“I really don’t like most of that longhair music. But I like that one.”
I was in the 8th grade or so when I got my first proper stereo. Finally, I could move off of the tiny, tinny record player where I had first begun to nurture my love of music, checking out albums from the library before I decided whether to buy them. And in those junior high days, what I checked out was almost exclusively classical music, growing out of the violin lessons I had been taking since the 4th grade.
Mom didn’t quite get that kind of music. The kind of records we owned were, apart from the Glenn Miller (which I always enjoyed), about as bland as Wonder Bread and as cheezy as Velveeta. Mom really liked Boots Randolph, of “Yakety Sax” fame (yes, that music from Benny Hill). The radio was usually tuned to one of Columbus’ “Beautiful Music” stations, a format that played what was essentially Muzak—“quiet, unobtrusive instrumental music.”
I had no family background in classical music at all, something that in retrospect I really wish we had had. My parents tried their best, but they really did not have ties into the community that could have gotten me started early on private music lessons. We didn’t go to concerts (of any kind). My appreciation for classical music, like my appreciation for most of my other obsessions, was sparked first at school where I started my violin studies and through ballet lessons, and then became the focus of intense independent study. The first violin I owned (rather than rented) was a scratched-up ¾ size instrument that was found in a garage sale. When it came time to upgrade to a full-sized violin, we didn’t even go to the violin shop that all of the other kids went to—we went to a little, dusty hole in the wall owned by an elderly gentleman who had once, perhaps, been considered an expert. But my parents did encourage me. We joined WOSU, the local classical music public radio station, mainly so I could get the schedule of what was going to be played when, and I would often wrench control of the downstairs radio away from the “Beautiful Music” station. My mom put up with it, although if it was opera or anything from after about 1850, we’d find ourselves back listening to Mantovani.
When I got my stereo—actually, my parents’ old console stereo, tuner and record player (and 8 track tape player) all in one unit—I quickly developed a tendency to play my music loudly (a tendency I retain to this day, although I usually use headphones now). I’d shut the door to my room, crank up the Beethoven or Mozart (or if I were feeling really radical, the Berlioz), and sometimes even dance around the room to it.
My parents rarely commented. Even later in my teens, when I began to intersperse the classical music with Rush or just listening to Q-FM (the local album-oriented rock station), they rarely took notice, despite the volume at which I played things. Except for one particular piece.
One afternoon, I was up in my bedroom reading. I’d put on the Beethoven 5th piano concerto—the “Emperor.” Part of the way through the second movement, I opened my bedroom door for some reason long forgotten—and realized my mom, in her room across the hall, was listening, intently.
She asked me what it was, and I told her. I went back in my room but kept the door open so she could hear the rest. At the end, she said the words at the top of this page.
It was that vespertine, serene second movement that had reeled her in. The second movement of the “Emperor”, for those of you who have not been initiated into its mysteries, is a shimmering, evocative thing, one that has cast a long shadow of quiet perfection over just about every subsequent piano concerto’s slow movement. It follows a first movement that is classic Beethoven “heroic period” in its maturity (the concerto falls between the Sixth and Seventh symphonies on the Beethoven timeline) and leads into one of the most joyful finales within any of Beethoven’s works. It is in a completely different (and distant) key (B major—five sharps) than the first movement (which is in E flat major—three flats) I call it “vespertine” not only because I love that word and have always wanted to use it, but also because the second movement to me evokes images of moonlight sparkling on water as the sky darkens through shades of pink and purple, of the calm and solitude of a pine forest at twilight. It starts out with the muted orchestra suggesting the landscape, and then the piano enters with descending notes that lead into a simple melodic line in the middle-high registers of the keyboard, suggesting perhaps a lone figure in this beautiful setting, quiet, contemplative but filled with joy. At a certain point, it is as if that figure has decided to stand up, to walk towards some goal that only he or she can see in the distance, with wind instruments accompanying like trees being passed in the forest. And at a certain point, a clearing is reached, and tentatively, the lone figure reaches out, as if to say….”I think this is how it should go? Maybe like this?” And then it IS how things should go, and we are into the jubilant third movement, in dancelike 6/8 time.
Beethoven likely originally intended to perform the work himself, but the deafness he had been struggling with for years prevented this. As the liner notes for my CD of the work say, “the power of the work is formidable and the range of emotions encompassed the widest of any Beethoven concerto. This was the work that inspired the romantic virtuoso concerto of the nineteenth century because of the way the soloist is set up in opposition to the orchestra, rather than being a partner in a complementary relationship.” Importance aside, it is by far my favourite piano concerto, not least because it was one of the few classical pieces I felt like my mom really loved as well.
In the last decade of my mom’s life, when I was living far from her in Canada, she asked me about “that music” (she never did really learn what it was called), and I gave her a CD so she could enjoy it herself. That was one of only a handful of times I bought her music. By that time, I think she already sensed her memory was not what it should be, and she was grasping to retain a connection to things which brought her pleasure. I know she associated the piece with me, and I hope that when she played it, it awakened good memories of her geeky young classical music-loving daughter and how she liked to blast Beethoven in the same way most teens blasted heavy metal or Madonna.
I put so much of my classical music past aside over the past couple of decades, occasionally returning to a Beethoven symphony, Handel’s Messiah (and attending the singalong), or the Berlioz Requiem. Last month, seeing a performance of the Shostakovich 5th symphony, I remembered, and when I saw a chance to see the Emperor performed by soloist Yefim Bronfman and the TSO, I jumped. Tonight, I look forward to finding myself in that forest by the side of the water at twilight, the stars twinkling in the sky reminding me of my mom and what we shared.