The Music of My Youth

My parents were classical musicians; music was both their passion and their vocation, and they organized their lives in such a way that it was central to their existence. As an adult, especially in my current quest for a more creative existence, I am far more sympathetic to them and the choices they made than I was as a child and adolescent. Then, it felt very much as if my brother and I were not terribly important, especially when compared to interesting students and world tours and new music to learn.

The result, for me at least, was a deep-seated resentment and bitterness towards all things parental. I dabbled in musicals a little bit in college, but mostly I wanted nothing to do with anything that was part of their world. I was intent on making my own path, my own mistakes (in spades!), and my own identity, and I was very insistent that it be all my own creation. I rejected them pretty firmly, and with them, the music of my youth.

My parents are gone now, and all the things we might have said to one another, the reconciliations and apologies and explanations, will be forever left unsaid. In the last few years, I have found myself drawn to Mahler and Copland and Barber and some of the pieces I remember. (Yesterday, I listened to the Mahler 4th Symphony, and decided that the 3rd movement may well be the most beautiful music ever written.) Occasionally, I’ll turn on the local classical station and hear something that sounds familiar; I find myself whistling or humming along without realizing it is a piece I actually knew.

I have no interest in analyzing music, an exercise which irritates me deeply. I recognize that there are people for whom that kind of in-depth study is like the air they need to breathe, but – and I’m going to cross over into judgmental-land here – it all too often seems rooted in a kind of arrogance or pomposity that has little to do with the beauty of the thing being studied. (When I was growing up, my parents used to read The New York Times religiously, including the Arts section. In one review, my father found the following convoluted explanation: “Mahler cultivated centrifugality through an exfoliating continuum of contextualized change.” We thought that was hilarious – so much so that we wrote it large on poster board and hung it in the back stairwell where we saw it every time we used the downstairs bathroom. It’s a testament to its impact on my life that some 40 years later, I can still remember that sentence verbatim – though I had to look up “centrifugality” which appears isn’t even a real word, according to Merriam-Webster.) I just know what sounds beautiful to me, what moves me, and I can tell when its played well, and that’s all I really care to know. Maybe that makes me superficial – probably it does. I have a curious mind and I love to learn, but dismantling the creation and artistic expression of others isn’t something that drives me.

This morning, it’s been Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring – so beautiful and uplifting – followed by his more reflective Quiet City. The recording I have is a live performance with my dad playing the English Horn solo – we played it at his memorial service. Perhaps the fact that I listen to it often is apology enough.


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