David Cohen

Charlie Chaplin, the pianist he hailed as a genius… and me

Clara Haskil’s musicianship was revered by aficianados, but her body’s frailty denied her the star career her talent deserved

June 15, 2023 12:03

You don’t forget meeting Charlie Chaplin. I was 23 and had been hired by James Mason to write a screenplay of Jane Eyre. He invited me to stay at his house in Vevey in Switzerland. He came from Huddersfield and wanted to check I wasn’t one of those lazy, all-mouth southern boys.

One day we walked to the local pharmacy and Charlie Chaplin was coming out. Mason was a great star, but he almost bowed to Chaplin. Then he introduced me.

I had the chutzpah to say, “I believe, Mr Chaplin, we have a friend in common in Clara Haskil.”
“She was a genius,” Chaplin said. He said he had only met three of them and she was in very distinguished company: the other two were Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill. It is amazing a musician was part of his trio.

“I am not a trained musician but I can only say that her touch was exquisite, her expression wonderful, and her technique extraordinary,” Chaplin once wrote.

Chaplin was not alone in admiring her. In a 2013 interview, Pope Francis mentioned Haskil as one of his favourite musicians, especially when performing Mozart.

At the entrance to the pharmacy I said to Chaplin, “She tried to teach me the piano but I was useless.” Chaplin smiled and walked away.

Clara Haskil tried to teach me the piano only because she knew my mother. They both came from Bucharest. Clara Haskil was the second of three daughters of a Sephardi Jewish family living there. She was born on January 7, 1895. Her father, Isaac Haskil, came from a well-regarded family who had gone to Romania from Bessarabia. He married a younger woman, Berthe. They lived in an apartment above the family household-goods shop.

The Haskils were not religious, although they were aware of their Jewish roots. Every night Berthe would recite a short prayer with her children when she put them to bed. Then tragedy struck. In 1899 there was a fire in the shop. Isaac saved his family but caught pneumonia and died a few months later. Clara fell ill herself and asked if she was also going to die.

Widowed Berthe brought up her three daughters alone. To make a living she taught the piano, German and French and did some dressmaking.

The family piano had been saved from the fire — symbolic perhaps. When Clara was three she imitated her sister and sat at the piano in the living room. She started to play as if by instinct.

When she was not yet five, a colleague of her uncle Avram was so impressed by her playing that he took her to Georges Stefanesco, who taught singing at the Bucharest Conservatory. To his amazement she sat down and played a Mozart sonata without one blemish. In 1901, six-year-old Clara was admitted to the Conservatory.

Haskil also played the violin.

A year later Avram took her to Vienna, where he had settled. Then he took her to France where she was admitted to the Paris Conservatory. She studied with Gabriel Fauré’s pupil Joseph Morpain. She always said he was one of the greatest influences on her. She did not just graduate at the age of 15 but won the Premier Prix.

Her sisters would also become musicians. Their mother was proud and delighted; Lili, the older, was a pianist, and Jeanne, the younger, a violinist and cellist who claimed, “We have talent, but Clara has genius.” The three sisters formed a trio and often played for family and friends. The evenings would end with dancing.

She was strikingly beautiful but she never married. Nor did her sisters.

After winning the Premier Prix, Haskil began touring Europe and a stellar career beckoned. But her hopes were dashed as she was sickly. She was never healthy. One of the many physical ailments she suffered throughout her life was scoliosis, curvature of the spine. When she was 18 she was fitted with a plaster cast in an attempt to halt its progression. To my child’s eyes she looked very frail.

The spine was not her only problem. She also suffered from extreme stage fright. Her never straight spine kept her from critical or financial success. Most of her life was spent in abject poverty.

My mother took me to see Haskil at the Royal Festival Hall when I was about ten.
We knew the star at the keyboard but I was far too musically illiterate to appreciate her performance.

It was only after the Second World War, after a series of concerts in Holland, that her career took off at all. In 1951 she moved to Vevey in Switzerland where Chaplin then lived.
As a pianist, Haskil’s playing was marked by a purity of tone and phrasing that may have come from her skill as a violinist. She worked with many leading musicians such as Pablo Casals, Isaac Stern and Arthur Grumiaux, a great violinist who was also a fine pianist. He and Haskil would sometimes swap instruments.

She played as a soloist under many legendary conductors including Ansermet, Barbirolli, Beecham, Boult, Karajan, Kempe and Klemperer.

One of her legendary recordings is of Mozart’s Piano Concertos No. 20 in D minor, K. 466 and No. 24 in C minor, K. 491, made in November 1960 with the Orchestre Lamoureux conducted by Igor Markevitch.

As you get older, you think about the chances you missed. Youth can be careless. I certainly was. Our families were close enough that as a teenager I stayed with her sisters in Paris. I did not have the sense to get them to talk about their lives.

Haskil was never well and died after she fell on a staircase at the railway station in Brussels.
She was due to play a concert with Grumiaux the next day. She was 65 years old. She was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris.

She is remembered in a 2017 documentary Clara Haskil,Le Mystère de l’Interprète, made by Pascal Cling, Prune Jaillet and Pierre-Olivier François.

I like to think of Chaplin listening to her recordings. He is miraculously back in his tramp costume. He often had a cane and I imagine him conducting Haskil, one genius conducting another.

June 15, 2023 12:03

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