Music Appreciation

My father was a minister. In our Sabbath-observing home The Messiah played on the stereo on many Sunday afternoons, rooting itself as one of the anchor volumes of my musical encyclopedia. We had a small classical music collection, a short stack of LPs by Schumann and Schubert, Brahms and Grieg, this having more to do with my father’s meager salary than my parent’s taste.

One of my earliest memories of this music was as a little boy; my older sisters would put In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt Suite on the hi-fi (was it a Victrola?) and we would dance slowly in a circle, working ourselves into an un-Presbyterian maniacal frenzy, collapsing on the floor with the song’s last chords; a most excellent introduction to classical music. Later, in high school, I developed an almost morbid fascination with one of the other songs on that same recording: I would play Asa’s Song over and over on our new six-foot stereo console in the living room, lie on the sofa, and feel a deep sadness I couldn’t explain. I wanted to get in touch with that sadness, to let it rip, but never quite could. I guess that Reformed Presbyterian vein ran deep: emotions were not to be shown, even when alone. But they were there.

Then college. It was 1967, a time when people older than you knew best what courses should make up your liberal arts education. Besides Health Ed at 7:00 a.m. every Wednesday morning with the entire male half of the freshman class being taught sex education and hygiene, and ROTC at 7:00 a.m. every Friday morning with the entire male half of the freshman and sophomore classes wearing ill-fitting uniforms and holding WWI-vintage M-Is at “Shoulder – Harms!”, there was Music Appreciation. Most of my friends got the cool teacher who made the course fun. I got Mr. Wright, a young part-timer who seemed to dislike people. Mr. Wright probably really loved music, but he had no ability to communicate that love. That said, it wasn’t so much a dreaded class as a forgettable one.

My one memory, however, was trudging down to the basement of the music conservatory, past the strange organ practice rooms with their little windows in the door, where earnest student organists clacked away on keyboards that made almost no sound (were they locked in there? had they been there for days?), on down the dingy hallway, back, back to the listening lab located in the furthest reaches. There I would sign in, check out the required tone poem or motet of the day and head to the booth with the ancient turntable that provided two options; “On” or “Off”. Putting on greasy headphones that dwarfed my head and engulfed my ears, I would slide the record out of its sleeve, drop it onto the little penis (or was it a nipple) in the center of the turntable, and listen. I guess. I don’t remember if there was any other assignment than just listening. But I listened. I know I didn’t get any of whatever it was I was supposed to be getting. But I listened in my own 18-year-old-in-the-middle-of-the-60s way.

It was there that I was introduced to the great Swedish (?) operatic tenor, Jussi Bjorling (sp?). I’ll never forget his name because it amused me so much. I would repeat it in my head as he sang and chuckle out loud. I’m sure I was supposed to be reflecting on the tonality of his music, or the great national story he was singing, or something. I did get one thing from him other than his name: I can today hear his soaring tenor voice breaking through the scratchiness of the 1932 recording. It was marvelous, and I sort of knew that then. But I just didn’t care.

The rest of my college career I publicly listened to the Doors, Creedence, CSNY, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and of course the Beatles. Privately, I enjoyed listening to the classical music station. I didn’t know why. I thought maybe I was just trying to be privately pretentious. But I was drawn to it, most likely because of the limited exposure to that handful of records of my youth.

In the Big Chill after graduation, a good friend got me a job where he worked. With my degree in history, I became a dispatcher for a special education bus company. My area was the near western suburbs of Chicago. I was responsible for about thirty bus routes every day, and my job, besides putting the routes together in August, was to answer the phone and handle the minute-by-minute problems that parents, schools or my drivers were having during the school year.

One of my drivers was an eccentric Bohemian named Gerry Novotny. Jerry was somewhere in his mid-to-late 30s, single, and living in a brick bungalow with his parents in Brookfield. He had been driving for the company I think since its inception. An old hand, he took no crap. At the same time, Gerry was known in the office as being, well, weird. There were hints of sexual issues: perhaps something inappropriate at some time on a bus route. Always vague. Never clearly-articulated. But he was a safe driver and never late, and back then those things trumped strangeness until proven otherwise.

A dispatcher got to know his or her drivers well, and it was somewhere and somehow in conversation that Gerry and I got to talking music. I guess my limited background of classical music put me light years ahead of most other 20-somethings Gerry knew at that time, and he perhaps saw something in me that gave him hope for the next generation. He would impart his wisdom: he invited me to his house to listen to some of his records.

And so I went. I drove down into the 3500 block of, was it Prairie? Park? – all those Brookfield streets look the same; Chicago brick bungalows lined up next to each other with about three feet between them – and found the house. It wasn’t that hard because Gerry’s little yellow school van was parked in front.

I knocked on the door. Gerry answered, “Come in, come in!” in his nervously hurried way, and I entered a world of old. The living room was straight from the 1940s; heavy table lamps, heavy furniture, heavy drapes, heavy carpet, crocheted doilies, knick-knacks, stale cigarette smoke, and dark, dark, dark. But there was one exception, and it was notable. No, not notable. Exceptional. Bizarre. Wildly out of place. Flanking each side of the wide dining room archway and facing the front wall of the living room, were ginormous speakers. I mean huge. Six feet by four feet minimum. Each. Their combined width all but blocked entry to the dining room. Many thoughts raced through my head, not the least of which was “They’re right – he IS nuts”, but I knew I was entering a world I had never experienced before. His parents were there, but nowhere to be seen. I assumed they spent a lot of time outside.

What happened next changed my life.

Gerry took me into the dining room. On the old Czech sideboard was his turntable and amplifier. He began to explain that the sound had to be as perfect as humanly possible. His turntable was the best. His amplifier was the best. He didn’t have to say anything about the speakers. I don’t remember seeing his record collection. It may have been in another room: it was dark. But Jerry emerged with a record and began pulling it carefully from its sleeve. His fingers touched only the rim from the time it left the sleeve to the time it went onto the professional-grade turntable where it sat looking as thin as a crepe. The turntable was at least an inch thick, had sloping sides and sat solidly, like a Cadillac. It was a lot different than my Sears Silvertone. It held one record at a time. No stacking of records, with that clumsy drop of three or four inches like a boulder falling on your hood. My game was being raised to another level.

Gerry then explained that there aren’t many perfect records. It’s a combination, you see, of the acoustics of the hall, the abilities of the recording company, the composer, the nationality of the conductor, his personality, the orchestra, its personality and musicianship, perhaps even its brass or woodwind section, the piece of music itself of course, and finally the mood of both conductor and orchestra on the day of the recording, perhaps in combination with the mood of an audience as well. With these permutations, it was clear why the perfect record was a rarity. Gerry ranted about the recent renovation of Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, whose perfect acoustics were destroyed by its first major “improvements” done in the 1960s. A huge loss; one of the only halls in the world with perfect acoustics – ruined. When something is perfect, you don’t try to improve it.

The first record Gerry played was Dvorak’s 8th (formerly 7th) Symphony. The conductor was Istvan Kertesz. I believe it was the Concertgebouw. I don’t remember the label (I do remember him giving London Records scathing reviews, and Deutsche-Grammophon high marks). He set the tone arm by hand ever so gently on the rim of the record.

And then… I heard music like I had never heard it before. It was glorious – rich, deep, powerful. I felt Dvorak laying his soul on lined parchment, I felt the joys and agonies of the Czech people, I felt the architect and the brick-layer of the symphony hall where it was being played, I felt the sound engineers placing their microphones, I felt the mind and heart of Kertesz, I felt the beating heart of every person in the orchestra. I felt connected with history and humanity and beauty and truth.

It ruined my old “appreciation” of music, of course. Thus ended my being able to listen to the NoneSuch label, or to buy anything in the $2.50 bin at K-mart (back in the days when K-mart actually CARRIED classical records). I began my collection that day, based on a list of about fifteen or twenty of Gerry’s “must-haves” (including composer, orchestra, label, etc.) that he scribbled on a small piece of paper. They included Rafe Von William’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Beethoven’s 7th, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Smetana’s Moldau, Prokofief’s 5th, Holst’s The Planets, Brahm’s 1st through 4th, Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, and just about anything by Dvorak, that greatest of Bohemians. Over the years, I developed my own favorites, but that day with Gerry was the start of my real appreciation for the magnificence, the uber-humanity of great music. I enjoy rock-n-roll because it speaks to my generation. But when I want to feel human, I put on the classics. They are deep and in their moments, of which I too am a part, they transcend our world. There’s nothing like them.

Recently, I found myself thinking about Gerry. I figured his parents must be dead by now, and he had probably inherited the brick bungalow in Brookfield, where he now lived alone. I used Yellowbook to find him. I wanted to find out if he went to CDs and digital, or scoffs at them. Mostly I wanted to say thanks.

No luck. Nothing with his name at his address. Dead? Moved in with a brother? Institutionalized? Definitely not married. Can’t see him moving out of state.

I was frankly surprised not to find him. And disappointed. He surely has no idea of the impact of that day on my life.

So… Thank you, Gerry.

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About robertwallacegraham

Retired high school teacher, curmudgeon, soccer coach, bicyclist, etc. etc.
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