". Below: left, a signed photo; right, an invitation to her birthday party (which she misspelled "partie"). I have another invitation to a party for a group of younger students (she called them "student's afternoon"). She used have me sit right next to her and tell stories during such parties, e.g., how she survived the concentration camp, lived in a DP (displaced person) camp right after the war, and how she came to S'pore. The emphasis was always on her piano playing that got her through some incredibly tough situations. This was shortly after the war, and the ordeal must have still been very fresh in her mind; in retrospect, telling it often must have been therapy.

Vot are you playink? You did not practiss!

Mrs. & Mr. Fuhrmann were not from Prague, they were from Vienna. She told us that she survived the concentration camp because the camp Kommandant not only had Viennese relatives, but also absolutely loved Beethoven, so she was asked to play in the evening after dinner for the officers. She saved Otto by suggesting to the Kommandant that if her husband could join her, they would have a complete repertoire of Beethoven's piano & violin pieces to perform. When they played well, they were offered brandy. ("Imagine that, brandy in a Kamp!"). When the story came to the punch-line, Mrs. Foorman looked at me in the eye and said: "so you see, Peter, music iss very important, it safed my life und Otto's life. Und it may safe yours as vell." The last part, I suppose, was meant as a threat, for if I played poorly during lessons, she would rap my knuckles very hard with a thick wooden pencil (which was very painful!) and scream in my left ear at the same time ("vot are you playink?", "you did not practiss!", etc). At first, I showed Mom my bruised knuckles and complained about the ringing in my left ear; to my surprise, Mom sided with Mrs. Foorman on the disciplinary action. Pretty soon I got used to her knuckle rap and the screaming tantrums, and began to develop an affection for her. I think I learned more Austrian-German accent than piano.

When Empress Bao Dai was still empress

DD to SW | Thu, Apr 22, 2010

What a priceless reminiscence of Mr. and Mrs. Foorman you have sent us!!

I only surmised that she was a refugee from the Nazis, but knew nothing about her and Otto. I do remember him playing at our recitals and the notes were not well articulated, that is, he didn't have good technique; nor was his playing nuanced. Even I could hear that. Yes, Mme St. Anna looked down on them, I think both because they didn't play well, and because they didn't dress or look like upper-class people, and she was a Annamese princess. My own feeling then was that they were not professional pianists in Prague (Vienna, as it turns out) but was now passing off in Singapore as professional-level musicians. A lot of people in Europe could play the piano very well but didn't have professional credentials. I remember I thought Mr. and Mrs. Foorman, both of whom were what we'd call today overweight, looked slovenly and coarse. I was eleven. I was used to Mum and Dad's elegant, polished, look and exquisite manners. Now that I have read SW's account of Mr. and Mrs. Foorman, I am ashamed of my snobbery and shallowness.

Spicy, upbeat, and lively Slavonic and Hungarian music

SW to DD | Thu, April 22, 2010

No need to apologize for anything. Your impression of Otto's playing was probably correct. I heard Otto playing together with Mrs. Foorman during parties. They played "Humoresque" together, as well as many other pleasant short pieces, I can't recall the names; it was so beautiful that it blew my young mind. Later in Taiwan, after I became a bit more familiar with the violin and heard recordings of Heifetz, Stern, Menuhin etc., I reminisced on Otto's playing and found out that he liked to perform Dvorak pieces (Slavonic Dances, etc), Brahms and Liszt pieces (Hungarian Rhapsodies). I liked them a lot. Perhaps Madam St. Anna heard these performed, they might have been a bit "schmaltzy" for her; it is matter of taste. To this day, I still like the Slavonic or Hungarian music of Dvorak, Liszt and Brahms; it's spicy, upbeat, energetic and lively, and full of surprises. Maybe playing that genre of music was therapy to Otto. This was 1946-47; barely two years after the war and the concentration camp memories.

Here are some additional, clearer photos of those days:

Knuckle-raps and screaming

Mrs. Foorman was very fair, whereas Otto had a darker, olive complexion, like a southern Italian. They were quite sociable and friendly. He was quiet, never heard him say a whole sentence, she was gregarious. During social gatherings, Mrs. Foorman always sat me right next to her. I presume she took a liking to me because I pronounced her name properly, which she mentioned more than once to other pupils in my presence. I notice from the photos that she always held a cigarette in her right hand.

Fortunately, she didn't smoke during lessons. Knuckle-raps and screaming were all that I could handle.

© Julie Lee Wei 2010 | © Su Wu 2010 |