Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Month of Music, Day 1

“OK—this isn’t starting so well,” I told my friend Lady. “As always, it sounded easy, when I first thought about it. 31 days, 31 pieces of music—simple, right?”

“Well, it should be,” said Lady. “You do know more than 31 pieces of music, don’t you?”

“Yeah, and that’s the problem. I don’t just want to do an electronic version of ‘Classical Music for Sunday Mornings.’ And God knows I don’t want to do ‘Mozart for Baby.’”

“What’s the matter with Mozart for babies?”

“You know, Mozart is not a vitamin pill. And there are at least 30,000 better reasons to listen to Mozart than the alleged boost to cognition, or whatever it is. I’m so tired of all this business of justifying classical music education based on the supposed neurological benefits. Do we study literature because of its effect on the brain? Or art? Of course not. Oh, and notice that the football coach never has to jump through those hoops….”

“So what’s the problem?”

“Well, in the first place, what to do with the war-horses?”


“You know,” I told her, “Beethoven’s Fifth, the William Tell Overture, Carmina Burana, and that damn Bolero. The problem is that some of them are wonderful pieces, but who can hear William Tell without thinking of the Lone Ranger? Anyway, I’m not going to waste one of my 31 days on Rossini….”

“We have a grudge against Rossini?”

“Not as seriously as I have a grudge against a lot of people,” I told her, “and Beethoven said Rossini’s opera buffa…”

“Ah, opera buffa,” said Lady, “not a great favorite of mine….”

“It’s just comic opera,” I told her, “unlike opera seria, which is….”

She just gave me a look.

“Anyway, Beethoven liked the opera buffa, but told Rossini he couldn’t write the serious stuff. Oh, and then there’s his reputed comment; Rossini would have been a great composer if his teacher had spanked him enough on the backside….”

“OK, so no Rossini. So now what’s the problem?”

“Well, should I simply devote each day to a different composer? Sort of, ‘if today is Tuesday, it must be Fauré?’ But there’s a problem, there….”

“And that is?”

“Oh come on, does that mean that Bach and Beethoven only get the same attention as Reynaldo Hahn? I mean, I love Hahn, and I wouldn’t be without Hahn, but still….”

“I see the point,” said Lady. “So spend a week on Bach, if you’re so inclined….”

“And then, of course, there are all the composers I should like, and don’t. Which means, of course, that I’m the complete Philistine. Sorry, but almost everything I’ve ever heard of Debussy make me want to jump off the balcony, if not the nearest bridge. So though he’s important compositionally….”


“Sorry—anyway, it’s my book, and if I don’t want to invite Debussy into it, well, so what? Mr. Fernández loves Debussy, so he can write a rebuttal, or his own damn book. Anyway, Debussy is out, and very likely so is Wagner, as well as most of the 20th century. I might make an exception for Samuel Barber….”

“All of this,” said Lady, “is nothing more than an excuse to get down to work. You’re throwing up objections simply to avoid getting the nose anywhere near the grindstone….”

“Easy enough for you to say,” I told her. “But what about chronology? Shouldn’t we progress in orderly fashion from Monteverdi, say, to Barber? That seems like the serious thing to do…”

Lady yawned.

“Aren’t you forgetting,” she said, “that this is supposed to be fun? As in ‘not a chore?’ Anyway, how did you begin to listen to classical music? Surely your mother didn’t sit you down with a study guide….”

“Absolutely the opposite,” I told her, “my mother, by the time I came around, was considerably worn down. She had a sort idea that it didn’t matter much what you did, your child was either going to turn into a mass murderer or not. Well, she may not have been quite that loose, but still…”

“Well, so what did you listen to, early on?”

“Oddly enough, quite a lot of The Weavers, as well as Burl Ives. I think my father was into that; it was when she was alone, and very often when she was editing, that she played classical music. Mostly, of course, because it’s hard to edit if you’re distracted by the lyrics of ‘itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini…’”

“Surely you jest….”

“The fifties brought us many things,” I told her. “Including, I’m sorry to say, the infamous witch hunts, led by Joe McCarthy from Appleton, Wisconsin. And oddly, The Weavers and Burl Ives—who I always thought were hopelessly square and old-fashioned—suffered greatly under McCarthy. Nothing as seditious as a folksong, is there?”

“Folksongs? Seditious?”

“Surprisingly. After all, when you sing, ‘this land is my land, this land is your land,’ well…has anyone ever sung ‘this land is Monsanto’s land?’”

“That actually might not be a bad idea….”

“Well,” said Lady, “since you obviously are turning just a bit chicken-livered about this whole project, why don’t you simply invite whatever composer is hanging around, over there in the dining room of Fortaleza Street? You know, if you really can’t decide, well, let it be open mic. What’s wrong with that? After all, I do it every Tuesday night at the café….”

“Well,” I said, “if it got me off the hook of deciding on one masterpiece and throwing out the other, it would be worth it. And it is, after all, how I came to so much music….”

“So, folksongs?”

“Hmm…folksongs. Wonder what Alfred Deller is doing, at the moment.”

“I’m right here,” said the disembodied voice. “nor did I think anybody at all remembered me. It happens, you know. They tell you that you are immortal, that you’ll never be forgotten, and now, who remembers Deller? Or my son? Or both of us together, since we often sang together….”

“Oh dear,” said Lady, “is it really starting? And who might these dellers be?”

“Not dellers, Dellers. And they have every reason to be a bit miffed. Alfred was the father, and Mark was the son…but they both were countertenors, which at the time was a bit of an eye opener.”


“It’s a man who is singing in the traditional female vocal range. And please, don’t get me started on whether it’s falsetto or not. You never, ever want to get into vocal production, because singers have the weirdest ideas about what it is, or what it isn’t. Somebody or other—Renée Fleming, I think, but anyway, somebody famous—seriously thinks that to produce a beautiful, pianissimo high note, you have to pitch the note through the tiny little indentation of the nose as it curves towards the cheek. Physiologically impossible, of course, but who cares? However she does it, or thinks she does it, well it’s glorious. And of course, could I do it?”

“Am I, or am I not, to be allowed to speak?” Said the querulous Deller. “I have been, after all, dragged from the dead. Though I must say, I was hardly the only male alto around: in fact, it was often said that if they had allowed women in the cathedral choirs, there would have been no male altos. But as it was, there were many of us….”

“So there were,” I said. “But you were one of the trailblazers, weren’t you? And now, we have people like David Daniels and Philippe Jaroussky, but you were standing out there, quite alone, and doing your thing….”

“The Deller Consort,” said Deller, “we were pioneers in the early music field.”

“You were,” I said, and thought, but did not say, that his voice had been sadly surpassed by our current generation of countertenors. “Well, shall we listen to something? How about ‘She Moved Through the Fair?’ It has to be one of the most haunting songs in the world. And then, what about some Vaughan-Williams? It doesn’t seem right to slight poor Vaughan-Williams, who did so much to save and preserve English folksong. Though really, I think I’d do ‘Silent Noon,’ since it’s so beautiful, and such a good interpretation of the text of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. And then, of course, we’d have to do “Orpheus with his Lute…”

“What? I thought it was just five minutes a day! Three songs? That’s already 15 minutes!”

“Bother,” I said, “I knew this project was unfeasible from the start. Well, have another glass of wine. Oh, and I suppose I should pour another two for you?”

There was no response, as the music soared, but at the end, Deller and Vaughan Williams had finished their cups.