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Tuesday, December 28, 2010


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.


coherentsheaf said...

I don't know whether I am a representative sample of college students, but I myself have spent way too much time listening to youtube videos of the Bach double violin concerto (while doing useful work, of course).

NotHobbes said...

So sorry I missed your birthday Professor :-(

Chris said...

Speaking of Robert Shaw and Bach:

When Shaw died, Yale got his papers and books. Those included his set of the 100-volume Neue Bach-Ausgabe, the new "Urtext" that was completed a few years ago. Presumably the volumes that Shaw had extensively marked up for performance went into special collections, but the volumes that were just clean copies went into the stacks.

So as a Yale Ph.D. student in the music department, and one writing a dissertation on Bach no less, I frequently have some of Robert Shaw's own copies of Bach in my possession (for a few months at a time). I always get a little bit of pleasure from that.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, that is truly extraordinary. What an opportunity! Are they in that cathedral of books, The Beineke? Many, many years ago I attended a concert at Town Hall in New York by what was then called the Robert Shaw Chorale. It was an astonishing contrast to the old Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which massed seemingly thousands of singers on a stage and even then managed only to make a muddled and dampened sound. Shaw had something like thirteen singers, and he positioned them on the stage in three ranks, man woman man woman man woman, regardless of voice. There was perhaps two feet between singers. They sang so perfectly in tune that they made a simply enormous and very beautiful sound. It was a dramatic demonstration of the phenomenon of sound waves perfectly in synch reinforcing one another.

Also unlike previous conductors, Shaw had a very muscular way of conducting -- a lot with the shoulders [someting that Hal Aks, my conductor, imitated]. It was intensely sexual.

What aspect of Bach's music are you writing about?

Chris said...

The Shaw papers are not in the Beinecke but in the Music Library's special collections. (Although the Beinecke has lots of music-related things too.) It always surprises me that some of his old books ended up in the stacks, but I suppose there wasn't anything very noteworthy about them except the "From the Library of Robert Shaw" stamp in the front cover -- no annotations or anything.

At some point in the last year or so, the Music Library put out a special exhibit of some selections from the Shaw collection. I remember two things from it very well. One was a score marked up for performance in Shaw's characteristic colored pencils -- different colors for tempo changes, dynamic changes, cues, and so on. (In my undergraduate conducting class we were taught to do this too.) The other was a memo he'd written to his choir after a rehearsal, as apparently he did after every rehearsal. The memo is really something: Shaw was apparently enormously energized by rehearsals and his enthusiasm and zeal just about leap off the page. Not hard to imagine that, as you say, his conducting was extremely physical. I never saw him conduct in person.

My dissertation is on what we music theorists call form and tonal structure in Bach. I'm seeking to reconstruct elements of generic convention in particular types of pieces which Bach composed (among them, selected movements from the church cantatas and from the keyboard dance suites). The epistemology of comparative music analysis also plays a role. It's a big project and is only just getting underway!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, that sounds fascinating. Would you like to do a guest post on the subject for this blog? If so, the forum is yours.

Chris said...

Thanks for the kind offer to write a guest post on my research! I'd love to take you up on it. I'll contact you by email when I have put something together.

Murfmensch said...

While I am no teenager, I am new to Western Mass and would appreciate any advice on where to see music. I am especially interested in places to take my five year old.

BTW-- I am the new philosopher at Elms College in Chicopee.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Dear Murfmensch [I am preserving your anonymity], first of all, you must give my love to Cristina Canales, Chair of the Division of Humanities, and old, old friend. It looks, from your bio, as though our fields of interest almost exactly coincide.

OK, music in the Pioneer Valley. For early music, in the summer, there is Aston Magna, and in the Amherst area, a group whose name has fallen from my mind. Also, the Amherst or Five College Early Music festival in the summers. In Springfield, there is the Springfield Symphony. Sitting in the first chair of the viola section is my former viola teacher, Delores Thayer, a beautiful blond woman with a big tone. :)

For fun stuff [and for your five year old] there is the valley Light Opera, which usually does a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta each year.

For a pretty good program of folk and pop and blues and such like musical groups, check out the Iron Horse Cafe in Northampton [generally speaking, Northampton is where things are happening, not Amherst, which is stuffy and rather pc.]

That should get you started. Welcome to the Valley.

Murfmensch said...

Dr. Canales is truly great. I will note all of these events. I've already presented at the Springfield Public Forum on "Philosophy and Star Trek". (Yeah, I know...)

Elms is a neat school. It's enrollment is way up to about one thousand students, which is a scale I understand. Half are nursing majors. The working class character and ethnic diversity of its student body puts most schools to shame.

I've loved the heck out of this blog. If you are in the area again, contact me.

Anonymous said...

Professor I have about 500 to thousand 78 classical LP's. I'd be glad to lend you a few if you'd like to listen to a few of them if you'd like, for old times sake and a trip down memory lane. I don't know if you have a 78 rpm player but they are available now (try Rek-O-Kut if want want one of the really good new ones or take a chance on Ebay for good used -if you need help I can help you find a good used one or lend you one of mine as I collect old record players) for brand new ones and the needles don't wear out now, at least it takes a long, long time to wear one out. I have no idea what I have, I haven't sorted through them in some time but I am sure there are some old classical with violins in the huge number of boxes of 78's that I have. Oh, and I have an old Victrola that I made a trade with the previous owner of my house for some repairs but I don't play records on them. I also had an Edison with the big thick records (remember those) and the cylinder types that were Edison firsts can still be had for about $1000 on Ebay some with many fine old cyliynder records if you remember those. There are thousands of those little blue round things out there to buy if you know what I'm talking about.

Incidentally, records are coming back. People just find the sound of CD's too harsh and newer better mediums just aren't there yet, or at least a standard hasn't been developed yet. MP3's are a step down in audio quality. I've been thinking of putting my old 78's up on Youtube but I haven't got that set up yet but I'm sure they're all out of copyright by now (but one never knows with our copyright laws).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Buck, that is just extraordinary! I cannot recall when I last saw, let alone owned, a 78 player. Do you remember the short lived and ill fated 45s?

Here is a bit of terivia not everyone knows. The CD was invented in Japan [Sony?], and the Chairman of the Board was a fanatic lover of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. He gave the order that the new CD was to have enough memory to hold all of the 9th on one CD. Don't you love it?

Murfmensch said...

BTW-- You can see Dr. Canales in a "freeze mob" at the area mall if you click this link. She is in jeans on one knee reading an art book.

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