Joseph Villa, a great pianist and a dear friend, died on Thursday 13th April 1995 from complications resulting from AIDS. He was 46 years old and at the height of his pianistic powers, although, through the puzzling lottery of musical careers, he never had the sort of success he deserved. Fortunately he made five CDs (Liszt and Scriabin), and there are a number of tapes from live-concerts which it is hoped will be released.
It is in these tapes that the clearest glimpse can be seen of the almost fearful energy and passion which could burst forth when Joseph played. A friend of his recalled to me an impromptu performance at a party of Scriabin's Fifth Sonata, where the initial, amused listening was suddenly transmuted into speechless fixation as Joseph conjured up the piece's wild frenzy. As the last, screaming arpeggios shredded up the keyboard, it was the audience's nerves that were in tatters.
Due to his almost empty concert schedule during the years we were friends, I was only able to hear him live on one occasion: when we read through the piano-duet version of Liszt's Via Crucis at his apartment. I remember his hands being incapable of just playing notes - every chord was coloured with the care and expertise of a great painter. He knew just how to handle the vast canvasses of Liszt's style - his gestures, his vocal lines. What an irony this duet seemed when I visited him in the hospital, his phenomenal powers smothered under the sterilized white sheets, and the burden of extreme physical weakness making his final months a personal 'Via Crucis'.
One particular interest we shared was the traditional Latin Mass. In fact, we only became close friends as we chatted over brunch after St. Agnes' weekly 'Tridentine treat' in New York. I never saw him more passionate than when he was lambasting the modern liturgical abuses he witnessed. He would often make these views plainly known to cowering priests or trouser-suited nuns, and, on occasion, would even walk out in protest as guitars were 'untuned' before starting their strumming!
There is an inevitable sense of tragedy when such talent is unused or ignored, but some lines from the French philosopher Jacques Maritain seem to me to be an appropriate response:
"The philosopher is inconsolable at the irreparable loss of the least fleeting reality, a face, a gesture of the hand, an act of freedom or a musical harmony in which there flashes the slightest glimmer of love or beauty. He has his own solution, I must admit. He believes that not one of these things passes away because they are all preserved in the memory of the angels ... (who) ... will never cease to speak of them to one another and thus bring back to life in a thousand different forms the story of our poor world".