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This French Pianist Has Been Playing For 102 Years And Just Released A New Album

Sep 20, 2021
Originally published on September 28, 2021 8:14 am

PARIS — Colette Maze welcomes me warmly into her apartment on the 14th floor of a building overlooking the Seine River. From her flowered balcony, she has a view of the Eiffel Tower. She offers me a whiskey or a cognac — along with a hearty laugh as it's 10:30 in the morning.

It's that humor, a sense of optimism and her beloved piano that have buttressed and comforted this centenarian through an often difficult life. Maze has just released her sixth album at the age of 107.

While she lives alone, on this day her 71-year-old son, Fabrice, has joined us. Maze sits down to play her Steinway baby grand — one of two pianos she owns — with her gray tabby cat, Tigrou, stretched out on the carpet near her feet.

Across the room is the Pleyel piano she received on her 18th birthday. Maze began playing at the age of 5. Her grandmother played piano and her mother the violin. She remembers concerts at their grand Paris apartment when she was a child.

But Maze, born on June 16, 1914, says her mother was severe and unloving. So she turned to music for the affection she lacked at home.

"I always preferred composers who gave me tenderness," she says. "Like [Robert] Schumann and [Claude] Debussy. Music is an affective language, a poetic language. In music there is everything — nature, emotion, love, revolt, dreams; it's like a spiritual food."

Maze says she believes there is a guiding force in our lives. The fact that she grew up just steps away from Paris' prestigious École Normale de Musique is one example. She auditioned for, and was granted, a spot with its director, legendary pianist Alfred Cortot. Maze's other early instructors included virtuoso pianists Nadia Boulanger and Jeanne Blanchard. (She remembers Blanchard had tiny hands, just like her.)

Maze plays the piano as a young woman. "The way she's touching the piano is very special," son Fabrice Maze says. "It's very rare. The way she is playing Debussy is very unique."
Family photo

Maze received deep and rigorous musical instruction from an early age and aspired to become a professional. But that wasn't easy for a girl in the early 20th century. The piano was meant to be a pastime, not a career. For her parents, it was inconceivable that she become a musician.

She remembers taking final exams.

"There were several levels, and the top one was concert pianist," she says. "I just missed it because my parents wouldn't let me stay in our apartment with the piano while they were away. They thought I might make a mess, so they put me in the maid's room upstairs, which had no piano, so I couldn't adequately prepare."

Maze did attain the second level, qualifying her to teach. She went on to become a teacher for nearly 20 years.

"She decided she was an artist, a musician, not a housewife, so she married the piano," says Fabrice Maze, her 71-year-old son.
Eleanor Beardsley/NPR

I ask her what memories she has of the war. She begins to talk about going down into the basement before her son gently interrupts to tell her she's confusing World War I with World War II.

With a hearty laugh, Maze realizes her mistake. What's incredible is that she's old enough to remember both world wars.

She recalls the thundering noise of the Germans' long-distance artillery cannon, known as "Big Bertha," being fired on Paris, as a 4-year-old in 1918 when her family took refuge in their basement.

In June 1940, when France fell to the Nazis, she and her best friend rode their bikes hundreds of miles to the rural south, part of the great exodus of panicked Parisians.

After the Second World War, Maze met and fell in love with the man who would become Fabrice's father. He was already married. She became a single mother, and her own parents cut her off.

She raised her son in a tiny apartment and struggled to make ends meet.

"I realized later that this bourgeois family was really selfish," Fabrice Maze says. "They had no heart to leave their daughter in this very poor condition."

Maze plays her Steinway piano, one of two pianos in her apartment.
Eleanor Beardsley/NPR

In that milieu, in that family, a woman could not take her destiny in hand, he says. "She was expected to have a very bright and great marriage with someone rich and be a perfect wife," he says.

"The problem is Colette was an artist in an excessively classic family that did not understand her, so she was completely isolated," he says. "And despite that, she persevered and did take her destiny in hand. She did not want to be in conformity with the family tradition. She decided she was an artist, a musician, not a housewife, so she married the piano ... to the detriment of all the social conventions of the day."

Later, as her son was growing up, she did choose to marry. But he says, "She was never lucky with her sentimental life, she was not understood by her family. She fought. And her piano was a source of equilibrium."

Fabrice Maze began to think about recording his mother when she was in her 90s.

"I always knew the piano — from morning to night — she was always at the piano. She sort of breathed through the piano," he says. "And for me, it was important that she could record, to leave a trace — to leave a message."

There was another reason for recording her. Colette Maze is one of Cortot's last living pupils. Cortot taught a specific technique and method, focused on relaxing the arms and hands.

"So the way she's touching the piano is very special," her son says. "It's very rare. The way she is playing Debussy is very unique."

He says his mother has always been self-effacing and wasn't interested at first.

"She told me, 'No, there are so many great pianists in the world, it's useless.' "

But he says she finally came around to the idea. They started with a first recording, then a second, a third and on up to a sixth, which was released in May — a compilation of all the Debussy from her earlier recordings.

"Now she's been recording for the past 15 years, and she's left about eight hours," he says. "It's very precious. Now she's existing through her piano, and her piano was her life."

Maze records her albums at home with the help of a sound engineer — usually on Sundays, when the neighbors are likely to be out and the building is quieter.

She loves Schumann and says she is entranced by the love story between the 19th century German Romantic composer and his wife, Clara. She says she's still waiting for her own Prince Charming.

You have to look at life from all sides, she says, and there's always an angle of joy.

"Youth is inside us," she says. "If you appreciate what's beautiful around you, you will find a sense of wonder in it."

: 9/23/21

In the audio of this story, as in a previous web version, we incorrectly say Colette Maze is Alfred Cortot's last living pupil. Maze is one of Cortot's last surviving pupils.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story takes us to Paris, where a woman who's been playing the piano for a century just released her sixth CD at the age of 107. She's had an often difficult life, but the piano, along with a sense of humor, have carried her through. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley met a musical centenarian.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: (Speaking French).

COLETTE MAZE: (Speaking French).

FABRICE MAZE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

Colette Maze warmly welcomes me into her 14th-floor apartment overlooking the Seine River. She still lives alone, though on this day her son Fabrice Maze has joined us.

C MAZE: (Speaking French, laughter).

F MAZE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Maze offers me a whiskey or a cognac, along with a hearty laugh, as it's only 10:30 in the morning.

C MAZE: (Playing piano).

BEARDSLEY: She sits down to play her Steinway. Across the room is the Pleyel piano she received on her 18th birthday. Maze began piano at the age of 5. Her grandmother played piano and her mother the violin. She remembers concerts at their grand Paris apartment when she was a child. But Maze says her mother was severe, so she sought the affection she lacked at home in music.

C MAZE: (Through interpreter) I always preferred composers that gave me tenderness, like Schumann and Debussy. Music is an effective, visionary language, a poetic language. In music, there is everything - nature, emotion, love, revolt, dreams. It's like a spiritual food.

BEARDSLEY: Colette Maze grew up a few steps away from Paris' prestigious Ecole Normale de Musique and auditioned for a spot with its legendary director, pianist Alfred Cortot. Her instructors included acclaimed pianist Nadia Boulanger. Maze says she received rigorous training at an early age and aspired to become a professional. But for a girl in those years, the piano was meant to be a pastime, not a career, and her parents disapproved. She remembers taking the final exam.

C MAZE: (Through interpreter) There were several levels, and the top one was concert pianist. I just missed it because my parents were on vacation, and they didn't want to leave me in our apartment with the piano. They put me in the maid's room upstairs, which had no piano, so I couldn't prepare.

BEARDSLEY: Maze did attain the second level and went on to become a teacher at the school. I ask her what memories she has of the war.

C MAZE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "I remember going down into the basement," she says...

F MAZE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: ...Before Fabrice interrupts to tell her she's confusing World War I and II.

C MAZE: (Laughter).

BEARDSLEY: Colette realizes her mistake. Born in 1914, she has memories of both world wars, of going down in the basement as a 4-year-old when the Germans bombarded Paris with long-distance artillery cannon Big Bertha in 1918, and of leaving Paris on a bike with her best friend when the Nazis invaded in 1940, part of the massive exodus from the city. After the war, Colette fell in love with Fabrice's father, but he was married. When she became a single mother, her parents cut her off. Despite the family's wealth, Fabrice says his mother raised him in a tiny apartment and struggled to make ends meet.

F MAZE: A girl in that family at that time was obliged to have a very bright and great marriage with someone with rich, to be able to be the perfect wife, you see? And she refused all the conventions.

BEARDSLEY: Maze says his mother was an artist trapped in a conservative family that didn't understand her and a feminist before her time.

C MAZE: (Playing piano).

BEARDSLEY: He began to feel an urgency to record her when she was in her 90s.

C MAZE: (Playing piano).

F MAZE: She played the piano each day, six hours a day. And this was, for me, important that she could record to leave a message, to leave a trace.

BEARDSLEY: Maze says his mother is also the last living pupil of Alfred Cortot, who taught a specific technique focused on relaxing the arms and hands.

F MAZE: The way she's touching the piano is very special, is very rare. So I consider, thus, the way she played, for example, Debussy was very unique.

C MAZE: (Playing piano).

BEARDSLEY: Colette Maze records her albums at home on her own piano with the help of a sound engineer. Her son says, at first, she was hesitant.

F MAZE: She told me at that time, no, it's not interesting. I am a very little pianist, and there are so many great pianists all over the world that it's useless.

BEARDSLEY: But he says she finally took to the idea. She's been recording for 15 years now and released her sixth album this past May.

F MAZE: And now she left, I would say, around eight hours of recording. So I think it's very precious. And now she's existing through her piano, and her piano was her life.

BEARDSLEY: Colette Maze says she loves Schumann and is entranced by the love story between Clara and Robert Schumann. She says she's still waiting for her Prince Charming.

C MAZE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Colette says, "You have to look at life from all sides, but there's always an angle of joy."

C MAZE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Youth is inside us," she says. "And if you appreciate what's beautiful around you, you'll find a sense of wonder in it."

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLETTE MAZE PERFORMANCE OF DEBUSSY'S "CLAIR DE LUNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.