Stephen Downes: The Handsof Pianists

by Jennifer Bryce

I have just finished reading Stephen Downes’ The Hands of Pianists. I do think that a big black Steinway on a concert platform looking out onto a sea of mainly unknown faces indeed poses a terrifying challenge for the pianist. The question that intrigues me, however, is whether this situation is more terrifying for concert pianists because they can rarely play on their own instruments — sometimes it would be a case of only a couple of rehearsals to get to know the quirks of the particular piano on which they must perform. Whereas a virtuoso violinist, oboist, trombonist, etc will face the audience holding their own familiar instrument.

But Stephen Downes has written a novel and his protagonist is grappling with overwhelming guilt of having, in an accident, severed the fingers of his sister, who was a talented pianist. And she was ultimately driven to suicide. At times, maybe to try to assuage his guilt, the protagonist seems to suggest that his sister was relieved to escape from her obligation of confronting the concert grand.

William Kappel

It would be interesting to be able to show that world class pianists had committed suicide when the pressure to produce perfection became too much. But Downes doesn’t manage to do this. He starts by referring to the death of Dinu Lipatti, in 1950, from Hodgkin’s Disease. So sad that he was in his early thirties with a huge career ahead of him — but Lipatti’s death doesn’t seem to contribute much to Downes’ suicide theory. William Kappel died tragically in 1953 at the age of thirty-one when his plane from Australia to Los Angeles smashed into the side of a Californian mountain. Downes weakly implies that Kappel may have willed this disaster to happen. Why? What a pianist! I first heard of him in the early 1970s when I was starting out as a teacher. The head of the music department (who was a pianist) had a recording of Kappel playing the Khachaturian concerto. I was transfixed! I remember playing that record over and over again, marvelling at the brilliant rhythmic energy.

Noël Mewton-Wood

One young pianist who did die by suicide was the Australian, Noël Mewton-Wood. I recommend Sonia Orchard’s book about him, The Virtuoso. Orchard’s book describes the strain of high level concert performance, and at the time Mewton-Wood, in London, lived under the additional strain of having to publically suppress his homosexuality, as it was still illegal at the time. Orchard’s book suggests that Mewton-Wood killed himself, desolated by the fact that he had gone out the night his partner, Bill, had appendicitis. Bill’s appendix burst, and he died in hospital some time later. Such a terrible waste. We can never know whether the pressures of virtuosic performance played any part in Mewton-Wood’s suicide, but it seems most unlikely that it was the main provocation.

So I would say that Stephen Downes has an intriguing theory, but he doesn’t manage to support it. And no female concert pianists are mentioned: if it’s the case that no famous female pianists died young and none by suicide, this might be worth mentioning — particularly since the protagonist’s sibling is female. Also, there are a lot of diversions that I found irritating: detailed descriptions of places that don’t really add much to the narrative.

The Hands of Pianists was, for me, an interesting read. It takes us to places (such as piano workshops) where we don’t often have a chance to go. Maybe this is how it came to be nominated for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. But I do have some reservations in recommending it.