Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

…And Music

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My relationship to music is, I think, a little odd.  Or maybe just a little odd for me.

If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know that I am a person who tends to…what’s the word?…intellectualize stuff.

In fact, I tend to intellectualize almost everything.

That “almost” in the preceding sentence exists mostly because of music.  For some reason, not planned or even considered at the time, when I picked books to read or courses to study or topics to write about, if I considered the arts, the arts I considered were painting and sculpture.

If that makes it look like I was avoiding music and dance, all I can say is that, with dance, I probably was.

Dance has always left me cold. 

Sometimes it does worse than that and outright annoys me. 

Classical ballet bores me, although I do recognize the fact that it’s often very pretty, and I sometimes (as with Swan Lake) like the music very much.

Modern interpretive dance drives me to distraction, and the ultra-modern stuff meant to express political Important stuff often leaves me close to frothing at the mouth.

I agree with the premise, sort of.  Art often expresses and disseminates ideas on which people act.

I just don’t agree that the kind of art that’s going to do that looks anything like interpretive dance. 

I think you’re standard Guatamalan peasant or working class American ex-factory worker is more likely to be politically turned on by Bono or Green Day than by wispy figures in tights and flowing veils leaping around a stage until they crouch into little pretzel balls.

But music was something else.  I have music all around me all the time except when I’m sleeping or writing, and I like all kinds of it. 

What’s more, it’s something I actively sought out from a very early age, like books. 

Unlike books, it was, for a long time, remarkably difficult to find.

My mother sang for a year in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, but it wasn’t something you could figure out from the contents of our house.

In spite of the fact that the Fifties saw the first great wave of recorded music of all kinds, and in spite of the fact that we had a then state of the art “hi fi,” there were no LPs in our house, classical or otherwise. 

It says something about the intellectual and temperamental differences between my parents that my father always had the spanky brand-new just out latest thing of everything–we even got some of the first Hula Hoops–and my mother had two ancient, unplayable 72 rpm discs.  One of the had “Sweet Georgia Brown.”  The other had “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

I was in junior high when I first started to get restless about all this.  My father got both my brother and me transistor radios for Christmas one year, but the reception out where we lived was scratchy at best and more often intermittent.

I also didn’t realize there were different kinds of radio stations for different kinds of music.

When we were driving–and we from Connecticut to Florida and back again twice a year–my father favored Dan Ingraham on the rock and roll station, so I knew about Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkle before anybody else I knew.

I don’t mean to imply, here, that there is anything wrong with rock and roll.  I love rock and roll.  I still have albums by Dylan and the Stones and Joni Mitchell.   And I probably always will.

And at the moment, I’m obsessing about a new song put out by, of all people, Blondie.

But it is also the case that “classical” music intrigued me from the beginning, even though I only got to hear snatches of it here and there.

And, finally, when I hit junior high, I decided I had to do something about it. 

If I’d known anything at all about what I was trying to do, I could have saved myself a lot of time.

But I didn’t know, and when my mother talked about music, she never talked about it in a way that shed much light on things like composers or performers or even genres.

When I asked my mother about music, I got a lot of squirming, starry-eyed, ecstatic emotion-talk about how sublime it all was and how much better and higher and greater than all that noise people made with guitars on the radio.

It was the kind of thing that wouldn’t have been very helpful even if it was true, and I rapidly reached the point of realizing that I didn’t think it was true.

That was the discovery of jazz, although I think that might be another story for another time.  Still, thank you, Thelonius Monk.

At any rate, I decided to start fixing my lack of understanding by asking for some records for my birthday.

And having absolutely no idea what I was doing, or where I should start, or even who Beethoven and Bach were, I scoured the record bins at the local Woolworth store until I found…


I have no idea if that’s how you spell it.

Rimsky-Korsakov was, for me, and enormous let down.  Whatever it was I had been looking for in classical music, that wasn’t it. 

Interestingly enough, at about the same time I started to run into classical music stations, and those stations were playing an awful lot of Rimsky-Korsakov. 

Years later, I had a friend who got a job at one of those classical stations, and he explained to me that programming policy was to play music that listeners would find “soothing.”

That explains so much, it’s hard to believe I didn’t give up on the classical altogether.

Well, maybe I did, at least for a while.  I pretty much ignored the classical stuff all through high school and most of the way through college.  My closest college friend was very musical and sang with one of the college’s a capella groups.  I went to hear her when she was performing. 

Then I went to grad school.  Then I moved to NY.  Then I got married and went to England and France. 

And then, in England, I met a woman, an American, who worked repairing and transporting harpsichords.

That was how I first heard the harpsichord, played by anybody.

I have no idea if that first thing I heard was performed well or badly, or whether those categories made sense given what I was listening to, but I did know I really, really loved it.

In the end, my wider introduction to classical music came with CDs and a couple of “Classical Music Clubs” that let you buy half a dozen CDs at a time for not much money.

I started with the Brandenburg Concertoes, because I’d heard of them, and went from there.

In the end, though, I always came back to the harpsichord, and I still do.

Which is, sort of, where I started with this thing.

One of the things I do in my spare time is lurk on a harpsichord e mail discussion list. 

The people who actively participate on that list are professionals who spend their working lives making, repairing, transporting and sometimes playing harpsichords.

Most of the threads are about building and repair, with a heavy subset of making harpsichords that are as alike certain historical ones as possible, and repairing those historical ones so they sound like they were supposed to in the beginning.

This is because there is a lot of emphasis among harpsichordists in Historically Informed Performance, which sounds like a term invented by a college music program somewhere.

Sometimes there are threads about concerts and CDs.  The list put me on to Frescobaldi, for which I’m grateful.  Sometimes there are threads about performers.  It’s how I first found out about Gustav Leonhardt and Wanda Landowska and became a kind of Leonhardt groupie.

Over the last couple of days, there has been a thread on a topic I’d never considered, but, not that it’s hear, I find myself surprised has never come up before.

The thread is about why it is you almost never hear harpsichord music, on the radio, in the media, or in concerts that are not explicitly designed to be about harpsichords and nothing else.

Not only that, but nobody seems to be coming up to replace the great harpsichordists of the last generation.  Leonhardt announced his retirement a couple of years back, gave a farewell concert in Paris, and died a week later. 

If I was doing more than lurking, I’d give Christophe Rousset as a possible successor–but I’m far too aware of the fact that I don’t know what I’m talking about to come out of lurkdom.

The fact remains that harpsichords are a minority taste, and so much of a minority taste that people outside the group don’t even seem to know what harpsichord music is.

One of the posters noted that, having heard that there would be a concert with “harpsichord music” near where he lived, he checked out the program and found that the “harpsichord music” on offer was Pachelbel’s Canon, which is not harpsichord music.

One of the things I try to explain to my kids when I’m not actively trying to killing them is that I can’t assign them things that “interest” them because, at eighteen, they have no idea what “interests” them. 

I don’t think I’d heard of the harpsichord when I was eighteen.  I hadn’t heard of natural law or the categorical imperative or Jose Saramago, either, and they’ve filled up a lot of my life in the years since college.  They’ve filled up more of it since Bill died.

Maybe my friend who worked at the classical radio station had the answer.

Maybe most people who listen to “classical music” just want something that is soothing, undemanding, already familiar, already asleep.

But there are people out there who do wonderful things with harpsichords–making them, performing on them, even composing for them.

I keep thinking there has to be some way to get through the fog of “I know what I like” so that more people can actually hear this stuff.


Written by janeh

June 19th, 2014 at 10:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to '…And Music'

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  1. I have much orchestral music and little classical. But I played the Dance of the Tumblers (Snow Maiden) and The Procession of the Nobles (Mlada)in honor of the occasion. Rimsky-Korsakov will pass-which doesn’t mean all of him will pass. Pick up even first rate authors at random, and you’re likely to read some really regrettable books.
    Sibelius, on the other hand, should be banned from broadcast. Suppose someone accidentally came across that channel while driving and hit schoolchildren when he (inevitably) fell asleep?

    Harpsichord. Very little experience. My musical eccentricity is wire harp, and I’m not a fanatic even there.

    As to how one promotes the harpsichord, I suspect you go about it the way you promote any other sort of taste or interest: show candidates the good stuff. Invite them to harpsichord concerts, give them harpsichord CDs for special occasions, and send them links when you find good harpsichord music on the Net. Do you promote literature or art some other way?

    I’m a little suspicious of “Historically Informed Performance” though, which may just mean I don’t understand it. Mind you, I approve of playing historical instruments the way they were designed to be played and the tunes written for them. But there should be more than that. When that’s all there is, it’s saying “this instrument has a past but no future” and I don’t think that’s true of anything where part of the process is a human mind. I own the works of Austen, Conan Doyle, Heinlein and Tolkien. But if I stopped with them, I’d be missing the works of Crusie, Rozen (or Haddam), Drake and Pratchett. I’ll be going to a wargame convention this weekend. I’ll play “The Sword and the Flame” which is a classic–but I’ll also play two rules I haven’t tried before–because maybe Stan Lee is right, and the best is yet to be.

    And for the politically-obsessed, I have just shown you the precise difference between a conservative and a reactionary. Go and do likewise.


    19 Jun 14 at 6:15 pm

  2. I’ve always loved music – and come to love some kinds of dance – in spite of having almost no musical education. I insisted on giving up piano lessons as a child because I wasn’t learning anything (I had a very undemanding teacher at that point) and was continually quarrelling with my mother about my lack of practice. And that disinclination to practice probably didn’t help the “this teacher is very boring and I’m not learning anything” thing.

    When I was a child, we had lots of classical records we almost never played – I think they actually belonged to an aunt – several albums of popular musicals, and some children’s records, including, if you can believe it, some Gilbert and Sullivan, sung in American English so as to be more accessible to North American children. I still adore G&S, although I don’t listen to special Americanized versions! My main musical influence was probably hymns in church – it was the only place I could actually sing, and sing unselfconciously since I was under the happy impression that no one could hear me over the other singers and the organ. At least, I was until an aunt commented on how loundly I sang. Over the years, my musical tastes have expanded while remaining quite specific. Expansion has usually been fuelled by serendipity – just coming across something and deciding I liked it and then looking for more. An exception is opera, which (G&S aside) I disliked as a child, and have recently started to explore. I started with what my mother, who disliked them intensely, called “fake cowboys” (country music) and rapidly moved into the closely-related folk music. I liked early rock and role, but with few exceptions – usually of individual songs by groups like Dire Straits, had stopped listening to rock music by the time the Beatles came along. I’ve always had a strong preference for vocal music – solo or choral – over instrumental, although I do sometimes listen to instrumental music. I discovered early and rennaisance music, and still love them.

    And rather late in life, I decided to join a choir, and have been delighted to find that there are choirs out there actually happy to have willing but untrained singers. It’s a LOT of fun – I generally sing with two in the winter, one quite easy and the other a bit of a challenge.

    As for obscure interests – when I was a bit more energetic I belonged to a folk dance group (Scottish, and English. The English one has a lot of people whose knees and ankles aren’t quite up to Scottish Country Dance any more), and I hope to get back to it this winter, if my own knees hold out. It’s kept alive by small groups of aging enthusiasts. Finding a younger generation who’ll stick around for the longer term seems to be the big challenge.


    20 Jun 14 at 11:24 am

  3. Your early experience with piano lessons mirrors mine, Cheryl. Thus, I became the musical black sheep in the family, my father being the only other one who could not play the piano. My mother, brother and sister played it well enough to do so in public. My sister was equally proficient at violin and was the musical director for some years at an English school in Athens.

    My own musical tastes were pretty catholic and changed, or were added to, as I grew older. It all came to a grinding halt when I became profoundly deaf, but the miracle of cochlear implants has restored a good deal of what I had lost, although more complicated orchestral music is beyond me. I like country music and folk music, but jazz is what I enjoy most, particularly jazz guitar.

    Speaking of “fake cowboys”, got an email today from No 1 son who is moving to Vancouver with his company in early July. Apparently, the company requires him and other Canadian senior executives to attend the whole ten days of the Calgary Stampede, and full cowboy dress is compulsory – hat, boots and all. Gawdelpus! Can’t wait for the pix. :-)


    20 Jun 14 at 12:55 pm

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