THE GREATEST HITS OF 1720

We recently attended a harpsichord concert on campus at UNC. Two men played three-hundred-year-old music on a one-hundred-year-old instrument. The results were magical. One might wonder: “Who goes to such a concert?” The answer is: “Hardly anyone.” We were among eleven audience members marooned in a sea of ninety chairs in an otherwise charming, sun-splashed hall.

Later in the week, over 50,000 gathered several blocks away to watch UNC’s disgraced football team tackle a similar outfit from Florida State. Though a sports fan myself, I find the disparity disheartening. I won’t belabor the sad state of our culture. That’s a cliché’. Rather, I’ll focus on the harpsichord.

*****

In my formative years, during the 1960’s, my music resources were relatively meager. There was radio and there were vinyl records. I didn’t control the radio in our household. My father turned the dial to KYW, “News Radio 1060,” and my mother sometimes changed it to WFLN, “The Classical Station.” A child of limited imagination and even less rebellion, I never considered exploring alternatives. And, as a person of limited means — my weekly allowance of $.25 went towards baseball cards – I didn’t buy records.

Instead, I listened to whatever happened to be on. Thanks to KYW, compared to any other pre-teen in existence, I excelled at current events, traffic and weather. From WFLN, I formed distinct opinions about composers. I preferred orchestral pieces and piano concertos from the big guys, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. I was less enthused about solo pieces, opera, or relatively dissonant classical music composed after 1900.

In the living room, a state-of-the-art stereo system built by my brother, Barry  (speakers hidden in an inactive fireplace!), played our limited variety of vinyl recordings. Several Herb Alpert albums whetted a taste for pop. Broadway shows, such as: Camelot, Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story filled my consciousness, as well. Unbidden melodies and lyrics still pop into my head at any time via synapses first established in 1962. And two records featured my father’s favorite, the Yiddish ballads of Theodore Bikel.   To my recollection, my father never operated the stereo and I never volunteered to play his records for him. Even a teenager as compliant as me had a limit. (Never mind the issue of whether he was unable or unwilling to operate the stereo – that question never occurred to me – perhaps there are several potential stories there).

*****

I recall the first record that was “mine.” For approximately my tenth birthday, my mother combined my penchant for puns with my eighteenth-century sensibility and bought me a collection called “Go for Baroque.” It featured harpsichord pieces by J.S. Bach and Rameau, a comparatively unknown French composer. The tinkling of the harpsichord captivated me.

At the time, I “studied” piano with a teacher named Mr. Koffs, whom I called “Cootie Koffs.” Not that I deserved better, but he smacked my fingers for mistakes and generally contributed more to misery than to mastery. I craved the special baroque sound.

“Why can’t I play a harpsichord?” I asked. “I’d even practice.”

“No one plays a harpsichord,” said my mother, on the rare occasions my question elicited a response.

By the time I was eleven, piano lessons succumbed to my flood of complaints and my drought of practice. Thinking I’d have better luck channeling the Tijuana Brass, I requested trumpet lessons, instead. After three untalented years, during which I sapped the enthusiasm of my trumpet instructors and myself, I concluded my youthful career at the low end of mediocre on both instruments. Yet, I retained my eclectic tastes, more or less spanning from 17th-Century Europe to 20th-century faux-Mexico.

*****

As a shy, young lawyer alone in the suburbs in my late twenties, I had an abundance of free time. After all, Ridgewood, New Jersey wasn’t “hopping” like a big city and I wasn’t exactly a “player” myself. Happening to hear a harpsichord on the radio one day, it occurred to me I might arrange the lessons I’d always wanted. In an unusual burst of initiative, I looked through the musical instruments section of the Yellow Pages (for younger readers, a paper telephone directory, like a fossil version of Google) and, sure enough, a man in Northern Jersey advertised “Harpsichords, for Sale or Lease.”

I called Ed Brewer, who turned out to be renowned in obscure circles, and learned I could rent a small instrument for $63 a month.

“Does anyone give lessons?” I asked.

“There’s one fellow,” he said. “Do you know where Ridgewood is?”

“I live in Ridgewood,” I said, amazed.

“Well, then,” said Ed. “That’s good luck. Call Jack Rodland, the organist at West Side Church.”

I did. As the music director of the largest church in town, Jack tended to see things in spiritual terms, not luck. When I described on the phone why I’d called, he said: “I’ve been waiting for your call.”

“Did Ed Brewer tell you I’d be calling?” I asked, surprised.

“No, the Lord did,” he said.

“Hunh?” I said, or a similar sound.

Jack explained: “We have a beautiful, antique harpsichord moldering away in the basement. I want to cry whenever I see it. I recently asked the Church board for funds to restore and tune it, but was told I need at least one student. Your call is a blessing.”

To say the least, Jack and I viewed the world differently. Considering my skill level, connecting my musicality to the word “blessing” intimidated me to the point of near-paralysis. Still, how could I back out of a God-ordained activity?

We arranged to meet at the church two weeks later, by which time Jack was confident the church harpsichord would be tuned for him to give lessons. Meanwhile, Ed Brewer delivered a modest, recently constructed rental harpsichord to my home. It resembled a pine coffin more than a musical instrument. Still, it contained fifty-five brown and black keys (none of those black and white keys for me!) and made the tinkling sound I loved. For two weeks, leading up to my first lesson, I spent part of each evening alternately trying to recreate the background of “Scarborough Fair,” and the introduction to “The Addams Family.”

*****

It may surprise some readers, but playing the harpsichord did not immediately make me a girl magnet. I commenced weekly lessons at the Church with Jack – a patient and gentle teacher—and practiced diligently each evening after work. After six months of steady play, I’d become almost respectable. I mastered several minuets by Bach and also the Rameau variations I’d listened to years before. Jack became so enthused that he asked if I’d play before a church service.

“You mean, like, in front of people?” I asked, stricken.

“Yes,” he said. “It will be a treat.”

In my mind, I thought: “It will be a catastrophe.” But Jack was so earnest!

Again, the discrepancy between our worldviews became apparent. I managed to stall Jack’s urge for my public debut for several weeks but feared I couldn’t last forever. After all, my hobby intersected with Jack’s profession and he had a Board to impress. I dedicated a number of sleepless hours to the situation, namely: “How do I get out of this?”

One morning, at work, the phone rang. My deus ex machina came in the form of a phone call from a woman who asked me out on a blind date. We hit it off immediately and my practice time dwindled. For the first several dates, I didn’t disclose how I’d spent the preceding six months of evenings. Insecure to the utmost, I feared revealing myself to be steeped in the 1700’s. Her first visit to my home, however, brought my harpsichord habit to the fore. Instead of being turned off by it, it turned out my new girlfriend had been an All-State oboist in high school. We had baroque-era instruments in common! In short order, Katie and I were married, we sold our respective houses, we had a child, and music took a backseat. My harpsichord lessons dwindled to once a month then ceased. Life had moved on.

*****

Jack Rodland was completely supportive when I explained the reason for my change in focus.

“You’ve moved to a higher calling,” he said, speaking of my new love life.

Only months after I saw him for the last time, I heard that Jack, a man no older than fifty, had died. I felt devastated. Had he been ill? It occurred to me I knew nothing of Jack’s life outside of our lessons. My only small consolation was to recall his delight at having brought the harpsichord up from the basement. Also, having a student, even one of limited ability, had pleased him.

I’d deeply appreciated Jack’s gentle teaching and understanding. Due to its constant need for tuning and my lack of play, we returned my rented harpsichord and eventually acquired a piano in the unrewarded hope that our children might be interested. After we sold it several years ago, we bought an electronic keyboard for those rare, once-a-month urges that I have to play. When I do play, I always remember Jack for a moment. Though the keyboard can mimic hundreds of instruments, the harpsichord is usually my first choice.  And Katie and I still seek out those rare opportunities to hear live harpsichord music.

Advertisements