Colette Maze, now 107, began playing the piano at age 5. She defied the social conventions of her era to embrace music as a profession rather than as a pastime. She has just released her sixth album.



This next story takes us to Paris, where a woman who's been playing the piano for a century just released her sixth CD at the age of 107. She's had an often difficult life, but the piano, along with a sense of humor, have carried her through. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley met a musical centenarian.


COLETTE MAZE: (Speaking French).

FABRICE MAZE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

Colette Maze warmly welcomes me into her 14th-floor apartment overlooking the Seine River. She still lives alone, though on this day her son Fabrice Maze has joined us.

C MAZE: (Speaking French, laughter).

F MAZE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Maze offers me a whiskey or a cognac, along with a hearty laugh, as it's only 10:30 in the morning.

C MAZE: (Playing piano).

BEARDSLEY: She sits down to play her Steinway. Across the room is the Pleyel piano she received on her 18th birthday. Maze began piano at the age of 5. Her grandmother played piano and her mother the violin. She remembers concerts at their grand Paris apartment when she was a child. But Maze says her mother was severe, so she sought the affection she lacked at home in music.

C MAZE: (Through interpreter) I always preferred composers that gave me tenderness, like Schumann and Debussy. Music is an effective, visionary language, a poetic language. In music, there is everything - nature, emotion, love, revolt, dreams. It's like a spiritual food.

BEARDSLEY: Colette Maze grew up a few steps away from Paris' prestigious Ecole Normale de Musique and auditioned for a spot with its legendary director, pianist Alfred Cortot. Her instructors included acclaimed pianist Nadia Boulanger. Maze says she received rigorous training at an early age and aspired to become a professional. But for a girl in those years, the piano was meant to be a pastime, not a career, and her parents disapproved. She remembers taking the final exam.

C MAZE: (Through interpreter) There were several levels, and the top one was concert pianist. I just missed it because my parents were on vacation, and they didn't want to leave me in our apartment with the piano. They put me in the maid's room upstairs, which had no piano, so I couldn't prepare.

BEARDSLEY: Maze did attain the second level and went on to become a teacher at the school. I ask her what memories she has of the war.

C MAZE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "I remember going down into the basement," she says...

F MAZE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: ...Before Fabrice interrupts to tell her she's confusing World War I and II.

C MAZE: (Laughter).

BEARDSLEY: Colette realizes her mistake. Born in 1914, she has memories of both world wars, of going down in the basement as a 4-year-old when the Germans bombarded Paris with long-distance artillery cannon Big Bertha in 1918, and of leaving Paris on a bike with her best friend when the Nazis invaded in 1940, part of the massive exodus from the city. After the war, Colette fell in love with Fabrice's father, but he was married. When she became a single mother, her parents cut her off. Despite the family's wealth, Fabrice says his mother raised him in a tiny apartment and struggled to make ends meet.

F MAZE: A girl in that family at that time was obliged to have a very bright and great marriage with someone with rich, to be able to be the perfect wife, you see? And she refused all the conventions.

BEARDSLEY: Maze says his mother was an artist trapped in a conservative family that didn't understand her and a feminist before her time.

C MAZE: (Playing piano).

BEARDSLEY: He began to feel an urgency to record her when she was in her 90s.

C MAZE: (Playing piano).

F MAZE: She played the piano each day, six hours a day. And this was, for me, important that she could record to leave a message, to leave a trace.

BEARDSLEY: Maze says his mother is also the last living pupil of Alfred Cortot, who taught a specific technique focused on relaxing the arms and hands.

F MAZE: The way she's touching the piano is very special, is very rare. So I consider, thus, the way she played, for example, Debussy was very unique.

C MAZE: (Playing piano).

BEARDSLEY: Colette Maze records her albums at home on her own piano with the help of a sound engineer. Her son says, at first, she was hesitant.

F MAZE: She told me at that time, no, it's not interesting. I am a very little pianist, and there are so many great pianists all over the world that it's useless.

BEARDSLEY: But he says she finally took to the idea. She's been recording for 15 years now and released her sixth album this past May.

F MAZE: And now she left, I would say, around eight hours of recording. So I think it's very precious. And now she's existing through her piano, and her piano was her life.

BEARDSLEY: Colette Maze says she loves Schumann and is entranced by the love story between Clara and Robert Schumann. She says she's still waiting for her Prince Charming.

C MAZE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Colette says, "You have to look at life from all sides, but there's always an angle of joy."

C MAZE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Youth is inside us," she says. "And if you appreciate what's beautiful around you, you'll find a sense of wonder in it."

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.



In the audio of this story, as in a previous web version, we incorrectly say Colette Maze is Alfred Cortot's last living pupil. Maze is one of Cortot's last surviving pupils.