Years ago I imagined a story about a patient in a mental hospital who sits down at the piano in the patient lounge and flawlessly plays a difficult piece of classical music. Although this usually requires years of instruction and practice, the patient’s psychiatrist discovers that he has no musical training or experience. So the question I started with is: Where did this music come from? Where does any music come from? Does music come to you as a kind of inspired madness, or does it come from outside the human mind?
Then I saw the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger film, The Tales of Hoffmann, which was made in 1951. Powell and Pressburger were British directors who also made The Red Shoes and The Thief of Baghdad. If you haven’t seen their movie of The Tales of Hoffmann, it’s definitely worth renting. The DVD contains a fascinating commentary by Martin Scorsese, who was strongly influenced by the cinematography. My interest in the film and the opera led to a study of E.T.A. Hoffmann, a 19-century German writer known in the English-speaking world almost entirely through derivative works (Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, Tchaikowsky’s The Nutcracker, Robert Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” Delibes’s Coppélia, Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny”) and the stream of influence that traces back to him (Schumann, Poe, Baudelaire, Dumas, Offenbach, Doestoevsky). Unconsciously standing knee-deep in that stream of influence, I recalled my fantasy (Hoffmannesque, without my knowing it) of a patient in a mental hospital flawlessly playing a difficult piece of piano music without the benefit of any musical training or experience. The book took off from there.
I don’t usually do a lot of research for my writing, but in this case I did. I researched the opera The Tales of Hoffmann and its scholarly history, the life of its composer Jacques Offenbach, the literary source material including works of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Alexandre Dumas, and a number of other topics including psychiatry and past life regression. My research even included a visit to the E.T.A. Hoffmann house and museum in Bamberg, Germany. This research uncovered many uncanny resemblances and coincidences that reinforced the story I wanted to tell and made it seem almost inevitable. Having set my story in a mental hospital, I soon discovered that Freud had written an influential essay about Hoffmann’s tale, “The Sandman,” which is one of the main sources of the opera; that Hoffmann wrote a novel, The Devil’s Elixirs, anticipating various themes and incidents I had already written into my book; and that the most recent filmed version of The Tales of Hoffmann portrayed Hoffmann and the other characters as inmates in an old-fashioned lunatic asylum. About half way through the writing I hit the wall. I feared that I had created such a complicated maze that I’d never extricate myself from it. I’ll leave it to the readers’ judgment whether I succeeded, or whether I’ll have to spend the rest of my life in the insane fantasy world I imagined!
Late last summer, after less than two months at the Palmer Institute, I witnessed an extraordinary performance. One of my patients, Hunter Morgan (that was not his real name), sat down at the piano in the patient lounge and started playing like a virtuoso. Hunter was a twenty-one year old schizophrenic who had lived in the Institute for the past seven years, and as far as anyone could remember he’d never touched the piano before. The piece he played was classical music—that was about all I could tell—and it sounded fiendishly difficult, a whirlwind of chords and notes strung together in a jarring rhythm that seemed the perfect analog of a mind spinning out of control. He continued playing for about ten minutes and then suddenly stopped in the middle of an intense climactic passage. Without acknowledging his audience—which consisted of his sister Antonia, his nurse Mrs. Paterson, a few other patients and myself—he stood up from the piano and ran out of the room.
Since I was new at the Institute, the impact of this performance was lost on me at first. I assumed that Hunter had been studying the piano from an early age. It wasn’t until later that afternoon, when I reviewed Hunter’s chart and questioned Mrs. Paterson specifically about the piano playing, that I realized how uncanny this incident really was.
“You mean he’s never played the piano before?”
Bruce Hartman has been a bookseller, pianist, songwriter and attorney. He lives with his wife in Philadelphia. His previous novel, Perfectly Healthy Man Drops Dead, was published by Salvo Press in 2008.
Bruce will be awarding a fifty dollar Amazon or BN gift card to a randomly drawn commenter.
The tour dates can be found here: http://goddessfishpromotions.blogspot.com/2013/04/virtual-book-tour-rules-of-dreaming-by.html