He Dove In and Did It

Alan Rusbridger
Alan Rusbridger; drawing by James Ferguson

A cursory glance at the title of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s first-person saga suggests a kinship with the BBC One television series Play It Again that launched in 2007 and documents the attempts of celebrities to learn a musical instrument. Just over halfway through his eventful and sometimes harrowing sixteen-month account of tackling Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor, Op. 23, a monument of the piano repertoire, Rusbridger serves up a more intriguing rationale:

Should I ever make a book out of my endeavour with the Ballade, I resolve, I’ve at least got the title: Play It Again. It has two associations apart from the possibility that I might be sitting in front of an old upright piano in Casablanca this time tomorrow night: returning to the piano as an adult, and the fact that it’s only by endless repetition that any progress is made. The journalist in me also likes the fact that it’s a misquote. Bogart never said it.

In a modestly viewed YouTube post by The Guardian in January 2013, Rusbridger amplifies:

I thought of the title in Libya. I’d gone on the last flight into Libya before the no-fly zone to try and rescue a Guardian correspondent who had been kidnapped. And in Libya I was in this deserted hotel playing this piano in the hotel that nobody wanted to stay in. And it looked as though the only way we would get out was via Casablanca. And there’s something about getting it wrong. Humphrey Bogart never said it. And in the middle of the Leveson Inquiry [the public investigation growing out of the News International phone-hacking scandal] it kind of appealed to me.

Indeed, in the 1942 film Rick simply tells his pianist: “Play it, Sam.” Woody Allen’s 1972 movie, Play It Again, Sam, obliterated any collective memory of the original line. But in Rusbridger we have a writer who in the deepest recesses of his mind delights in a conviction that everything is at some level connected—in this case Chopin to high-stakes journalism and power politics. What sets this particular odyssey apart is not just a protagonist who might seem to have no discretionary time but the improbable and daunting choice of “the Impossible”: mastering (or at least taking on seriously) Frédéric Chopin’s ballade, a ten-minute cornerstone of the Romantic repertoire both loved and feared by pianists, composed in 1835–1836 when Chopin was in his mid-twenties.

During Chopin’s lifetime the piano rose to talismanic status in Europe (and eventually America), a position it maintained until the advent of the phonograph. Something talismanic still remains about playing the piano. Show up at a reception and tell the first person who asks after your profession that you are a pianist, and a spark inevitably flickers across their eyes, perhaps punctuated by “Oh wow!” This is frequently followed by a confession that at one time the questioner also took…

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