Biography of Claude Cymerman
The walls in the Claude's studio are covered in posters from his previous concerts--some of them date back to before I was even born. The rest of the wall space is replaced by book shelves, rows and rows of books describing, teaching, glorifying music--mostly piano and mostly French. And thousands of scores, the majority of which he has played at one time or another. The remaining space on the book shelves is filled up with personal mementos (photos, trinkets, souvenirs) .
Most of the room itself it taken up by two black grand pianos--one for students and the other for Claude to demonstrate on. On top of the pianos are stacks and stacks of scores which give the room a look of untidiness (although in my opinion, is a sign of a busy musician). The rooms look as though it has been "broken in" by Claude over the past 30 years. Ironically, the DePauw job was an unexpected twist in Claude's life which turned into his permanent residence.
But this is where our conversation ended. We began by taking chairs by the window, coffee in hand with a comfortable student-teacher relationship (slowly built over the years) filling the air. However casual our relationship had been over the time, never had our personal lives come into our conversations.
So my questions started at the very beginning of his story-- October 2, 1947 in Metz Loraine, France (bordering Germany). Claude Cymerman was born to non-musician parents: a watchmaker/jeweller and housewife. They were an older remarried couple that had lost their first spouses and children in the horrific World War II. As a result, they were very protective and a little closed-off but like all parents, only wanted the best for their late child. The best included pushing him to work very hard at the piano, which he started when he was seven years old. The story goes that at a dinner party with a family friend, he started to pick a familiar tune on the harmonica with his nose which both amused and impressed the friend enough to offer him piano lessons. The Cymermans also had an old piano at their house on which Claude practiced his perfect pitch by plunking out songs from the radio on (this came handy later in life as well). Before he started his piano studies, he studied at a Catholic School where the teacher played the violin for about five minutes at the end of class which intrigued and touched the musician in the six year old Claude. At seven, he began to take piano classes at the Metz Conservatiore with Mercel Mercier- a teacher, composer, poet, organist, philosopher, and father-figure to Claude. Mercier, well admired and accomplished in Metz (a street was named after him), also had a daughter, Dominique, who was, and remains, a good friend of Claude's. Much like all other kids, however, he did not enjoy practicing the piano until he turned about thirteen and might have quit had his parents not persisted (his asthma kept him from doing things like sports). He did use his piano abilities--which came easily, much more easily than to others, to Claude--to accompany singers and play at the school of ballet where his talent for sightreading and perfect pitch were useful. However, an anecdote he told proved that it is not always such a good thing: Claude soon became bored with the written exercises for ballet warm ups and decided to improvise popular radio tunes. He happened to pick the favorite song of the premier ballerina who laughed upon hearing opening of the song, fell off her point shoe (the other leg was perched precariously on the bar), and broke her leg. His other job for pocket money was to accompany a retired singer, Madame Jungman, who lived down the block from him. She had become too old to be a great singer any longer and was starved for both human and musical interaction. At the time, Claude would make up excuses, any excuse, to not do it which she counteracted by begging him and his parents (who were a little more sensitive to the old lady's problems). Despite how much he hated it then, he swears that improved his sightreading and listening skills. He also realized, even at the time, that the singers success was directly related to the level of preparation and musicanship of the accompanist. Chopin had promoted that exact same thing and nowadays, Claude is a firm believer in accompaning and listening to singers and Opera to learn melodic phrasing and expressiveness.
By thirteen, Claude had begun to enjoy practicing and was entering in various national competitions--and winning. Also at this time, his school work had ceased to be important--most of his work was done for Metz Conservatiore--and his fortunate close relationship with the principle got him out of many tests. He graduated halfway through high school with a "midway" diploma. When he reached fourteen, Mercier and Claude began to take trips to the Paris Conservatory (where his asthma dissapeared and where he found cultural inspiration) to study with Pierre Sarcan. Previous study with a professor was one of the only way to get into the Paris Conservatoire because there was, and is, such stiff competition for admission. At fifteen, Claude was admitted to the Conservatoire and moved to Paris. Sarcan, a big fan of the Russian music school of beautiful technique and emotion, focused heavily on technique and agility. Claude, a self proclaimed "not workaholic", chose to do less than what was assigned technically and probably saved his muscles in the long run (other students of Sarcan did not stop in time and developed tendenitis). He also contributes his ability to relax to hours of foosball spent at the cafe next to the school. In May, 1968, it was the student revolution--later joined by the workers--whose slogan was "Power to Imagine"; there was no mail, no trains, buses, gas. Claude's small contribution to the riots was to push an old grand piano off of the top of the flight of stairs and to help lock the director in his house for a week. The point of the riots was to show the fact that the University's (and governments) way of doing things were too strict and stiff; they did not allow for creativity and personal preference. To get to graduate from the Conservatoire, the students had to win a competition--first year you must get third, then the next second, and then first to actually get the diploma. If someone won 2nd, and then got nothing the next two years, they were kicked out of the school; same thing happened if you get 2nd and then 3rd. But in three years, Claude was done with the Conservatoire.
At twenty, he married and took a year off to play jazz and generally enjoy life; he was in a group called the "Green Penguins" with a (unfortunately rock) drummer, and a bass guitarists who always cut his fingers on the strings. In '66, however, the Prime Minister of France,Georges Pompidou, extented the music education for another three years ( mostly because the Russians kept beating the French in all the International Piano competitions) so that Claude got a call from Pierre Sarcan to apply for the scholarship. After being admitted, he went back to studing the piano seriously. Around that time, the Iron Curtain had been lifted and he was able to go see the likes of Richter, Kemff, and Czefra. At the same time, he was performing the more international competitions--one of the most prestigious was the Margerite Long/Jaques Thibaud Competition in which he got second (and competed against pianist such as Vladimir Viardo).
It was at this competition that Claude met Gyorge Sebok, a Hungarian pianist that worked for Indiana Univeristy in Bloomington. He offered to get Claude scholarships to go to school in America and a week later Claude, his wife, and 6 month old daughter Elina took the last commercial boat, Queen Elizabeth, across the Atlantic (this way, they could take their car and most importantly, music). Claude attended IU for two years and had all the intentions to go back to France when the position for professor at DePauw opened up to which Claude applied, and was accepted and has stayed for the past 30 years.