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  • Send Off the Clowns, Bring on the Music
  • Elizabeth Silsbury

Music is a tart. Forget that concocted myth about the gracious muse who grants her favors only to the most dedicated of her subjects, about the virginal Saint Cecilia sacrificing her very life in the quest for perfect sanctity. The more exposure Music is offered, the more eager and the less principled she becomes. Let her just sniff the possibilities of extensive articles in daily papers (notorious for their refusal to believe that serious music makes good news), interviews on radio and television, bestselling books, and—ultimate fame—a film, and the Saint casts off her chaste draperies to reveal a trollop. Full houses for live concerts are her ultimate reward, because what she craves more than anything is the gratification of multitudes celebrating her glories—she thinks—with rapt attention, tumultuous applause, and standing, preferably hysterical, ovations.

Poor, silly, deluded Cecilia. Intermittently since 1986 right here in Adelaide, and since October 1996 elsewhere around the world, she has [End Page 351] been fooled again in double octaves, used as a means, when she fully expected to be the end. The story of David Helfgott is remarkable, even to music professionals accustomed to children who display technical proficiency at impossibly early ages, and sometimes play their pianos and violins with sensitivity far beyond their years. They usually come to public notice at about age ten or so, and at a guess 80% of them fade as rapidly as they rose.

Helfgott started out in Perth, Western Australia, as a standard prodigy, playing Rachmaninoff and Chopin when still in short pants, his development both accelerated and inhibited by his obsessively ambitious, but indisputably well-intentioned, father. Progress was by the book until his late teens when he suffered a ghastly total mental and emotional collapse which left him with nothing in his life but music. After years of treatment in Perth institutions he was rescued by the astrologer Gillian Murray from the niche created for him by music loving medico, Dr. Chris Reynolds, playing in Riccardo’s Wine Bar. Twelve years of her compassionate and devoted care, not to mention her astute business acumen, rehabilitated Helfgott so effectively that he was able to embark on full-scale concert tours in cities which he probably could have conquered twenty-five years ago with no weapons but his exceptional pianistic gifts.

Trying to sort out what actually happened to the boy, how he was treated by his father, and what barriers were put in his way of developing from a gifted child to a mature artist is not easy. One thing is certain: the narrative of Shine is highly embellished, its emotions and conflicts exaggerated in the interests, according to director Scott Hicks, of making a good story. An abusive and violent father who suffers from uncontrolled rages makes a much better film character than one who loves and supports his child.

Since Shine was first screened, there have been protests from David’s siblings and from Peter Helfgott’s widow that the depiction of their father and husband is grossly distorted. These must be taken seriously, as must the well-substantiated evidence from Beverley Eley that there was mental illness in the family—Peter Helfgott’s sister Hannah was committed to a mental hospital in 1954 and remained in care until her death in 1994. 1 And although Gillian Helfgott’s book is distinctly lacking in documentary substance, her report that David recalled having been “in a fog” since the age of twelve adds weight to the assumption that his disability had more to do with heredity than paternal pressures. 2 [End Page 352]

To the general public, the story is more than remarkable: it verges on the miraculous. Helfgott is the hero of a fairy tale. He has overcome appalling dis-abilities, has clawed his way from the slough of despair to the mountain tops of fame and fortune through the power of the love and faith of a fairy princess-godmother-nurse. As if all that were not enough, the whole story is saturated with irresistible music. Powerful sympathies are intensified by the searing romantic excesses of Rachmaninoff, the superhuman...

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pp. 351-358
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