Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Day 14--Music from the Middle Drawer

“Please, Marc,” said Lady, not passing by, “no more Schubert. I listened to those last two songs, and then Nico came home several hours later and found me sitting catatonic on living room floor. It required Ben and Jerry’s to restore me….”

“Shoot,” I didn’t tell her, “because I’ve found a wonderful new baritone. Well, actually, I rediscovered him. Thomas Quasthoff, this German dude, and guess what? Besides having this amazing voice, he’s also disabled! He’s a thalidomide child, so he’s about four feet tall, and has two little flippers instead of arms! So when he sings der Leiermann—wow! It’s the complete package!”

“You know, Marc, if I did the complete package, well, all the Ben and Jerry’s on Cristo Street wouldn’t be enough. So no more Schubert, OK?”

“Right. And so we turn to the immortal music of Porpora.

“Say what?”

And so we turn to the immortal music of Porpora.”

“Marc, why are you speaking in that ridiculous voice?”

“OK—so maybe that wasn’t quite the voice. How’s this? And so we turn to the immortal music of Porpora.

“What? I can barely hear you!”

“Right—well, how’s this? And so we turn to the immortal music of Porpora.”

“Marc, are you crazy? Why are you speaking this way?”

“It’s my classical music announcer’s voice,” I told her. “What if they make me an announcer? We have to be prepared for the little turns our lives may take, my dear!”

“What makes you think they’ll turn you into a classical music announcer?”

“Well, they turned me into an English teacher, which I didn’t much want, and before that a nurse, which was also the road best-not-taken. So who knows what they’ll do next?”


“Well, they did it to my cousin,” I told her, and then realized, they probably didn’t. Brian had to work his tush off to get where he is….

“Anyway,” said Lady, “what’s the thing about whoever? You know, the guy who sounds like a tropical disease?”

“Porpora,” I told her. “It does sort of sound like a vitamin-deficiency, doesn’t it? Poor man—to be pretty much ignored by everyone, even Microsoft’s spell check! How low can you sink?”

“Well, since I presume he’s dead, what does it matter? And what did he do besides, I presume, compose?”

“Well, he spent a lot of time hanging out with castrated men.”


“Well, there were a lot of them, since at the height of the craze, 4000 boys a year were castrated, just to see which one could be the next superstar. Because they were the Lady Gaga’s or Adele’s or whoever of their times. If you made it to the top, you were fabulously wealthy, adulated, adored. Of course, of the 100,000 or so who over the 18th century got castrated, how many do we know about today? I can only think of four or five, and I’m moderately well-listened….”


“Well, we have well-read, don’t we? Anyway, it’s safe to say that a lot of those poor kids / men ended up with church gigs for the rest of their lives. The same with most singers, even today….”

“The church let these guys sing?”

“Ah, the church! It was officially a sin, you know, to castrate a boy. And so all over Italy, it was always the next town where it was done. Naples pointed the finger at Venice; Venice gasped in horror at Modena. But once it was done, well—there was very much a place for castrati in the Catholic Church. In fact, the last castrato of the Vatican died in the early 20th century, and we have recordings of him….”

“The mind boggles….”

“The boggle factor is pretty high,” I said. “One has to suffer for one’s art, you know…or rather, we know! Suffer, suffer, we suffer! But having one’s balls cut off….”

“Why ever would they do that?”

“It’s complicated. But apparently, the castrato voice was something that—perhaps—we’ll never hear again. Now these guys did suffer—their long bones grew, so they were abnormally tall. And the chest grew huge, which meant that they could sing long, ornate passages without breathing. And since their mouth and resonating chambers were expanded as well, it sounded neither like a boy soprano or a female soprano. And we have counter tenors, today, who sing in the soprano range—but still, we’ll never know what exactly what the castrati sounded like. Not that some haven’t tried. In the movie “Farinelli,” the sound engineers went to unbelievable lengths to imitate it. They actually recorded a soprano and a male counter tenor singing the entire sound track, and then went note by note, splicing and mixing the two tracks. So it’s ingenious, yes, but not the same….”

“They made a movie about all this?”

“See? So they can just as easily make me a classical music announcer!”

“Stop it….”

“The movie was called “Farinelli,” after the most famous castrato of the age, and about the only one who never actually worked with Porpora. And it was wildly sensational, which never hurts. Oh yes, it came out in the 80’s, and I saw it in those wonderful, troubled days when I was coming out as a gay man. A strange time, since my very conservative father was very well-known in Madison, Wisconsin, which was a dreadful hotbed of liberalism, as you know.”

“So you never told him?”

“Nope—but he knew, and that was OK. There was no Internet, which is unimaginable today. So there was word of mouth, magazines—Time was always good once a year for a lead… “The Tragedy of the Today’s Homosexual….”

“Surely you jest.”

“I wish. ‘They walk among us, undetected by you and me. But words cannot describe the inner torment….’”

“Dear me—and were you in torment?”

“Wouldn’t you be, with that kind of press? And then there was this thing about what would happen if I got outed, somehow….”


“Yeah—what if someone saw me walking into a gay bar?”

“Are you serious?”

“Dead serious. Because who knows how it would get back to my old man? People would talk, and someone would probably break the news to Pop. You know, it was never talked about—being gay. But it was sniggered, and it could have killed my old man. He had a groggy heart, you know.”

“You’re kidding.”

“My father was devastated when my brother moved in his girlfriend, who is now his wife of 43 years. In his mind, only a slut or a prostitute would do such a thing. And my father was just as horrified that my brother had ‘corrupted’ the girl, or taken advantage of her fallen status, or whatever. The point was that everybody knew that such women existed, but it was unimaginable that your son….”

“What was the big deal?”

“My brother’s life was ruined.”


“People would find out, and that would be that. Yes, of course, my father could never walk down the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, without knowing that men were saying, ‘John’s boy is shacked up with some hussy on East Johnson Street.’ That would be bad, but the worst was that my brother would never be able to crawl back out of the hole he had dug for himself. The hussy would leave him, of course—probably when she realized that the family was well known, but not particularly well off. So she would leave my brother, and he’d be broken-hearted. But then what? Would any respectable girl have him? Could any girl take my brother home to meet the parents? Of course not. So my brother would be doomed to a downward spin of one slut after another. He’d start to drink, maybe take drugs. He’d lose his job, and who would hire him, anyway? So there he’d be, with his blanket huddled around him, fighting with all the other drunks and bums for a place lying on the heating vent at West High School….”


“Everybody passing by, right there on Regent Street: John’s boy there, with the bottle of red cooking wine in hand…”


“Cirrhosis, death by exposure, hepatitis, court appearances, jail, rehab centers—who knew? My brother had thrown his life away, at age 20. God forbid—what would happen if one of the sluts got pregnant? Not that anyone would ever be sure that it was my brother’s child, since we knew about DNA, but nobody could imagine a time when you could get yours checked out for a hundred bucks. Or that there would be mobile testing vans driving around, with ‘Who’s Your Daddy?’ posted on the sides. It was a different world.”

“You have got to be making this up.”

“My father cried silently at the breakfast table for about six months. I remember once coming upon him standing at the top of the basement stairs. My mother asked him what he was doing, and Jack said, ‘I used to put a mattress at the bottom of the stairs, so if he fell down he wouldn’t break his neck. But now, there’s nothing I can do to protect him….’”

“That’s crazy.”

“That’s how it was. And my brother was straight. So for me? Well, they knew about sissies and faggots and queers, and they knew what they did—which was disgusting—and it wasn’t just that you could fire somebody for being gay. You almost had to fire someone who gay, since who wanted that nightmare? It’s Tuesday morning, you open your store, and what’s happened to Marc, your clerk? Well, you find out in the afternoon. He’s in jail, since the bar got raided, and he wasn’t one of the lucky guys that got through the bathroom window on time.”

“Wait a minute….”

“Oh—he could be in the hospital, since he was out prowling the grounds of the capitol. That’s where the queers gather, you know. So he went home with the wrong guy—they’d both been drinking—and it went wrong. Marc dropped some stupid comment about them both being queers, and the other guy exploded, since he wasn’t queer, goddamn it!”

“But if he was….”

“An interesting time, since there were a whole hell of a lot of guys who had been ‘serviced’ by men exclusively for decades, but were they gay? Hell no—they weren’t no faggots! See that knife? Well, that knife’s gonna be in your belly, if you don’t….”


“I knew somebody, you know, who got murdered like that….”

“Are you kidding me?”

“A bartender at one of the hip bars. A sweet man—not particularly intellectual, but not stupid. He had fallen for a PhD in German, who had moved to the twin cities. So the bartender’s heart was broken, and he went out and tricked every night. I was one of the tricks that went OK, though when I showed for a second date, he stood me up. So it was a shock when I read that this guy I had loved for a night had been killed behind the Civic Center.”

“My God….”

“‘Well, he had it coming.’ Or so they would have said. And my father cared about his good name, yes, but he was all in all a fine man. He wouldn’t have cared less what people said, as long as he knew that his son was safe. But how could he be sure? Already, he wasn’t sleeping at night, worrying about my heterosexual brother. And now? One son drinking cooking wine on the heat vent, the other son bleeding to death in a snow bank on the Capitol Square….”

“How did you live like that?”

“Well, it took me about five times walking around the block before I darted into the gay bar, saw the dark figures on the bar stools, choked on the cigarette smoke, and then dashed out the door, because somebody had turned their head!”


“Yup—lasted about 20 seconds! But at least I hadn’t been murdered! So it all worked out….”

“This road is taking us well past the town of Sad….”

“So maybe that was why the movie ‘Farinelli’ made such an impression on me. 18th century Italy—actually, anytime Italy—is more than a world away from Madison, Wisconsin, at that time. All of this sexual perversity! And this wild music, which is both incredibly florid, and then so sensuously languid. Because those are the two speeds of the castrati. And you know, however virtuosic the fast stuff was, it was really the slow arias that proved the worth of the castrati. Because the messa di voce was prized above anything else.”

“That being?”

“A long, long note. It starts out almost inaudible, increases in volume to the loudest the singer can sing, and then diminishes to inaudible again. It has to be perfectly timed, and the shift in volume has to be completely undetectable. Ravishingly beautiful, and it only takes a lifetime to learn how to do it! But if you got it, you would have palaces, jewels, and—according to the movie, though what use it would have been to a castrato?—all the high-class nobility chicks panting after you! Very much not Madison, 1982….”

“So that was Porpora?”

“Porpora was the composer, and he at one point was teaching a guy named Joseph Haydn, who said, well…here’s Wikipedia….”

“There was no lack of Asino, Coglione, Birbante [ass, cullion, rascal], and pokes in the ribs, but I put up with it all, for I profited greatly from Porpora in singing, in composition, and in the Italian language."[1] He also said that he had learned from the maestro "the true fundamentals of composition."

“Well, that’s something!”

“Yeah, and then he got into a competition with no less that Handel, since they both had opera companies in London. Guess who won? So there was poor Porpora, living in very much reduced circumstances at the end of his life. They had to hold a benefit concert just to bury the guy. And there were all the castrati that he had composed for, living in, well…augmented, if not even exaggerated, circumstances.”

“Poor guy!”

“Yeah, and everybody still venerates Handel, but the real music people get a little sniffy about Porpora….”


“Well, the fast stuff is facile, and the slow stuff is sentimental, so yeah, they’ll play Alto Giove—Porpora’s most famous aria—as background at their next cocktail party, but actually go see the opera, Polifemo, from which it’s drawn? Forget it! Not that they even could, since who stages it? But they do go see Giulio Cesare, all four hours of it, by Handel, since even the Met stages it. The world keeps on being unfair, doesn’t it? Even I was going to throw in some Handel, but I decided not. No, one of the wonderful things about the world is that there is even now a place for the less than top drawer. Nope, Porpora it is!”

“Well it all works out then,” said Lady, “Porpora scores getting into your blog, if not quite the Met, and you….”


“will never have to fear bleeding to death in a snow bank. So all is well!”

Know what?

She’s right…..            


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Day 13--Bowing to Madness

“Well, I’m flying blind here, which is what happens when the Internet decides to hit the golf course. So I can’t definitely tell you that Schubert actually cooked up the song cycle, but in a way, it really doesn’t matter. The point is that nobody—to my mind—ever did it better than Schubert.”

“Song cycle?” asked Lady.

“Yup—a collection of ten or twenty songs (or lieder in German) that tells a story. Think of each song being a chapter of a novel or novella. A cool idea, but a little daunting. Because classical musicians work themselves into dithers and blathers about the two major song cycles of Schubert: Winterreise, which is unbearably bleak, and Die schöne Müllerin, which is just bearably bleak. I know, I know—I’m not selling this stuff so great….”

“Why do I fear you’re going to tell me about them?”

“Well, you might consider Ian Bostridge…”

“I always do.”

“Then you’ll know that Bostridge wrote a whole damn book about Winterreise. So that got him appointed as a guest lecturer at his alma mater, either Cambridge or Oxford—sorry, but is it my fault that I’m Netless? Anyway, the point is that in the course of researching the book, he came across another PhD in history. (Besides being arguably the world’s greatest lied tenor, Bostridge is an expert on 16th century witchcraft. The British have these little talents, you know….)”

“Indeed—and can he tat?”

“Probably, as well as macramé. Anyway, the other dude asked Bostridge why he was spending his time on so recherché a topic as Winterreise. And Bostridge said something like, ‘Winterreise is the Sistine Chapel of music.’ So sooner or later, we all have to grapple with it. In my case, of course, I conveniently used my descent into madness to explore Winterreise. In fact, if you have to lose your mind, Winterreise is really the best accompaniment to doing so. It’s like having the munchies when you’re stoned….”

“Dear me, and is the record store open today?”

“Not a problem, since Bostridge has recorded a whole documentary on Winterreise. It was filmed, by the way, in the ruins of an English Victorian madhouse, and guess what? At the end of the whole affair, the place was miraculously restored to life, and completely filled with sadistic staff, jeering spectators, and lunatics, drooling and pulling the straws from their hair. Quite Hogarthian, not that that’s a word. But you know what I mean….”

“So what happens in Winterreise?”

“Utterly nothing, though it takes seventy minutes or so to endure the thing. Right—I see you looking for the exit ramp….”

“Have you considered, Marc, that I’m recently post-op? That my surgeon even now wants me to be on bed rest? And you want me to suffer seventy minutes of descent into madness?”

“You should do it at least once. Because Winterreise is described, usually, as one of the first and certainly one of the finest portrayals of a deep and interior journey. Which is to say that Schubert set sail in stormy seas well ahead of Freud. Who can say no to that?”


“So Winterreise is the saga of a rejected lover, who’s leaving the village at night, slipping away without farewell. And then, every damn thing he sees reminds him of a new and terrible facet of his misery. There’s the frozen stream, the linden tree where he and his beloved met, and then the weathervane. You can guess what that symbolizes….”

“Marc, dear, I am a poet….”

“Right. So at the end, the wanderer encounters the hurdy-gurdy guy. That being a poor blind (I think) beggar who makes his bread cranking out a single, dreary tune. So having nothing better to do, the two join up and set off looking for even more desolation, and today they’re still out there, frostbitten and desolate, having traversed Siberia countless times and having found even it too hideously tropical. Yes, the whole trek has lasted a bit over two centuries, and guess what? It just keeps getting colder and colder!”

“Could this be why classical music….”

“No, spring never comes for those two, but here’s the good news. According to another great singer, the baritone Matthias Goerne, this song cycle is actually the more cheerful of the two! Because the other cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin, has the hero singing a love song to the river. Nor is the hero (in this case a miller) sitting by the side of the river. No, he’s very much in the river, and he ain’t getting out. See? Wandering around in the snowy bleak vastness for all of time is definitely better than suicide, right?”

“Do people actually pay….”

“Well, I flew all the way up to New York, so I could hear Goerne sing his way through Winterreise via Carnegie Hall. Oh, and they had put plastic over the carpeting and chairs, since most of us were slashing our wrists, if not our jugulars. They had attached razor blades to the programs, you see….”


“Well, it was about that bad. The thing is that at the end of the 70-minute ordeal, the whole audience just sat there, twinnly wondering if the whole affair had finally ended, and if it could get any worse. Then there was a storm of applause, of course….”

“Ah yes, and how do you spell relief?”

“Oh, it a merry old thing, is Winterreise. One could blow it off, of course, except that…”

“I think I know what you’re going to tell me….”

“It’s an absolute masterpiece. It starts out with the words, ‘a stranger I came to the village, and a stranger I left.’ Or words to that effect. And then, over twenty songs or so, it’s unrelenting. Each song is a jewel, and each song plunges you deeper and deeper into the soul of this anguished soul. Is it pretty? No. But who hasn’t made that journey? Or perhaps, who isn’t making that journey? Even worse, who isn’t awaiting—and dreading—that journey?”

“Well, some of us….”

“It’s an interesting experience, undergoing Winterreise. Ever wanted to be Edvard Munch’s The Scream for seventy minutes? Boom—Winterreise is your ticket!”

“Deeply rewarding to know….”

“There is, of course, just a little hitch….”

“What! First you want me to go plummeting into madness and misery, and now you’re throwing hitches at me?”

“Yup—unless you’re fluent in German, and lucky enough to have a singer with impeccable diction, you’re really going to have to have a good German / English translation. Otherwise, the thing will seem completely contrived and ridiculous. And even with the translation….”


“Well, it’s an acquired taste. And it also requires a great singer. And oddly, even the greatest singers in the world may not work for you. For years, I thought I couldn’t listen to lieder because…well, because of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau.”

“And he would be?”

“God as trumpeted through a baritone voice for most of the 20th century. According to everyone but me. Really, his voice always sounded too big and blobby to me. And to tell anyone that was as bad as admitting that Mozart didn’t do much for me. But then I heard Goerne, and later Thomas Hampson, and I totally got it. And now, of course, Matthias Goerne is the voice I want to hear as I lie dying….”

“Marc, honey….”

“Yes, write this down, Lady, and put it in a place where you won’t forget! You’re in charge of the audio in case a truck mows me down, right here in front of the café?”

“Are we being just a bit morbid, Marc?”

“Winterreise brings it on.”

“All right, and the miller guy?”

“Die schöne Müllerin is basically the same thing, without the winter and with the twist that the miller has competition from…and I dare you to guess!”

“No, Marc….”

“Yup—the hunter! Sorry, you women always say that you like the nice guy, but guess who wins in the end? Hah! The big stud—that would be the hunter—walks into the song cycle a third of the way in, and it’s all over for Mr. Nice Guy! Not, of course, that he does anybody any favors by just jumping into the river and getting it over with. Nope! Schöne Müllerin may be the first song cycle in the Western Musical Tradition (always wanted to write that), but it’s by no means the most abbreviated or primitive. No, no—Schubert doesn’t pull the heart strings, he gets out the tugboat!”

“And you listen to this stuff?”

“Do you read Leaves of Grass? War and Peace? Well, these song cycles are just the same—long, difficult, and completely worth it. And just the way you won’t read Tolstoy on the bus going back home from work, one day, you really won’t get the song cycles overnight. But it’ll be worth it….”

“Was it for you?”

“No, not really.”


“You don’t come to these works on your own: you’re brought to them. Life puts you in positions where they are inevitable, and where they must be faced, welcomed, cursed, and incorporated. No serious person gets through life unscarred. And no serious listener gets through life without these two song cycles.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Deadly. I tackled Müllerin when I had reached that age when I knew that my dreams—or at least some of them—would never come true. And of course, Winterreise came to me at one of the lowest points in my life.”


“I had given my mother her death. All right—with the help of a lot of other people, but it felt as if I were the one most often wearing the executioner’s hood. And then I had lost my job—with all of its security, its benefits, and its…well, you know about the comfort zone, right? So there I was, floundering. I began to write, and that meant facing who I was, who I should have been, what had happened to me and what I had done to others. I could have—maybe I should have—gone back to my old job. Instead, I willed myself to madness.”

“Are you crazy?”

“Utterly. I had seen my mother chose to stop drinking and eating. She had been brave, and she had met death in her home, in the greening Wisconsin woods, after only eleven days. She hadn’t put herself or us through the horrors of a nursing home. And if she had had that strength, at the end of her life, I could have it in my fifties. So I decided that yes, even if I had to do it in Puerto Rico, I would take the winter’s journey. And of course, I did go mad….”

“Was that when you had the panic attacks?”

“That’s what we called them. Who knows what they were?”


“We live in our Western world, and yes, I took and still take my handful of Western medicine—all the blues and beiges and greens—every morning and every night. Elsewhere, perhaps, the elders would have stripped me, painted my face, ordered me to sip from the enchanted bowl, and…”


“…sent me deep into the jungle, where no man has trod, and no man could trod. Each of us has his mountain, or his own path up the sacred mountain. And each of us will meet the individual beast—unknown to and unseen by any other—who will block the way, stop the heart, consume the flesh, and free us.”

“That was Winterreise?”

“That was Winterreise.”

“Are you free now, Marc?”



Final song--Des Baches Wiegenlied" ("The brook's lullaby")--of Die schöne Müllerin, sung by Matthias Goerne.


Final Song--Der Leierman ("The Hurdy-gurdy man")--of Winterreise, sung by Ian Bostridge.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Day 12--Sleeping with Psychotics

“Now then, I have no time for folderol. I’m almost criminally busy with the vexing problem of Schubert. In fact, I am, as a coworker from the south side of Chicago once told me, busier than a cat covering up shit. So I have no time to put you into my blog today. Sorry, but that’s how it is!”

The ever-absent Lady, who is never and always around, recoiled in horror.

“No, I didn’t,” she said. “Anyway, why does it always have to be horror from which we recoil? Why can’t we recoil from sin? Or recoil in ecstasy? Anyway, that’s hardly the point. Where have you been?”

“Sleeping with psychotics,” I told her. “If you must know….”

“What! Marc, you’re a married man!”

“The circumstances were unusual,” I told her, “starting five days earlier, when I was strip-searched, and then bidden to squat with my butt touching my ankles. Then I had to stretch my arms out, close my eyes, and cough. Unremarkably, I performed this task superbly, though no videographic evidence exists to attest to the fact. True, it may not have been YouTube-worthy, but at least Instogram....”

“You know, Marc, you couldn’t be normal, because what would you write about?”

“I wonder about it, sometimes. I imagine that there is a huge bronze Buddha, somewhere hidden deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The lucky or accursed chosen who stumble upon it get to rub the Buddha’s stomach, and their wish is granted. Would I trek to find the Buddha? And would I wish to be normal?”

“Well, if it meant not having to sleep with psychotics….”

“True,” I said. “Though I was gently initiated into the whole affair. My first psychotic—sorry, but I do feel possessive towards them—was accompanied by a male orderly. So as I was lulled to sleep by the siren or sirens of two milligrams of Ativan—perhaps the most compelling reason to believe that God exists—the orderly quite courteously shepherded the lunatic away from me. (He tended to like hovering over my bed, being given to strange sights, things invisible to see….)”

“Ah, the majestic words of John Donne,” Lady remarked, “and did you ride ten thousand days and nights….”

“Sure felt like it,” I told her. “Anyway, when the orderly showed signs of fatiguing, and the madman showed signs of very much not fatiguing, I gently excused myself, and went to sleep in the seclusion room.”

“You slept in seclusion!”

“The best room in the hotel,” I told her. “It was quite secure and yet unlocked. It was sort of like having a pied-a-terre in Paris. Anyway, that only lasted a couple of nights, and then they kicked me out. So I had to go back to a regular room—nothing lasts forever, my dear—but fortunately, I didn’t have a roommate. Until the last night.”

“Marc, honey….”

“That’s when José Miguel arrived, fresh from another institution. So there he was, but where were the transfer papers? Where was his medical and especially psychiatric history? And what medicines was he disposed to take?”

“Don’t tell me nobody….”

“These little things happen,” I told her. “But fortunately, José Miguel stopped speaking Gibberish (the native tongue of Gibber) and pleaded, in clenched Spanish, for 40 milligrams of Haldol!”

“Why is it, Marc, that every statement of yours arouses at least three questions? In what way was his Spanish clenched?”

“There’s a kind of lockjaw that accompanies high doses of antipsychotics,” I told her. “I’ve forgotten the name of it, but I remember it from my old nursing days. Anyway, what I did remember was…”


“…that the normal dose of Haldol is 5 milligrams.”

“What! And he was on 40?”

“Yup! Oh, and he was also on mega-overdoses of an anti-depressive. So there I was, wondering which would manifest itself if he were to remain untreated. I was voting, of course, for the depression.”

“Rather uncharitable of you…”

“Would you have preferred psychosis?”

“Well, you do have a point….”

“Anyway, the nurse knew just what to do, and scurried off. And then she came back yielding a medicine cup, the contents of which were…”

“Sing it to me.”

“…two Benadryl! Yup, she was feeding the equivalent of Nyquil PM to a madman! Well, you could have cut the sense of relief with a machete!”

“And so you retired to the lure of seclusion?”

“Nah, by this time the madman and I had made friends. He had lived and worked for seven years in New Jersey, which may have been a worse fate than requiring 40 mgs of Haldol, and however much of the anti-depressive. Anyway, I was supposed to be de-institutionalized in the morning, so I decided to chance it. And indeed, the magic of Benadryl prevailed once again! I think of doing a little testimonial for them. Or perhaps it was just my soporific company. Anyway, the next morning did indeed come, and Mr. Fernández came and collected me. See? I’ve lived once again to hear mermaids singing…”

“You certainly are doing Donne today….”

“Did, doing, Donne,” I told her. “Whoever heard of a poet who was also a principal part? Anyway, that was so last week. Moving forward, as we used to say in corporate America, what’s to be done—or Donne—with Franz Schubert?”

“Must anything be…whatever?”

“Certainly,” I told her. “The failure to act on Schubert is a principal cause of the malaise—always like them Frenchie words—of cultural America.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“Well, first of all, there’s an incredible amount of music that the guy wrote. Here I am, struggling along on day 12 of a book, but Schubert managed, in the course of fifteen or twenty productive years, to write over 800 songs, nine symphonies, two major song cycles, fourteen or fifteen string quartets, and I don’t know how many piano sonatas. Amazing, when you think of it….”

“Noted,” said Lady, busy not being there.

“And then there’s the fact that we tend to think of him as a cheerful, filled-with-sunshine composer. Maybe because he could certainly write a pretty tune. But really, Schubert is dark, dark. Beethoven could be sobbing away, at times, but he was always essentially normal. And when he wasn’t sobbing, he was shaking his fist, or raising his finger, or doing something healthy. And even Schumann—who is probably our next problem, dammit—is healthier than Schubert. And given that Schumann had his mind rotted out with syphilis, threw himself into the Rhine, and then begged to be taken to the madhouse….”

“Marc, dear, have you considered that, well, it may be just a bit unhealthy to listen to all this stuff? Have you thought of heavy metal?”

“A serious point. Anyway, Schumann’s later works can be a little extreme, to say the least. But Schubert, to me at least, goes from being absolutely paradisiacal to…well, omnicidal.”


“You know, homicidal / suicidal / fratricidal / genocidal….”

“That violent?”

“At times, yes,” I told her. “I recently listened to the slow movement of his next to last piano sonata—your Internet is sloughing off today, so I can’t tell you which—and the middle section reminded of nothing so much as an autistic child banging away at an open piano. It was completely wild, weird, and unsettling. I listened to it with my jaw sweeping the floor and thought, ‘and this is the guy who wrote the Unfinished Symphony?’”

“I don’t suppose it was syphilis?”

“It almost certainly was, and by the way, has anybody ever written a treatise of the relationship between syphilis and creativity? Damn, I wish your Internet would come back!”

“Now, now,” said Lady.

“Then, then,” I responded, “so here we have this pudgy little Viennese guy, who was never married but deeply loved by his friends. Which leads to the speculation, of course…”

“Of course.”

“Well, probably only his hairdresser knew. Anyway, his work is as amazing as it is unfathomable. Sorry, but that’s just me….”

“So how did you come across Schubert?”

“Well, I was young, fifteen or so, and had already begun my war with the cello.”

“You had a war with the cello?”

“For decades,” I told her. “It was a witch’s cauldron, boiling and spewing, that got poured down onto me and the cello. I was gay and didn’t know it. Or perhaps I did know it, but couldn’t believe it was happening to me. Or rather, it was never going to happen to me. Am I making sense?”

“Utterly not.”

“That’s how it was in those days.  Well, and then I had a cello teacher whose train was substantially larger than mine, and was coming down the track at considerable speed. And right toward me….”


“He emphasized technique, emotional restraint, and an intellectual approach to playing. And of course I had NO technique, and wanted to play pieces that were way beyond me. He was a great teacher for young, female cellists who wanted to be music teachers. But for a young, gay-male, hyper-confused kid who wanted to be the next Rostropovich? He came down hard, and suggested that if I ever shaped up, I might get into a grade B orchestra. You know, something like the Dade County Symphony….”

“Dade County has a symphony?”

“No—so that’s how bad I was. Or he thought I was. Or I thought he thought I was. Did I mention that it was a rather confused time of my life?”

“Might that be why you sleep so well with psychotics?”

“Very likely so. Anyway, I was sent off to a music camp, and part of that was chamber music. Meaning music played by two to ten other musicians. So there I was, with four other guys, and there the music was: Schubert Quintet in C Major. Do you know, there may be a god after all? Because I thought it would be the simplest, easiest affair—nothing more than doing plink plunk plunk, plink plunk plunk for forty minutes or so. But it was nothing like that at all….”

“Do you plink plunk plunk well?”

“All cellists do,” I said. “Anyway, we tottered off at the beginning, stumbled—most of us—to letter A…”

“What’s all that about?”

“Well, in the likely event that all of the musician are not gods, at some point you’re going to have to stop and regroup. So sheet music comes sectioned off into A / B / C, etc. Anyway, we lurched onto letter B, which is when the clouds parted, and the beaming, benevolent face of god appeared, sending his choirs of angels to caress benisons upon us all.”

“Letter B was that good?”

“Letter B was unimaginatively good. And the rest of the movement was as well. And then the second movement? Well, Arthur Rubenstein wanted it played at his funeral, and he was a pianist, dammit. So he passed over the entire piano repertoire and chose this piece. Anyway, at a certain point, a man who became a second father to me—well, one of my many second fathers: I’m lucky that way—strolled into the room. And he told us that the quintet was from that last, amazing year, and he told us the story of—I think—Dame Myra Hess. And she had said about Schubert and that horrible / heavenly year, ‘he knew he was sick, he knew he was dying, and I know he knew what heaven was….’”

“That beautiful?”

“Shall we?” I said, and the great C Major quintet filled the air….


(The actual music starts eight minutes into this clip. But Joel Krosnick's introduction is superb. In fact, had I heard it before writing the post, it could have saved me a morning's work....)