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Can piano playing in the family circle make you a better person? Judging from a 2007 biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer published by Germany’s CH Beck Verlag, the English translation of which recently appeared in paperback, the answer is yes.

Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a Lutheran pastor and martyr of the wartime anti-Nazi resistance in Germany, eventually paying with his life for his moral resolve. He was born in Breslau to a highly cultured family – his maternal grandmother was a pupil of Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann.

Bonhoeffer began piano lessons at age eight and was so obviously gifted that his parents thought he might become a professional musician. By age 10 his performances of Mozart piano sonatas delighted his family, and as he grew up, according to one friend, he ‘never turned down a request to join in playing one of Bach’s concertos’ in a two-piano version, or improvise on themes from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.

Yet theology beckoned, even though Bonhoeffer continued to play Beethoven sonatas and also to plot the assassination of Adolf Hitler. For this latter activity, he was arrested in 1943, mere days after his last piano performance at home – a cantata by organist Helmut Walcha (1907-1991), Praise the Lord, painstakingly rehearsed with family members despite other pressing concerns.

Bonhoeffer’s family circle included his young nephew, Christoph von Dohnányi, also an accomplished pianist who grew up to be an eminent conductor and mentor, which suggests that, in this family at least, a passion for pianism helped cultivate inner goodness.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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