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Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Shame of Schubert

From the Vault Dept.: A bunch of Metroland writers was asked a few years back for an essay on the topic “A DJ Who Changed Me.” Mine happened to be a platter-spinning grade-school teacher.


MY MUSICAL REDEMPTION would be my social undoing. What seemed wonderful at the age of eight turned me into a bitter nine-year-old, sent to purdah for preferring the wrong records. Here’s how it happened.

My third-grade class was interrupted, once a week, by the arrival of a large, angry woman pushing a clattery utility cart upon which lived a large, institutional record player. This she fed magnificently ruined old LPs bound for yet another spin under the two-pound tone-arm.

Music class typically consisted of forced group singing of dorky old folksongs or forced group quiet while a record played. The day that changed my life began as the latter.

“I want you to listen to a beautiful symphony,” the music teacher said. The class groaned as one. This was 1964. We were in thrall to the Beatles, whose music WABC disc jockey Cousin Brucie couldn’t play often enough. You tuned your transistor radio to 770 and he did the rest, and we merrily sang along with “She Loves You,” “If I Fell” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” each of which I still know by heart.

The record player crackled to life and low strains of cello and bass rose above the background noise. After a minor-key introduction, a very familiar theme burst through in the strings. It was Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, and it grabbed me like no music ever had done before.

“This is movement marked ‘Andante,’ which means ‘at a walking tempo,’” the teacher said, violating her own rule of silence. “I want you to write that down: ‘Andante.’ A, N . . . ”

But I’d already tuned her out. I put pencil to paper and, inspired by the beautiful music, began to draw. I imagined a country village, as it might have appeared in Schubert’s day, and sketched in a series of houses as the tune grew dark again and the winds and brass added to the tumult. Perhaps a thunderstorm was approaching. . . .

Indeed it was. Absorbed in my artwork, I’d missed “Allegro” and “Adagio.” I even ignored “Accelerando.” And attracted the teacher’s attention.

“What are you doing?” Any answer I could offer, of course, was wrong, but I attempted to protest: “I just wanted to draw to the music.”

“You’re here to learn about the music,” the harpy insisted. “Can you tell the class what ‘Andante’ means?”

Was it more than the music that changed me? Did this embarrassing, unwarranted confrontation turn me towards classical music as a course of stubborn rebellion? To confess in front of all my coevals that I truly enjoyed this piece was a gauntlet-throwing act that could led to (largely self-imposed) ostracization, condemning me to socialize with the other music geeks who hung out in the band room. And not even my fellow string players seemed interested in symphonies like this. So much for a social life. Unfinished, perhaps, but remaining in progress.

Metroland Magazine, 1 November 2007

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