Now that I am safely in my seventy-eighth year, on the slippery slope to eighty, my mind turns to the joys of youth. This brief essay will have a sadly elegiac tone, as I reminisce about teenage pleasures that seem no longer to attract the young.
Very early in my life, perhaps when I was thirteen or younger, I fell under the spell of the music of the Middle Ages, the Baroque, and the Classical period. I recall fondly borrowing from the Jamaica Public Library [the same branch at which I discovered the complete novels and short stories of Sherlock Holmes] a set of 78 rpm records of Gregorian chants, which I played on our Victrola, changing the needle every several plays as it wore down. [Lest I sound unacceptably bathetic, let me hasten to say that it was an electric Victrola, and did not need to be wound up, though those were still in use.] During this same time I was, like all the other little Jewish boys in the world, taking violin lessons, and even though I rarely practiced, I derived an inordinate pleasure from my clumsy rendition of the first violin part of the Bach Double Concerto.
In 1948, as I have recounted in my Autobiography, I fell in love with Susie Shaeffer, who sat in front of me in home room in Forest Hills High School. Susie, who lived several blocks from school in a Forest Hills apartment, owned a big boxed set of Bach's B Minor mass, all on seventy- eights, performed by the Collegiate Chorale and directed by the great Robert Shaw. I felt a certain connection with Shaw, because at Shaker Village Work Camp, the left-wing summer teenage camp where I spent three summers, the choral conductor was Hal Aks, who had studied with Shaw and had many of his distinctive conducting mannerisms. On happy occasions, I would walk Susie home from school and we would sit in her apartment, listening to the B Minor. The triumphant Gloria, the dramatic Credo, that begins with the tenors alone, the luxurious and sinuous Esurientes all made their way into my consciousness and became friends on whom I could rely for sheer sensuous pleasure.
In the next year or two, when I could assemble the necessary funds, I took Susie to the 92nd St. Y to hear the newly formed Bach Aria Group perform. The musicians were mostly just starting out, and many of them went on to brilliant professional careers. Robert Bloom, the oboist, Julius Baker, the flautist, and Leonard Greenhouse, the wonderful cellist who later on was an indispensable member of the Beaux Arts Trio. [The pianist of that trio, Menahem Pressler, was a magical pixie of a musician whose fingers danced across the keys, weaving tapestries of sound. During the years that I heard them, Isidore Cohen was the violinist, and I confess I never really liked his playing. It seemed to me his tone was too harsh and mechanical for his two great colleagues.] A concert of the Bach Aria group, as their name suggests, consisted of arias from Bach's more than two hundred cantatas. Although we also attended concerts at the Y by Oscar Brand and other left-wing folk singers, it was the classical music that gave me the greatest pleasure.
One of my happiest memories of those early years was an evening I spent at the Greenwich Village apartment of Walt and Vickie Fischman. Vickie had been married to Arthur Lidov, an artist some of whose work had served as covers for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and who was a friend of my uncle Anoch and aunt Rosabelle. Walt was a professional photographer who wrote a weekly How To column for the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, using his photos to illustrate various home improvement projects. [I once earned the fabulous salary of $20 an hour posing as the hands in a column devoted to recovering an upholstered chair]. Walt and Vickie were living together EVEN THOUGH THEY WERE NOT MARRIED. In the Twenties, when my parents lived in the Village, that would have attracted no notice at all, but in the late Forties, it was unheard of. In their apartment, I found a recording of the great tenor Aksel Schiotz singing a transcendently beautiful Buxtehude motet Aperiti Mihi Portas Justitiae [Open to me the gates of justice.] I was ravished by the music, and immediately bought a copy for myself, which I played endlessly until it all but wore out.
When I went off to Harvard, I met Mike Jorrin, who had a rich, booming bass, and Richard Eder, a fine tenor. The three of us spent our undergraduate years singing madrigals together, searching for places in and about Harvard with particularly good acoustics [the steam tunnels were our favorite.] Sometimes we would run into one another in Hayes Bickford and spontaneously break into a rendition of The Silver Swan or Il est bel et bon.
Although I stopped playing the violin when I left New York for college, many, many years later I returned to the instrument, then switched to the viola, and by dint of eight years of lessons and serious practice [something that had eluded me as a boy], eventually was able to do a creditable job of Haydn, Mozart, and early and middle Beethoven quartets.
Thirty-four years after Susie and I broke up, I finally persuaded her to marry me, and we settled in the little town of Pelham, abutting Amherst, where I was teaching at UMass. For twenty years, each summer, we attended the concert series of the Aston Magna early music group, led by violinist Daniel Stepner and including his wife, the wonderful gambist Laura Jepperson. if any of you live in Boston, you may be familiar with the couple, who are two-thirds of the Boston Museum trio. The drive over the Berkshires to Great Barrington, a beautiful concert, first at a church in town and then on the campus of Simon's Rock College, and then a dinner at one of the many fine restaurants in the Lenox area combined to make a perfect summer day.
Why then do I speak of a "sadly elegiac tone" when recalling this lifetime of delight? Because as Susie and I attended the Aston Magna concerts, year after year, we began to notice that we, and the entire audience, were aging inexorably. There did not seem to be any influx of younger devotees, much as we had been half a century and more earlier. Looking around during intermission, we would joke that by attending, we were lowering the average age of the audience. Where were the teenagers sitting in the cheap seats, enraptured by the exquisite music? It would seem that when we and our age mates finally pass from the scene, there will not be enough of a fan base to sustain the many wonderful early music ensembles who even now struggle to earn a decent living.
The life of a professional classical musician has never been easy. If you read the performer capsule biographies in the programs, you will find that each of them survives by cobbling together university associations, membership in three or four established groups, appearances at music festivals, and recordings, all supplemented by a heavy load of individual students. Long gone are the days when wealthy nobles served as patrons to court musicians [a stressful and uncertain living itself, as a biography of Mozart will attest.]
And so I say, without the irony of George Orwell's invocation of William Blake's poetic line, such, such were the joys.