My father loved music, particularly classical music. One of his younger brothers, my Uncle Frank, was an operatic tenor. As a kid, my personal definition of hell was a rainy Saturday afternoon, trapped in our tiny row house while my father listened to the Texaco radio presentations of the Metropolitan Opera from New York. The insufferable tedium of opera itself was topped by the monotone voice of Milton Cross droning on about the role of Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust, or by Boris Goldovsky’s heavily accented answers to the intermission questions sent in by listeners on “Your Opera Quiz of the Air.”
My father’s tastes were wide ranging within the acceptable classics, but beyond enjoying the pop standards and the autumn arrival of that year’s show tunes, he didn’t stray far from the bounded safety of the classics. In later years, my brother and my father would spend hours at the dinner table debating the finer points and weakness of various tenors, sopranos, orchestras and conductors. By the time I reached my teenaged years, I too had become attracted to much of the same music, but I responded on a more visceral level. I did hear the music behind the delivery systems, but if the musicians got the essence across, it was enough for me. I know that my father and brother were hearing things I wasn’t hearing or couldn’t hear.
The ongoing, almost continual presence of music in our house began at Christmas in1951 when my father brought home a Webcor tabletop phonograph. Before that, the small table radio in the living room was used for family entertainments like the Lone Ranger, Captain Midnight serials and the network shows; sitcoms, variety shows and dramas. But every Monday evening at 8:30, it was The Voice of Firestone with the Firestone Orchestra under the baton of Howard Barlow. The program usually included a selection of semi-classical and light classical orchestral pieces and a featured operatic vocalist. Over the holidays, one of the networks carried hour-long, special broadcasts by the Longines Symphonette, which was the Firestone show writ longer and larger.
My brother and I picked up on whatever the popular music happened to be. A few years ago, the Scottish Comedian Billy Connolly described pre-Beatles pop music as a “fookin nightmare.” A bit harsh, but aside from the genuine jewels like Nat Cole, Peggy Lee or Les Paul and Mary Ford, much of the mainstream pop, then as now, was pretty dreadful. But we were kids and went with whatever we found; “How Much is That Doggy in the Window,” or Guy Mitchell’s, “There’s a Pawnshop on the Corner in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania…”
The arrival in our house of the Webcor phonograph coincided with the first mass marketing of thirty-three-and-a-third rpm long-playing records. With almost twenty minutes of music to a side, vast catalogs of music suddenly became available in an accessible format. The old 78s’ had been a pain in the ass for serious music lovers. A single Brahms symphony meant interruptions every three minutes as the brittle, eight-inch discs dropped into place. The new LPs were convenient, durable and even we could afford them.
The first LP that my father brought home was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. As the only record in the house, it was played incessantly, and at the age of twelve, I was hooked, and fell seriously in love with music. H. L. Mencken wrote in the nineteen-twenties that the moralizing critics of jazz had it all wrong. He believed that no respectable maiden, so-called, could sit through a performance of Richard Strauss’ Salome and emerge untarnished. In my case, the maiden was a befuddled teen-aged boy. On winter nights, instead of doing my homework, I would drift away from reality on a triple-header of romantic overload; the piano concertos of Grieg, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.
Leaving school to go to work at thirteen, my father had been required to attend “continuation” school one day a week, and part of that included “music appreciation.” Music became one of his antidotes to what I came to realize was a difficult, stressful and unrewarding job in a carpet factory. Over the years, he developed an after-dinner routine that involved going upstairs to the small back room, putting a stack of LPs on, lying on the floor with a pillow under his head, and floating off for an hour or two on the piano music of Chopin, Mozart or Debussy.
As my father brought home more and more LPs – he had discovered a carpet and flooring store in Germantown, owned by a music fan who sold discounted classical records on the side – my brother and I became relatively knowledgeable about music. My approach was entirely instinctive. I liked what I liked, but I did discover that things you thought you didn’t like could grow on you with repeated hearings. My tastes were basically the romantics, but not in any systemic way. I knew two of my three Bs, not really hearing Bach until much later in life. Chamber music eluded me, but by the time I finished high school, I was sniffing around some of the more esoteric stuff like Bartok, Hindemith and the later Russians. I was still a sucker for schmatlz, and at one point had gotten all moony over a series of Andre Kostelanetz orchestral versions of operas, particularly the Puccinis.
FM radio was still a novelty, and the opportunities to hear serious music on the radio were limited. At odd spots on the AM band, I discovered eccentric programs broadcasting classical music. On a station targeting a black audience, the station owner, a George Jessel-voiced guy named Max Leon exercised his prerogative by blocking out an hour each weekday morning to play the music he loved. Max’s commentaries on the works were almost as good as the music. Another station played a half-hour of classics each afternoon, hosted by a Philadelphia stalwart named Frank Ford who remained on the air well into the 90’s, the decade and his own age. The dearth of opportunities to hear a greater range of serious music continued until WFLN, an FM station with an all-classical format and a stable of anal-retentive voiced announcers began simulcasting on the AM band.
As a kid, the idea of attending a real concert never entered my mind. But as I entered my teens, my father began clipping the newspaper coupons for the free, city-sponsored series of outdoor orchestral programs at the Robin Hood Dell in Fairmount Park, essentially The Philadelphia Orchestra on summer break. In the summer of 1955, after my father had gotten a car, and after I had gotten out of high school, we attended a half dozen of those concerts. What a sight we must have presented. My brother and I in our best juvenile delinquent drag; pegged pants, suede shoes and duck-tail hairdos sitting among the culturatti for an evening of Mozart, Haydn and Brahms, a bit like bikers at the ballet.
While it never occurred to me to attempt to make music, I soon realized that despite my inability to distinguish myself in any acceptable way, my growing knowledge of something as unlikely as classical music was a wild card that caught people, particularly grownups, off guard. I wasn’t above cultivating and enhancing that knowledge to surprise people who believed they had me pigeon-holed. Whistling Stravinsky as I stocked shelves at the A & P prompted some unlikely conversations. My explorations of classical music continued and expanded because the music itself provoked a genuine response. And in the absence of just about any alternatives, I realized that the challenges presented by serious music were actually rewarding. When I was about fifteen, other forms of music began to catch my attention. (to be continued)