So long labored over, Concert Pitch exhibits both steady authorial attention, and
the airlessness of its intensity. It is like a machine, but one that comes to a halt. This
is partly an effect of prose which is very much its first-person narrators, its
character being perhaps too precisely his: his self-cancelling, self-defeating narrative -
and therefore the novels - lacks a saving roughness. Pauls
narrator-protagonist Ernest Hallowell lacks the ability not to weigh matters too
closely, not to be self-critical to the last degree. He is, suggests his wife,
"the most exigent man alive." Two literary models hover over Concert Pitch:
Henry Jamess "The Beast in the Jungle," whose Basil March holds himself
aloof for a singular fate only to discover too late that it was to have nothing ever
happen to him - in Concert Pitch, "Nothing ever happens... to me, I said"
- and James Joyces "The Dead," whose Gabriel Conroy has humiliatingly to
concede pre-eminence in passion to his wifes memory of another man. And in the
background there is Nathaniel Hawthornes "The Artist of the Beautiful,"
who had to have a perfect wife, and cant bear her or a relationship with her on any
other terms. Beyond everything, Hallowell may simply lack affect for others, and his
governing need may be self-destruction.1
Hallowell, in his forties, lives in Paris "some years after the War." A
Bostonian by birth and a former soldier, a legacy has permitted him to follow his
interests. He is a music critic, reviewer and scholar, the author of a small volume
"on the early English composers." He is surprised one day to find himself
invited to the annual party given by "the dean of the Paris music critics,"
Lucien Piot. Hallowell admires even as he is repelled by Piots "energy and
perseverance," so different to his own fatigability, even in the appreciation of
Among Piots guests are Elizabeth Maura, née Peabody, like Hallowell a Bostonian
by birth, widow of the Spanish violinist Ignacio Maura and mother of Robert, a young
pianist and hopeful composer. She questions Hallowell about his published view that the
piano is becoming obsolete, a "doomed" instrument - "The composers let it
drop long ago." He is uncomfortable at reasserting what had earlier depressed them.
In the course of the evening Piot showily rejects his present musical protegé for Robert.
Raoul Evrard, poet in "a group which has succeeded the Dadaists without inheriting
the latters spirit of play," makes a scene; unlike the narrator, but like Piot,
Evrard is a committed man, if to artistic destruction - "Christ, how I hate
music." Though he senses his sympathy for Evrard, Hallowell cannot bring
himself to such flamboyant negativity. Evrard further annoys him by suggesting that
Piots apparent sexual interest in Robert is very likely reciprocated. Hallowell
doubts the latter and becomes concerned for Elizabeth, should the story circulate. In any
case, Piots admiration for Roberts musicianship seems genuine, and Hallowell
finds himself surprised to share it. He is also surprised to find himself drawn to
Elizabeth: "my hopes of relief from futility and boredom had begun to center around
her timid loveliness and the spiritual stamina her chronic self-effacement could not
hide." But he has a critical view of his own interest, even as he takes it: "It
was not a mere love affair I was craving, but salvation."3
As Piot schemes for Robert Mauras success - which will of course sustain his own
position as a patron - Hallowell angles, in his more restrained and self-inhibiting way,
to win Elizabeth. He believes that she has sacrificed her career as a harpsichord player
for her son and imagines he wishes her to regain "her independent existence."
Concurrently he sees his offers to assist her as calculating and selfish - "the idea
of getting rid of the boy had taken possession of me." Specifically, if Piot will
take Robert off for a recital tour of American cities, he can have Elizabeth to himself:
"It was not only a hunger for her person which distorted my motives and actions, but
also a wish to possess all her thoughts, to come between her and the exigent young son...
to cut her off from the past I could not share." When Elizabeth admits to being
unable to tell Robert that she cannot afford to finance him much longer, Hallowell offers
to break the news; in doing to, he colors the picture to ensure Robert will accept
Piots tour. For his part, Robert exhibits depths of "emotional rage"
beyond the austere pianism that Piot promotes (though Piot wishes him more romantic) -
"I should like to... compose one piece which would exhaust the possibilities of aural
sensations" - but he is a dutiful son, and appreciates what Piot is doing for his
career. At this point, it is unclear what Robert senses about Piots emotional
attachment, and Hallowell does not raise the matter. Appreciating the result of
Hallowells intervention, Piot declares he is "very understanding." One
step forward, one back: more of Hallowells inhibition is exhibited when he denies
himself the advantage of his new position, lest Elizabeth think his "liberties...
were in the nature of a reward." Nevertheless he takes new rooms, and installs a
harpsichord, where he may entertain her.4
Piot arranges a recital for Robert in the Salle Gaveau in order that he may tour
America with established European repute. He turns to Elizabeth Mauras friend the
American Mrs Barnes for surreptitious financial support. (Photographs make the
"robust and straightforward-looking young American" look "effeminate and
melodramatically soulful.") Roberts former piano teacher, the Spanish Madame
Vallejo, returns to Paris for the occasion, complicating matters. Hallowell suspect that
just as Piot may be sexually interested in Robert, Vallejo has designs on Elizabeth. The
concert is, however a success.5
With Robert away in America, also covertly financed by Eleanor Barnes, giving him
increased access to Elizabeth, her acceptance of his timid overtures is countered by his
growing conviction of his "selfishness... dishonest and malignant." While
"All the remained was to act, to cross the fatal borderline and possess her," he
tells himself that "Elizabeth would be chilled by [his] impatience." At the same
time he regards his hesitation as "essential cowardice." From the safety of
subsequent narration, he concludes, "In truth, I suppose I was fettered by a horror
of unavoidable details, or the fear of the consequences of her possible
disappointment." At length he brings her to see his harpsichord and induces her to
practice on it.6
When they settle to a companionable routine, he is torn between letting matters lie and
perversely provoking change. When Elizabeth omits to mention Robert, Hallowell does, then
agonises about her concern: "I wanted to oppose her, just then, even to hurt her, to
punish her for her lapse."
He contrasts Evrards revolutionary gesture - his group is joining the Communist
Party - with his own private intentions:
Why could I not find some satisfactory course of action, some channel into which to
turn my thoughts and energies, some vista into the days that were to come?
Or was Evrard, tormented by his own violent nature, over-balanced with ideas of grandeur?
And I, in turning once more from full contact with the world, pursuing the only sensible
aim, a womans love and personal seclusion.
But even this is not what he is doing wholeheartedly, "afraid of being
over-cautious, in the guise of considerateness - of letting matters drift which required
an initiative." When Elizabeth makes him realise that Robert had protected her from
other men, and confesses her own weakness and feelings of failure ("Im
afraid... that something other women have was left out of me"), it is the cue for
Hallowell to change his mind about Roberts influence and to declare his affection,
but it also sows the seed of later dissention.7
When Elizabeth explains that she had unfairly induced Maura to elope with her, so she
could get away from her stifling Boston family, Hallowell becomes suspicious: "Could
Elizabeth be hiding by a partial disclosure of her difficulties with her husband an affair
of which she could not convincingly deny the significance?" Having execrated Maura as
a beast, he finds he is "taking sides" with him against Elizabeth. She turns
more and more to Hallowell, and he does propose and is accepted. They keep their marriage
secret from all but Eleanor Barnes, until Robert can be told. On the wedding night,
despite endearments, he seems unable to become aroused, and while "simply
stunned," he appears to determine on a "white marriage," awaiting the right
moment for its physical consummation.8
While they entertain the Barnses, Hallowells maid Madame Berthe sees Robert
outdoors, his face "like a dead mans." Robert has returned
unexpectly from America and he sends for Hallowell; he has discovered Piots true
interest in him, struck him, and abandoned the tour. To Hallowells relief he
doesnt want his mother to know he has returned. His innocence having blinded him to
reality, he has determined to take a mistress, "to find out" about women.
Hallowell helps him to find somewhere and finds him work editing music scores, Mrs Barnes
again paying. He tells Elizabeth about Roberts return, but convinces her that he
should be left alone. Nevertheless he does bring Robert to her, and gradually a routine is
established. As for the marriage, "I had come to the conclusion that the perfection
of our physical love would result from a steady accumulation of mutual happiness and
tranquillity." There is little to accumulate.9
For once taking action on a wider front, Hallowell arranges for a Paris performance of
the "statophone" symphony of the Jewish American composer Gurevitsch, in which
both he and Robert will perform. Gurevitch is another uninhibited alter ego, wholly
dedicated to his genius, willing to sacrifice anything in its cause. The night before the
concert, the two activists Gurevitsch and Evrard tangle over the Communists
rejection of Evrards post-Dadaist group. When the concert begins with a piece by
Robert, Hallowell realises with chagrin that Robert has unconsciously plagiarised the
early composer whose works he had been editing. Paul draws upon the 1926 premiere of
Antheils "Ballet Méchanique" at the Theatre des Champs-Élysées,
including runaway airplane propellor, for a bizarre episode which, in the prevailing
strained atmosphere of Concert Pitch, has rather less spirit that most memoirs of
the occasion. Evrards baffled group determines to smash the concert hall up, after
which the poet takes his life in the toilet of a nearby bar. Hallowells public
musical efforts have brought disaster on all but Gurevitch, who moves on to Moscow to
arrange another performance.
Robert is in despair at realising what his composing has amounted to. He refuses to see
his mother, and Hallowell is not sorry:
There had not been a moment since I had known her when I had longed so desperately to
comfort her; still the urge to hurt her was uppermost. It sickened me to realize how far I
had sunk beneath the level of ideal courtesy and tenderness which I had believed would
beautify our life together.
Elizabeth moves out. Hallowell is drawn more and more to Piot, whose unswerving purpose
to regain Roberts affection strengthens him. Vallejo tells Hallowell of her own
unrequited love for Ignacio Maura, and the complexities of having been his son
Roberts teacher. When Elizabeths father dies, making her and Robert his heirs,
Hallowell spitefully reveals to Robert that his teacher had been in love with his father,
and he severs his contact: "A single conciliating word would have brought us
together; still I was burning with an instinct to punish myself as well as him by cutting
another tie." Imagining Elizabeth will be pining for him, he is cast down by seeing
her in apparent health; it makes him doubt their past relationship. He enters and taunts
her with her new wealth. His life is slowing to a standstill, as is Roberts, and on
this they build a non-relating relationship. Late into each night at a bar, together in
Hell, Hallowell and Robert drink, commiserate and accuse one another:
"Im glad my mother left you," he said.
"She didnt leave. I asked her to go....
"You knew all the time about Piot," he said.
"I knew and I didnt case," I said.
As they row, other customers remark on the "sales Américains." The
novel ends in devastating aridity, the permanent hell of other people and
There is little joy of life in Concert Pitch none at all by the end -
whose subject is precisely the salt which has lost its savor. As a reflection on an
American Paris gone bad, while the novel hardly ranks with Fitzgeralds Tender Is
the Night or even "Babylon Revisited," it did reinstate Paul as a novelist
and set him up for more home-grown effort.
1 Elliot Paul, Concert Pitch (New York: Random
House, 1938), 211, 157 (Pauls ellipsis).
2 Ibid., 3, 11, 6.
3 Ibid., 18, 21, 23, 33, 34.
4 Ibid., 91, 69, 70, 67, 113, 83.
5 Ibid., 103.
6 Ibid., 137-38, 141, 142.
7 Ibid., 161, 154, 157, 164.
8 Ibid., 180, 183.
9 Ibid., 231, 240, 264.
10 Ibid., 342, 382, 413.