This weekend I heard that my old friend Gerald Pointon had died. I felt like writing this little reminiscence.
Gerald was a high-powered lawyer in Paris, specialising in arbitration. As a graduate student at Cambridge University he had sung in the famous choir of King’s College for a period of time, I forget how long. He remained devoted to King’s College and followed the Choir’s activities with great interest, giving them hospitality and treating them to meals when the choir was visiting Paris. Singing was his first love and he was great friends with several well-known opera singers including Robert Tear and Margaret Price.
As a graduate student at King’s College myself, some twenty years later, I spent several months in Paris doing research in French music libraries and having occasional piano lessons with Vlado Perlemuter. I knew nobody in Paris and, as I wasn’t attached to any institution in Paris, I found it difficult to meet people. One of my friends had given me Gerald’s address and suggested that if I was lonely I should get in touch, mentioning that I was a pianist and liked playing piano duets. I got in touch. Instantly Gerald invited me round to his flat to play duets and stay on for dinner with his family.
To say ‘his flat’ is hardly to do justice to the beautiful 19th century apartment in the 8th arrondissement, filled with the art, antiques, clockwork toys and musical boxes which Gerald collected. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes when I first walked in and saw the oil paintings and the antique toys spilling over the ornate mantelpieces. It was a far cry from the unheated little ‘chambre de bonne’ [maid’s room] I was renting in the attic of a similar building elsewhere in Paris.
Gerald always said he ‘wasn’t really a pianist’, but his love of music made up for any lack of technical skill. More to the point, we clicked as duet partners (I’m talking here about sitting side by side at one piano, not playing two different pianos). This is a mysterious thing. I have played duets with a number of excellent pianists, but have not always felt that we ‘clicked’. Subtle variations in finger and arm movements can make it quite tricky to put a note or chord down at exactly the same time as the person sitting beside you. When it works, one should just enjoy it. Gerald and I were well matched as duet partners and we played through a lot of music, focusing mainly on French repertoire such as Bizet, Debussy, Ravel and Fauré but also venturing into Schumann, Schubert and of course Mozart.
I don’t think he ever knew how much I treasured those evenings. The rest of the time I was basically on my own in libraries or practice rooms, but twice a week I knew I could look forward to visiting the Pointons for an evening of music, food, wine and very amusing chat. Did I mention that Gerald was very good-looking? That was part of the charm of the experience too.
At the time I used to feel like the limping lion who remained grateful to Androcles after Androcles had pulled a thorn out of his paw. And something of this feeling did in fact characterise my long-standing friendship with Gerald. We stayed in touch for decades. I followed the adventures of the members of his family. When I visited Paris I often stayed in his flat, and on each occasion we managed to play piano duets until ill-health made piano-playing too strenuous for him.
A moral of this story is: be kind to people who come to your town knowing nobody. They will be grateful to you for ever!