The venue’s lights switch off, the artists walk on stage, greet the audience with a synchronised nod and take their places. This well-oiled machine no longer surprises anyone. At the same time, not many people in the audience pay any attention to the discreet, black-clad silhouette who slides at the back of the stage to reach the piano. But what do we know about this silent character who has just positioned himself in plain sight, yet it’s completely anonymous? We find out more about an essential job that is largely ignored: the art of turning pages.

Brenda Petitjean in the shadow of Alexandre Tharaud © Miguel Bueno
Brenda Petitjean in the shadow of Alexandre Tharaud
© Miguel Bueno

Is this just a job? We meet Jean Fröhlich. This stage manager, well-known on the French music scene – in the last 30 years he worked for Radio France, for the Deauville festivals and for a series of Parisian churches – in his life has certainly turned more pages than many musicians! For him, if the salary of a page turner has always been “measly” and it’s not enough to make his role “a job”, the hours spent “keeping his head down” have been a great source of income while he was working as a temp. “This occupation has helped me out for most of my life. I did a lot of it, especially at the Studio 106 of Maison de la Radio, for the chamber music programmes. When Nicolas Bacri was director of programming, about 30 years ago, they added a tick box to their contracts, to find out if the musicians needed a page turner.”

This form of official recognition, however, cannot hide a fundamental truth: in most institutions, the page turner is the man at the bottom of the ladder, the one about whom the organisers – and the artists – probably only think a few hours before the concert. Brenda Petitjean, piano student at the Haute École de Musique in Geneva and official page turner of the latest Sommets musicaux de Gstaad, explains how an artist goes about finding a page turner: “Usually the pianist will ask his students, or his friends’ students when he is away from home.” The message then goes around in the pianists’ network until you find one who’s willing to take on the task.

Many say no. In this “behind the scenes” job, acknowledgment is pretty much non existent, whilst the pressure is often quite significant: “If we make a mistake, live on air...” considers Jean with a nervous smile. He recalls the opening of the last Festival Présences, where he turned pages for Bertrand Chamayou performing a work by Wolfgang Rihm for piano solo: “I was only able to see the score about an hour before the start of the concert. Bertrand told me that it was going to be easy, that he would indicate the right times to me… At one point, during the piece, he came right next to me, he almost stood up to strike the lower part of the keyboard. Luckily the floor was slippery and I easily managed to quietly move backwards… The hardest part was then to go back up close afterwards! I was holding the chair in one hand while getting up to turn the pages… And I had to keep my movements graceful for the audience. We need to remain invisible.”

Turning the pages is emotionally impactful, admits Brenda. “I love being on stage, living the experience of the performance by proxy. We read the music, we live it in an unique way.” In turning the pages lies a real musical artistry, essential yet unexpected. “I get lost in the music, I change my way of turning according to the rhythm, to the style of the piece, to make sure that I am as inconspicuous as possible. My work can’t be permitted to disrupt the listening experience.” The pianists themselves recognise the importance of their page turners, often considering them actual performance partners who have their own role in the interpretation of the work. For this reason, Brenda has studied very closely the Goldberg Variations with Alexandre Tharaud before his concert. “On the score, some variations can be achieved without a pause, others with a short pause. Half way through the 32 variations, there is instead a double fermata, indicating a very long pause. We really took our time to prepare before the concert, and Tharaud pointed out to me all these different details. Based on the ending of the variation, we had to mark a moment of silence or to turn the page before the last note died down. And, half way through, leave almost a mini interval… He insisted on the fact that it was as it was chamber music, that I had to feel when to turn, that I had to play with him”.

Of course mistakes happen, and they often make for Youtube videos that achieve a certain notoriety. But consider before judging page turners too harshly: they are not necessarily those most at fault. “I can’t remember the name of the pianist,” hesitates Jean. “It happened at a Sunday afternoon concert in Deauville. It was a concert that was going to be filmed for a television channel, with a TV crane taking up lots of space in the venue, and so on. The pianist had forgotten their score in Paris. Usually scores are copied from the original with a printer that bends the pages slightly, but, of course, a normal photocopy machine does not do that… so what happened next was every page turner’s worst nightmare: in moving one page on the stand, I took two at once. And the scores fell apart.

Jean and Brenda would say the same thing, though: in most cases, turning the pages is not that hard. If they do it a little too soon or too late, the pianist adapts, as the score often only serves as a memory aid for the artist. And this, according to Jean, shows how issues with page turning often reveal how serious the musicians are. “There are pianists with whom it’s hard: we turn at the last note, they shake their head; we turn two bars in advance, they shake their head… That’s a sign that they don’t know the score well enough! When a pianist studies the score, they pay particular attention to the page turnings, they work them, with a hand, with the other... “ Jean would not name any names, but he admits that he has “a little list”. In over 30 years of experience, we can trust him: how many people are as familiar with the Parisian piano world as him?

Jean Fröhlich between Guillaume Bellom and Yan Levionnois © Claude Doaré
Jean Fröhlich between Guillaume Bellom and Yan Levionnois
© Claude Doaré

But he’s modest about it. He refuses to consider the artistic aspect of his job. “I keep my head down, honestly.” He doesn’t think about the limelight or the thrill of the challenge. They called him for an unique project: turning the pages for Christian Tetzlaff in the Violin Concerto by Jörg Widmann, a piece “where the violin is jumps around like a grasshopper for 27 minutes without break”. If he accepts, is not because of the challenge. Even if he’s sitting on a 6-inch-high cube, hardly able to even see the score and only half seeing the directions of the conductor. Why, then? He pauses for thought. Eventually he says: “It’s my sense of duty, the pleasure of a job well done, even if no one can see it. Especially if no one can see it.”

Something that Jean finds particularly amusing is that he plays the part of the invisible man, he with his 6-foot frame, he who hasn’t just worked with pianists: his 400 concerts on the stand of the great organ in Notre-Dame in Paris have a special place in his life as a page turner. Especially since he was also asked to take on the substantial responsibility of operating the 130 stops of the gigantic instrument. At first, he followed the instructions of the musicians, but eventually some organists, such as Arnold Batselaere or Yves Devernay, trusted him so completely during their improvisations that they would leave the page turner to take the lead to decide when to execute “their“ crescendo. All while keeping completely anonymous from the stands, the audience utterly unaware. “The audience does not even know that we exist,” says Jean with a big smile. This interview is almost veering into the realm of science fiction: all this power in the hands of an invisible man, can we even imagine it?

Translated from French by Laura Volpi.