Love Note to a German Castle: Farewell Schloss Lerbach

It’s New Year’s Eve, 2014. I’m playing the piano at Schloss Lerbach—the same procedure as every year. I’ve been performing here for almost fourteen years. Tonight will be the last time—the castle, in its current incarnation as a hotel, will close after this evening’s celebration. Three weeks ago, just fourteen days before Christmas, eighty hotel workers, myself included, lost their jobs. But there’s a party going on here right now. Our guests—titans of industry, beautiful people with nothing to prove, lovers, families, and boisterous  buffoons gather in the main hall. Parts of Lerbach are almost 800 years old. Some of the guests seem equally ancient. Tonight looks like the German version of Downton Abbey, with an unusually high percentage of women playing the Maggie Smith role. Draped in mink and satin and sequins and silk, they glide from one end of the hall to the other, clinking glasses, sipping champagne, and nibbling on mysterious gourmet tidbits. The black and white granite floor serves as a five-star chessboard for their social strategies. My colleagues, professional and gracious right to the end, coast along with them. There’s a silent pact among us—it might be the end of an era, but we’re going out with style.

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In front of Schloss Lerbach. Photo by My-Linh Kunst

 

I observe my young co-workers from my seat at the grand piano as they smile and nod and make nice-nice with guests they have known for years. It’s difficult to see the evening unfold without wondering why in the world such a beautiful place is closing.

“A little quail and tomato mousse, Frau Falswick-Weiss?” says a tuxedo-clad server to a stout woman wearing emerald green velvet.

“Why not?” she says as she pops a ruby-red square into her ruby-red mouth. “One last time.”

The owners of the castle and the current hotel management company could not come to terms on a lease renewal. That’s the diplomatic version of why we’re forced to close. My version? The negotiations were a big game of “chicken” and everyone lost. But what do I know? I’m a pianist, not Donald Trump, although I did work for him at one point.

Even the food seems to sparkle tonight. Shimmering dresses, jewelry, crystal, and candlelight twinkle in the golden glow of the Murano glass chandeliers. At the same time, a haze descends over the lobby. Has the Ghost of Lerbach  returned to remind us that the end is near? No, it’s just the midnight dance band —Upper Class, featuring Go-Go!—warming up the smoke machine.

In a few hours we’ll say goodbye. It’s just a gig I tell myself over and over and over again. Nothing more, nothing less. But still, I will miss these fine people, this noble place, this plush cushion of elegance that has softened my middle-aged landing in a foreign country. I slip into my next song, a piece I wrote called “December,” and try not to look back.

I’m not sure when I fell in love with Lerbach. It started as an infatuation—an impulse decision to go back to work after swearing off hotel piano gigs forever. I had played for fifteen years in Manhattan “luxury” hotels. After a decade and a half of performing background music for demanding tourists in big white sneakers, slightly-sleazy conventioneers and their margarita-slurping buddies, the rich, the homeless, the hookers, the haunted, the up-and-coming, the down and out—I was tired. I was tired of breakfast buffets on top of the piano, F&B managers who didn’t know the difference between a can of lard and a Steinway, and the way life seemed to be passing me by, one chorus of “Misty” at a time. I tried to get lost in the music during those years. Instead I just got lost. I moved to Germany with my husband. Clean start, full heart. I had babies. I had the  privilege of staying home for five years to take care of them. I played the piano for myself and never once thought about returning to hotel piano work.

One fateful night my bassist husband, John, played a jazz trio concert at Schloss Lerbach. I walked into the main hall of the castle, saw the grand piano sitting there, took one look at the guests, the fireplace, the winding staircase, and the shaft of light slanting through the tall windows, and I was smitten. “Well. Maybe I could play here,” I said to John. He introduced me to the director, and a year later—poof—I landed the job. Seems like yesterday or a million years ago; I can’t decide.

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My Colleagues

Right from the start Lerbach proved itself different from any gig I’ve ever had. If you play a solo piano job in a hotel, you have a lot of time to observe what makes the place tick (or, in many cases, tock). After a few years of playing every weekend at Lerbach, I figured out its secret. Respect. In such a small house, we all knew each other, worked together, and treasured our various contributions. Piano music created a warm and welcoming atmosphere in the main hall. I knew it; so did everyone else. The director of the hotel was in the lobby with me every night. He heard me play; he saw me work. I wasn’t just another expense on his balance sheet; I was part of his team, making an artistic statement that attracted customers. Because I had the respect of my peers I began to trust myself more and doubt myself less.

Little by little I got sucked in—the place became a second home to me. Working in a five-star hotel means mastering the art of smoke and mirror magic; creating elegance out of thin air and candlelight, enchanting guests with food too pretty to eat, wine they’ll never forget, and music that helps them remember. My colleagues and I have held hands and laughed and cried together. Even though many of my friends left the hotel long ago, I swear I sense their champagne-sipping spirits in the lobby tonight. They are all here with me as I play my last songs. This comforts me.

I sit at the piano tonight and  faces from the past fourteen years flash through my mind—a  Ken Burns slideshow of my extended castle-family. I will never forget our elegant Maître, Monsieur Thomann, pushing the stinky French-cheese wagon through the lobby every evening at 8:15—the only man I know who looks good in a pink suit; Rawi, the Sri Lankan valet, arranging flowers on my piano every weekend, using leftover petals from the arrangements of departing brides; lovely Andrea, raising the bar for graciousness and good humor during her many years at the castle; Sabine, the Front Desk Manager, asking me to name one of the black Ninja swans swimming on the little lake; Dieter Müller, world-renowned chef, taking time during the busy weekend dinner service to cook for dogs waiting for their owners behind the front desk; three sommeliers—the flashiest guys in the hotel industry—Silvio Nitzsche, Thomas Sommer, and Peter Müller—teaching me that every good Riesling, just like every good song, should tell a story; Benedikt Jaschke, now at the Adlon, who worked with me to initiate both a children’s Christmas program and a concert series—turning the castle into a cultural sanctuary for the residents of Bergisch Gladbach; Christian Siegling, Christina Esser, Thomas Tritschler, Nils Henkel—the housekeepers, the service staff, the banquet team, the kitchen guys and gals, the many apprentices who have been trained at the castle over the years—I raise a glass to all of you.

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With former Lerbach Director Christian Siegling and Michelin Star Chef, Nils Henkel.

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With Andrea (Goetze) Aldrup

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With Sommelier Thomas Sommer and his wife, Marcia.

The Guests

We’ve greeted international guests and local guests—couples from around the block and couples from Oslo and Israel and Russia and Spain. Wandering gourmets, galloping gourmands, and staggering oenophiles. Fashionistas and fops, foolhardy fellows on the fast track to fame; intellectuals and artists, poets and painters, interpretive dancers and Brazilian football stars—celebrities of all sorts, including  has-beens and wannabees, have drifted through the Lerbach lobby like glamorous dust particles suspended in moonlight. Tonight is no exception.

I’ve adored all of them, even the half-blind Lamborghini-driving wine enthusiast who used to make me play “Fly Me to the Moon” while he sat at the piano and wept. I marveled at the white-haired Professor who routinely checked two women into the hotel at the same time (three separate rooms) and kept them a secret from each other, turning the hotel into a Moliere-inspired, door-slamming French farce. I felt a particular fondness for Frau V., a woman in her eighties whose husband had been dead for twenty years. She arrived at the castle every Christmas and carried a silver-framed photo of him that she would place on my piano so he could be part of the celebration. Frau V., bejeweled, beloved, and bewildered, had a beehive hair-do so high that one of my colleagues thought her husband might still be alive and hiding there. I admired the Arabian princess who stayed with us for months and presented me with a chunk of gold the size of my thumb when she left. She still sends me a Christmas card every year.

I’ve written many stories over the years about Lerbach in my Piano Girl books—favorites include the tale of Herr Klingball, the ninety-year old who wanted to hear nothing but the Titanic theme; the diva bride who replaced my picture on the cover of my CD with a photo of herself, and then distributed the CD to eighty of her closest friends; Uncle Wilhelm and his two-hour speech; the relentless Wheelchair Guy and the piano crash that almost took off my leg; the rape of the Indian Runner Duck on the Lerbach pond; the Valentine’s Day visit from one of Germany’s most infamous porn stars. There are many more stories to write. I’ll get to them someday.

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The Piano

It kills me to say goodbye to this piano—over the course of a decade and a half, a woman can really get attached to her instrument. I’m on the Steinway Artist Roster, but, sadly, very few hotels can afford a Steinway. Yamaha, with a sales force that rivals the Green Bay Packers offensive line, has infiltrated almost every hotel I’ve worked in over the years. Generally, they are solid pianos. My Lerbach Yamaha C5 is a winner. It sits next to an open fireplace, unfazed by heat and blasts of cold air coming from three different directions. It is shoved and jostled on a regular basis when moved from the main hall into our banquet and concert room. In an episode I call the “Barenboim Bounce,” the poor Yamaha was dropped on the staircase when eleven kitchen workers attempted to carry it upstairs and into a suite for the Maestro, the day before he arrived at the castle. The Maestro’s manager wanted nothing to do with the Yamaha and had a Steinway delivered to his suite. Back down came the Yamaha. The piano, I am told, only bounced once, but still. Battle scars in the hotel business are common place—we all have them. Aside from a chunk of wood missing from the casing (artfully disguised with a few deft strokes of black magic marker), the piano survived the bounce, just like the rest of us. The carpet on the staircase did not fare as well.

Over the past four years I’ve served as Artistic Director of the Lerbach “Concerts in the Castle” series. Powerful musicians, including Benyamin Nuss, Martin Sasse, Gerald Clayton, Hubert Nuss, Thomas Weber, Barbara Nussbaum, Thomas Rückert, Michael Sorg, and Michael Abene have played this workhorse piano. Still, I think of it as mine. And it’s not. I’ve played well over 2000 jobs here, but the piano doesn’t belong to me. I have kept it tuned and pimped and well turned out. When tonight is over, I’ll probably never see it or play it again.  As hard as I’m trying to remain stoic, my eyes well up when I think about leaving it behind. My fingerprints are on this piano.

It’s just a piano. It’s just a gig. Right.

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The piano in the main hall of Schloss Lerbach. Photo by My-Linh Kunst.

 

Close to Midnight

“You’ll lose every gig you ever have,” my father said to me in 1976, when I began my career as a hotel pianist. “Don’t take it personally.” Ultimately, he was right. Over the years I have been replaced by the F&B director’s girlfriend, a table for two, and, after seven years of playing at the Marriott Marquis, by a player-piano and a mannequin that looked like a crash-test dummy in a tuxedo (I’m still not over that one). Call me paranoid, but I have never felt any amount of job security on any gig I’ve had. I take some comfort in knowing I wasn’t fired or replaced at Lerbach—I closed the joint. I’m going down with the ship, just like one of those Titanic musicians. Good thing I know the song. My heart will go on, and all that.

I look around the room on this festive night. The fake glee and forced fun wears me down. I am fifty-seven years old. Part of me thinks that this could be my swan song, as far as the hotel Piano Girl thing goes. I play concerts, compose music, make recordings, and write books. Maybe that’s enough. I claim my fourteen years at Lerbach as a victory—it’s almost unheard of to have a freelance piano engagement last so long. Part of me wants to jump up and yell “Hallelujah!” Part of me is determined to find another job that will be just as good, or better. Part of me wants to take a nap—saying goodbye can be exhausting, especially when you’re trying not to cry. Part of me wants to collect all these different parts of me and glue them back together in a new and unusual way. Piano Girl Jigsaw. That could be fun.

At 11:15 I play my last song, “Somewhere in Time,” which, according to my journal, happens to be the very first song I played at this hotel way back in 2001. I am secretly hoping for dozens of white roses, a standing ovation, a gold medal, or a purple heart, but no one presents me with anything. I hear chatter and clinking glasses. In a way, it’s exactly like my first job here. I’ve come full circle. As I’ve learned over the course of my career—first gigs and last gigs don’t matter much. It’s what happens in between that counts.

I close the fallboard over the keys of the instrument and place my hands on the polished ebony, almost overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude—to the piano, my colleagues, our guests, and the bizarre magic we’ve made together. Look! Just look at what we’ve created! It took me a long time to find the beauty in my music, but this place—in all its whacky wonder—encouraged me to do just that. A funny thing happens when you finally find beauty in yourself—all of the sudden you see it all around you, wherever you go. It’s here tonight, for sure, and I’m carrying it with me when I walk out the castle door.

Two weeks ago, when I told my eighteen-year old daughter Lerbach was closing, she burst into tears. “They can’t close,” she said. “I grew up there.”

“Me, too,” I said.

Upper Class—featuring Go-Go!—takes over. The smoke machine cranks up; the guests start doing the rich-person lizard dance. My husband is waiting outside for me in the circular driveway, engine revved, anxious to whisk me away before the midnight fireworks start.

I grab a permanent marker and sign the inside of the piano. Robin Meloy Goldsby, I write. 2001-2015. Maybe someone, even if it’s just the Ghost of Lerbach, will remember the music.

I touch the piano one last time, put on my coat, open the door, and walk to the car.

It’s just a gig. It’s just a gig. It’s just a gig.

As we drive through the park, I look out the window to get one last glance at Schloss Lerbach. A thick veil of fog has dropped over the castle, and I can’t see a thing. It doesn’t matter. I’ll always remember what’s there.

Lerbacher Winter

 

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Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl: A Memoir; Rhythm: A Novel; and Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl. Four of her piano albums—Songs from the Castle, Waltz of the Asparagus People, Magnolia, and December—were inspired by her adventures at Schloss Lerbach.

Robin will begin playing at another five star hotel beginning this summer. Stay tuned for details. Sign up here for my  newsletter, featuring a new essay every month, concert appearances, and all-things Goldsby.

  • Dina Blade

    Great writing and a wealth of stories and humor. Thank you Robin!

  • Holli Ross

    You made a difference, Robin. Much to be proud of!!!

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thank you, Holli! Yes, I have chosen to view this as a victory rather than a defeat. For a few days I thought I might mope around and drink too much wine, but I came to my senses!

  • Beautifully written as always, Robin, and poignant, as well. I can only offer to you what I would say to myself in a situation such as this: Endings are also beginnings; trust in the wisdom of the bigger picture that has yet to come into focus. Sending a warm hug your way!

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Yes, JA; you are so right. Here’s to beginnings—they are rare at our age and we should welcome them. Thanks for reading. xoxo

  • Beautiful essay. What a run. I am proud of you!

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, Robin! You get it. Love you forever.

  • Robin Meloy Goldsby

    Just found out from a friend who works at one of Lerbach’s sister hotels, that my dear old piano is now safe and warm and in a spot where it will be played and enjoyed. Now I can sleep.

  • LJS

    You took me there right with you! It’s wonderful to keep in touch with you through these pieces. And now I know we both like Reislings! Would love to know more about them telling a story…

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, Loren! You know how it with a good Riesling—the more you drink,
      the better the story. Come visit—we’ll share a bottle. xoxo

  • Maggie Maher

    What a lovely life you have had. It is hard to leave a work family behind. Congratulations on your new endevers. Thank you for sharing with us Robin.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thank you, Maggie! Having FB makes it easier to stay in touch with my work family. We are scattered all over the world! xoxo