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A Secret Music by Susan Doherty


Set in 1936 Montreal, A Secret Music is the story of Lawrence Nolan, a sensitive fifteen-year-old piano prodigy who grows up in the shadow of his mother’s mental illness. Forced to keep this shameful secret, he attempts to raise himself and his ten yearold brother. He counteracts the deep ache and creeping mistrust caused by his mother’s emotional absence by escaping into the intense realm of Chopin and Schubert, the only language he understands. When his brother becomes ill, he is left with enormous responsibilities. At a piano competition in Montreal, Lawrence makes a climactic decision that puts his future on hold in order to salvage his family life. In A Secret Music, Susan Doherty Hannaford re-creates the Depression-Era world of Montreal and demonstrates how music can redeem a life.


Lawrence Nolan decided to become a famous pianist on a bright cold Saturday in March when his fingers ached with pain. He was about to turn six. He had been rehearsing for hours, had memorized an entire book of piano songs, more than a dozen in all, to make his mother smile. Her stomach had grown huge and showed through the filmy dress she wore. She was so surprised by her son’s achievement that instead of vomiting or lying in bed, she heaved herself to her feet and took him to the Archambault Music Company to buy him new sheet music. In the seven-storey shop on Saint Catherine Street at the corner of Berri, she proudly introduced her son to M. Edmond Archambault, who shook hands with young Lawrence.

“He memorized the grade two Toronto Conservatory of Music pianoforte examination booklet. There are eleven songs on List B.”

M. Archambault’s head, as round as his father’s wooden bowling ball, bobbed up and down in amazement. He said he was sorry he wasn’t at his old location that had a recital hall, and then motioned for Lawrence to have a seat at one of his many pianos lining both walls of the vaulted rez-de-chaussée. Lawrence played an allegro by Mozart from List A that his mother hadn’t mentioned.

After the impromptu performance, M. Archambault reached into a pocket on the inside of his suit coat and removed a flat gold box. He extracted two small white cards with embossed printing and gave the first one to Lawrence and the second to his mother. To Lawrence he said, “I will be waiting to hear about you. À bientôt, d’accord? N’attends pas trop longtemps.” Then he shook hands with Lawrence’s mother as if to acknowledge that she, too, had done something right by the introduction. Next, he led them to the door and out onto Saint Catherine Street where he hailed them a cab.

In the taxi on the way home, Christine said, “Lawrence, today I heard a genius.” When his mother held his hand, he felt something alive under the skin of her wrist. She nestled in beside him while Lawrence ran his fingers over the raised letters of the white card.

Later, she would say to him, “Play by the rules, learn every note as you see it, then you must forget every rule and play only from your heart.”

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