Christ, our Light

CQOD Special Archive

The Music Lovers

by Robert MacColl Adams

The Music Lovers

        When I was young, there was a group of music lovers in our town, people who were happy in the friendship of a really excellent pianist. Maestro Giacomo Ignoto was well trained, with a beautiful technique, and he had a genuine love for music—and an understanding and feeling for music, too, which don’t always go with the technique or the love.
        Along with his musicianship, “the Maestro,” as he was always called, had a burning desire for other people to love and understand music as he did. If the Maestro had any relatives, or troubles, or political opinions, nobody would ever know it from him. People always talked to him about music—just music. It was his life.
        He wasn’t the only musician in town, of course, but my parents and all their circle were firmly convinced that he was the best. He had been a pupil of Taussig, one of the greatest of Liszt’s students, and had worked for two years under Karl Czerny, the grand master of technique. Papa said that the Maestro could have taken a prominent place in the musical circles of any city in the U. S. A. I’ve heard people mutter that he couldn’t be as good as all that if he was content to stay in Freeport year after year; but Papa said, and I believe he was right, that it was the Maestro’s attachment to his friends that held him there, and not any lack of musicianship or of opportunities to move.
        My brothers and I ganged up many a time to correct, with snowballs or a ducking (according to the season), any ridiculous fellow who pretended to think that the Maestro was inferior to, say, Professor Amiel, who was a pupil of a pupil of Chopin, or to Cyrus Holcombe Tate, who had been at the Conservatory with Edward MacDowell. A lot of our friends expressed such preposterous opinions too, hut we never believed that they really believed them. It was obvious that they must be kidding us.
        There were some other boys, though, who weren’t kidding. Some of their parents belonged to circles that gathered for marimba music, if you can imagine such a thing, and even had four or five people playing at the same time, we were told. But they weren’t nice people: Papa said that nice people didn’t confuse that sort of thing with real music. And Mama said that M. Amiel and Mr. Tate were real musicians, in spite of their queer notions about Chopin and “that MacDowell,” so why didn’t we play with nice boys whose parents at least understood what real music was?
        There was a girl I thought was nice too, when we were in the fifth grade. Her name wan Voncille Cowdrey, though her mother was named Mrs. Lamb, which seemed odd to me. The Lambs were members of a musical circle that thought a lot of Debussy and the “Impressionists,” who were then just becoming well known in America. Mama pointed out, quite truly, that some people said that Voncille’s mother used rouge, and that she wore divided skirts for bicycling. And when Papa said that the girl wasn’t responsible for her mother’s behavior, Mama said, well really, Ralph, when people call that odd patternless thumping and tinkling (meaning Debussy’s compositions) music, you just can’t take them seriously. Why couldn’t Laurie be interested in some nice girl, like Maestro Ignoto’s niece Rosemary, Mama wanted to know.
        There is so much music to be had nowadays by turning a knob that you can hardly appreciate how much their association with Maestro Ignoto meant to my parents and their friends. He opened his home to them every Tuesday evening, and it had to be something extraordinary to make any of them stay away. From the time I was old enough to remember, my father and mother kissed us all goodnight every Tuesday at seven-fifteen. They would be dressed in their best: Papa had a fold-up silk hat, an “opera hat,” which I never saw except on Tuesdays; and Mama always managed to cram her sturdy Dutch figure into a dove-gray, wasp-waisted satin gown with a large bustle. They would be carrying scores for the works the Maestro was to play that night, and notebooks and pencils, and often books on music theory, or music history, or the lives of great musicians. And off they would go, with a light on their faces that we seldom saw at any other time.
        The Maestro visited other people’s houses on other evenings, and called on us every month or so. He and Papa and Mama would talk about music, and they’d tell him what they’d been reading, and he would usually recommend some more books for them, When I got pretty well along with my reading, I tried some of their music books, but couldn’t get much out of them. But for my birthdays, from then on, I always got a book or two, more suited to my age: A Child’s Life of Mozart, or Elements of Musical Notation, or The Young Persons Guide to the Sonata. These books usually struck me as dull, though I was careful not to say so. I studied them diligently because I knew how much music meant to Papa and Mama, and I wanted to enjoy it as they did.
        Not all grown people enjoyed music that way, I came to notice. Papa’s law partner, Mr. Alwin, used to go to hear Professor Amiel play sometimes, but I heard him tell Papa that he cared very little for it, though his wife seemed to find something that he missed, and he supposed that he was just born without an ear for music. Even I could tell the difference when he tried to describe something he had heard, and when Papa did the same thing. But Papa said that “no ear for music” was nonsense, and that Mr. Alwin only needed some solid teaching, and ought to come with him to Maestro Ignoto’s next Tuesday evening. Mr. Alwin never exactly refused, but somehow he never went.
        Mama’s brothers, Uncle Arch and Uncle Hugh, were even harder to understand. They actually seemed to dislike music, and Mama never mentioned it if they were around. We children sometimes used to ask them questions about music, but they laughed so much (without telling us what the joke was), and teased us so much about “wasting our time thinking about music,” that we finally quit asking them.
        But the Tuesday evening musicales were the high points of my parents’ quiet lives. We children were always asleep when they got home from the recitals, but they never failed to talk about them at breakfast on Wednesday morning. In fact, for two or three days afterward they talked of the Maestro’s “legato” and “phrasing” and “execution” and of “passages” he had “rendered” in such-and-such a manner. And by the next Monday morning, they were looking forward to the following evening’s recital.
        Mama told me that when the Maestro first came to Freeport, years before I was born, he used to open his house to his friends on Friday evenings as well as on Tuesdays. The idea of two recitals a week rather shocked me, but Mama explained that the Friday meetings were held to teach the Tuesday evening music lovers to play the piano themselves. Some of them tried for a year or so, but they made slow progress, and it seemed a shame to waste the Maestro’s time when he played so much better than they ever would. So, to save time, he fell into the habit of showing them how to play: the last year of the Friday meetings, the year Papa and Mama married, the Maestro played all the way through Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist, explaining and illustrating every point of technique. Papa and Mama learned a lot about music that year, they said.
        When they discussed music, Papa would whistle, to illustrate what he was saying. Mama had a lovely voice, and she would hum or sing when words were inadequate. But the sounds they made then were strange, with odd intervals and a funny sort of incompleteness—not a bit like when Papa whistled “Tenting Tonight” or Mama sang “Aura Lee”—and didn’t seem to mean anything to us. We thought that this might be because we were children, but we asked Aunt Lindy about it, and she felt the same way we did. She and Pompey the groom and we boys all agreed that we’d rather have Mama sing one of Mr. Foster’s songs than everything that Haydn and Beethoven ever wrote.
        On the first Tuesday evening after my twelfth birthday, I was the envy of my brothers, dressed in brand-new clothes, with a starched white collar that sawed my neck where Mama had scrubbed it clean, and shoes that gleamed as never before with Pompey’s best saddle-soap. That night I went to the Maestro’s recital for the first time. I knew the house, of course, from the outside. And I knew most of the people I found there, though some of them were dressed strangely to my eyes: I had never seen Mr. Grant, the butcher, without his apron on. And old Mrs. Drawdy, who sewed, was wearing an ermine stole that even I could tell must have belonged to her mother, perhaps her grandmother. But my own grandparents looked much as they always did, and so did lots of Papa’s and Mama’s friends.
        When we were all seated in the semicircle of chairs around the big grand piano, and quiet except for a few coughs and whispers, the Maestro entered and bowed and said a few words of greeting. Then he announced his first number, Bach’s Partita in D, transcribed for piano by Ferruccio Busoni, and took his seat at the piano. When all the listeners had their scores ready, he began to play.
        I can hardly describe the experience: it was vivid, but utterly strange. I seemed, without knowing how I got there, to be in a better, brighter-colored world. And even while I was savoring the experience, I was evaluating it, and realizing (with a shock) that the words Papa and Mama used, like “transported” and “ethereal” and “ecstasy,” had actually referred to something more real than reality itself. I had hardly got both feet back on the floor after the Bach when the Maestro was off again, this time with one of Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies, and once again the world grew pale and I was one of a thousand butterflies floating down great aisles of structured sound.
        I knew, with the half of me that was a boy on a small, gilt chair in the Maestro’s drawing room, that my parents were experiencing the same sort of thing, although the music that was so overwhelmingly new to me was very familiar to them. Their scores were peppered with notations such as sforzando, and poco a poco, and allegretto gracioso ma non troppo giocoso, in Papa’s angular scrawl or Mama’s small Spencerian hand. Papa’s scores often had little numbers in among the notes, where the fingering was especially difficult or interesting, while Mama drew little staves in the margins to show alternative renderings, like passages in eighth notes and dotted quarters instead of triplets as printed.
        After the Hungarian Rhapsody, the Maestro said a few words about his teacher Taussig’s “approach” to seventeenth-century music, and then played a Taussig transcription of a Scarlatti sarabande, After this there was a little intermission, while the Maestro dried his hands and rested, and there was a burst of low-voiced conversation that I couldn’t follow: Mama talking to Mrs. Cartmell about Scarlatti, and Papa talking to Mr. Jarnieson about mordants, and Grandpapa and Grandmama behind us talking with the Tollivers about the limitations of the strictly classical repertoire. It was all wonderful.
        After the intermission, the Maestro stood up again and said that he had rewritten his Variations on a Theme by C. P. E. Bach again, and that it was to be published in Etude, but that he wanted this circle of discriminating listeners to hear it once more before he sent it off. There was a little buzz of delight, almost like applause, and then everyone was quieter than before, and the music began again. After the second or third variation, I couldn’t see what they had to do with the “theme” any more, but Papa kept murmuring “brilliant” and “masterful,” and he and Mama both wrote a lot in their notebooks.
        When the Maestro finished, Mrs. Ignoto passed around coffee in tiny fragile cups, and dainty macaroons. We never had coffee at home: Mama thought it was bad for the digestion, and Papa had given it up when they were married; but both of them drank their coffee now, and Mama gave me a little sip from her cup. I didn’t like it much, but I didn’t make a face. And Mrs. Ignoto said that because I was new I was the honored guest and must have another macaroon, and I took it. But even two macaroons weren’t much for a twelve-year-old boy. At home, Aunt Lindy baked us boys oatmeal cookies the size of a hockey puck.
        After the refreshments we all stood up and began to leave. There was some more low-voiced talk, and everyone made a point of thanking the Maestro for the lovely recital. He looked tired but happy, and he took my hand in his muscular ones and told me how glad he was to have me in his circle of listeners, and that I must be regular in attendance and diligent in study, because as Czerny had told him, “Diligence is the key to mastery.” And I was faithful, too. Even when I broke my ankle sliding into second base one spring, I only missed one recital.
        When my brother Freddie reached the magic age of twelve, he started to come along with us to the musicales. He felt much as I did about music, and he and I often talked about it as adolescents do, happy in the baseless conviction that we sounded just like the grownups. My second brother, Wally, started going to the recitals with us when he became twelve, of course, but he was a disappointment to Freddie and me. He didn’t seem to care about music; he was attentive during the recitals, but he was usually studying the Maestro’s finger-action and the action of the piano, rather than appreciating the music. His notebook mostly contained sketches of piano keyboards and actions, and details of design and construction. He drew well, and some of his fanciful piano actions were very ingenious. But he seemed almost indifferent to the music itself. He sometimes talked to Papa about fingering or the anatomy of the hand. When he read, it was mostly acoustics.
        On the last Tuesday night before I was to go away to college, we all went to the Maestro’s house as usual. We sat quietly on the hard little chairs for a very long time. The older people conversed a little, in whispers, but Mama shushed us boys, so we just had to be patient. Finally Mrs. Ignoto came in, not in her best clothes, with Dr. Bullard, and he told us that the Maestro had had a bad fall just after supper and was so bruised and shaken that he, Dr. Bullard, had absolutely forbidden him to play, or even to get up that evening. And Mrs. Ignoto said that the Maestro was terribly sorry to have upset our evening this way and insisted that we must go on with the program.
        Some of the ladies said that perhaps we ought to go, for fear of disturbing the Maestro’s rest. But some of the men said nonsense, the Maestro would never be disturbed by music, but might really be disturbed if we should cancel the program after he had asked us to go on with it. So they decided that my grandfather, who had been coming every Tuesday evening for a longer time than any of the rest, should be in charge.
        Grandpapa stood up then, and went to the piano and made a little speech of welcome, and announced that the first number was to be the Prelude and Fugue No. 5 from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavichord.
        Then old Mr. Wilcox said, “Who’s going to play it, Arthur?”
        And Grandpapa said, “Well, what about you, John?”
        But Mr. Wilcox said, “You know more about music than I do, and everyone here knows it.”
        “It’s been twenty years since I touched this keyboard,” Grandpapa replied, “and besides you can see that my hands fit a plow-handle and not much else. I think my son-in-law Ralph ought to play for us. In some ways, he is the keenest student among us.”
        So Papa sat down at the Maestro’s magnificent Steinway and opened his score, and said he had been away from the keyboard almost as long as the Judge, but would endeavor to oblige. I knew that his score was well annotated, with complete fingerings; but he played with only one hand at a time, and so slowly that the music didn’t hang together. After the first page, he said his fingers were so tired that he couldn’t go on.
        So Grandpapa asked Mr. Wilcox again, and he got up and said a few words about Bach’s family and his desire for his children to appreciate music. But Mr. Wilcox couldn’t play.
        Then Grandpapa called on Mr. Grant, and he talked about Bach’s important role in developing modern keyboard-instrument techniques. But he couldn’t play. Next Grandpapa called on Mr. Van Horne, the banker, and he got up and said that when he and the late Mrs. Van Horne were on their nuptial voyage (that’s the way he talked) in Europe, they went to the cathedral in Leipzig and saw the very organ that Bach had played on, but Mr. Van Horne himself had never tried to play.
        Then Mama quoted Schumann’s opinion that the Well-Tempered Clavichord was one of Bach’s most significant works, and that appreciation of it was fundamental to a proper development of musical taste; but they could all see, she said, what sewing for a houseful of boys had done to her fingers, so she wouldn’t even try to play. And Mrs. Ignoto agreed with her about Bach’s importance, and said that she personally never tired of hearing the Well-Tempered Clavichord, but she had always had the Maestro to play for her, so she never touched the piano except to dust it.
        Nobody said anything more for a little while, and then Grandpapa got up again and said that the next number on the program was supposed to be Mozart’s Sonata in D, Koechel No. 441. But several people said it was getting pretty late, and they really ought not impose on Mrs. Ignoto’s hospitality any further, when the Maestro might be needing her. So some of them stood up, and then we all stood up and began collecting our hats and things, and thanked Mrs. Ignoto for a lovely evening, and left.
        It was a quiet ride home. Papa let Pompey drive because he said his hands still ached, and he and Mama talked about Mayor Mueller’s idea to light the Square with electric arc lights. Papa thought it would help business, But Mama said that she couldn’t believe that those things were really safe, and the Mayor ought to be more concerned with the safety of the young people.
        Everybody was glum at breakfast the next morning, the first glum Wednesday breakfast I had ever known. Mama finally said that the stable roof was leaking again, and some of the hay was molding. And Papa exclaimed that he had paid Jedediah Turnbow four dollars only last spring to put that roof right, and he would do it or he (Papa) would know the reason why. And he jammed his hat onto his head and strode off to town without kissing Mama goodbye, or finishing his cocoa.
        The next morning I went off to college.
        Pre-meds had to work pretty hard, even in those days, and so I never had much time for music when I was in college, or afterward in medical school. I went to a concert occasionally, with a girl or a group of friends; and I almost always went to the Maestro’s recitals when I was at home for the holidays—if I couldn’t get out of it. But I gradually gave up listening to music, or even thinking about it.
        When I went through their papers after Papa and Mama died, I kept some of their notebooks and the sheets Mama had clipped out of Etude with the Maestro’s autograph on his Variations. I’d like to go through them again sometime, when I have time. But it doesn’t seem as though music is for me. I guess I never had much of an ear for it, really. It just doesn’t seem to mean anything anymore after all these years.

        published in HIS Magazine, January, 1960, v. 20, n. 4, p. 1-4,8
        Used with permission, HIS 1960, © InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA


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Last updated: 03/16/15