In the previous post I revealed my complete ignorance of music and my belated efforts to repair it. The novel I’m writing now concerns, among other things, a man growing up in the age of Mozart, who actually knew Mozart, but whose upbringing denied him all exposure to classical music. Write what you know, they say, and this is what I know, lack of knowledge being a kind of knowing.
When I was growing up the only classical music I ever heard was Peter and the Wolf, a shellac disk album of which had come into my possession. The culture in my house held up the Broadway show as the pinnacle of musical achievement. At one time, during my first grade, the school system in New York offered free classical music lessons on various instruments. I came home one day with an application for after-school violin lessons, which my mother refused to sign. Her position was that learning the violin was low-class, as it would suit me only to perform on the street with a monkey. Instead she offered to pay for accordion lessons, since with an accordion I could play show tunes and be popular at parties. I record this incident as a signifier of our cultural level with respect to the classics.
My musical education thereafter consisted mainly in learning to identify short classical themes and their composers. (H-U-M-O-R-E-ESS/ Q U E spells Humoresque, and Dvořak wote this happy saw-ung!) In high school I was for the first time exposed to peers who had received classical music education. Although I could sing, and did sing in a chorus, I regarded the ability of some of my friends to sit at a piano and play Bach as a kind of mystical gift, or a natural attainment, like being tall. In college, I took the required Music 101, during which I was asked to attend two concerts, one an opera performance. Boring.
All this is preface to a remarkable occurrence that, looking back over fifty years, I can hardly believe I experienced. I have not been able to locate any records that confirm my memory, but the memory remains sharp, and I suppose my current novel is in some sense an effort to integrate my sad history with respect to classical music.
It was the summer after I graduated from college and I was bumming around Europe on a motorcycle, a 250 cc Ducati of a certain age. I traveled from hostel to hostel exuding then-stylish Brandoesque malevolence. Somewhere in the southernmost angle of France, where it touches both Spain and the Med, (it may have been Perpignan) I met up with a guy I had known passingly at college, more of a friend of a friend person, whose name I have forgotten, but whom I will call Mitchell. Well, small world! Mitchell was not Brandoesquely malevolent, but round, smooth-faced and sweet-natured, and he was a musician of distinction. In fact, he was a young conductor and a protegé of Leonard Bernstein. Mitchell was rather more anxious to be friends with me than I with him, as I recall, but, while malevolent, I was not really nasty, and so I invited him hang around with me and the crowd of scruffy louts of which I was an ornament.
Looking back—and with later knowledge of the milieu of Mr. Bernstein-- there was probably a gay thing going there with Mitchell, to which I was utterly oblivious at the time.
In any case, Mitchell kept going on about these tickets that Lennie (as he always referred to his mentor) had given him. They were for this really great concert in the town of Prades, which was about forty miles from where we were. Pablo Casals, the world’s greatest cellist at the time, had started this musical event a few years before, as a kind of defiance of the fascist regime in Spain: he would perforn in France, on the Spanish border, but not in Spain, his native land, while Franco was in power.
Well, I knew who Casals was, and I knew about Spain, where I had lately been, and I’d seen the troops in Nazi-style helmets parading around, and received my share of dirty looks from the guardia civil. So since it was too late to join Orwell and the anarchist militia, I decided that driving forty miles over wretched mountain roads with a guy I barely knew to see a Casals concert was the least I could do for the Spanish Republic.
We had a slow ride of it, cold and dusty, and arrived in Prades around dusk. Of course, I had no idea of what these tickets meant and so I was surprised at the scene that greeted us. The little town square was jammed with luxury cars, the gendarmerie was out in force with their white gauntlets and crossbelts, and the streets around the modest church that was the concert venue were full of gentlemen in formal attire and ladies in couture. It turned out that the first night at Prades was the hottest ticket in Europe. The French, especially, having been more fascist in the pre-war and war years than was now thought proper, were intent on showing the world that they were not still fascist, not like those bastards across the borde. The the audience therefore included a slice of the intellectual gratin of France. Was that Simone de Beauvoire? Was that André Malraux? It well could have been.
We got a close look from the cops and the ticket taker, especially me, but I suppose they assumed I was Existentialist Youth, and passed us in. We took our seats in the smallish room, probably 300 seats in all in front of a small stage. Eighth row center—good old Lennie! I stood to allow an old woman and her younger male companion to pass by and she sat down on my left. She was hawk-faced and extremely thin, white hair in a neat bun, black dress covered with a lacy integuenment that had little sparkly beads set in it. Very elegant, I thought, and studied her profile.
Shock of recognition: I had a picture of that profile stuck in one of my very favorite books, Seven Gothic Tales, one of the half-dozen serious books I had read with any real enjoyment during my college time. Yes, I was sitting next to Isak Dinesen, Baroness Blixen. Out of Africa. Babettes’s Feast. To whom I had nothing whatever to say, of course, although in later imagination we had quite a charming conversation, mostly about the music.
Of which I recall nothing. It would have been neat if this concert had set me on the road to a higher level of culture, but it did not. Oh, yeah, Isaac Stern had come too, and he played by himself and joined with Ser Casals in a quartet. I don’t have the program and I see that it has not been preserved on the Prades festival website, or else I could make up a happy lie. In reality, it was like serving a ’68 Chateau Margaux to someone who had been used to Sprite with meals—in one ear and out the other. It is well known that Americans are barbarians but it’s not often one gets to feel it that keenly. (Looking back, I realize that this is why my mom didn’t want me to play the violin. She would have had to mix with the mothers of the other violin-playing kids and they would have condescended to her and made her feel like the slum-raised child of peasants that she was.)
Fortunately, the Sixties came soon after that, and we were able to consign all that culture to the trash heap of history and rock on with suitably blown minds. Unfortunately, my brief exposure to traditional high culture prevented me from getting entirely lost in the counterculture, although I did try. Maybe, in the end, it was the memory of that little church and the music I couldn’t understand and the old woman on my left and what she represented, grandeur and horror all mixed together confusingly, like a gothic tale. Not for children, and we so wanted to remain children, did we not? It was closing time in the gardens of the west even then, and now the gates are so overgrown and blocked with trash that we hardly know the gardens ever existed.
I remember, however, if barely, in my barbarous way. This is one reason why I’m trying to write a historical novel, to see if I can enter that world when it still had confidence and could not have imagined its future.