John Garfield and Melpomene

I was around nine or ten when my older sister Margie played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for me on her ancient windup Victrola. It was her favorite symphony—her favorite single piece of music—and she could never get enough of it. After she played it for me that one time, it became my favorite too. I had discovered music, the most profound, sensual and visceral art form, and I can only wish I had the creative inclination for it.

Chalk another one up to things I've never done: never learned to play an instrument or to create music. Alas, and to my regret.

In those days of my youth, music to most people was the pop stuff that came over the radio, songs like Istanbul by The Four Lads, or Sh-Boom by The Crew Cuts. But those and other hits of the day were nothing but a diversion, something to sing along with and tap your foot to. Classical music, when I was introduced to it, was a revelation, something into which I could lose myself.

Beethoven’s Fifth is still one of my favorites, and such a delight it is to come upon it unawares, so to speak. Once, while driving somewhere I can’t remember now, Ludwig’s Fifth came on the car radio. I parked, turned the engine off and left the radio on. And there I sat for the entire forty minutes of it, listening, humming along, sometimes waving my arms like a conductor, especially during the magnificent fourth movement. Also, when no one was around to see me.

Other moments of musical surprise come to mind. Lounging around one day with my stereo tuned to a classical station, I sat up suddenly, struck by the opening stanza of a violin piece I had never before heard. It was instantly beautiful to my ears, serious in some spots and whimsical in others—sensual in the way only a violin can be. I only hoped that the announcer would tell me, after it was over, what the name of this piece was that had moved me so unexpectedly. Finally he did, saying that I had just heard The Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch. Not only had I never heard this wonderful ode to Scotland before, but the composer was also unknown to me. To top it off, the violinist who’d played it was Itzhak Perlman, arguably the greatest since Jascha Heifitz. So, in those few moments, The Scottish Fantasy had become one of my favorites, and Bruch, after I became familiar with his other marvelous concertos and compositions for violin and cello, was now on my short list of favorite composers.

Yet another musical memory stands out for me, even after so many years since I was a twenty-four year old soldier serving in Vietnam. Being there, I had no chance to hear the music I loved. All we had was Armed Forces Radio, with its “Good Morning Vietnam” salutation each day, introducing the day’s offerings of top forty hits of stateside radio. So on my R&R to Taipei, after checking into my hotel that first evening, I turned on the little AM radio on the nightstand and was surprised to hear the opening strains of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, another on my top forty list. It had been so long since I’d heard music like this, and such a revelation to hear it coming from this tinny radio in a tiny hotel room in a place as strange to me as Taipei, that I sat on the bed with tears running down my face, listening to Dvorak’s sensual anthem to America.

My love of great music never led anywhere, except as an appreciative listener and fan. Maybe I had no gift for it, maybe I came to my love of it too late—whatever. My own artistic inclinations, discovered at around age sixteen, led me to become a writer instead. And I sometimes feel a loss over that, of following the muse of the written word rather than that of song. When I witness performances by Itzhak Perlman or the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and see the joy on their faces as they play, I can only wonder at the feeling that making such music must give them. But I never had the discipline their parents must have instilled in them, coupled with a young child’s love of music from a very early age. And most likely not the genius these two virtuosos so obviously possess.

I’m reminded of the 1946 movie Humoresque, starring John Garfield, portraying, with his quintessential tough-guy vulnerability, a concert violinist. It begins when a poor boy from New York’s East Side is taken to a store to pick out a present for his upcoming birthday. His father offers him a baseball glove, but the boy doesn't want that. Instead he covets a violin he sees in the store window. Discouraged by his father, who thinks it’s a waste of money, but encouraged by a mother who wants something better for her son, the boy gets the violin, grows up with a great love of music, and becomes a renowned violinist. Such is the stuff dreams are made of.

To paraphrase Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy character, in his famous taxicab scene of On The Waterfront, “You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a composer. I coulda been somebody, instead of a hack, which is what I am. Let’s face it. It was you, Melpomene.”




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