It’s funny how circumstances sometimes lead you almost by the nose in a certain direction.
When I switched on the WSO (Wiener Staatsoper or Vienna State Opera) to watch a production of Mozart’s Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), Billy Joel was furthest from my mind. But, as I elaborated in an earlier column, a video plug for the city of Vienna during the intermission of the performance happened to this time feature Billy Joel.
I realized there were many aspects to Joel’s life and music that I was hitherto unaware of. I had a read-through of ‘A Biography in the Life and Times of Billy Joel’ by Christy Brans
on and ‘The Definitive Biography of Billy Joel’ by Fred Schruers
and learned much.
Maybe the die-hard fans among you already knew, but I didn’t know ‘Billy’ (William Martin) Joel was of Jewish descent, and that the family of his father Howard (born Helmut) Joel, a classical pianist fled Nazi Germany to Switzerland, having to sell the family business (mail-order textiles) for a pittance, and eventually reaching the US via Cuba to circumvent the strict direct immigration quota for German Jews. The account of relentless, ever more hateful and systematic anti-Semitism the family endured before leaving their homeland has disturbing parallels with Islamophobia in our own time.
Howard Joel married Rosalind Nyman, also from a Jewish émigré family in 1946, and “Billy” was born to them in 1949. But the darkness of Howard’s earlier years (“Life is a cesspool”, he once said to six-year-old Billy, who remembers it as “a pretty rough thing to say to a kid”), the anti-Semitism, the war, the culture shock of arriving in America, which he hated, never left him. He would go to the family upright piano and play Chopin, Beethoven and Debussy. Joel reminisces: “I thought it was pretty great; I would get stoned from listening to it. But when he finished, he was always in a really bad mood. I guess because it made him feel frustrated, angry that he wasn’t a virtuoso pianist. But what would put him into a bad mood would put me into a great mood. I thought, if I could do that, I’d be a really happy guy.”
In some ways, Howard’s desertion of the family, while depriving Joel of a much-needed father-figure, freed him to make choices his father would never have approved, such as his decision to be a rock musician.
An “excruciatingly” shy youth, Joel discovered he could let his piano do the talking when words failed.
Joel’s maternal grandfather made up for his father’s emotional absence, taking him to concerts, bribing ushers with packs of unfiltered cigarettes in postwar America to let them in as he was too poor to afford tickets for the two of them, or lying about Joel’s age so he could go in for free.
I also learned another important thing from reading Joel’s biography. How many of us would continue learning music if we were teased and beaten up while going to music lessons? But Joel actually took up boxing, just to beat off the bullies, so he could walk to his lessons unmolested. And he got “pretty good” at boxing: of his 26 bouts, he only lost two by judges decisions, two more by knockouts, and had 22 wins!
Interestingly, he sees similarities between boxing and piano-playing: discipline and hard work. But boxing also required a ‘killer instinct to excel’, which he admits he never had.
Piano lessons “sometimes felt like drudgery, but I’ve continued to rely on that training every day of my musical life.”
The love of classical music informed Billy Joel’s release of his 2001 album ‘Fantasies and Delusions’, a collection of piano pieces composed by him, just solo piano, no vocal line, and well worth a listen for its sincerity and lack of pretension (or delusion, despite the title).
In an explanatory YouTube video, Joel says: “I write all the time; people may not know it because I don’t record it. But I’m just writing thematic music, which led to ‘Fantasies and Delusions. Piano pieces have been my first love before I even started to write a song. I loved music even before they were songs. I love Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin. This [album] is more ‘me’ than anything else.”
Joel got his longtime friend, the British-Korean pianist Richard Hyung-ki Joo to record the album because he admits that while “I can write it, I can’t play it the way it should be played.”
Why the title? “Well, the album IS kind of a fantasy and a delusion. It [the cover] looks like the Schirmer classical music editions [the yellow background trimmed with a green border] in which we got the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin études, etc. So that’s a delusion — comparing myself to Chopin or Beethoven! But I did want it to be recognized that I was trying to write classical piano pieces.”
“I’m picturing a piano teacher with a student who says ‘I want to play a Billy Joel song’. My regular songs sound like crap on the piano. But now the teacher can point to the sheet music book (that accompanies the album) and learn Opus 1, 2 or 3. They’d have something they could actually learn with.”
There are 10 pieces in all, Opus numbers 1-10, all available on YouTube.
The whole album is a tribute from one Piano Man to all the Great Ones before him. This is no “crossover” music, no pop melodies “prettified” or “dressed up” in classical clothing. One hears the influence of certainly Bach and Chopin, perhaps Schumann, and the title of the first track (Reverie–Villa d’Este) suggests a bow to Liszt as well, some nuances of Rachmaninov.
Perhaps the sleeve notes shed more light on the subtitles, so I’ll only guess based on listening to the tracks. Waltz 1 (Nunley’s Carousel) is a reference to the once-famous New York carousel park, tinged with wistfulness for a bygone era.
Aria (Grand Canal) is extremely Chopinesque, perhaps a reaction to his Barcarolles. Chopin never visited Venice, but the Grand Canal subtitle conjures dipping oars and swirls and eddies in murky canals.
Invention in C minor is a clear salute to Johann Sebastian Bach. Soliloquy (on a separation) is perhaps the most Joel-ian piece in the set, eloquent and straight from the heart.
Suite for Piano (Star-crossed) has three movements, ‘Innamorato’, ‘Sorbetto’, and ‘Delusion’. Like Waltz 2 (Steinway Hall) and Waltz 3 (for Lola) and Fantasy Noir (Film Noir) that follow, there probably are stories behind them all, but they can be appreciated on their own too.
Air is a Song without Words. Perhaps Joel will incorporate it into a song someday. One also hopes that Joel will keep writing ‘classical’ pieces, even if played by others. Gramophone magazine was a little patronising in its review, calling the works ‘pleasing, ‘undemanding’ and ‘pastiche pieces.’ There’s all of that, but there’s also potential. Billy Joel’s best Opus is still inside him.
(An edited version of this article was published on 01 July 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)