Enough of Donald J Trump! Yesterday Susie came into my study and asked where our recording of Glenn Gould’s performance of the Goldberg variations was. I told her I thought it was probably in storage along with many of our other CDs, but in next to no time I called up on YouTube a magnificent performance by Gould recorded in 1955 and we listened to it happily. The experience set me to thinking about some of my most cherished musical experiences and I thought I would take a little time to tell you about some of them. There is not the slightest political or philosophical significance to these reminiscences; this is simply an effort to remind myself that there is more to life than Trump.
Let me begin not with a single experience but with a group of them dating from more than 70 years ago. Once Susie and I began to go steady in 1949 (as we said in those days), I took her on occasion to concerts given by a group of young musicians who had just been formed into something called the Bach Aria Group. The musicians included the flautist Julius Baker, the oboeist Robert Bloom, and the cellist Bernard Greenhouse. The violinist was Maurice Welk, who was the premier student of my violin teacher. The concerts were all held at the 92nd St. Y in Manhattan and Susie and I would take several subways to get there. In those days, and still today, a love of the music of Bach was one of the things that draw us together. Susie lived near Forest Hills High School and on occasion I would walk her home and the two of us would listen to a splendid rendition of the B Minor Mass conducted by Robert Shaw. I can still recall the old phonograph with a stack of 78 RPM discs dropping one at a time onto the turntable. Our CD set of that recording was one of the first things I took to our Paris apartment when we bought it 16 years ago. Alas, it is in quarantine there, unreachable until Europe decides that it is safe to allow Americans once more to visit.
One of my most delightful musical experiences occurred in the summer of 1948 or 1949. Hal Aks, the music counselor at the Shaker Village Work Camp which I went to for three summers, would take the whole camp to the summer music festival at Tanglewood, which was not too far away. But one year there was a bad polio outbreak and we were all confined to the camp so Hal arranged for a young string quartet to come from Tanglewood and perform for us. The concert was held in the barn, which was the only gathering place large enough to hold everybody. I climbed up into the hayloft and listened to the concert from a perch that was almost exactly over the quartet. I was able to look down at the four musicians from above and listen to the music as it floated up to me. I could even see the music they were playing from although I was too far away really to make out the notes.
Which brings to mind another string quartet experience roughly half a century after that summer in the Berkshires. I was invited to a conference at Holy Cross in Worcester, MA and the organizer of the conference, Predrag Cicovacki, had the extraordinary idea of hiring a young string quartet to entertain us in the evening. I drove over from Pelham, about an hour to the west, to attend the conference. The quartet, which later became quite famous, was the Borromeo. The concert consisted of two works, the first of which was Beethoven’s Opus 130, which the group performed with the great final movement, known as Die Grosse Fuge. I rushed away from dinner early to get a front row seat and found myself sitting perhaps 15 feet from the musicians. The Borromeo was then a quite unusual quartet. The violist and the cellist, both women, were extraordinarily powerful musicians. The violist, I think, must have been playing a 17 ½ inch instrument (by comparison, my viola, which is quite good – indeed, a great deal better than I am – is only a 16 inch instrument.) The strength of the violist and the cellist gave to the entire quartet a deep resonant voice quite different from that of most professional quartets. Sitting so close to the musicians, I felt completely engulfed by the music. The cellist was positioned so that she was facing directly at me. I was so overwhelmed by the experience that I left when the intermission started, not wanting to dilute it with any further musical input.
Writing these words reminds me of yet another experience I had not intended to talk about. For seven or eight years while I was teaching at UMass and studying the viola, I played weekly with three friends in a quite good string quartet (which very patiently waited while I got good enough to keep up with them.) One day, the second violinist, at whose home we met, invited a friend in Boston to join us. He was a superb violinist and the longtime conductor of the Harvard College Orchestra. For the occasion we played Mozart viola quintets. Our regular first violinist, who was also a good violist, took the first viola part and I played the second viola part while our guest took over the slot of first violinist. He was really a performance level musician and I suddenly found myself experiencing something for the very first time – I was listening from inside the quintet at the first violin part being played as Mozart intended it. It was a revelation to me and gave me just for a moment some sense of what it would be like actually to be good enough to play the music as it was intended and to experience that music from the inside.
Well, I must include an account of my only musical triumph in these musings. One week, our quartet decided that at our next meeting we would play the third Razumovsky – Beethoven’s Opus 59 number 3. Since Susie and I were about to go off to Paris for four weeks, I decided to take my viola with me and practice the quartet so that I would not embarrass myself when we met to play it. In Paris, I spent one week on each of the four movements. After three weeks I felt I could handle the first three movements adequately and then I turned to the final movement. Those of you who are music buffs will perhaps know that the final movement is a fugue in which, remarkably enough, it is the viola that starts off stating the subject of the fugue. This is, of course, extremely unusual. Ordinarily, the viola is in the background accompanying the first violin, the second violin, and the cello. When I opened the music to the fourth movement to begin my week of practice I discovered that Beethoven, who may well have been completely crazy when he wrote this quartet, had indicated that was to be played at a speed of a quarter note = 160. I had a metronome with me in Paris and when I set it to find out how fast that was I realized there was not the slightest possibility, not even in my wildest dreams, that I could play the movement at that speed. I started out dead slow just to get the notes right and then, day by day, slowly increased my tempo, desperately hoping that I could play it fast enough so that my colleagues would not simply throw me out of the quartet. By the end of the week I had gotten all the way up to about 110, which is to say maybe two thirds as fast as it is supposed to be played. I should add that Beethoven marks the last movement attaca, which means that I was supposed to start immediately after the third movement without a pause. Well, we got back to Pelham and I went that next Saturday to my quartet meeting, hoping my colleagues would be understanding. We played the first three movements successfully (that is, you will understand, a term used relatively when talking about an amateur quartet) and then I launched into my solo measures of the fourth movement, playing as fast as I could. After about six measures, the other members of the quartet stopped me and one of them said gently “Bob, could you take it a little bit more slowly?” It was I think the most triumphant moment of my entire life.