Mr Leichner, my cello teacher

when a life dies, the story flashes, whether there is an afterlife or not.

mr Leichner died half a year ago. i received the news only recently when i phoned to book a concert at his old age home.

he was a Hungarian Jew. Came to South Africa after the war, after three grueling years in a prison in Java. Horror stories he told me about the Japanese. Stories he told me. Plenty.

mr leichner was an eccentric, made so because of his trapped and frustrated genius. I came to him for my first cello lesson at age seven. For over ten years, his blistered hand would come from behind, take the bow from mine and show me how to hold it without force. He had a marvellous bow technique, but like a child, he would harp on this one strength and soon had little more to teach me.

me would never pay for a concert. he did not even need to negotiate his way past ticket booths. he had a mysterious manner that cast him as partly needy, partly priviledged. And humour. Lots of it.

his favourite joke was about the cellist who never played but one note. he had a wife who did not complain about this playing, but never complemented him on it, either. One day she walked past a cafe where another cellist played a multitude of notes, up and down, up and down the strings. Back home she excitedly told him about it. “what is it with you then, playing only one note all the time?” “Hush, dear,” he said, “he is still looking for the note. I found it.”

He called me “Fransie.” I was his star pupil and he never missed an opportunity to extoll on my talent. But he had several criticisms of me, too. I play too much piano. I am too South African, enjoying too much sun. I do not practise enough. I do not warm up before concerts. I do not carry a wooden plank to hold my cello peg. Finally, I did not follow a career as a professional orchestra player.

Over thirty years, I knew this man who hardly changed. His thoughts and habits were so staunchly patterned that anything could happen, and they would remain. My lessons with him became nothing but rituals. No imparting of skills, but weekly chunks of life shared between a cello devotee and one who just uses it to express feeling. I would not have stuck it out with him, but for this: he loved me.

When he moved to the old age home, i visited him. He still gave lessons to others well into his eighties. And walked, took the bus, and peddled hitches. He almost lived to a century.

The last time I saw him was with the third concert i gave at the old age home. I played my own, spontaneous, music. I wished to show him that i can really make the cello sing. And i thought that he accepted the direction i took, even though reluctantly. Yet, in the end, his patterns won the day. At this concert, he stood up in the middle of it, complaining in his Yiddish-Dutch-German-English-Afrikaans (this language came and went with him) that i should play the classics – even though i got the overwhelming vote for my own music from the rest of the aged audience. He was upset. Upset at 96, like a child, like the amiable child he’s always been.

And he upset me. It was as if 3 decades of tolerance for his confines gave way to reaction. My feelings for him chilled at a time when it was supposed to settle into resignation. And i hesitated from visiting again.

After two years I asked Laura to accompany me in a classical concert at the old age home, to finally appease him. But this was, sadly enough, too late. Mr Leichner died, too old to admonish me to come and visit as he always did. And I broke down in tears for never being able to satisfy him who believed in me so much.

I also cried for an era that shifted further back into history with his departure. The era of “old music” in “old” Johannesburg. Show me another city that has changed so much in two decades? How do you live a life, being brought up in one world and having to mature in another?

Perhaps mr Leichner signifies the context of my life: not being able to build upon the foundations laid, shaky as they were. Now i live in a tenuous tension with a past that i love, but can never answer to.

The future lives on, yet the sadness remains.

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