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My grandfather’s burgundy-colored handkerchief

Talks with Lex Bohlmeijer - part 1


When I go on stage and sit down, I always lay a handkerchief on the left-hand corner of the piano. It’s my grandfather’s burgundy-colored handkerchief.


That left side of the piano is my protection, my territory. On the right is the audience.

Physically, my left hand is smaller, narrower, a bit timid, but it seems more powerful than my right hand. The left hand not only keeps the rhythm, and is the motor, it represents the core of your being. In it lies continuity, a heartbeat, the dance. When I perform or practice I can tell right away when the left hand hesitates.By acceleration, for instance, and different time experiencing. That influences the rest immediately. When the left hand’s melody finds its groove, it gives a real sense of inner strength. For me, it’s a kind of compass. I use it to measure, to sound out something, to take a taste of it.


I recall when in the late 90s, György Sebök gave one of his last masterclasses in Amsterdam, in the Sweelinck Hall. On one of the days, somebody was absent, I was in the hall, and he called, “Is there anyone who can play something for me?” Next thing I knew, I was on the stage, and I played Chopin’s Fourth Ballade. That piece had become such a part of me that I could play it in my sleep. As with all Sebök’s lessons, this was a miraculous one. He focused my attention on the left hand: why it weakened in fearful situations or in the turbulence of a performance, or does things that I don’t necessarily want, or intend. That was an eye-opener.


And precisely in the Chopin 4th Ballade, he played a crucial part. Since that lesson, I have worked on this for years, and now I often hear from the audience, ‘….and WHAT a left hand!”.

My grandfather was a man of nature. Among others things, he was a beekeeper. He looked after about twenty beehives just outside the city of Ruse, not far from the Danube River. This handkerchief is more than 80 years old. Even after so much washing in different countries, and all that water and detergent, it still has his scent. It’s the scent of beeswax and honey… that’s the scent of my childhood, the full scent of royal jelly and honey. Such a reassuring and strong smell, sunny and dark all at the same time.


That’s what my grandfather radiated: unconditionality. In the mornings he went to his garden, where he raised vegetables and grapes. At 2 o’clock he came home for a short lunch break, twenty minutes; he ate a light salad, or watermelon, sitting up in the chaise longue; then he was rested. After that he grabbed his tools and went to the bees. Until late in the day. Sometimes I went with him. Even though I didn’t really dare to; he let them sting him; I was afraid of that. I screamed loud enough for the entire garden to hear, if one little bee came too close.


He was involved in my piano playing from Day 1 when I took my first steps in the music school. He didn’t know anything about music. He learned to sight read along with me, he was my pal. Everything was new; I’m not from a musical family. I had a young, beautiful, and passionate piano teacher, Janeta Benun. She was straight out of the conservatory and these were her first classes. Janeta was totally honest. My grandfather liked that kind of person. In the beginning he always came along with me, but at a certain point, Janeta looked him in the eyes, told him that he was a wonderful man, and that she appreciated what he did for me, but that the next time he should stay home. That was hard to take at first, but when we got home, he said: she’s right. After that I went by myself. Grandfather set out my music books, packed me a sandwich, waved from the window, and waited for me to return. And I went alone, in all kinds of weather, sometimes 18 below zero and through the snow.


I have a strong synesthetic temperament. There’s a prelude in the Second Book of Preludes by Claude Debussy , that’s called Bruyère, or Heather: that is the scent of honey, “dark, “waxy and penetrating”, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in 1907. “It’s the scent of the earth in the Fall, almost of a grave”. But this piece is not depressing; on the contrary, it has a powerful sense of life. I have that from my grandfather.


He was not a party member. His vineyards were confiscated by the communist party, after fraudulent elections and nationalization in Bulgaria. He had to turn over everything, for more than forty years, and only regained possession of it when he was an old man. Concerning setbacks – and his life was regularly under threat during the regime – he had a rather prosaic saying, that I always remember. “Even if your guts have been ripped out of you and you’re bleeding like a pig, you can still say, ‘ no, these are myguts, this ismysash!’ (In traditional Bulgarian costume, men and women wear a beautiful wide sash referring to the time of the shamans, which is usually red.) So even if you’ve lost everything and are nearly dead, don’t say “poor me”, no; that blood, that red sash that was torn off, is still mine.

More on Lex Bohlmeijer:

his radio programme 'Passaggio'

his interviews for 'De Correspondent'

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