The Pianist

Joseph Lanzon

‘Cunningham House’, a 20 room mansion built in 1870, was situated in one of Britain’s great historic cities – Chester. The city has a background of over 2,000 years of history. It is surrounded by a wall built by the Romans to protect it from invaders. Many of the city’s houses are of Tudor or Georgian architecture. It has the oldest still-in-use racecourse in Britain. It is said that its Eastgate clock is the most photographed in the world.

The first owner of the Manor House was Major William Cunningham-Parker, who was the first citizen of the town at that time. He was a passionate and accomplished pianist, but in 1920 he died on the keys of his beloved piano while playing and singing his favourite waltz – The Blue Danube – by Johann Strauss.

He loved singing the lyrics of this classic masterpiece; his voice, strong and vibrant, reverberated throughout the house.

“Danube Blue, so bright and blue,

Through the vale and field you flow so calm,

Our Vienna greets you.

Your waters stream through all the lands,

You merry the heart with your beautiful shores.”

It was often alleged by the neighbours that sometimes, often during the night, they would hear the clear sounds of this classic melody being played on the piano and his singing, even though the mansion was now empty and uninhabited.  The property was subsequently occupied by his heirs, one generation after another. It was finally owned by Robert Cunningham-Parker, himself also a pianist. His passion, however, was acting, and for this reason he had moved to London to follow his acting activities, leaving Cunningham House empty.

As he had no intention, for the time being at least, of returning to Chester, he leased the mansion to the Chester Heritage Foundation, who adapted it for cultural purposes. For the opening of the revamped property, the Heritage Foundation was to produce a play based on the history of the House, piano ghost and all, in the large courtyard of the same house. Who better than Robert himself to play the role of Major William Cunningham-Parker? He was intimately familiar with the house, knew the character of his ancestor well and, of course, he was a pianist and also an actor. When approached by the Foundation, Robert accepted immediately.

The open courtyard was full despite the bad weather conditions on the day. Snow was falling heavily, the wind was a gale force and the cold was bone-shattering. The play was, however, a huge success. The actors gave a brilliant performance and the applause at the end was long and deafening. The whole story and history of the House was shown to perfection. The part that really stole the performance, however, was the playing and singing of William Cunningham-Parker’s Blue Danube, which mesmerised the audience. As the audience, pleased and satisfied, were leaving the theatre-style courtyard and the Director, also satisfied with the performance, was resting in his room, Robert Cunningham-Parker burst in breathlessly. “I’m sorry, awfully sorry! It was impossible to make it in time, the snow made chaos on the roads tonight, I was held up. I’m very frustrated to have let you down, I can tell you, sorry!”

“What?” gasped astonishingly the Director, “Do you mean to tell me that you did not play and sing The Blue Danube?” “Of course I didn’t play and sing!” said Robert. “I was 30 miles away in Stoke at the time!”