Saturday, May 27, 2006

May 27, 2006--Saturday Story: Part II "The Music Library"

The Music Library--Part II

It may come as a surprise to have found him spread out with the full score to Brahms’ Fourth Symphony in the Barnard College Music Library, considering that at his elementary school graduation, because he was tone deaf and thus would throw his classmates off key, Mrs. Peterson, during rehearsal and in front of the entire graduating class, in a voice that had the capacity to shatter egos as well as glass, admonished him to lip-synch the words to the National Anthem and The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

You might therefore be further surprised to find him poring over that hundred page score since when his brother was attempting to learn to play the violin, he insisted that he practice his scales in their shared clothes closet with the door shut tight, so, he said, as not to hear “the scratching.” Although, in truth, if Jasha Heifitz were practicing in that bedroom, to our musically-impaired hero, it too undoubtedly would have sounded like scraping.

So what was he doing there with those rock-hard Bakelite headphones crushing his protruding ears, looking for all the world like a code breaker, while in fact he was attempting to decipher the orchestrations as if he were Bruno Walters’ apprentice with the Chicago Symphony, whose version of the Brahms he was attempting to absorb and understand? He had already mastered the pronunciation of the maestro’s name. “Valter,” “Valter,” he had been muttering to himself. Certainly not Walter. Obviously not.

Now he was attempting to hear, not just listen to this great and tragic work in E Minor. He felt prepared to take on this challenge as he was sufficiently tutored by then to know that the Fourth Symphony stands or falls upon the flute solo in the last movement, allegro energico e passionato, where, in the words of one of his professors at Columbia College across the street, “It stands for all the pleading, hopeful, gentleness and innocence in the world.”

Though he had as yet no idea whatsoever what was meant by “E Minor” or allegro, for other reasons soon to be revealed, including why he was at the Barnard rather than the Columbia library, he was making some progress on the passionate part.

This time he was alone at the library, not as he usually was with his roommate, Jerry Taybor, from the musical family of the same name. His father, the scion, presided over Friday evening cultural sessions in the Taybor den, which our Brahms enthusiast occasionally joined, along with the three Taybor boys, all in a clutch at the banker pere’s feet close by the tomb-sized mahogany Capehart phonograph as Koussevitzky conducted Mozart’s 29th or Toscanini his version of The Pastoral. This was in truth an accomplished family--one brother played the piccolo and went on to assume the second piccolo chair in the Saint Louis Symphony under the esteemed Walter Susskind; the other the tuba, who was at that time had what he called a “night job” playing in the house orchestra of the Mark Hellinger Theater, under the direction of someone whose name he had difficulty remembering, where My Fair Lady was near the end of its run. This job, which though it had the advantage of keeping his days free to pick up occasional gigs recoding advertising jingles, had the concomitant potential disadvantage of relegating him to the status of official family disgrace, that is if Jerry hadn’t, in a remarkably restrained form of sibling rivalry, preempted that role by having chosen to become a pre-med, even though he was reputed to have the best of the Taybor ears.

One would think in such a family, it needs to be said, a Jewish family, a father would have been equally proud of a piccilost and a budding cardiologist much less an oldest son who schlepped around a tuba to make a living, but with the Taybors (ne Trayberg) that was not the case. And thus when they were clustered at the phonograph to listen to music, it was blood sport.

Knowing this, and to lower the expectations and pressure he placed on himself, transgressive Jerry Taybor, with his unique sense of humor, renamed himself and encouraged his classmates to call him Jerry “Tuba.” But for anyone else at Mr. Taybor’s feet those evenings, the pressure and expectations were intense as he fired off to the minion questions about Opus this and Opus that. This pressure was felt especially by Jerry’s tin-eared roommate because his musical education to that point was from the little he had acquired while listening to the Make Believe Ballroom on the radio, where each afternoon Martin Block played the latest songs to join the Hit Parade. Mona Lisa, right then, being at the top of the charts.

Jerry’s roommate, fellow freshman and pre-med was eager to join the Taybor brothers in the den’s carefully maintained gloom, huddled on the Persian rug, by the fretted fireplace as if gathered by an ancient hearth, surrounded by deeply carved hardwoods and tapestries, because he was in the process of imaging a future for himself similar to that of the Taybor’s, where he too would have a fieldstone house on an acre of land on Long island, on the North Shore of course, replete with an identical faux-Norman mead-hall den, and knew he needed also to acquire their manners and style and take on their culture, none of which were a part of the curriculum at Columbia.

Thus, he called upon Jerry to teach him the rules of that game and to learn what, after all, was an Opus. He knew that meant, among many other things, that it was time for him to move on from Eddie Fisher to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. One of Mr. Taybor’s favorites.

And so, after returning from his third Friday evening with Jerry Tuba’s family, from his birthday savings, he bought for his dorm room a portable mahogany-stained RCA HiFi and three long-playing albums—Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Opus 43, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto In D, Opus 35 and Schubert’s Symphony Number 8, The Unfinished Symphony (no Opus but, mysteriously labeled D.759), the words to which he had memorized in order to fix it in his mind for the Music Appreciation test everyone needed to pass in order to graduate from P.S. 244:

This is the symphony,
the symphony
that Schubert wrote
but never finished . . .

* * *

Lessons with Jerry got off to a miserable start, with Jerry telling him that his choice of albums revealed just how massive the reclamation project was. There was very little to be learned, he was unceremoniously informed, from all of that “sentimental glop.” Those were the exact words.

When he managed to squeak back a modest protest, telling Jerry that the Schubert was Mrs. Peterson’s favorite at P.S 244, though they had never gotten to listen to anything but the first five minutes of the first movement, Jerry snarled at him, “We need Bach, we need Mahler we need some quartets. Beethoven for certain. “Something late. You need to get to know the 16th, the F major, especially the Lento—‘Es muss sein!, It must be!’” This was beginning to feel like something soaring beyond his expectations. He was alarmed that he would also have to learn Italian and even German? Lento, Es muss sein? He had Inorganic Chemistry and Introduction to Physics to worry about, not to mention his struggles with the Humanities and Contemporary Civilizations courses.

“Actually Jerry, I was thinking if I could learn just a little. You know, I have all my labs to do. And crew practice. What I really want is to be able to get the right answer when you father asks me a question about an Opus or something.”

With a shrug of feigned despair, Jerry sighed, “All right, we can do that.” But then showing an unexpected hint of understanding and compromise he added, “And if you insist on something Romantic, all right, we can at least have Brahms.” But still unable to restrain himself, “Something other than the schmaltz you bought.” Sounding very much like Mr. Taybor, Jerry Tuba continued, “If I’m going to turn you into someone I can walk around campus with, we need to get to Sam Goody’s immediately and buy you something substantial, something we can sink our teeth into, something profound.”

Though he had not been seeking profundity, just to be able to appreciate a few pieces in their entirety without having to make up words to sing to remember them, and to get through an evening in that den without humiliating himself, reaching for his coat, he asked Jerry, “Will you come to Goody’s with me? I want to get those records.”

With a wink, Jerry said, “As long as I don’t have to be seen walking with you.”

So in a few minutes, they could be seen, arm-in-arm, bent into the wind rising from the Hudson, striding across campus between the university’s twin libraries toward Broadway and then down into the subway, heading south to the heart of the City.

Thus he set off in pursuit of his true higher education.

* * *

The next afternoon, after chem lab, with a fierce rain slamming a staccato on the copper roof of their dorm room aerie under the eaves of Hartley Hall, Jerry and his musical ward sat leaning into the HiFi speakers as the second movement of the Schubert wove it schmaltzy spell. In spite of his rant of the day before, Jerry’s overnight thought was that it was best to start with theme-and-variation and that a good pedagogical strategy was to begin with something familiar, something anchored in childhood memory—something even from Mrs. Peterson’s Music Appreciation class. And so Schubert it was. Words and all, especially since they represented the principal theme of that movement that then goes on to be varied, seemingly, to Jerry, unenduringly, endlessly.

“This,” he lectured from his chair, “is the basic building block of much classical music—theme-and-variation. And after you have mastered that we can move on to subtler things, turning eventually to the inner structures of symphonic and chamber music—how composers score or orchestrate their work. For this we will, of course, need to have their actual scores before us. It will not be enough to just listen—we will also have to see and read their actual musical notations”

“But Jerry, I told you how I can’t carry a tune much less a theme and how I was told not to sing at my graduation. I’m getting hives at the thought of looking at sheets of music. Actually, the start of a migraine.”

“Not to worry, you will see that though I do not play an instrument I can follow a score; and you will be able to as well.”

“But your father says you have the best ear in the Tuba family. My ear isn’t even a tin one, though maybe tin foil.”

Jerry didn’t even smile at this little joke he was so intent on his lesson, “Just sit still and listen, they are about to recapitulate the theme. If you must, sing the words. You know them. But please,” he added, after all he was a Taybor, “sing them to yourself.”

* * *

Thus they proceeded. And after a scant two weeks, theme-and-variation had been mastered to the extent, remarkably, that he who had needed to learn the art of lip-synching five years ago could now find both the themes and their myriad twisted and involuted variations in even the Es muss sein F Major Quartet in F Major, Number 16, Opus 135.

It was therefore time, Jerry felt, to go to the scores—to seek the inner structures. This though meant they would have to disinter themselves from Hartley Hall where they had holed up to where the scores were kept—the Columbia College Music Library.

“It’s time,” Jerry said, “You are ready.” He could sense his pupil’s building anxiety. So in his most sensitive mode he added, “You will be fine. I will guide you.” This proved to be assurance enough.

“But do you still have that pipe?”

“Yes. It’s on my desk.”

“Get it,” he commanded. “Take it along. And the beret?”

“It’s in the closet.”

“Put it on. You’ll need it.”

Need it? In the library? For looking at the scores?”

“Because there may be Barnard girls there. Comparative literature or philosophy and perhaps even music majors. No offense, but I want you to look as if you belong.”

It was clear to him that Jerry too was feeling some trepidation. About being there with him. So he took the beret off its hook, plopped it on his head, and turned, forcing a grin, to show Jerry. “No not that way! Let me show you.” Stifling any appearance of exasperation, the maestro pulled on it so hard, when adjusting it, that it felt as if he might yank out hanks of hair. “Like this. Not in the center of your head with your hair sticking out, but forward and tipped to the side. Let me do it.” He tugged at it again, “Didn’t you ever see Breathless?” His pupil remained silent and Jerry knew his tolerance was being tested, “Of course not.” He could not resist adding, “I can’t believe how deprived you are.”

When everything was in preferred alignment and Jerry was thus satisfied that they were ready be seen together, with pipe clenched tightly between his teeth and beret pitched at an angle that would have made Jean-Paul Belmondo proud, unlike the last time they skulked across campus together, Jerry was now pleased to be out with his prodigy, in full sunlight. And even if he still couldn’t carry a tune, he had become a theme-and-variation demon! That was something. And he looked the part, attractive at six-feet-four alongside Jerry’s plump five-seven. A virtual arm piece!

* * *

The Music Listening Room was housed in Butler Library, a marble monolith named for former Columbia President Nicholas Murray (“Miraculous”) Butler--advisor to seven American presidents; Nobel Peace Prize recipient; and famous on campus for many glorious things, including the widely emulated undergraduate Great Books curriculum and the establishment, in the 1920s, of a strict quota limiting the number of Jewish students who would be admitted and thus allowed to rummage around in Aeschylus much less Spinoza. He did not want his University overrun by that tribe! How delicious then, how ironic for these two now to be descending into the bowels of this eponymous library in search of the inner Brahms.

And how reciprocally ironic then, as if they were still not welcome in Butler’s book mausoleum, that the score of the Brahms’ Fourth had been sent on interlibrary loan across Broadway to the Barnard Music Library.

Jerry, never one to be perturbed by irony or disappointment, said to his sulking charge, “Not a problem,” adding, while pointing at the beret, “In fact, over there you will be able to put that disguise to better use.”

So they came back up into the open air and side-by-side headed west toward the River. For them to get a head start on what they would be doing once they checked out the score, eager to emulate Socrates, whose peripatetic style they were just then learning about while reading The Symposium with the great Moses Hadas, Jerry spoke, while they were on the move, about the Brahms:

“In its instrumentation, which we will work together to understand when we have the notations at last before us, while of course at the same time listening to the record, we will find that in its basic outline of four movements--the first fast, the second slow, the third a scherzo, and the finale--it has the appearance, just the appearance of the more conventional classic and romantic symphonies we have already been studying—the Mozart, the Beethoven.”

Jerry stopped them for a moment to turn so they faced each other, to emphasize the magic they would soon experience. He grabbed hold of both of his shoulders to rivet him in place and thereby secure his gaze and attention, “But within that structure which is now so familiar to you, you will discover, with my help of course, a profoundly original dialectic at the center of Brahms’ musical language.”

Though he knew it would not be until next year, when they got to Kant and then Marx that he would know what a dialectic was, he nonetheless understood that Jerry was initiating him into something profound, something, if he had understood last semester, that one of his professors had referred to as hermeneutic. With the Brahms as text!

Jerry again took up the pace as they approached Broadway. “But, ah, the last movement. Where everything comes together and Brahms’ achievement is secured--that finale, it is in the ancient form of a passacaglia--a series of I believe thirty, truly thirty variations on a single, merely one sparse theme. That should be red meat for you so to speak,” he said with a chuckle while slapping him affectionately on the back, almost hugging him, “You know almost as much as I about how this works!” For the first time they did feel like equals—so much was the power of theme-and-variation.

“And if you listen for it very carefully, though in your case, considering your limitations,” so much for equality, “you may not hear it--though I will be certain to show it to you in the score itself--the theme from the first movement wondrously reappears. Can you imagine that?”

In truth he could not—he had developed only the capacity to hear one theme at a time, which he immediately forgot when moving on to the next. He would for sure need the score and Jerry by his side.

Undeterred, Jerry was so transported by the anticipation of this inter-movement wonder, that he hummed the theme to him as they crossed Broadway, forgetting for the moment that it was unlikely to be heard by that afflicted ear. To anyone noticing Jerry’s barely moving lips so close by that ear, it would have looked as if it was a lover’s furtive kiss.

Thus so blindly enraptured were they that they did not notice the careening taxi which nearly sideswiped them. The driver, leaning from his window, leering at them, and screamed, “You assholes!” They could hear him roaring with ribald laughter as he screeched north toward Harlem.

* * *
The score was there, having arrived from Butler. It was waiting to be picked up by the Barnard student who reserved it, and so the librarian allowed them to check it out with the understanding that they would relinquish it at once (that was underlined) when she arrived and that they would sit opposite her desk at the long open table in the central atrium of the Music Library. Though it was unspoken, it was understood that this latter requirement was so she could keep an eye on them, suspecting that they might run off with it. It was the era, after all, of Panty Raids and the end of quotas. Sunlight, if not trust, poured in on them.

Again side-by-side, now sprawled out with the huge score book between them and with their earphones jacked in the sockets built into the side of the table, Jerry directed him to cover just one ear with them so he could be heard in the other as he walked him through the text, pointing out how each of the instruments had its own line of music. If one wanted to see where the oboes entered, all that was needed was to track along with the musical notations assigned to them. And above and below that oboe line could be found others for the violins, the celli (he noted, as with everything else, how careful Jerry was to emphasize the Italian plural), and even the tiny piccolo (would they be piccoli?). It wasn’t as difficult as he had imagined to see the mix of instruments printed in the score, even though the first movement was marked Allegro, fast, cheerful. And he began to think that he was also hearing that blend in his left ear, the inner structure.

But before they could turn the page to the second movement, the “moderate” Andante, he sensed a commotion at the librarian’s desk. Jerry had as well and was clearly more interested in what was transpiring there than either the score or the recording.

“I told you, Miss. Von Heuner,” the room filled with an imperious voice, “we have the score. Actually, they have it,” the music librarian was pointing toward them without deigning to look their way, “I let them look at it with the proviso that they would give it back immediately when you called for it, and so there is no need for you to be in such a huff.” And still not turning toward them, she snapped her fingers in their direction and uttered just one word, “Score!

Ordinarily, in this kind of hierarchical circumstance, Jerry would have blanched and reacted more as a Taybor than a Tuba and his reaction would have trumped Miss. Van whatever-her-name’s. Actually, reverberations from the Taybor huff would easily have been felt up in Rockland County where Columbia’s Lamont Lab kept track of the seismic aftershocks of the world’s earthquakes. It would have registered on the Richter Scale of privilege.

But gathering the score, seemingly almost meekly, Jerry arose from his chair, true still somewhat regally, under total, surprising control. He could be seen uncorking himself to his full inconsiderable height; and as he approached the desk, and Miss. Von Heuner, it would have been difficult not to notice, though she hadn’t turned, that she towered over him by at least a head.

And it would not have been difficult to notice that that was quite some head—massively, radiantly blonde (revealed in the Barnard sunlight to be naturally blonde), with a jaw line and a nose so etched that they both looked as if they could be use for that purpose—etching.

There was to be no more Brahms, in fact no more Jerry. Because he disappeared, trailing behind his Rhine Maiden, his Valkyrie and did not surface, because that is literally what he did three weeks later—surface--until just before finals, all of which he promptly failed.

To be concluded next Saturday . . . .


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