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Simon Tedeschi: from piano prodigy to writer

Anne Susskind
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Published: 8 July 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Tedeschi’s Jewish heritage is central to his new book which combines family memoir with prose and poetry, ficton and fact

Having a child prodigy sounds like a parent’s dream, but being one is a different story, if pianist Simon Tedeschi’s first book is anything to go on.

At eight, Tedeschi was up there, in the Sydney Opera House, winning against a 23-year-old in an open-age-competition. He’s not complaining - not at all - but, as he tells The Jewish Independent, a prodigy is “an adult construct, foisted onto a developing psyche … a person acts in some ways like an adult, but is a child.”

It’s since been a stellar career for the classical pianist, and now he can add to his repertoire a genre-defying book, Fugitive. Part family memoir, part philosophy, part poetry, part fiction, part speculation, even part love story, it is with some satisfaction that Tedeschi says that booksellers don’t know where to shelve it. “What is it about genres? We need them like comparisons, to get through every day.

“The books I love the most, and the music I love the most, certainly defies genre-markers. I kind of look at a book in the same way as I look at human identity, it’s much too complex for labels.”

In Fugitive, Tedeschi writes of learning very early on what it is to change clothes rapidly, and to read the mood of the room in a heartbeat. He was younger, smaller, “weighed down by a kit bag of griefs, old enough to know, when threatened, how to flash colours as madly as a chameleon.”

Playing in a big hall, even now, he says, one can feel like a gladiator in an amphitheatre. “Especially if the audience is above you. That's, you know, the Albert Hall or something.”

Tedeschi at the piano (Cole Bennett)
Tedeschi at the piano (Cole Bennett)

The book’s title comes from Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives, a suite of 20 piano miniatures written in Petrograd (today Saint Petersburg) during WW1. The book has “possibly hundreds of bits” and its form is that of a musical fugue, which consists of many voices.

“What is distinctive for a fugue is that the voices come in in different times in different ways, sometimes backwards, sometimes forwards,” Tedeschi says. Memory is so often fugal, he says, and the way he thinks, and he hopes other humans think, is not linear, but constellatory.

Fugue is also etymologically connected to fugitive and has resonance with his family history of having to flee, his paternal grandparents from Italy and Germany in the nick of time, and his maternal grandparents Holocaust survivors from Poland originally.

But the book is not what his publisher calls “yet another trauma template” or laundry list of grievances. Nor is it only about himself. He’s influenced by Holocaust survivor Paul Celan, who he thinks one of the greatest poets of the 20thcentury. “His writing goes beyond sectarianism to something so universal, that it goes even beyond Jewish experience, into the truly cosmic. He grew up in a German-speaking home in Romania and had to deal with the fact that the language he loved had been co-opted and abused by the tyrants of Nazism. So what he did is that he changed German and created compound words that technically don’t exist and it’s like German translated. It’s the most extraordinary thing to read … His most famous poem is Todesfuge (Death Fugue).”

Portrait of Simon Tedeschi by Loribelle Spirovsky
Portrait of Simon Tedeschi by Loribelle Spirovsky

His favourite contemporary writer is an American, Eliot Weinberger. While Tedeschi says his own Jewishness is a “very secular thing” (he is, in fact, irreligious), he respects where he comes from enormously - traditionally, culturally, artistically and spiritually. “And Jewish writers, for instance, are almost always my favourites … Eliot Weinberger, who's this astonishing writer - he is like me, or shall I say, me like him? It's very interesting, because I would guess he's entirely secular. He's into Chinese poetry … He wrote a very short biography of Muhammad. It’s incredible.

“But he writes in this way that you could only describe as rabbinical … a didactic way of writing, this musical incantatory way of writing.” In certain cultures, and their writings, you can hear the years and centuries behind it, Tedeschi says. Another book he recommends is Family Sayings, by Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, about all the sayings they would throw around at each other that became like mantras. “It’s the most beautiful, hilarious book,” he says.

Fugitive is almost unbearably concentrated and intimate (I had to take a breather often) avoiding nothing in the Jewish “kit bag”. There’s humour too, although it’s dark, laughing and crying humour, Jewish humour. Of his grandmother on the maternal side, a holocaust survivor, Tedeschi writes: “Nanna did make a joke, just one time. My sister, then a baby, dropped a bunch of dolls on the floor. Nanna walked in and simply said - Auschwitz. Everyone cried.

Simon Tedeschi
Simon Tedeschi

“We still think back on it because she didn't make many jokes, and she didn't really find anything funny. We were rolling on the floor crying, crying and laughing. And she was just, she couldn't believe what she just said.”

Whatever it is, Tedeschi’s Fugitive is definitely un-Australian, un “she’ll be right.” But he’s very glad to be here, in his home in Sydney’s Newtown, with his wife, artist Loribelle Spirovski, and their cat.

Growing up in his family, he said, everything was “on a sort of a very high plane of existence. There was not casual, ever. There were always layers. It's funny how that residual European outsider thing makes its way through the generations, especially for me as the oldest child. So, to a degree, I grew up feeling an outsider but also loving Australia. Enormously.

“Actually, Australia suits me a great deal because if everybody was like me, it would drive me nuts. When I’ve been to New York and parts of Europe, it’s just been too much for me. I like the somewhat laissez-faire attitude … because I have room, I have mental space. And it’s such a beautiful country.” 

Image: Portrait of Tedeschi from the cover of Fugitive (All images from Simon Tedeschi's website)

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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