Monday, July 29, 2013

NB at the piano: I get started

The Complete Piano Music of Neely Bruce: THIS IS IT 
The first of twelve recitals will take place on Sunday 29 September, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. in Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut
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My mother’s name before she married was was Mary Beulah Neely. Her mother was Lela May Hemphill. There are a number of references to my grandmother as a music teacher in various small towns in Mississippi. She married rather late in life (as did my mother). Once a year my father, Woodrow Wilson Bruce Sr, would pack his wife and three small children in the car and we would go visit Mrs. Neely in Mendenhall.

Visits to Granny were a highlight of my childhood. I have vivid memories of her, and of her plain but memorable house by the railroad tracks (across from the tower where the steam engines took on water) and two blocks from the famous Mendenhall Hotel which had (and still has) a fine restaurant, once written up in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Granny had no central heating, and boiled water to get rid of the ants on the kitchen floor. We all went outside to use the privy.

The visits of which I speak took place took place in the late 1940s and into the 1950s. About 1958 my father became concerned that she could no longer live alone. He drove to Mendenhall, packed her things and moved her to Homerville, Georgia, where the family lived at that time. Granny and her only daughter (my mother) didn’t get along all that well, for reasons I never knew. But she adored my father, because he saved her from ending her life in squalor and he would slip her a bit of whiskey from time to time. She died in her sleep in December of 1964 at the age of 84. She is buried in Jackson, Mississippi next to her husband, John Todd Neely, who died two years before I was born.

Although my grandmother didn’t have a lot of things, she did have a piano. Her ambition as a girl was to be a concert pianist. As a young woman she travelled to Louisiana to hear Paderewski play. She told this story the rest of her life. The Polish virtuoso, whom she always called “Pader-ROO-skee” (like most Americans of the time), made an indelible impression on her. In her last years in Homerville her greatest pleasure was watching the Liberace show. She was fond of his playing  and she wholeheartedly approved of the doting attention he bestowed on his mother.

My first memories of music are singing in church, listening to the Grand Old Opry on Friday nights (a family ritual second only to church attendance) and climbing up on the piano bench at Granny’s house in Mendenhall to bang on the keys. Many years later I told this anecdote to Herbert Brun, who wryly observed “You’re still doing it.” (This was a reference to my performance of the cluster-laden assault on the piano that is the finale of the Lejaren Hiller Suite for Two Pianos — but I digress.)

Granny had severe arthritis and knew that she would eventually have to quit playing the piano at the Mendenhall Baptist Church. By the time I remember her, she had already stopped teaching piano pupils. Mama made a deal with her. When the time came that her mother could no longer play, she would send the piano to us in Birmingham so that I could have the piano lessons I repeatedly requested. When that time finally came, shipping the piano to Birmingham was prohibitively expensive. Granny sold the piano for $300 and send the money to Mama. She bought a sturdy upright, upon which all three of us learned to play the piano. (The instrument is still in the family, by the way. It’s in the home one of my inlaws on the Driggers side, in a comfortable farmhouse near Waycross, Georgia.)

My sister Linda inherited the contents of Granny’s piano bench, but she eventually gave them to me. I still have this music. It is completely typical of bourgeois taste in music in the early twentieth century: the Beethoven “Moonlight” sonata, a piano arrangement of the overture to William Tell, “In a Persian Market” by Albert W. Ketèlbey, the Chopin waltzes, and several songs by Carrie Jacobs Bond. Just typing this list of pieces gives me a bit of a shiver. So many of the issues in my musical life come straight out of Granny’s piano bench. My life-long love of Beethoven, my intense involvement with opera, my fascination with parlor music, the seminar I teach on Chopin, and those haunting, delicious tunes of CJB that Phyllis sang so beautifully — not a bad encapsulation of my entire musical career. Ives isn’t there, of course. I was to learn about Ives much later. But perhaps the music of Ives is just the Danbury equivalent of the contents of that piano bench in Mendenhall, long ago, all jumbled up together.

With our new (used) piano in place at 2867 Norwood Boulevard, Birmingham, Alabama, I was about to begin lessons. At the age of eight I started working my way through the John Thompson books with Mrs. Marguerite Groover. Her house was a twenty minute walk from ours. My life-long involvement with the piano had begun.

At the age of nine, while we still lived on Norwood Boulevard, I wrote down my first composition. It is a waltz, sort-of like Brahms, sort-of like Chopin. It takes about two and a half minutes to play. Eventually I will play it for the Wesleyan audience, but not now. My next blog will begin to discuss specific pieces that I will perform on 29 September. That recital will feature very recent work, along with a few things I wrote as a teenager.


  1. Delightful memories, Neely. May there be many more! Have the Sept 29 date on the calendar.

  2. Neely, my own grandparents knew Paderewski, as he took the waters in and later had a ranch near Paso Robles, California, where they lived. He once coached my grandmother in playing the famous Minuet (not fast! she told me) and my grandfather (now 104) can still remember his impromptu concerts at the Paso Robles Inn.