By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photos by David Peck (1987)
and Alfred Brown Studios (1925)
The interesting thing about turning 80 is how much of the old stuff still clings. In the last few years, I’ve resumed contact with my two best friends from Boston Latin, the two most responsible for my involvement in classical music, Normie Wilson and Eddie Levin. From before high school I have paltry musical memories: failed piano lessons with a birdlike spinster at age 6, years in bed with rheumatic fever and a tinny radio playing dance-band hits. At 14, I modulated into a brighter key. Normie played the piano — better than Paderewski, it seemed to me at the time. He played a fancy solo from the Grieg Piano Concerto at every school assembly, and so that concerto was the first recording I bought. Eddie collected records, so I heard a lot of music at his house. My mnemonic for the opening of the “Eroica” was “The worms crawl in . . .”
Eddie’s records all had program notes, and I remember being fascinated by the ways you could describe music in words. My first records came on some cheapo label without program notes, so I wrote my own. Something about this accomplishment really inflated my own self-image (which needed inflation at the time, since my premed studies, mostly undertaken to indulge my parents’ “my son the doctor” ambitions, were going nowhere). Somebody in physics lab one day showed me a book by Sir Donald Francis Tovey full of marvelous musical descriptions: A main theme in César Franck’s symphony returns “striding grandly in its white confirmation dress.” From that moment on there was nothing I wanted to do more than write about music. In Harvard’s music department there was the spellbinding G. Wallace Woodworth, who could lecture on musical form so that every transition became a cliffhanger worthy of a Saturday-matinee serial. A course with Woody on classical symphonies further stoked my passion. A letter to Rudolph Elie, music critic of the Boston Herald, taking issue with some trivial point he had raised about a Mozart symphony and awash in self-importance, got me the offer of a job as a stringer at three bucks a column. After graduation (in 1945) it was on to New York, where stringers at the New York Sun advanced to the lordly sum of $7.50. There was no turning back. I have all that stuff in a box. Wild horses couldn’t get me to look at it.
Even so, the contents of that box were enough to persuade UC Berkeley to overlook my lousy pre-med grade points from Harvard and admit me as a graduate student in music. I had the idea that a solid musical education might set me apart from most music critics, even at the expense of time spent singing correct intervals and working out 16th-century counterpoints. From Roger Sessions — speaking oraclelike through a dense cloud of pipe smoke — I learned to chart the exquisite logic of classical structure on huge expanses of squared paper. From humanist musicologist Joseph Kerman — soft-spoken and immensely witty — I learned how music reaches its hearers through the interplay of a work’s own logic with the usage of its era. Blending these two kinds of teaching, I learned how to get music into my bloodstream. One sublime example was my discovery, in a Mozart seminar, of the G-minor String Quintet. When I decided to write this article, that one work clicked into place. Thirty-three years ago, halfway between Berkeley and today, I had already found the words for that particular obsession. (See sidebar.)
Schubert was another Berkeley discovery, thanks largely to Leon Kirchner, a fellow grad student and already an important composer. Leon had the magnificence of spirit to tolerate my terrible piano playing, and we shared in amazed discovery of this great composer’s four-hand piano pieces — the F-minor Fantasy, the A-flat Variations — that nobody seemed to know at the time. Thus inspired, I did my M.A. thesis on Schubert, earned a year abroad, and returned with every expectation of a career in advanced scholarship. My Ph.D. orals, wherein it was assumed that I could recite from memory such burning issues as the content of the card catalogs of major libraries, suggested the necessity of finding other paths.
Actually, I had already embarked on one. Berkeley in the 1950s was the home of KPFA, the first-ever venture in non-commercial, listener-supported broadcasting, with all the maverick programming those concepts entailed. I joined the staff after returning from Europe, resigned a few months later, then came back after one of the frequent palace revolts. Our doors were open to politicians and philosophers of all stripes, and to composers as well; I encountered new music and its creators not on the UC campus but down the hill in KPFA’s makeshift studios: Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, John Cage, Ravi Shankar. I put Pierre Boulez on the air during his first American visit, and I cherish my tape of three local composers totally undone by every one of this arrogant young Frenchman’s revolutionist theories. The San Francisco Symphony was in the hands of an inadequate conductor named Enrique Jordá, whom the society dames adored and whom the newspaper critics at least tolerated. I didn’t, in my weekly tirades, and one of KPFA’s major donors, J.D. Zellerbach of the toilet-paper millions, threatened to withdraw his support. KPFA’s founder, the visionary Lewis Hill, told him to climb a tree.