Five grand pianos and eleven pianos are on their way to a warehouse in Breda. They are not just a collection of musical instruments. The Erards, Bösendorfers, Bechsteins and Blüthners are characters: playing witnesses in the musical theater performance Tuning of piano, an account of looted art and pangs of conscience. From Wednesday is Tuning of piano exhibited for four days in a moving shed at Tilburgseweg in Breda. The show then travels to De Gasfabriek in Deventer and Museum ‘t Kromhout in Amsterdam.
Actor and theater maker Klemens Patijn (45), creator of Tuning of piano, had her black hair cut into a 1930s headdress especially for the tour, with a tight parting and ears clearly visible. ‘We give these wings with new compositions, close harmony and play a voice in such a numsetics, a coat for concert pianists. During the Second World War, they were robbed from the houses of Jewish families. They confront piano tuner Jacobus Kromm, played by Jaap Dieleman, with the hidden stories of their origins and the dramatic lives of the rightful owners. For example, Kromm’s conscience gets into fights with ten music-making hands and fifty throbbing fingers. Making these plundered instruments sound clean takes on an uneasy ring.’
The idea for a musical theater performance about current controversies surrounding looted art arose eight years ago, when the actor, known for films and TV series such as Hell ’63, War winter, Cops Maastricht and CastingX , was asked to participate in a graduation film. ‘A student in his mid-twenties had made his antique bathroom in a main house in Amsterdam Oud-Zuid available as a shooting location. Later, the entire house turned out to be her property. Her brother and sister also owned such a monumental villa, given to them by a grandfather. As a broker during the war, he had bought these houses for next to nothing. I was immediately captivated by the question: can one now enjoy property that may have been acquired illegally? Is it not our duty at least to be curious about its provenance?’
Patijn searched the archives of NIOD, the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, for information on expropriation and war art. He read about the so-called ‘pulsing’, the emptying of homes after deportations from Amsterdam contractor and NSB member Abraham Puls’s moving company. And as a fanatical piano player, Patijn heard from piano restorer Theodoor Dekker about Nazi stamps in the lids of harpsichords and double grand pianos (paired instruments to be played with four hands). “The very heavy instruments turned out to have been systematically stolen from houses. Trainloads of drunk have been transported to Germany. Those who have to flee, hide or be deported are not quick to put such a precious instrument somewhere. So I came up with the idea of performing pianos and grand pianos as witnesses in an old piano tuning workshop, the lion’s den. They are emotionally connected to the memories of the rightful owners and question the piano tuner about his actions and choices.’
Patijn deals not only with looted art, expropriation and the issue of restitution, but also gradually becoming complicit in crimes. “It is of course easy to judge in hindsight. But what do you do when you are in such a situation?’ In the performance, Patijn plays the Blüthner grand piano, a character who finds no peace in the fate of history. ‘For me, a sentence from the cellist, conductor and resister Frieda Belinfante is very important for making this project: ‘If you accept the first step, because it really can’t do much harm, a second, a third often follows. And before you know it, you’re an accomplice.’ I wonder if I would have done the right thing at the time’.
Another quote from Tuning of piano it makes you think: ‘Some people owe their good conscience to their bad memory.’ Patijn: ‘In any case, secret stories must be told. It is the fuel for my theater group Goed Gezelschap.’
In 2018 and 2019, Patijn played the double blood performance with Nynke Heeg happy about the undisclosed traumas of their Indian parents and grandparents. ‘As a grandson, I had slightly easier access to my grandfather’s memories of the Japanese camp than my father. He just told him, “I’ve seen heads roll, and that’s what I’m telling you about.”
For years, Patijn has also been silent about his own minor trauma, the sounds and body shocks he has as a result of Gilles de la Tourette. ‘I was very ashamed of it. The mild tics increase when I am stressed. Medicine, therapy, camouflage, I’ve tried everything but nothing helped. Until I was on stage. When I act and make music on stage, they stay away. It’s a wonderful interplay between narrowing of consciousness and dopamine production.’
Piano atmosphere by Goed Gezelschap, 19 to 23/10 in Breda, subsequently to be seen in Deventer and Amsterdam.