Queer Love in the Time of Repression: ‘The Piano Student’ by Lea Singer

Photo by Ebuen Clemente on Unsplash

Music stirs emotions and heightens the passion in a romantic relationship. But suppose you want to translate a mid-twentieth century, queer love story into piano music. In that case, you must include Vladimir Horowitz’s sudden transitions from loud double-fortissimos to quiet pianissimos in his performances. In that sense, during the book launch event of ‘The Piano Student’, the author, Lea Singer, described the affair between Horowitz and his student, Nico Kaufmann, as ‘conflicts everywhere’. She was not wrong.

The novel is based on the love letters between the two men and debuts with an aged Kaufmann performing at a piano bar in Zurich. Following his concert, he is approached by Reto Donati who thanks him for playing Schumann’s ‘Träumerei’. Chronically depressed, Donati confesses that it was this ‘quiet, yet expensive’ song which saved him from committing suicide. And it was in the presence of Horowitz when he first heard it being played. 

The following chapters resemble a frame story and follow Kaufmann and Donati as they travel throughout Switzerland, with Kaufmann wistfully introducing the times and places where his short-lived romance with Horowitz took place. He recounts the setbacks preventing him and Horowitz from being seen together. As the world descended into another global conflict, a growing wave of Anti-Semitism and homophobia forced the two young men to fend for themselves and their careers. A Russian Jew and gay man, Horowitz knew his safety lay in his departure for the United States, with or without Kaufmann.

Throughout the book, we learn more about his fear of being outed as gay. Horowitz never wanted to suffer professionally due to his sexual orientation. Instead, he chose to play by the society’s rules and stay in an unfulfilling marriage to Wanda Toscanini – daughter of the acclaimed musician, Arturo Toscanini. 

Even so, that did not prevent him from seeking an affair with Kaufmann. The few loving moments between them unfolded in great secrecy and were always permeated with the fear of being caught. However, Horowitz and Kaufmann came to relish the time they spent together: they could finally love and be loved for who they were. That is why their relationship is one in which Donati finds himself. A gay man himself, he grows deeply invested in their love story, and his time spent with Kaufmann – although not romantic – serves as a breakout from his tormenting, heterosexual relationship. 

This book is an ambitious project which transposes Horowitz’s real-life story of loneliness and struggle with his own sexual identity into fiction. According to Kaufmann, Horowitz was a piano genius whose immigration to Switzerland forced him to start afresh. Knowing no one around, he found a sense of belonging and support with the Toscaninis and identified the possible fame derived from marrying into that family. 

Nevertheless, his attraction to men did not dwindle. Horowitz felt sorry for Wanda, so he had to make it up by at least giving her a world-famous name. Unfortunately, this was a compromise which did not stop the couple from falling out with each other. In a talk with his friends, Horowitz confessed that he had never loved Wanda. And it was the fact that he could not love ‘as he needed to love’ which alienated him even more from Kaufmann: ‘I reminded him that he had chosen to live a lie. I was his conscience.’ 

Hence, the letters between Horowitz and Kaufmann are often tainted with jealousy and revulsion. As Horowitz became trapped in his marriage, he increasingly despised the idea of Kaufmann meeting other men. Despite this, he still begged for more intimate details of Kaufmann’s encounters to remind him of the love on which he was missing out. 

The letters also reveal an imbalance of power: Kaufmann enjoyed Horowitz’s attention and the feeling of being needed. As he confesses, ‘Adoration was my drug. The more famous my admirer, the more powerful the high’. 

Soon, Horowitz ended up in a vicious circle which made him feel lonelier and even more frustrated with his own circumstances. He resignedly took refuge in his work, but this did not put an end to his conflicting emotions. As the story progresses, we learn that, although cut short by Horowitz, the relationship with Kaufmann was presumably not his last one with a man. If that is true, then Horowitz’s plan to preserve his marriage and career (which he successfully did) did not bring him any spiritual fulfilment. Therefore, Donati is right: ‘no one comes to save you from that loneliness.’ 

The book is also an empathy exercise – it requires us to go beyond Horowitz’s occasional tantrums and episodes of malice and see for ourselves what made him act and feel that way. We thus come to realise that the story is even more heartbreaking since Horowitz knew from the outset that the two men could have never been together. Whether that was because of his choice to conceal his sexuality and pursue fame in a world seething with despise towards gay men is irrelevant since it does not make their relationship any less tragic. Because of that, the closer they got, the harder it became for both of them to split up and lead separate lives. 

To that end, we can only treat their affair as a misfortune of its time. The two men were too afraid to expose themselves, so Horowitz forced himself to find contentment in his marriage, break any ties with Kaufmann and seek medical help for his sexual orientation. Regardless of how judgmental one might feel when reading the book, I could not. Instead, I felt painfully pitiful towards him when he decided to undergo conversion therapy; or when he requested help from a psychiatrist, all in the hope that he would learn to love differently. 

This was the same feeling I experienced for Donati when he confessed about his failed suicide attempt. On the whole, their struggles took place in the shadow of a society which has time and again made the gay community feel miserable, solitary and desperate for repenting solutions. If there is someone or something to be held accountable for these two men’s sense of fatalism, it is not them.

When it comes to the author’s writing style, she omits using quotation marks to delineate the beginning and ending of dialogue lines. This made the reading experience difficult in two respects. Firstly, it often happened that I struggled to keep track of who was saying what so that the narrative line made sense. Secondly, their absence was making it harder for me to determine the boundaries between the two narrative plans. That proved challenging, especially since Kaufmann’s storytelling was permanently interrupted by Donati’s questions and reflections. While the author did not explain her choice to omit them, the marks would have made the reading experience more flowing.

Lea Singer successfully draws on the surviving letters between Horowitz and Kaufmann to educate people on the existence of queer romance in the least expected times and places. For this reason, fictionalising a real-life story does more than shedding light on the things we know about Horowitz. It brings forward the process and trauma behind what made him become one of the most acclaimed musicians in history.

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