Life writing by Stas Medvedev

Alas, poor Rönisch!

I have a clear memory of the place where we first met. It was a small room in a communal apartment. There lived an esteemed composer Olivers Shtelmanis. Highly praised by fellow musicians and respected in bohemian circles, he was unknown to a wider audience. Even though I belonged to the latter category, mainly because of my age of eight, I knew him. He was my grandfather.

The only window in the room offered a dull view over the courtyard surrounded by blocks of flats. The daylight illuminated the austere interior of a compact space which served my grandpa as a study, a parlour, and a bedroom. His chamber was stuffy from the cigarette smoke and smell of mouldy paper. Furniture was buried under the scattered music notes.

In all the chaos, created by its master, stood Rönisch piano centre stage.

A few years later Soviet Union collapsed, and Latvia regained its independence. After rising from its ashes, the country called on its sons to return home. A native Latvian, Olivers gladly accepted the invitation from the motherland, which he had been forced to leave by Soviets in 1949. Separated from his mother and elder sister, he spent many years together with his father in exile in Siberia. Eventually, Olivers’ talent for music allowed them to settle down in a bigger city of Sverdlovsk, where he studied in the conservatoire and later became a composer.

Grandpa remained true to austerity and planned his repatriation with light baggage. The heaviest and the most precious of his belongings fell to me. The piano, on which he had composed most of his music, arrived in my room. It was so big, we even had to rearrange the furniture to fit it in. Once installed, I started anxiously inspecting the familiar stranger.

The upright piano was monumental. Glossy mahogany polish looked worn. It wore the odour of grandfather’s room. I lifted the fallboard. The timber gravel board resembled a music rack. I counted 88 keys: 52 white and 36 black. Above the keyboard golden underlined letters RÖNISCH introduced the piano.

I touched the ivories, but the piano was shockingly mute.

Perhaps I didn’t demonstrate the inclination for music, so my parents didn’t sign me up for the music school. Now, with the piano in the room, it was the right time to revisit my musical aspirations. A retired piano teacher arrived the following day. Right away I shared with her my discovery of the instrument being dumb. The frail grey-haired lady listened carefully to me and to the thuds of the hammers inside the piano, while I was banging the keys in despair. She opened the lid and examined the internal parts. Next, she extracted a large piece of thick cloth. I learned that was a common trick to keep the piano quiet while in transportation. After enlightening me with this wisdom, the venerable teacher performed a sound check. Her deft slender fingers ran through the keyboard, extracting the entrancing melody. That was the first time I heard Rönisch’s voice. And it was magical. The instrument seemed to play of its own accord to please the practised pianist.

Before proceeding to the kitchen to join my grandma for a cup of tea, the now officially appointed tutor returned the final verdict. The last key C8 in the eighth octave was broken, but I was assured it shouldn’t affect my play in the forthcoming future.

Our weekly piano classes started with basics and soon progressed to my first and only music piece: ‘Sarabande’ by George Frederic Handel. I failed to break in my grandpa’s piano and dropped out in less than a year.

In pursuit of her next marriage, my mother moved to another city when I was about four years old. I lived together with grandmother till the middle of high-school. Mom visited us several times a year for a few weeks. On each such occasion many of her friends would come over. They missed her no less than I did and used the opportunity to meet. Sometimes those parties culminated with piano concerts. The one imprinted in my memory was when Mom together with her childhood friend were playing in duet with four hands: Piano Concerto No. 1 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. I am still not sure what impressed me the most: how skilful and synchronised were the pianists, or how capable was Rönisch in producing sounds of eternal classics.

Olivers departed this life in 1994 in Latvia. The same year I united with my mother. After a year of feeling lonely and detached, grandmother joined us. A family seat was sold and all the belongings, including the piano, travelled in the 20-foot container to create a household elsewhere. Upon arrival, our chattels remained in the storage, until we found a spacious apartment where we all could move in.

We were lucky to find a cozy flat in a tall grey Soviet panel building in the city park close to the rail station. The apartment was on the seventh floor with a tranquil view of the tops of surrounding pine trees.

I asked three basketball mates to give me a hand with moving. On a murky autumn morning, we met by the building and waited for a truck. It arrived one hour behind the schedule. Slowly and deliberately, it parked in front of the entrance. Two men stepped out of the cabin and leisurely unfastened the cover of a truck, revealing its wretched contents. Inside were such familiar artefacts of my previous life two thousands kilometers apart. A heavyweight headliner of that day’s show stood along the body side of the truck. The task was to carry a 300 kg Rönisch up the staircases to the seventh floor, as it didn’t fit the elevator. We even used special carrying straps to steer the piano. It took about three hours for two professional movers and four teenagers to climb. My family’s music passion was vigorously challenged during this adventurous endeavour. The convincing beer after-party dismissed all the doubts my exhausted fellows had.

The following week the sellers of the flat reversed the deal and the piano with all the belongings returned to the storage.

Our next real estate attempt was more successful. This time we bought a 3-bedroom residence in the very heart of our small town in the suburbs of Moscow. It was on the third floor of a Stalin-era simple brick masonry building with a touch of Socialist Classicism style. The apartment’s layout had similar features to the one we lived in before: long dark corridor, 3 meter high ceilings, separate bathroom and the toilet. It required a major renovation after being a communal apartment for many years. Once all the repairs were finished, we moved in. So did the piano. It now resided in my mother’s room and served to display travel souvenirs and family photographs.

During the senior year of university, I moved out and started living on my own. In 2006 grandma had a heart attack. A month later she passed away in the hospital, on the day following her 79th birthday. My orphaned mother remained alone. 

To heal the grief, she did the home improvement. Rönisch received a new music rack and migrated to my room, which Mom converted into her study. She had finally invited the piano-tuner to set up the instrument. Occasionally she would play some improvisations to get into the mood or to amuse special guests.

We lived in Moscow with my wife and our 18-months-old son, when an abrupt illness interrupted my mother’s peaceful life. She died three months later. This sudden loss was so unfair!

Her abandoned flat was painful to visit. 

Finally, we brought all the memorabilia together with the piano and locked the room for two years, while we rented out the rest of the apartment.

After the tenants had moved out, we reconsidered our plans and lived in the flat. My wife rearranged the study as our son’s room. Platon quickly became friends with Rönisch. Despite the age gap, he enjoyed playing with the senior room mate. We would often find him standing on the tiptoes and banging the keyboard with his cute little fingers.

We made a serious decision to relocate to Latvia, to my ancestors’ land. Unlike my grandfather, I took with me almost the entire home to our new house, which we had bought outside of Riga. My family remained in Russia in the same flat for over six months until I settled down in the new place. We didn’t burn the bridges completely - all the essentials and the piano stayed in the apartment to keep it as the base for our temporary visits in Russia.

Our daughter Mila arrived in this wonderful world the following year. Soon we realised there were no reasons left to be attached to the flat. During our last family holidays in Russia, we stayed in Moscow at my mother-in-law’s place. One day I took Platon along with me on my final inspection tour, before we put the apartment on sale. I had to clean up the rooms and check that we had forgotten nothing. Platon’s room was the last one to check. He found his toys and insisted that we take them home. We were standing in his room and surveyed the space. I noticed Platon stared at the piano.

“Do we leave the piano behind?” he looked into my eyes.

“Unfortunately, we can’t take it home to Latvia. The law prohibits such old items from leaving the country. It must remain in Russia. And there’s no other place we could take it to. Your grandma doesn’t have the space.”

“What will happen to it?“

“The new owners of the flat will keep it.”

“What if they break it?”

“I am sure they won’t. Why would they? It’s a good piano and has a history. Maybe there will be someone who plays the piano and will enjoy it.”

“I wish I could play the piano too.”

“You will!” I assured him, pulling his hair. “You can play now and say farewell to Rönisch. Take your time, I still need to pack a few things in the living room.”

I left the room with a heavy heart. I listened to dear sounds behind the wall for about ten minutes. Then I heard the fallboard shut. There was a silence. After a few moments, Platon entered the living room and nodded, signaling he was ready to go. It was the last time we saw Rönisch.

On our commute back to Moscow, I wondered about the farewell moment my grandpa had with his instrument.

***

The neighbors who lived in the other wing of the same building bought our apartment. They were expanding and searched for a flat for their grown-up daughter. She got excited about the piano. I learned she had graduated from the music school and played the instrument.

Our kids are very lucky as they receive presents both for Christmas and for the New Year according to the Russian tradition. Santa Claus handles Christmas gifts and we take care of the New Year.

On December 31 last year,the whole family spent an hour before the festive dinner unboxing, assembling and plugging in a white professional digital piano. Platon has already attended piano classes at school and now continues with online private lessons twice a week, despite the pandemic restrictions. His repertoire swiftly surpassed mine.

The spirit of Rönisch remains with our family.
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