Text by Giovanni Gavazzeni
Who is Clara Haskil, the little girl who to 3 years old instinctively plays everything she hears and repeats tunes to memory without having been formally taught; who develops a growing phobia of noise and remains locked in interminable silences; who speaks little in a ventriloquist's hoarse and incredibly grave voice; who for all to see has magical hands that remained white and smooth as porcelain until late in life?
For Belgian playwright Serge Kribus, who wrote and staged Clara Haskil, Prélude et fugue in 2017, Clara is "a sincere, intelligent, sensitive, resolute, humble, demanding woman, a woman of exceptional talent who has defied pain, illness, isolation, war, loneliness, precariousness, humiliation, a woman who trembles under the fever of doubt and struggles to never give up and smiles and watches and listens and shares and lives for music."
For her beloved sisters Jeanne and Lili and mother Berthe, she is Clorico;
for the angelic friends who assist her in the most tragic moments of her life-Mesdames Gélis mother and daughter, Madame Paul Desmarais, the Countess Pastré from whom she takes refuge after a daring journey with the musicians of the Orchestre National in 'free' France is just Clara;
for the legendary Romanian pianist Dinu "Gregorio," "Doctor," "Little Brother" Lipatti, a unique friend for whose recognition he would expend all energy (his wife Madeleine would describe them as "two beings made of light who could in an instant turn into playful little boys") is Clarissima or Clarinette;
for the munificent patron Wynnaretta Singer princess of Polignac who hosted her in her Parisian home on the avenue Henri-Martin where she played among the admiration of musicians (Poulenc and Henri Sauguet, Jean Françaix, Jaques Février, Jeanne-Marie Darré, Magda Tagliaferro) and the incredible disregard of the French impresarios is Miss Haskil, who during receptions hides and ends up in the kitchen to taking meals with the staff ("So, you prevent my staff from working?");
for E. W. and Michel Rossier and the Swiss friends who bring up to Marseille money for the desperate operation to remove a tumor in the eye socket, performed under partial anesthesia, during which Clara moves her hands to see if her fingers always work, typing "her" Mozart's Concerto in E-flat major, is the personification of Music (Music came to visit us wrote Gustave Doret the critic of the Journal de Génève).
For the Gétaz family and patron Werner Reinhardt, who obtain from the Swiss federal government the miracle of a safe-conduct to Geneva that saves her from being rounded up by the Nazis and Vichy collaborationists, she is a shocking artist ("I ignore from where your music comes from, miss." the generous millionaire Reinhardt writes to her. "Excuse my emotion and my inappropriateness. You have upset me. Upset, miss. And I thank you."
The customs officer who examines her passport at the entrance to the Geneva station asks her, "So are you, Miss Haskil, the one who makes such beautiful music?";
for the sacred monsters George Enescu and Eugène Ysaye, Wilhelm Backhaus and Edwin Fischer, Pablo Casals and Arthur Grumiaux, the enchantment is summed up by the words of her pianist friend Nikita Magaloff, "I don't think I have ever been more deeply fascinated by a sound, that indefinable manner of playing, so fluid, so airy haunts me, like certain perfumes that give the head and whose memory never leaves us."
Anyone who can hear the maiden's first performances to Vienna in 1909, where her strong-willed uncle Avram took her to begin her studies and leave an increasingly anti-Semitic Romania, is struck by the contrast between her physical fragility and the strength of her sound.
Clara is immediately an enigma: "maturity in a child's brain is truly distressing"; "admiring her one cannot but fear the envy of the gods."
And the Gods were pretty dogged: before her brain operation, she was struck from down with an increasingly severe scoliosis that forced her to to spend the years of World War I locked in a corseted carapace to Berck-sur-Mer, up in northern France's Pas-de-Calais, then a renowned heliotherapy and orthopedic health resort. The physical and moral sufferings (she can never play) are from counterpointed by continuous bronchitis degenerating into lung congestion, fevers, digestive accesses, handicaps that further transform her: she is terrified even of receiving a compliment, to which she reacts with abrupt, unsettling, clumsy, bizarre exits: "I'm hungry, but I won't eat," and when left alone she forgets to eat.
Clara Haskil was born in 1895 to Bucharest from Isaac Haskil (the name perhaps comes from the Hebrew for "wise") from a Jewish family from Bessarabia under Russian-Tzarist yoke and from Berthe Moscuna, from a Sephardic Jewish family that fled to Ottoman Bulgaria and then to Romania.
With a two-year scholarship given to her by Queen Elizabeth of Romania, she traveled to to Vienna in 1909 and immediately learned the violin as well (an instrument that she would sometimes 'steal' to illustrious partners and with which she won a competition presided over from famous French violinist Jaques Thibaud!). Always guided by her strict uncle Avram, she chose to continue her studies to Paris and not to Zurich, where Ferruccio Busoni offered her to become his pupil for free. While pricking the dor, homesickness and family melancholy, she takes to two exams to enter the Conservatoire: the list of committee members is a parterre des rois: conductor Gabriel Fauré who will take her under his wing, Alfred Cortot, Isaac Albenitz, Ricardo Vines, Alfred Bruneau, Raoul Pugno, Eduard Risler, Ernesto Consolo, Moritz Moszkowski.
Unfortunately, a dominant personality like Cortot is not suited to to follow the nature of Clara, who, as Kribus writes, "infuses the works with something unique. Her motor was not to thinkopera, still less to want anything fromopera. Only to receive it, to put himself at its service, to share it with the public." Cortot humiliates her: "You sound like a maid! You do not study. You have had articles to Vienna and you think you have arrived. We are not to Vienna, Miss, but to Paris. You play without expression, you have a wild nature."
Just as she is about to resume her career flight, war and persecution interrupt everything: as a Romanian citizen she can no longer be engaged in France, then as a Jew she has to flee by a rocambolic journey from Paris to Meudon, via Marseilles, from Pastré, who in his estate houses Nora and George Auric, the young communist and future resistance fighter Maroussia, the nonviolent philosopher Giuseppe Lanza del Vasto, where she can play with Casals exile from Franco and in a duo with Monique Haas, and where a certain Edith Piaf passes by.
No one, however, will be able to to convince French impresarios to to engage her (only in Switzerland does she receive engagements and concerts with Ansermet, Schuricht, Paul Kletzki, Scherchen).
In a twist of irony, her worldwide fame sparked after the devastating and untimely death of Lipatti, the artist she most admired. ("It takes a lot of courage to to play in public after him."), the perfect friend ("How I dread one day leaving those I love most and losing their friendship," wrote to Lipatti himself).
How Clara/Clarinette came to success in spite of everything (How did she do it? Much love. From her mother, sisters Jeanne and Lili, real friends) is what Kribus tells in Prélude et fugue: "I tried to be the interpreter of Clara. I tried to play what is written in Clara's life. From the beginning of the project I knew that I did not want to tell only one episode of her life. What struck me was her whole life. From childhood to twilight, so many trials: the death of her father, separation from her mother and sisters, Vienna, Paris, the harshness of her Uncle Avram, the disdain of Cortot, the absence of writing, the great precariousness, the years of suffering to Berck in which she read Mozart's scores without being able to play them, then the misery between the two wars, the murderous madness of World War II, the constant health problems, and everywhere the doubt, the trac, the fear.
The text, as Safy Nebbou, the director of this version made in 2021 for and with Leatitia Casta in partnership between the Théâtre Coeur de Lattes, L'Espace Carpeaux, Curbevoie et Chateauvallon-Liberté, says, "is driven from permanent ellipses, it is led more by action than by facts [...], it is imagined with a musician on stage [Isil Bengi] next to Laetitia. I had in mind Elia Kazan's film The Compromise (1969), where Kirk Douglas sees himself as a child again. I started from this writing, looking for a permanent back-and-forth between the actress and the music."
A performance that starts from the end, the fatal fall on the steps of the Gare du Midi in Brussels, Dec. 7, 1960, and as an intimate carnet of memories and emotions written in the first person, mixed to letters and direct speeches, offers what Clara wanted to be said about her: "perhaps someday someone will write about the true and sensible things c he would like to be known, because they deserve to be told to the public who are loyal and benevolent to me and to the friends who have given me the best of themselves, that is to to say their hearts throughout their lives."