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….”