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<<  -- 3 --  Jenna Orkin    THE LAST CLASS


Humble in the face of the Absolute she could be ruthless to those of lesser stuff. While the histrionics of some of the Juilliard faculty were renowned, Boulanger expressed her disapproval in coldness which, unlike heat, can attain to an absolute degree. She adhered to an idiosyncratic variant of a well-known French adage. Her version went: 'I think, therefore it is.' Stories abounded of how she'd turned her back on an old student because he or she had experimented with electronic music. She also partook of the prejudices of her era which included favoring men. Upon mastering a difficult exercise, a student called Greta Simms found herself promoted to the rank of 'Monsieur Seem'.

According to rumor, a student had once complained at the end of her lesson that she didn't feel well.
'You must overcome the weakness of the flesh,' Boulanger replied and sent the student home.
It was raining and the student died of pneumonia. Thereafter Boulanger always inquired anxiously about the health of her students.

Mlle A, secretary, long time companion and now guide of the wheelchair, leaned over and whispered that they'd arrived in the classroom. She was a frayed, distracted woman with strands of wiry hair which was losing its color along with its form as it escaped numerous bobby pins. She wore beige socks and a skirt and blouse that looked as though she'd picked them up at a jumble sale. When she crossed the palace courtyard, she hugged the wall like a nun in her cloister, holding her sweater close regardless of the heat. She smiled uncertainly at students; if one addressed her, she shrank back, startled.

Boulanger's hands moved slowly like a medium's in her lap. One hand attempted to rise and gave up. Her speech was also slow and hesitant, with a quality of the Beyond.
'Thank you for coming such a long way, from so many different countries. I hope you will work very hard and learn many things.
'Mlle Dieudonne, to whom I am most grateful, has told me you are good musicians. Is Mr Engel, Engelho -'
'Engelhart,' Mlle Dieudonne articulated, leaning towards the wheelchair.
'Engelhart. Is Mr Engelhart here, please?'

Mlle Dieudonne looked into the audience with the unblinking eyes of a bird. Small and stooped, she wore a grey shawl which, by concealing her arms, added to the avian effect. Like the old woman who lived in a shoe, she had so many students, she did not know what to do, especially since Boulanger's decline. Her teaching load had doubled and following in Boulanger's footsteps, she often taught til eleven o'clock at night. Dieudonne was in her eighties.

'Mr Engelhart? Come, please,' she goaded a dark, eager-eyed boy who was making his way out of the third row.
'Le voici, Mademoiselle,' she said, as Arthur Engelhart sat at the piano.
'Can you tell me, Mr Engelhart, how many notes are there?'
'You mean in an octave, Mademoiselle? Twelve.'
'No, that is not it.'
'Well I'm not sure I understand what you want. An infinite number?'
'No, no, no.'
'Well there are eighty-eight keys on the keyboard.'
'No,' groaned Boulanger. It was hard to be intimidated by such a spectacle but Arthur did want to allay the old woman's frustration.

The other students turned to each other pantomiming incomprehension across the room with shrugs and open, empty hands. Somebody suggested loudly enough for the audience to hear that they could use a calculator to figure out all the notes written since Gregorian chant. A chubby girl curbed her giggles, the effort turning her pink as a ham.

'Somebody else! Bring. Me. Some. Body. Else.'

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Copyright © 27 February 2005 Jenna Orkin, New York City, USA


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