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Monday, December 2, 2013


As I was taking my morning walk at six a.m. this morning [above forty degrees, so I was not quite so huddled inside my sweater and hoodie], I found myself reflecting on the difficulty of finding interesting music for two or three strings.  The quartet literature is vast and endlessly rewarding, but two or three strings -- a violin and viola, say, or a violin, viola, and cello -- have for the most part been ignored by the great classical composers.  Not entirely, of course.  Mozart's duet for violin and viola, K423, is splendid.  I have a recording of it being performed by Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman, and as you might imagine, it is to die for.

The classic trio of instruments is the piano, violin, and cello, for which there is a very rich literature.  One of the great piano trio ensembles was the Beaux Arts Trio, with the elfin Menachim Pressler on piano, the magisterial Bernard Greenhouse on cello, and [to my ear, at any rate] a rather dry Isidore Cohen on violin.  [There were actually a number of violinists who played with the trio, but it was Cohen when I heard them.]   A performance of the Beaux Arts in Cambridge, Mass was without a doubt the most bizarre concert experience of my life.

It was 1986, and I was separated from my first wife, living alone in Watertown.  The Beaux Arts Trio announced a concert in Sanders Theater, and I bought a ticket.  A word about Sanders before I get to the concert itself.  Just north of Harvard Yard is a large ugly brick building called Memorial Hall, erected to honor Harvard men who died -- on both sides -- in the Civil War.  The west end of the building is taken up mostly by a very large hall in which final exams were held during the early fifties when I was an undergraduate.  The east side is an amphitheatre called Sanders Theater which served both as a lecture hall and as a concert venue.
I have many fond memories of Sanders.  It was there that I heard Bertrand Russell speak.  I sat almost in the last row of the raised rear portion of the hall and could scarcely hear him, but it was indubitably the great Earl Russell, co-author with Alfred North Whitehead of the ground-breaking Principia Mathematica [and fifty other books, of course, for which he won the Nobel prize in Literature, but for logic students like me, Principia was the book.]  It was in Sanders also that I first heard the man who introduced countertenor singing to America, Alfred Deller.  Back then, no one had ever heard a countertenor, and Deller made it a point to address the audience at some point during his concerts so that they could hear that he had a normal speaking voice.  If the truth be told, Deller was not a great countertenor.  Some years later, I sat down front in the first row of Sanders and heard the really great countertenor Russell Oberlin sing the exquisite Monteverdi duet for two countertenors, Zefiro Torna

It was also in Sanders Theater, in the summer of 1956, while I was hard at work writing my doctoral dissertation, that I sang in the pit chorus of a summer stock staging of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, with Shirley Jones of movie Oklahoma fame singing Polly Peachum and her new husband, Jack Cassidy, singing MacHeath.  I was paid a dollar a performance and got to dress up in rags [the pit chorus was figured as the inmates of debtor's prison.]  The smash hit of the performance was a basso who sang Peachum, Polly's father.  He was so good in rehearsal that Daniel Pinkham, who was playing harpsichord, adapted a Handel aria not in the original composition to give him more time on stage.  The performance opened with Peachum and Lockit sitting at a table.  The very first "line" of the performance was a luxurious belch by Peachum that could be heard in the last row of the theater.  Every night, I waited to see whether he would succeed in producing the belch.  He never missed.

One evening, while I was standing idly in the hallway between the east and west wings of Memorial Hall during a concert intermission, I made a discovery that may not be widely known to the aficionados of popular culture.  The walls of the hallway are covered with plaques on which are inscribed the names of the young men of Harvard who lost their lives in the war.  Idly running my eye over the names, I came with a start upon Benjamin Franklin Pierce, which will be known to fans of the movie and television show MASH as the full name of the lead character Hawkeye, played in the movie by Donald Southerland and in the TV show by Alan Alda.  I cannot prove this, of course, but I would be willing to make a sizable bet that one of the writers of the movie was a Harvard man who, like me, had seen this inscription on the wall of Memorial Hall and thought it would make a splendid name for a character.

But I digress.  On the evening in question, I was seated about two thirds of the way back on the left hand side of Sanders.  Pressler and company launched into the first composition on the program and were well into the second movement when there was a disturbance in the audience on the far right side, halfway back.  After a moment a voice cried out, "Is there a doctor in the house?"  Someone was clearly in some sort of medical distress.  The trio stopped playing and everyone looked around expectantly.
Now, this was Cambridge, Mass and much of the audience was associated in one way or another with Harvard, so certain proprieties had to be observed.  The medical students in the audience looked at the Mass General Interns.  The interns looked at the Residents.  The Residents looked at members of the Harvard Medical School faculty, and finally, by a sort of unspoken understanding, a senior professor -- probably Chief of Cardiology -- arose and walked over to where the cry had arisen.  We all sat dead still, waiting to see what would happen.  After a bit, an ambulance siren could be heard in the distance, growing louder by the minute.  Two EMTs hustled in carrying a stretcher and rushed to the seat of the stricken concertgoer.  As he was lifted onto the stretcher to be carried out, a whisper travelled around the audience announcing that it was not serious, just a music lover overcome by the performance, as it were.  Everyone relaxed, the Trio took up its instruments, and the concert continued.

In the midst of the next movement, a cry went up from a different part of the audience.  "We need a doctor here."  Stunned, we all sat there incredulous as the identical charade was enacted.  When the second patron had been carted off, the Trio gave up and announced Intermission.

This was during the time when I was traveling to Chapel Hill as often as I could to see Susie, and when I arrived for my next visit, a week or two later, she announced that she had managed to get a pair of tickets to a concert at Duke University.  With considerable excitement, she said the Beaux Art Trio would be performing.  As you may imagine, I attended the concert with considerable trepidation, but although I scarcely relaxed for the entire event, it all went off without incident.


Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Prof. Wolff: Thanks for the reminiscence! But on a minor point: if my own memory serves, Hawkeye's full name was Benjamin Franklin Pierce in Richard Hooker's novel M*A*S*H, which was the basis for the movie and the first season of the TV show. H. Richard Hornberger, who wrote under the name Richard Hooker, attended Bowdoin College and Cornell Medical School, but not Harvard.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Rats. I really hate it when mere facts get in the way of a great story. It is a good thing nobody took me up on the bet. My last desperate hope is that Hornberger heard about the name from a Harvard student, but that is really grasping at straws.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

It recalls Thomas Henry Huxley's description of a tragedy for Herbert Spencer: "A beautiful theory, killed by a nasty, ugly little fact."

I have always presumed that Hooker combined Benjamin Franklin with Franklin Pierce to get Hawkeye's name. And I did just realize that in a foolish attempt to be hypercorrect, I included the asterisks from the TV series in the book's title.

Warren Goldfarb said...

Hi, Bob —
You're forgetting the divine Divertimento in E flat major, K. 563, for violin, viola, and cello. But in general you're right; this is the only string trio I know that could be put in the first rank of chamber music.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am not sure I know that. I will check it out. Thanks!

Warren Goldfarb said...

Sorry, Bob, that was me. I've finally figured out that I needed to explicitly put a "posting name" in my Google account.

As long as I'm writing again: two more things. First, Memorial Hall was erected to honor the Union dead, not both sides. (You may be mixing it up with Memorial Church, where there was a controversy about whether to honor the WW I dead of the Central Powers, settled in the end by inscribing their names in a separate room.) Second, a matter of opinion, I suppose: the Hall is the best example of Victorian Gothic architecture in the US. I don't think it ugly at all, but simply calling it 'ugly' does not in any case seem right.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Hey, Warren -- I really was wrong about Mem Hall. I don't know where I got the idea that it honored dead on both sides. As for the aesthetic qualities of the building, de gustibus and all that. I happily bow to the judgment that it is the best example of Victorian gothic. I guess I just don't dig Victorian gothic. Sigh. Garrison Keillor has it so much easier. He made up his whole town!

Seth said...

A good source for chamber music parts is the Petrucci Music Library:

Alias said...

Dear Prof. Wolff,

Schubert has a nice string trio, D581 in B-flat. There is an excellent performance out there with a group led by Grumiaux, if you haven't heard it.

Alias said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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