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  • The Piano Teacher
  • Rana Dasgupta (bio)

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Figure 1.

Hilda Bor, age 17

[End Page 150]

My mother came with me; I was about thirteen. The house was sturdy and Victorian. The woman who opened the door was not Miss Bor but her sister. We went through to wait.

There were old photographs on the walls, and the rosewood Bechstein, which took up half the room. It was dim, and probably winter. There may have been a dog barking from somewhere else in the house. Miss Bor eventually pushed at the door, saying, "Hello, hello!" before she set eyes on either of us, emerging slowly. Thickset, with grey hair and bright upward eyes from beneath her stoop. An accent like old films. [End Page 151]

Outside was a dull Cambridge afternoon, with bicycle helmets and droning Volvos crisscrossing on the main road. I was probably nervous.

"So what are you going to play?" she asked.


"Ah! My favourite composer!" she said, rallyingly.

Mrs. Taussig had apologised to me. "I'm sorry I can't teach you anymore. I'm giving it up. I'm going to be a psychoanalyst."

I was not completely surprised. The study where I used to wait for lessons had become oppressively full of books with "Freud" on the spine. When I asked my mother who Freud was, her answer was confusing, but I sensed nevertheless a shift of emphasis in Mrs. Taussig's house.

Mrs. Taussig recommended me to Miss Bor, who had at one time been her own teacher.

"You will have to impress her," she said. "She only takes advanced pupils. I am sending you to her because you show a lot of promise. But she will make you work very hard." She helped me perfect my audition piece, a movement from a Mozart sonata, and sent me on my way.

Miss Bor seemed pleased. "Very musical," she said.

When I began my lessons with her, Miss Hilda Bor was in the middle of her seventies. She shared a house with her two younger sisters, Miss Margot Bor, also a piano teacher, and Miss Silvia Bor, a cello teacher. I rode there on my bike every Monday evening after school; in my memory it is perpetually winter, my hands always too cold to play for the first half of the lesson. When I go back through my scores now—Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms—I am impressed at how much music we explored together, and how thickly covered are the pages with her pencil markings.

I loved Miss Bor. She was dignified and intelligent, and she was a musical mentor with enormous reserves of experience. She was thoughtful and affectionate, often giving me presents of scores she had unearthed in secondhand music shops; my treasured three-volume edition of the Beethoven sonatas, German, from around 1910, she salvaged for me from the collection of a friend who had died. And she was charismatic, with a sense of humour that in another place and time might have been called "wicked." She especially liked stories [End Page 152] that poked fun at the high seriousness of classical music: "When we were children I used to teach Margot, who was several years younger. Whenever she didn't practice I used to hold her upside down by her heels and shake her until she screamed."

Miss Bor had a pragmatic method. To describe someone as "musical" was as mystical as she got in her discussion of the vocation that was hers, and her language of aesthetics was unpretentious in the extreme: a symphony would be "lovely," a particular piano performance "dreadful." She thought that people were either "musical" or they were not; teaching music was primarily about providing students with the necessary technical ability to realise this inherent sensitivity. We talked about mechanical problems: wrists and fingers, pedaling, effective practise methods, finding creative ways of making challenging passages more manageable. Her insights were practical: "The secret to a good crescendo is not to finish very loud but to begin very softly."

Miss Bor's uncomplicated vocabulary opened, however, onto a great subterranean system of musical feeling, and in her, "marvelous" was...


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