Skip to content

COLUMN SIX: Sweet airs amidst the foul

A lifetime of loving music comes in handy during lockdown "M usic was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” So wrote Maya Angelou about tough times.

A lifetime of loving music comes in handy during lockdown

"Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”

So wrote Maya Angelou about tough times. Where we are now, and she’s right—thank God for the music. And over a lifetime, the people who introduced me to it.

I confess to being tone deaf and musically illiterate. I don’t know an adagio from an andante, a downbeat from a diminuendo, or a major from a minor. “Chopsticks” was as far as I got on the piano (right-hand part only) and further than I did on anything else.

In my Grade 4 class band I was handed the triangle, and in a class choral competition annually sponsored by Eaton’s my teacher pulled me aside as we walked on stage to perform and instructed me to mouth the words. “Please don’t sing,” she said. My mum was in the audience. She watched me move my lips for three minutes of “’Twas a Pretty Little Bird” and said afterwards how proud she was. Naturally I didn’t tell her.

Today you can’t get me drunk enough to grab the mic in a karaoke bar.

With that, music of all kinds has been a big part of my life. I enjoy it even more than reading. Especially now in lockdown. And so I listen to it every day for hours.

But it’s not the music I grew up with anymore. Rock and Folk and the rest of it. I’ve kept all my CDs but I can’t play them.

I have a problem with all those lyrics now. They get in the way of what I want to hear, and I’ve heard them too many times. Even my old favourites, like Dylan, McCartney, Cohen, Lightfoot, Baez, Mitchell and Taylor—to name a few—have remained unplayed for a few years.

“Where words fail, music speaks,” said Hans Christian Andersen of a different kind, music that bypasses the mind and stirs something deeper.

I didn’t exactly grow up with this kind of music, though I always knew it was there, hanging back until I was ready.

My earliest musical memory is Enrico Caruso singing “O Sole Mio” on a 78-rpm record that my mother had to play for me over and over again because I was only three and wasn’t allowed to touch the gramophone. The record itself sounded like my breakfast cereal, full of snap, crackle and pop, but I never tired of hearing that voice hit the high C and hold it longer than I could hold my breath.

The other song I remember back then was Patti Page singing “How Much Is that Doggie in the Window” and something called “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” that gave me nightmares for a week.

A dozen years later I was well into Buddy Holly, the Everlys, Del Shannon, Frankie Valli, the Beatles, Stones and Animals, when I found my mother’s album of love songs by a guy named David Whitfield. He sounded like Jay Traynor of Jay and the Americans doing “Cara Mia,” and in his rendering of “Maria” from West Side Story he hit the high C like another Caruso.

One of his songs was a syrupy ballad called “Farewell My Love” which the album notes said copied the opening theme of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. I liked it enough to go and buy my first classical album, but not knowing a piano concerto from a symphony I bought Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 (Winter Dreams) by mistake. I quickly overcame the shock of not hearing any piano and was soon enthralled by the music. I nearly wore out the record.

My high school had an excellent orchestra but they didn’t need a triangle player so I was content to sit in the audience and listen to them play. Good as they were, they weren’t quite up to Tchaikovsky, so I bought a ticket to the Toronto Symphony to hear it perform concerto and symphony in the same afternoon.

I didn’t tell my friends because they would have thought it weird.

Around that time I had an English teacher who loved jazz. He would sometimes play his records in the classroom while we were working on assignments. Piano and sax mostly. The likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Theolonius Monk, and John Coltrane. So another seed got planted, again for a later time.

Fast forward through years of Dylan, Paul Simon, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Neil Young and James Taylor.

I spent many of those years in England where the only music station back then worth listening to was Radio 3. It was all classical, and so I heard a lot of music I was unfamiliar with. Tchaikovsky was rarely played because he was considered entry level, whereas the real masters were Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, and Schubert. Some I liked, others I wasn’t ready for. But I started buying albums that appealed.

Jazz remained in the wings until a teaching colleague introduced me to Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, and Miles Davis. The energy in this music, and the lack of words, appealed to me. So did the whole impromptu aspect of jazz, like they’d never rehearsed, and the instruments seemed to be extensions of the musicians. So I started buying jazz.

So far I had managed to resist whole operas. Too much shouting, I felt. Until another colleague showed me what I was missing out on. I’d come at it from the wrong end, he said. Wagner. Yikes. Whenever Radio 3 played Wagner I turned it off. You can’t start with Wagner, he said. Too much shouting.

He introduced me to the more lyrical romantic composers like Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, and Bizet, all featuring tenors that sounded better than Caruso, with high Cs at every turn. And sopranos, mezzos, basses, and baritones, all accompanied by the most sumptuous orchestral music I had yet heard. I started buying opera. And going to it.

One evening at a performance of La Boheme in London, I sat behind an elderly man dressed in a tux who quietly wept through the final scene. He was still shaking as he stood for the curtain calls, and so was I. Not because Mimi dies at the end. Mimi always dies at the end. It was the music. And the voice. The purest instrument of all, I sometimes think in my musical illiteracy. And so it’s jazz, classical and opera that sustain me in this lockdown. Sure, there are words in opera but they’re in Italian, or German, or Russian, and anyway what the words mean is less important than how they sound, because the plots are mostly dumb and predictable and not what it’s really about.

If there’s a point to all this, it’s to acknowledge the many people in my life from whom I learned nothing about music except how to enjoy it. All kinds of it over the years, and especially now when I really need it.

It’s a crap world these days and we’re all looking for ways to nourish and pacify our souls in a time of darkness. So a special thanks to Enrico for his sunshine, his sole mio.

This music crept by me upon the waters, Allaying both their fury and my passion With its sweet air. Thence I have followed it, Or it hath drawn me rather.

May we all find our music and stay healthy.