Great pianists are a joy to hear, whether your tastes run to classical or contemporary. But as Nancy Burkhalter notes in one of her answers below, behind every great pianist stands a great piano tuner—either the artist him- or herself or a professional familiar with the many intricacies of coaxing a given instrument to produce the best sound and feel of which it is capable.
Herself a piano tuner, Nancy Burkhalter made use of her training to imagine the life of Frédéric Chopin’s tuner. But to reduce her new novel, The Education of Delhomme: A Novel of Chopin, Sand, and La France, just out from History through Fiction, to a historical disquisition on music would be a great disservice. Through the triangle of Chopin, his lover George Sand, and Burkhalter’s fictional hero, we are pulled into a past of romance, jealousy, and intrigue. Read on to find out more.
This novel, as you note in the beginning, is based on your own experiences as a piano tuner. How did that come about?
I don’t know when it occurred to me that Chopin must have had a piano tuner. But since it takes a long time to learn (about a year) and a fair amount of upper body strength, it seemed logical that Chopin, who was frail due to his TB, would have had neither the strength nor the time to do it himself.
And how did that past experience lead you to writing fiction, particularly about Chopin?
I adore Chopin’s music, so choosing him as a character in my book was easy. I originally wanted him to be the main character, but he was not a strong enough personality to be a “leading man.” So that’s why I invented his piano tuner, who could reveal Chopin’s character, composing habits, and preferences for how he liked his piano tuned, voiced (how it sounds), and regulated (how it feels). A pianist and a tuner are two sides of the same coin. And while the pianists get all the glory, tuners are really the unsung heroes: no one ever asks, “I wonder who tuned that piano?” but a less skilled tuner can easily frustrate pianists’ efforts to express themselves the way they would like.
Your hero, Beaulieu Delhomme, gets into the business of piano tuning by a circuitous route. What is his story?
Delhomme is hampered by his authoritarian, withholding father. He tries pleasing him but never seems to accomplish that. His low self-esteem is typical of children whose parents make them feel as if they will never measure up. So although he stumbles into piano tuning in a last-ditch effort to earn money, he finds that he excels at it, along with the practical aspect of allowing him to earn money in a respectable manner. Such a profession allows him to regain his self-respect and attract a mate as well.
And how would you describe him, as a person? What does he want in life?
Delhomme is somewhat needy. He is not very tall but admits he is pleasing to the eye. He knows what he wants in life: to be married and have a family. He never admits this, but behind his desire for a family is the yearning to right the wrongs his father perpetrated on him. This burning need compels him to compromise his morals and spy on Chopin.
In addition to his work for Chopin, Delhomme becomes involved with a man named Eugene-François Vidocq. How does this happen, and how does it connect with the historical moment in which your novel takes place?
It helped a great deal that Vidocq was contemporaneous with Chopin and Sand. It made it easy to weave my tale around them all. As I tried to show throughout the book, Vidocq is all-knowing when it comes to people’s comings and goings and is ultra-devious about knowing what they need and devising a way to lure them into doing his bidding: Delhomme needs cash and craves respect. So Vidocq dangles sheaves of francs and the rare chance to become Chopin’s tuner; all he has to do is spy on him to get at Sand. Such a plan means Vidocq can indulge in his favorite activities: causing trouble and manipulating others.
Chopin was, of course, romantically linked to the writer George Sand. She and Delhomme don’t exactly hit it off. Why?
I set up the plot to be a triangle between Chopin, Sand, and Delhomme. Chopin is mostly oblivious to the jealously between Sand and Delhomme, but they are competing for his attention for different reasons: Delhomme because he adores Chopin, who admires him and needs his tuning skills; and Sand because she is possessive of his (sexual) attention.
This book hasn’t been out long. Are you already working on something else?
I’d be surprised if you come across any writer who doesn’t have something in the pipeline. In fact, this book was originally conceived as two stories: a modern-day piano tuner finds a ring in a piano and goes on a quest to find out its origin. Then it switches to the historical tale of Chopin and George Sand to fill in the details about how the ring came to be and then back to the main story, and so on. Unfortunately, the organization felt too clumsy or perhaps too beyond my skill set at the time. Now I’m glad I separated out the two tales. But that modern-day tuner story would make a great sequel to this one.
I have written two other novels that need a great deal of polishing. The first one is about a Dominican kid who was adopted by white parents in Columbus, Ohio, and yearns to be a professional baseball player. The other book was therapy of sorts. Several people in academia were so odious to me that I wrote a murder mystery in which they were killed in the most ignominious way. Now I am in a holding pattern, trying to decide if I should work on any of them or start something new. I’m toying with the idea of writing a novel set in St. Petersburg, Russia, a city I find endlessly fascinating and moody. But that idea is very nascent.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Nancy Burkhalter is an educator, writer, journalist, linguist, and piano tuner. She is the author of The Education of Delhomme: Chopin, Sand, and La France. Burkhalter holds a master’s degree in journalism and English education as well as a doctorate in linguistics from the University of New Mexico. She has taught composition for many years in the United States, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Her overseas work led to an interest in comparative education, especially critical thinking. Both observations and research led to her book and blog, Critical Thinking Now. In 2019, she was a recipient of Go Back, Give Back, a fellowship through the State Department to train teachers in St. Petersburg, Russia. She resides in Edmonds, Washington.