The most vivid memories of my stay in Paris are the result of my relations with two females, one sixty two years of age [Nadia Boulanger], the other eight [Idil Biret].
Aside from my musical studies, the most rewarding result of my trip to Paris has been my acquaintance with Idil Biret and her parents. Idil was eight years old last November. I had noticed her sitting among the sopranos during the first few Wednesday afternoon chorus rehearsals, and at first thought that perhaps she was the child of one of the women there who just couldn’t get a baby sitter. One day in December I was in Mlle Boulanger’s sitting room some time after my lesson copying some music when Mlle Boulanger asked me to come into the studio. I then heard one of the most remarkable performances of musical ability I have ever heard in my life. This eight year old child played the Bach C sharp Minor prelude and Fugue in the most beautiful and charming manner you could possibly want to hear it. It was the performance of a mature musician. She then played a Beethoven Bagatelle in F Major just as beautifully, and was then asked by Mlle Boulanger to play the same Bagatelle in D Major, which she did with just as much facility as in the original key. Then Mlle Boulanger sat down at the piano, turned Idil with her back to the piano and played intervals, chords, miscellaneous snatches of melodies, any combination of notes that pleased her fancy, and Idil named each of the notes as soon as she was asked to name them. Then Mlle Boulanger improvised at the piano, modulating from one key to another, and asked Idil to name the new key, which she did almost before it was reached. Idil was next asked to improvise something, and she played for about 15 minutes. It was a phantasy-like composition, but the melodies were well formed and the harmonies extraordinarily mature. When Mlle Boulanger told me that this is a regular lesson similar to the ones that this child had every week, I was all the more amazed. I could copy no more music. I went home in a daze and told [my wife] Gilda will verify that I stayed that way for a day or two.
My next meeting with Idil Biret was Christmas day at a reception in Mlle Boulanger’s apartment for all of her students and friends. The place was crowded with more than I had thought could get in there. I noticed Idil there with her parents and being very anxious to have Gilda hear this child play, I gathered enough courage to walk over to the Birets and invite them to our apartment for tea a few days later. Surprisingly, we found them shy, amiable, and extremely anxious to accept our hospitality.
We had given considerable thought to the question of making the child to play, for we did not want the parents to feel that we had invited them only because we wanted Idil to perform for us. Our fears were groundless. After we had eaten, and had talked for a few minutes, Idil went to the piano and began to play just so naturally as a bird flies or a fish swims. We were absolutely amazed by her versatility, for we soon found out that she knew much more than a few well memorized pieces.
She played another Bach Prelude and Fugue that she had heard just once on the radio, Schumann’s Scenes From Childhood [Kinderszenen op.12], movements from Mozart and Beethoven Piano Sonatas, and the Mozart E flat Piano Concerto, filling in the orchestral parts between the piano solos. With hardly a pause to enable us to catch our breaths, she sand Schubert songs (playing her own accompaniment, of course) with the most extraordinarily mature voice I’ve ever heard issue forth from an eight year old child. Her ear is infallible. Sometimes her small hands just cannot negotiate a particularly difficult passage, but she manages to glide over it in such a way that it sounds musical even though it is not just as the composer wrote it, and no matter how difficult the passage, her rhythm remains steady and firm with an irresistible drive to the end of the movement.
We discovered that the problem is not getting Idil to the piano, the problem is getting her away from the piano. She is conscious of her amazing ability and derives great joy from displaying it to sincere listeners.
We had little time to talk during this first meeting at our apartment, but at subsequent meetings gradually pieced together the brief history of this fabulous child. The Birets are by no means young parents, having spent some eight years of childless marriage before Idil came. Idil is their only child. Their home is in Ankara, Turkey, where Mr. Biret was the manager of a government owned sugar factory before coming to Paris. Mrs. Biret, the daughter of a retired Turkish Army physician, is a very beautiful woman, kind and gracious. Both of them seem well educated and cultured. Mr. Biret speaks French, German, and his native language besides a rather hesitant English, and has rather flourishing, courtly mannerisms, including the bowing and hand kissing on appropriate occasions. We must rely on our somewhat elementary French to converse with Mrs. Biret, however, for she speaks but French and Turkish. They tell us that their manner of living was quiet, comfortable and unexciting until Idil came along to revolutionize it.
Mr. Biret dabbles with photography, and has compiled a picture album history of Idil since the time she was 20 minutes old. In it we first see Idil at a piano when she was two years old. At that time she was already playing little tunes on the piano that she would hear on the radio. Later, we see Idil at four years of age in the dress she wore when she first played with a symphony orchestra in Ankara. Then, there is a picture of Idil at the piano in an Ankara radio station rehearsing for a broadcast. She was five then.
Then they all have the customary pictures that proud parents take of their children, and one can follow the growth of the child up to the present day. Idil was always rather large for her age. Today she is somewhat heavier and larger than the usual eight year old, and much more mature. She has thick, black, curly hair, intelligent bright eyes, and a face that is chameleon like. When she is playing a Bach fugue it looks like that of an adult, but when she is playing with one of her numerous dolls like that of any other child. She is extremely agile, and is almost always bouncing up and down or dancing around the room out of sheer joy. She is an extremely happy child.
Besides the photograph album the parents have compiled two huge scrapbooks of the various articles written about Idil during her brief life. Many of the articles refer to her as the Turkish Mozart, and the greatest child prodigy of our times. They are mostly Turkish papers and therefore somewhat prejudiced, but it is entirely possible, in my opinion, that they may not be too far from the truth. She has been studying the piano with a teacher since she was three [Mithat Fenmen, a student of Cortot], and her progress from the very beginning was amazingly swift. Fortunately, her parents have not let her become an object of idle curiosity, not have they exploited her money making possibilities. Therefore her public appearances have been few, but many well known musicians, among them Lazar Levy, Wilhelm Kempff and Robert Casadesus have heard her play and have become convinced that she is a child with a great future ahead of her.
One of the very interesting exhibitions in the scrap book is the record of the proceedings of the Turkish Assembly when the matter of Idil’s education was debated. There were a few who offered strenuous objections to spending the money of the not-too-large Turkish Treasury on the education of an eight year old child with some musical talent. They thought the money could be employed much more satisfactorily for other purposes. However, the will of the majority prevailed, the money was appropriated, a committee of five people versed in music was chosen, and the education of this child was put in their hands. This committee which included the Minister of Education and the Director of the Turkish national Music Conservatory, decided in turn to place the child’s education in the hands of Mlle Boulanger until she reaches the age of sixteen.
The training program decided upon by Mlle Boulanger is very interesting. Five days a week Idil is visited for an hour each day by three women, one of whom teaches her solfeggio, one piano, and the other French. Two days each week, an hour each time, she visits Mlle Dieudonner, a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, who works with her also in solfeggio. She attends the Wednesday afternoon choral class, and visits Mlle Boulanger one hour privately each week to complete her scholastic program.
The primary purpose of the schedule at the present time seems to be to teach her to read music easily in all of the seven clefs, and her teachers tell us that the child’s quick, alert mind makes the task of teaching her a joy. She has been in Paris just about one year now and has made remarkable progress.
Idil’s repertoire when at the piano is all the more amazing when one remembers that she regularly plays the piano but one hour each day five days a week. Her mother tells us that she does not usually go to the piano at any time besides her one hour lesson each day except to improvise or play something she has heard on the piano, and this does not happen very often because of her strenuous schedule. Of course, as soon she has an audience she is eager to perform. After the Wednesday afternoon class Mlle Boulanger holds an open house in her apartment, and she frequently asks Idil to play for special visitors. During these occasions, she will play music she is currently studying, but when she plays at our apartment or at home when we are visiting her, she always tries to think of something that she knows that we have not heard. She enjoys especially playing something she knows and we may not know, and she insists that we try to guess the composer’s name. She is extremely devilish at times like this and will be quite reticent about divulging the composer’s name. When in this teasing mood, she will even stoop so low as to play one of her own compositions without an advance announcement. These are really charming little pieces with descriptive names like Le Petit Chat, or Le Chemin de Fer. She has written about twenty five such pieces, variable in length and quality, but undoubtedly a remarkable accomplishment for so young a child.
The Birets have had a very difficult time finding a place to live. Their present budget is not really sufficient to provide them with an apartment befitting their customary living standards. Recently, they found it necessary to move three times within a period of six weeks. A very interesting situation developed while they were living in a hotel, for Idil had no piano at all during this time. She took her lessons regularly at an another location, and neither her mother nor her father were present during these lessons. It was during the latter half of the second week when the Birets were dining at our apartment one evening that the mother and father suddenly realized that they had not heard Idil play for more than a week. Idil then played the music she had learnt during that time, and the parents could hardly believe it was possible that she had learnt that much in so short a time.
In fact neither of them have yet really been able to grasp the true significance of their child’s talent. Many times they are as surprised as strangers, and are continuously remarking how difficult it is to keep up with her. Often she will play something they have never heard before and cannot understand when or where she learned it. They have learnt to accept as some sort of every day miracle the fact that they can take her to an opera and later listen to her play and sing the principal arias (she does Carmen beautifully), but they just cannot figure out where she has learnt some music which they cannot remember her ever hearing.
Idil’s tremendous curiosity for knowledge other than music makes her a difficult problem for any parent. She wants to know everything, and her continual questions range over many subjects. She has a lively interest in the cinema, and knows the name of almost every film currently showing in Paris, an idea of the plot, and the principal actors or actresses. She has not yet been able to understand how a picture can end unhappily, and like o see only those films with happy ending. Upon hearing that you have seen a film that she does not know her first question is “Does it have a happy ending?”. If the answer is negative, she loses interest in the film. Her parents do not take her to many films other than the Walt Disney productions and light comedies of the Laurel and Hardy type or their French equivalents, yet through continual questioning of those people with whom she comes into contact she probably knows more about films than the average Parisian.
Gilde remembers best the day that she and Idil spent an afternoon together. They went first to Humpelmayers for a real American ice cream soda and then to the cinema to see Disney’s Fantasia. They came home about six and the three of us had dinner together before returning Idil to her parents about eight. Idil could hardly wait to get to the piano to play parts of the music she had heard that afternoon. She liked everything very much but the Mussorgsky and the ugly prehistoric animals during the Stravinsky score. However, she remembered very well the Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Suite, the Beethoven 6th Symphony and Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice and played portions from each. She even remembered the music played during the pause between performances which of course had nothing o do at all with the picture. All in all, Gilda reports that it was one of the most enjoyable days in her life, that Idil behaved like a perfect lady, and that the only time she talked during the film was to tell Gilda in which key the various sections of the music was written.
It is most remarkable that all of her tremendous talent does not prevent her from being a kind, gracious, loveable child at all times. She is the most obedient child a parent could desire. When the conversation turns to adult subjects she will go to another part of the room and play with her dolls. When there is food to be served or dishes to be removed she does her share without being told to do so, and she is a perfect little hostess when her parents are otherwise occupied. She loves flowers. One day while walking through the park she noticed the grass interspersed with many tiny little daisies. She leaned over the guard rail for perhaps half an hour until she had enough to fashion a little bouquet for each of us. Another day we were at the Jardin des Tuilleries and there was a group of children nearby digging dirt out of a whole in the ground with their hands. She eyed them envyingly and finally gained her parent’s grudging admission to join the other children in spite of the fact that she was wearing a new velvet dress. It was quite a remarkable sight to see Idil with her hands grimy up to the elbows playing in the dirt pile with the other children and enjoying every moment of it.
If you ever come to Paris and want someone to introduce you to the intricacies of the Paris subway system, Idil could handle the job very well. On those particular lines which she travels most often, she can name each stop for you by memory in machine gun like fashion. Once she has been to a place she never forgets it, and we have found occasion to use her remarkable memory to assist our stupid adult minds more than once.
Previously, when I read about the amazing musical feats performed by great musicians of the past during their childhood, I could not avoid a slight feeling of skepticism. I shall read such accounts in the future with a greater belief in their veracity after having known Idil Biret. I consider myself very fortunate for having had this opportunity to observe at close range the activities of Mlle Nadia Boulanger at the climax of a brilliant musical career and those of Idil Biret just ready to start her career with the most superb equipment one could wish for. The two have one thing in common: they speak the language of music as naturally and as fluently as most people speak in their native tongues.
© by Alan Weiner
Alan Weiner was an American musician who studied composition with Nadia Boulanger and then established a conservatoire in the US East Coast. He had retired to Phoenix, Arizona.