Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Month of Music, Day 11

“I have no idea why these two pieces seem to be linked, but there it is. Whenever I hear the Barber violin concerto, I think about the Shostakovich piano concerto number 2. Which, by the way, Shostakovich later said ‘had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.’”

“Well, shouldn’t he know?” said Lady. “After all, he is the composer. So if he says the work has nothing going for it, well, why play it?”

“Because everybody loves it,” I told her. “Especially the slow movement, which is so gorgeous it’s suspicious.”

“Suspicious,” she said, “why ever so?”

“Oh, it’s the snobbery of classical music,” I told her. “You know, there’s the famous thing about taste in music and in wine being essentially the same. Meaning that the less about either, the sweeter you like it. Anyway, Shostakovich had been writing movie music, and it definitely shows. In fact, you really want to make a movie just to use the score….”

“Isn’t this the piece he wrote for his son?”

“Yup, and it’s tender and sad. Not surprising, since Shostakovich had this little problem: he kept getting denounced….”


“Everything is—or was—political,” I told her. “So music had to serve the masses, which meant that it couldn’t stray to far into the abstract and the obscure. The first time he got denounced was for his opera Lady Macbeth; the composer had to sit through the whole evening and watch Stalin grimace, shudder, and finally laugh. At a love scene, of all things. Then he had to go take a bow, and people said he was white as a sheet. The next day Pravda came out with the famous headline, ‘Muddle instead of Music,’ and that put Shostakovich firmly into the doghouse.”

“Dear me….”

“Yes, and then the Great Terror began, and everybody including his mother-in-law got executed or sent to the camps. Then he crawled out of his hole and wrote his Fifth Symphony, which restored him to grace. But there was a second denunciation, and the public humiliation by Nabokov….”

“What? What did Nabokov do?”

“He showed up in New York City, where Shostakovich was representing the Soviet Union in some cultural conference. And the Soviets had just condemned Stravinsky, who is definitely a giant in 20th century composition, and whose music you won’t hear in this blog at all. Sorry—I know it’s low class, but I’ll take Rachmaninoff over Stravinsky any day. So Nabokov nailed Shostakovich by asking whether he supported the censure of Stravinsky and watched Shostakovich squirm. Horrible position, really, and Shostakovich couldn’t say anything except that he agreed with the censure. Nabokov said the obvious: Shostakovich was the musical lapdog of Joe Stalin—he put it better, but it was essentially the same—and Shostakovich never forgave Nabokov.”

“Why not just say….”

“Put it this way: at the nadir of his relations with the regime, Shostakovich was spending the night outside of his apartment, sitting next to the lift.”


“Well, when they came for him, he figured it would be better if he were there. Less bother to the family….”

“That’s incredible.”

“It is,” I told her. “Hard for us to imagine the fear and anxiety. In a way, it’s amazing that Shostakovich ever wrote anything but movie music. I’m not so sure I would have been so brave.”

“Did it ever get any better for him?”

“Don’t think so. In 1960, he joined the Communist Party, but no one really knows whether it was a career move, or bowing to pressure, or just his choice. Anyway, the last 15 years of his life were fairly miserable….”

“Actually, none of his life sounds particular wonderful,” said Lady.

“It probably wasn’t,” I said. “Apparently, he was obsessive-compulsive, and a guy named Meyer called his face ‘a bag of tics and grimaces.’ So it’s hard to imagine that he was ever a completely happy guy….”

“Sad,” said Lady. “Well, then, what’s up with Samuel Barber?”

“Another sorry tale,” I told her. “He achieved fame relatively early on, and his work is often wildly lyrical. Not surprising, since his aunt was Louise Homer, who was a famous contralto at the Met. Anyway, the violin concerto was written in Europe in 1939. Most of it, that is. But war broke out, and Barber had to leave and return to the states….”

“So is that why it’s such a melancholy piece?”

“It could be,” I told her. “It was an utterly awful time, the 30’s. And there is certainly the feeling that a way of life is ending. But there is also, to me, the feeling of a young man discovering love for the first time. And since Barber was gay, and in love with fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti, well, you have the feeling of a love that is wild and passionate, but also very much forbidden.”

“Was it?”

“It’s so hard to know,” I said. “Yes, it was. And Barber had been born into comfortable circumstances, and then found himself in New York and Philadelphia. And really, when you think of it, practically everyone in the classical music field was gay. Barber, Menotti, Copland, Bernstein, Hoiby. I have a couple of friends who were living in New York at the time, and who got invited up to Barber’s house, which he shared for many years with Menotti. Both my friends reported that the parties were pretty drug-fueled, and tended to turn into orgies.”

“Ah yes, gay men….”

“They can be fun,” I told her. “But only in small amounts and at a certain time of life. Otherwise, the whole affair becomes joyless. And joyless was a fairly good description of Barber’s life, at the end.”

“Why? Was he denounced too?”

“Actually, he was in a way. And like Shostakovich, it was an opera that brought him down. Anthony and Cleopatra, which he wrote to open the new Metropolitan Opera House, and which was severely panned.”

“Was it that bad?”

“Probably not, though people try to revive it, periodically, and it always seems to get the same reviews. Flashes of great music, write the critics, which mean pages of not-so-great music. Anyway, the real problem seems to be that the director was Zefferelli, and he went nuts (as he often did). So it was completely overblown, and the sets were so heavy that they broke the stage. Nor did it help that Leontyne Price—who was at the top of her career—got trapped inside a pyramid, of all things. So there she was, poor dear, knocking around in the pyramid and trying to get out….”

“No, Marc….”

“Yup, and I think they had to bring down the curtain, and attack the thing with crowbars. Or maybe not. Anyway, The New York Times came out and said it was ‘a hair-curlingly awful production. … The night has gone down in the annals of opera as a landmark of vulgarity and staging excess. Mr. Barber’s score, as we discovered from subsequent exposure to revised excerpts in concert and on records, was to a great extent an innocent victim of the over-all fiasco"       


“Yes, the virtues of obscurity—is it better to be ignored or slammed?”

“Well, there is a third option,” said Lady. “But I presume that there was some licking of the wound to do.”

“Worse than that: Barber started to hit the bottle, and even though he puttered around with the score, it never quite got off the ground. Sad. He died at the comparatively early age of 70, and was buried in his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania. Sort of sad, that….”

“Why so?”

“Well, it’s almost as if he never quite escaped. He could go to Europe, he could live with Menotti in upstate New York, but in death, he was still dragged back to his roots. You know, one of Barber’s best-known works is Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which is this tremendously lyrical and poignant piece of music and poetry. You know, it’s the world of childhood and small town America. But also tinged with the death of a father. Which is a good enough metaphor for what Barber have felt, growing up in his comfortable but conservative small town.”

“Do we know that?”

“Of course we don’t. Sadly, we have to imagine a lot. And you know, it’s very likely that being gay was not the only thing going on with Barber. In fact, Menotti says that Barber’s family welcomed him, but he soon saw that the proper exterior covered a lot of ‘terrible things.’ Among which he listed alcoholism and incest….”

“Time for another ‘ooops.’”

“Sadly, it does tend to be a package deal. Anyway, Barber was probably by nature morose and repressed—wouldn’t you be?—and adding being gay didn’t help. There is something about respectability, isn’t there?”

“Well, well—two sad men,” said Lady. “A shame, since they were obviously gifted. Although I sometimes think that happiness is of no great use to an artist.”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Barber apparently never had to work: he just composed. Granted, he probably made money from his compositions, but there’s always the feeling that he had a nice nest egg, somewhere. And what a boon! He never had to teach in a conservatory, or write movie music. No—he was luckier in some ways than Shostakovich. But both men, I think, had demons aplenty, and suffered in their various ways. Hard to know which is worse, the internal or the external demons. Though both men had both sorts….”

“Well, maybe it’s the old question: are you better off being a race horse or a plow horse?”

“On that, I have no information. I can tell you, however, that it’s a special corner of Hell…”


“…to be a race horse put to work as a plow horse!”   


Monday, March 20, 2017

A Month of Music, Day 10

“You’re not going to tell me that you don’t listen to Mozart, Marc,” said Lady. “You know that every serious music lover will laugh you unto derision….”

“I don’t dislike him,” I told her. “And I’m very glad to have played him, though the only solo things for the cello are in fact transcriptions of works for other instruments. But there is something about the style that forces you to be utterly clean and elegant. But no, the only things that I listen to of Mozart are a few arias from some of the operas.”

“Have you considered faking it?”

“Why? Look, I thought at least I could listen to the Great Mass, which is top of the list of Mr. Fernández. So I began the Kyrie, and then the video got stuck at about 4.36 and I thought, ‘oh, good—now I don’t have to listen to it.’ And the same thing with the Requiem. So there it is, and now everybody can call me a fraud and a philistine. I can admire it; I just don’t listen to it. There it is.”

“Now see here, Marc,” said Lady seriously, “you’re completely lax and lacking. True, Mozart died at 35 or so, but he got started early. And you’re telling me that out of the 41 symphonies, there isn’t one that you listen to? And the piano concerti—there are at least 20.”

“Well, I listened to the 41st symphony recently, mostly because the fugue at the end of the fourth movement is supposed to be one of the glories of Western Civilization. (Don’t know if I have to capitalize that, but it feels like it.) And am I going to butt heads with everybody and say that it’s not? Of course not. But rip my earphones off of my head and check out what’s accompanying my morning walk, and it won’t be that.”

“Fake it.”

“What! You ask me to compromise my integrity as a writer, to publish an errant….”

“Fiddlesticks! Writers do it all the time. You’re a wordmonger, nothing more and nothing less. Now then—find something and profess to like it…..”

“Well, the safest and easiest thing to do would be to pick a symphony, a piano concerto, and an aria or two and have done with it. In fact, I listened to all my favorite arias, I listened to the first movement of Symphony number 29, and I checked in on the d minor piano concerto. There—I’ve done it! Now, can I go now?”

“Well, surely you have to say something?”

“Do you know how hyped Mozart is? Do you know that there is an actual industry, still going on? You know, there are festivals and films and statuettes and even little chocolate candies—Mozart balls! And wherever there’s an industry, there’s hype and there’s marketing. So we have the myth: the genius who dashes off his masterpieces while sitting on the can! The tragic composer, writing a Requiem for his very own death! And which he will never finish! The starving artist who is ignominiously thrown into a mass grave!”

“Well, what of it? It’s true, isn’t it?”

“Sometimes, and sometimes only partially. Apparently Mozart did his share of crossing out and revision. And did he think he was writing the Requiem for himself? Well, you got a Ouija board? And the mass grave was apparently common in Vienna at that time: his memorial services were well attended. And his music was popular and became more so after his death….”

“So what did he die of?”

“What didn’t he die of? Do you know that Wikipedia says that 112 causes of death have been suggested? All part of the myth, hunh? Everybody else gets hit by a bus, but no, little Wolfgang has to have his mystery death!”

“Are we being just a bit peevish?”

“Well, he’s annoying me. And what’s even more annoying is that there are unexpected depths to him, and then he goes back to being charming again!”


“Look, I listened to two piano concerti, both of which I have played….”

“You played the piano?”

“Nah, the cello in orchestras. But anyway, I’m fairly familiar with this stuff, and yes, they’re masterpieces. But the d minor has a first movement that is wild and impassionate. Oh wait—unless it isn’t. Because I just heard it again, and the new version somehow sucked out all the blood from it. Which may be the problem with Mozart: I can think of very few composers whose music relies so much on interpretation. And it is so very, very easy to have the wrong interpretation in Mozart….”

“Is that true?”

“Who knows? And maybe it’s also true that we are always interpreting Mozart according to the tastes of the times. When I was a kid, performances were staid: it was enough for the music to be ‘pretty.’ Now, we want the dramatic, the histrionic, and the self-revelatory. Which brings me to the other piano concerto—number 24. That begins with a perfectly pleasant, cheery first movement. But the slow movement that follows? It’s so painful, it’s almost hard to listen to. You feel, in a way, that you’ve invaded Mozart’s private hell.”

“Dear me….”

“I’ll say. And since I’m making an utter fool of myself, maybe I should go all the way….”

“And that is?”

“There are days I wonder whether Mozart wasn’t born in the wrong time. It must have been quite constricting, you know—to write in the classical style. It was all elegance and light. And is that why Mozart feels to me to be essentially an opera composer? As if, somehow, in opera he can let go?  Anyway, I think anybody would have to say that the ending to the Marriage of Figaro is just breathtaking—it’s some of the most glorious music in the world. It’s one thing that always gives me goose bumps….”

“And what else does?”

“The ensemble singing. Like the finale to Figaro, but also earlier in the Sull’aria. And then, of course, the trio from Così fan tutte. You know what? I could fake it, and say that I listen to the symphonies, the piano concerti, the sacred music. But why? Why bother? Trust me, the reputation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is not going to stoop in its track, shudder, and then utterly collapse because of one writer in Puerto Rico. In a way, it’s wonderfully freeing….”

“Anonymity does have its uses,” said Lady, and how does she know? She, who has over 6000 Facebook friends, and has only to breathe to earn applause.

“Ridiculous,” says she, “I feel entirely sure that Mozart is spinning somewhere, perhaps in his unmarked grave, over your words.”

“All right,” I told her, “All readers out there: Listen to the last three symphonies, as well as Symphony number 29. Check out the d minor piano concerto, as well as number 24 in A major. Listen to the Great Mass in C major, as well as the Requiem. And then you can go about your business….”

Just like me!


Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Month of Music, Day 9

“Go away,” I told Lady. “I’m deeply busy, this morning, trying to listen to the music of Pérotin, who could provide the missing link in music history.”

I had gotten it into my head, yesterday—where did all this stuff come from? Let’s put it onto another art form: suppose that you had a culture that had no written language, and then in the space of less than 500 years, you suddenly get Shakespeare. Wouldn’t you be a little suspicious?

“I think it was seeded by aliens,” I told her. “What else could it be? No, they’ve visited us before, and they’ll do it again. But at least now we know that they’re friendly. After all, who could give us Byrd….”

“Who’s giving us the bird?”

“William Byrd,” I told her, “and after I’m done trying to listen to Pérotin, we have to set right to work on recusancy. And to the question of whether Tallis was a recusant. There’s quite a bit to be done, so I have no time whatsoever to put you into my blog….”

“Marc, I have no idea what you’re talking about…”

“Neither do I, most of the time. Anyway, here’s the deal. Though I don’t always listen to it, it would be intolerable to live a life without English Renaissance music. It may be, in fact, responsible for much of the moral laxness and intellectual sloth of the current age. I completely believe that nobody should be permitted to leave the house, of a morning, without hearing at least the Agnus Dei from the four-part mass of Byrd. Minimally. Actually, to ensure compliance, it should be mandatory for all employers to play the mass in its entirety first thing in the morning….”


“Well, we require lunch and coffee breaks, don’t we? It’s absolutely the same thing….”

“Marc, why don’t you just tell me what you’re trying to say.”

“Look, you know Gregorian Chant, don’t you? You know, it had a big vogue, all those years ago, and we were all taking scented baths in candlelit bathrooms and listening to Gregorian Chant played on our cassette tapes….”

“I have no idea….”

“You know, the monks from wherever they were in Spain. Anyway, the point is that people had always sung, and that for years the chants had passed from one generation to another. But here’s the thing: they weren’t written down. Then, people somehow got the bright idea of musical notation. But first, there was this very gradual evolution of the chant itself. Originally, it had been in unison—like the way we sing, or try to, Happy Birthday. Then they got the idea of adding boys’ voices, and did you know that the female voice is exactly an octave above the male voice?”

“I doubt that,” Lady said.

“Well, you’ll have to ask Leonard Bernstein about it, but good luck. Dead, he is!”

“We note his passing with…”

“Quiet,” I told her. “Then they added a drone note, and even cooked up those funny little instruments like the hurdy-gurdy to provide them. You know—it’s this low note that…well…drones on and on and never changes. And then, somebody finally gets the idea that we didn’t all need to be singing the same thing. Wait—first they got the idea of one line singing while the other sings exactly the same thing five notes higher.”

“And that was a good idea?”

“Yeah, and during this whole time, people were starting to figure out how to notate music. The two problems of which, of course, is what pitch the sound is, and how long to hold it. Basic stuff, to you and me, but it took a while to figure it out.”

“OK, so…?”

“So then we come to Pérotin, whose music I can’t listen to because I keep getting ‘error’ messages on YouTube. But I did listen to Kassiana of Constantinople, since not only is she the first female composer that we know of, she’s also the first! Or one of them, at least….”

“Ah, Kassiana, that woman of supreme beauty and intellect!”

“I doubt that you knew that,” I told her. “And what was her relation to the emperor Theophilos?”

“Stormy, as are all relations with beautiful and intellectual women!”

“A shot in the dark,” I told her. “Anyway, she flipped him the bird, and then hiked off to found a nunnery, and now we have the Hymn of Kassiana, which is still sung in the Greek Orthodox Church today. And which I was actually able to hear, since it seems that Pérotin is in error, but Kassiana is not. So I listened to it, and it’s interesting, in a rather monotonous way. OK, full confession: I only got through the first half before I needed coffee. But here’s the point: Kassiana is 9th century and the unheard Pérotin is 13th century. And though I haven’t heard it, I did read that Pérotin’s music inspired Steve Reich! Hah!”

“Hah, indeed. And who is this Steve Reich?”

“A modern minimalist composer! See!”

“Through a glass darkly. Marc, what’s the point here?”

“Just a couple of centuries later—OK, maybe a bit more—you have utterly maximalist composers like Tallis and Byrd!”

“In what sense were they maximalist, might one ask?”

“To which one might answer, Spem in alium.

“Don’t get it,” said Lady.

“Neither did my version of Word,” I told her. “In such degenerate times do we live!”

“I utterly resent,” she began.

“I wasn’t calling you degenerate, just the times. Anyway, it’s a piece of music set to some simple, though affecting, words. Here they are:”

I have never put my hope in any other
but in You, O God of Israel
who can show both anger and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins
of suffering man
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness

“Mindful of our lowliness I ever am, and adjure others to be so at all turns,” said Lady.

“I rejoice to hear it,” I said. “And if you hear the Spem, you’ll hear 40 distinct separate voices singing one of the most astounding pieces of music ever written. And written by Thomas Tallis, and when was he born?”

“Why do I think you might tell me?”

“How I wish I could. Unfortunately, the internet drifted off somewhere. So all I can say is that he started off life as a Catholic in England, so he must have been about the age, if not older, than Henry VIII. So call him 16th century—middle-ish.”

“And why would that be important?”

“Here’s the deal—these two guys, Tallis and William Byrd, wrote some of the most amazing, complicated and beautiful music of the Renaissance, and that’s saying something. One thinks of Palestrina and Tomás de la Victoria.”

“Never, never, are they barred from mind!”

“Stop it—these guys are major. And they’re also Catholic, since that’s what everybody was, in England in those days. But then, everybody had to switch to the Church of England, when Henry couldn’t get a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. So then, in mid-career, both guys had to stop writing in Latin, since that was Papist, and stop writing the really complicated music that they had been writing. Instead, they had to write simple stuff, which guys like you and me could actually sing. So they did that, but nobody knows how that actually sat in their gullets….”

“Did English Renaissance composers have gullets? And if so, were they used for augury?”

“So then, being a Roman Catholic was serious trouble—losing your head was a possibility, nor do I mean it in the sense of losing emotional control. So all of that was going on—remember the dissolution of the monasteries?”

“The monasteries were…”

“They were pulled down,” I told her. “And the Catholics had to go underground…”

“Not a bad idea,” said Lady, “although I suppose….”

“So that was cool, but then guess what happened? Bloody Mary came roaring onto the throne, and then everybody had to go back to being Catholic again!”

“Say what?”

“And then, well, she kicked the bucket and—after a couple of years—Elizabeth I takes charge, and do I have to tell you what religion she was?”


“Yup, it was ‘if today is Tuesday, I must be Catholic.’ Or in this case, Anglican, because that’s what Elizabeth was. Though she wasn’t as nutso about it all as Mary had been about Catholicism. Anyway, the big question was whether Byrd or Tallis were recusants.”

“A question that burns in my mind to this very day,” said Lady. “My, how fine I sound, when dragged into this bog….errr, blog.”

“Recusancy—being a secret Catholic. Not much doubt about Byrd, but no one knows about Tallis. But Tallis must have been a good guy, since Byrd wrote a very moving song after he died, with the lyrics, ‘Tallis is dead, and music dies.’”

“Very nice indeed,” said Lady. “Now if only my poets….”

“Well, in a sense, it’s a shame the whole question of religion banged into it at all, because you can say what you want about theology, but musically, the Catholic Church wiped everybody else off the map. Shame they’re not still doing it….”

“Well, aren’t they? Didn’t you go off and do a retreat at a Catholic Monastery in Chicago?”

“Not one of my best moves,” I told her. “Though come to think of it, the monks who were singing chant were probably taught the chants note by note, just as they had been a thousand years earlier. At least I think so. Damn, never thought to ask….”

“Well, you were preoccupied, then….”

“I was indeed. I want to believe, you know. I did my best—though I do admit to sleeping through whatever the 3AM service was called. Anyway, the point is that the music was very beautiful, though nothing as complex as the music that sprang up, so astonishing and improbably, a couple of centuries later. You know, I really do think that aliens….”

“Could I suggest something?”

“And that is?”

“Well, if you’re willing to believe in aliens, why not believe in God?”

You know, it does make sense…. 


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Month of Music, Day 8

“I have no idea how much pain you’re in,” I told Lady, “but you should probably get ready for some more….”

“What now,” said Lady? “Are you still tormenting everyone with that dangerous music? How about something soothing, since those surgeons have taken out a fair portion of my hip bone? The Pachelbel Canon, now, or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik….”

“I vowed I wasn’t going to do that stuff,” I told her. “But I’m seriously thinking of doing the utterly unthinkable. How would you feel about a shot of Mormon Tabernacle Choir?”

“I am generally as speechless as a parrot,” said Lady. “But you have done the nigh impossible. Do we jest?”

“Well, I ran into them the other day on YouTube,” I told her. “And you know, I think they might have a place here. They certainly have a few problems, the first being that they have most of the population of Utah on stage….”

“Well, it must be quite a sound….”

“Undeniably so. But to ask them to sing a brisk allegro is like asking a cruise ship to be a speedboat. And then there’s this nagging feeling: what’s an atheist like me doing listening to the Mormons? Because believe me—when they sing stuff like ‘Praise the Lord,’ well, it’s not a suggestion, but considerably beyond a marching order…”

“All excellent reasons to leave them, perhaps, in Salt Lake City?”

“You can hear them down here,” I told her. “Anyway, the MTC may be the musical equivalent of tuna fish casserole…”

“…tuna fish casserole?”

“Good Lord, what sort of mother did you have? You know, you boil up the noodles, throw in the cans of tuna fish, peas, and that inevitable and omnipresent Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, and top with—and this is culinary genius—crushed potato chips! Bake at 350 until burnt. Oh, and until the potato chips are soggy.”

“Nothing I have ever heard about your mother….”

“But here’s the thing about the MTC—they brought ‘classical’ music to a lot of people who would never have heard it. And if they sang everything in English—well, what of it? The point is that a hell of a lot of people got their first taste of music through the church choir. The purists can carp all they want…”

“Surely you didn’t spend your morning listening to the MTC,” said Lady. “Because if that’s how you waste your time, you could have been here, variously languishing and howling in bed, subbing for me. Really, Marc!”

“In fact, I had a wonderful morning,” I told her, “and no thanks to the Mormons. No, I was reliving the first seven days of  the creation. Or rather, The Creation. Because he’s too good to ignore, and who can’t help but feel sorry for Franz Joseph Haydn?”

“Why should I feel sorry for Haydn? Did he have syphilis, like all the rest? Abusive parents? Serious child loss?”

“Well, he nearly got to 80,” I said, “well over twice as long as Mozart and Schubert. And no, I don’t think he was syphilitic. But he did have a few bumps along the way…”


“Well, he spent his childhood hungry and in rags. Then he went to what Wikipedia calls ‘a completely unhappy marriage….’”

“Poor man!”

“Yeah? And what about Mrs. Haydn? Anyway, they both took lovers….”

“And the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings his stuff!”

“See? Write classical music and you get instant respectability. Anyway, he was apparently devoutly religious, which is why he spent a considerable amount of time, at the end of his life, to writing The Creation. And wow—what an amazing piece!”

“So what’s so great about it?”

“A couple of things. First of all, it’s an oratorio, which means it’s a long piece for orchestra, soloists and choir. The most famous being Handel’s Messiah, which Haydn was familiar with, and which influences The Creation. But maybe I should just come out and say it, even though I’ll get death threats from all of those music lovers out there….”

“Dear me, and they so incendiary?”

“You have no idea. Anyway, here it is. As I get older, I listen to Mozart less and less, and to Haydn more and more.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Mozart has this status, you know. He’s a god, he’s a comet, but….”


“You know, maybe it’s that composing was too easy for him. You hear Mozart, and you immediately get the impression: the work spilled out of him. But other composers work and struggle and polish and revise. They have to. Mozart doesn’t….”

“Must be nice,” said Lady. “You think that’s how Shakespeare did it? Got up, sat down, whipped off his sonnet, and then tackled his pop tarts?”

“No idea,” I told her. “But I think there’s such a thing as music for the young, and music for the old. Actually, the whole idea of The Creation could only have been conceived by an old man. And one who had attained some success, with its financial security….”


“Mozart was always scraping by, and if you have the wolf pounding on the door, do you sit down and write a piece of music that is nearly two hours long, about existential affairs? Or do you write an opera, Così fan tutte for example, which has the most glorious music attached to the silliest of plots? Because—big news!—the Biblical account in Genesis of the creation of the world is not exactly rave material. Anyway, when it was finally performed, it was a great success. But that’s because Haydn had doggedly worked for half a century for that success.”

“Well, all of that seems reasonable,” said Lady. “Still doesn’t explain why you think the classical music snobs are going to be putting car bombs in your cello case.”

“You don’t know these people the way I do,” I told her. “Veneration of Mozart is a religion, and like all religions, has its fanatics. And Mozart wrote some damned good religious music, among which are his Requiem and his Great Mass. Masterpieces, yes…but they always come across to me as a little theatrical. Whereas The Creation strikes me as fresh, innovative, and wonderfully cheerful. As well, of course, as utterly joyful….”

“So is this another piece from your childhood?”

“Hardly,” I told her. “I knew about it, but when I was a kid, I was busy learning the cello repertoire, which in a sense was totally stupid….”

“But you’re a cellist!”

“Of course, so I would have learned it anyway. But cellists should never, in my opinion, listen to other cellists.”

“What? Then whom should they listen to?”

“Singers—and as many as possible. So I had filed The Creation into that burgeoning dossier of music-I’ll-get-around-to. And then the time came, and there it was….”

“The time came?”

“Every piece of music comes at its own time,” I told her. “And this was a particularly happy time of life for me. I had just published my book—Life, Death and Iguanas—and I had had that wonderful feeling of holding my first book in my hands. And it had taken more time than I had imagined. And cost me more effort….”


“First of all, never write a confessional book. You have to dig pretty deep in places you really don’t want to go. And then, everybody who reads the book will know all your worst secrets. Oh, and your family will probably hate you….”

“Do they? Or did they?”

“It wasn’t an easy sell. I got my brothers to read the damn thing by hinting that if they didn’t, I’d likely be heisting errant lies about them and my family into the world. But none of my nephews and nieces has read the book, and nobody ever speaks about it. It’s like it doesn’t exist….”

“ But that’s terrible!”

“It’s true—it doesn’t exist. You think it will, you know. But unless you’re willing to get out there and hustle your work, it’ll sink to the bottom of the literary pond almost immediately. But I didn’t know that then, and so I floated along for several months, waiting for the inevitable to happen. Word of mouth would fan a forest fire of sales, and then The New York Times would be pestering me for interviews, and would I oblige them? Hah!”

“Yes,” said Lady, “worse than telemarketers, aren’t they? Swatting off The New York Times even before your morning coffee….”

“Well, it was a nice and fairly harmless delusion,” I told her. “At least I didn’t buy any yachts on the basis of future royalties. Though I did treat myself to a little vacation, and went off to Culebra to celebrate. So generally, when I hear The Creation, I think of Culebra. Not a bad association….”

“By no means,” said Lady.

Culebra is a tiny island off the east coast of Puerto Rico. It has a seriously beautiful beach—so good that it usually makes the list of the ten best in travel magazines.

“Time for me to rest, now,” said Lady. “Just do me a favor, would you?”

“And that would be?”

“Take the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with you….”