A Musician’s Curse
September 13, 2021
What do you have to do to become a musician? Naturally, a love of music and a generous amount of talent are givens. Then comes a lifetime examining such items as melody, harmony, structure, and style. Basically, it is the never-ending process of opening one’s ears to the magic of music.
I suppose professionals have somewhat of a different perspective from a less-knowledgeable music lover in terms of experience and education. Without attending music school, I might not have been aware that a work made, say, a sudden modulation from A-flat major to B-flat minor, or that the movement’s coda was as long as its development section, but so what.
More to the point, having spent most of my life opening my ears to music, I can’t close them at will. Listening to a concert or performing in one myself, those open ears most often work to my advantage, but the world is full of unexpected sounds that are out of my control. I can’t help noticing, for example, that my computer plays a G-flat major chord when opened, or that the toaster emits not four, not two, but three twinkly notes when my bagel is done.
Of course, all this is rather benign until I venture out into the world at large. There, wanted or not, music trails me everywhere I go—in elevators, shopping malls, supermarkets, airplanes, and when I’m put on telephone hold. Recently, about to undergo an MRI that inevitably would be accompanied by the machine’s bizarre sounds, the technician asked me whether I’d like to hear rock, country, or baroque during the procedure.
Sometimes I wish my ears could close like some flowers do at certain times of day.I’ve had to hear rock music at an upscale Japanese restaurant, country-and-western in a French bistro, and the most vapid, inane New Age music in a vegan cafe. Exasperated, I called the waitress over and asked what she thought of that awful music. After all, the poor woman had to put up with it day after day. She looked at me blankly. “What music?” the waitress asked.
I guess the music that so often trails us on our daily rounds—wallpaper music—deserves to be ignored as harmless. But I’ve heard Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto in a Chicago airport men’s room, Billie Holiday at the Gap, and a Schubert string quartet at a Manhattan hot dog stand. (Was that, by any chance, the Guarneri Quartet playing?) Think of it—heavenly music and great performers having to serve as background music to the flush of toilets and the eating of hot dogs.
And that brings me to the people who undoubtedly have the best of intentions when providing background music at their dinner parties. I once had to listen to the Cavatina movement of Beethoven’s late String Quartet Opus 130 while being served leg of lamb with mint sauce and roast potatoes. Beethoven, late in life, is said to have wept listening to a performance of his Cavatina, one of the most moving moments in all of music. But nobody wept while munching on their lamb, because almost nobody was even aware that the Cavatina was being played.
Some time ago, dear friends of ours whom we’ve known for ages invited my wife Dorothea and me for dinner. We greatly looked forward to the evening. In the many times Dorothea and I had visited these friends, there had always been lively conversation and an unforgettable gourmet meal. But, as we were about to sit down for dinner, our host disappeared for a moment, and when he returned, music began to play. It was instantly recognizable as Johannes Brahms’ inspired Double Concerto for Cello, Violin, and Orchestra. The first course with accompanying wine was being set before us, but I found it difficult to focus on it. The orchestra conductor had set an attention-grabbing tempo, on the brisk side and extremely vibrant. And when the solo cello entered just a moment later, I was hardly aware of what we were eating. The cellist played with the kind of intensity and freedom that gave me the feeling of an inspired improvisation rather than mere notes on the printed page. After the brief orchestral interlude that followed, the solo violin entered. The playing was warm, sensitive, immaculate, and with a sensuous violin sound I’d only rarely encountered. During the next moments, glorious music and the sumptuous repast fought for my attention. Was this the best of possible worlds, or the worst?
We thanked our friends at the visit’s end, but I didn’t mention the Brahms Double Concerto that had so captivated me during dinner. Frankly, I was a bit embarrassed to have let the music intrude on the evening. But in the weeks and months that followed, that magnificent Brahms performance stalked me at unexpected moments of day and night. I’d be making my morning coffee, and questions would suddenly pop into my mind. Who were the artist musicians—the cellist, the violinist, the conductor, the orchestra—who had brought the Brahms Double Concerto gloriously to life?
Finally, I said to myself: enough is enough. At the next opportunity to see our friends, I confessed sheepishly that I was obsessing over the recording of the Brahms Double Concerto for Cello and Violin they had played months earlier. “If you can, please tell me who the musicians were,” I implored them. Our friends may have looked at me oddly, but nevertheless they proceeded to rummage around in their record collection, and soon came up with the Brahms. Printed on the cover of an old vinyl long-playing record were the names I’d sought out: Pierre Fournier, cello, Zino Francescatti, violin, and Bruno Walter conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra.
That night, the mystery performers now identified, I slept easier with my newfound knowledge. I had long admired cellist Pierre Fournier for his artistry, and Bruno Walter not only for his conducting but also, as pianist with the soprano Lotte Lehmann, for their moving recording of Robert Schumann’s song cycle, Dichterliebe. And the breathtaking virtuoso violinist Zino Francescatti I had actually heard live in concert several times, and even played as a student for him in a master class. Because of the inability to close my ears at will, I had experienced a memorable performance of Brahms’ Double Concerto for Cello and Violin. A musician’s curse, you might say.
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Arnold, you make music with your words!
Terrific: I too have been badly distracted by music in a public place. But this performance is so marvelous, thanks for including it. I recently was in a nursing home for three months and started watching Classic Arts Showcase: very rewarding in many ways.
My late friend and composition teacher, Henry Brant, in similar situations as you describe going to your friend’s dinner party and being confronted with background music, would excitedly go to the host and tell him or her that he wouldn’t be able to stay if the music were allowed to continue. He did the same in restaurants. I never did witness his request (demand) turned down. I’m sure it must have happened. Thanks for this relatable blog offering.
Thank you for the link to this wonderful recording!
Enjoyable and informative. Food for listening and contemplation. Thank you.
Arnold, what a wonderful anecdote! In 1956 my father acquired a “hi-fi” setup and over the next few years managed to purchase LPs of a huge number of Bruno Walter recordings, including this Brahms Double. Unfortunately, my mother gave his collection to a charitable foundation after he died, so there was no inheritance on my part. After hearing your attached performance I’m pleased to tell you that I found a CD version available at Amazon…it will be joining me in a few days….Thanks for this great story and beautiful performance! Robert
God bless you dear Arnold. When you see Brahms
, Fournier and Francescotti please give them bounteous bravos and hugs. With joy and gratitude. Dick Stoltzman
well now you’ve left me no choice. it’s Beethoven’s late String Quartet Opus 130, or nothing! francescatti in person in a master class? your experience with great musicians all along has always astounded me…sandy
It’s so interesting to listen to something that was so moving and inspirational to me so many years ago. Francescatti has given me such joy over the years and, indeed, with his shimmering quintessential Strad sound ( the Hart 1721) probably inspired me to pursue the violin as lifetime commitment… I am reminded of the stunning and indispensable recording he made of the Fauré sonatas with Casedesus. Or his mesmerizing and intoxicating rendition of The Priohet Bird. You too, Mr Steinhardt are the author of so many moments, both live and in recordings, that have inspired my life with the instrument. I will never recover, nor tire of, the way you play that astonishing arpeggio in E major towards the end of the slow mvt of the op 60 Brahms A maj pno quartet. Moments like that inspire lives and enrich the world forever ….
Glad you had a good experience with the Brahms Double, but you must agree with me that gratuitious music in public places is a sin against music, because it teaches us not to listen, like the waitress in the vegan restaurant. And you must have heard of Pipe Down in the UK, who actually got music in supermarkets and department stores turned down or off. And nobody said to them, “Whatsamatta? Doncha like music?” Because among them were some of the best known musicians in the country!
I enjoy music, but am not an accomplished musician. Therefore, I can easily block out “elevator” music very easily and, like the waitress, say “what music.” But, I’m married to an accomplished musician (not professional) and he is bothered by every musical sound that is played and considers no music “background” music. All should be listened to or not played.
Loved your experiences and this Fournier/Francescatti performance on Erev Yom Kippur. Thank you for sharing!
Dear Mr. Steinhardt,
I have been reading your posts and this is the first time that I leave a comment. If you care, there are two things that I would like to share with you. I divorced last year and amongst only a dozen of books that I took with me are “indivisible by four” and “violin dream”, which I know I will continue to enjoy for many years. Another thing is that I am dating a musician. As a music lover I had wished that music will be played often. To my surprise (and chagrin),he prefers NOT to have any music played when we are driving or having a meal, etc. I am going to share this piece with him. Thank you for posting. Look forward to more.— Helen Hua
THANK YOU! That recording will now be with me for the rest of my days.
Thank you, Arnold, for this episode. As a generalization, I dislike background music while dining because if it is good, I stop conversing and if it is less good, it is annoying. A grandnephew of mine told me he likes loud background music because then he doesn’t have to say anything. I have never been that bereft of thoughts.
Thanks for the wonderful story and recording, it’s been one of my go-to recordings for years.
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