Some time in 1942 I was sitting in the music room of the Hillel
Foundation building at the University of Michigan, where I was a student,
listening to a recording of the Beethoven Quartet #14 in C# minor. It was
before the days of 33 rpm disks, let alone tapes and compact disks, and
the fidelity of the Capehart machine that reproduced the scratchy shellac
disks' music, with interruptions every five minutes as they had to be
changed, was less than hi. Furthermore, I was unfamiliar with the quartet
in those days. I was 17 years old. I was unfamiliar with the entire
string quartet literature, for that matter, since they were rarely played
on the radio, and the only concerts I had ever attended were of symphony
orchestras or of solo violinists or pianists, and in no great number. One
must remember that even the radio held little music other than popular
music, and most of what I knew of concert music was from a handful of
symphonies of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Schumann and Brahms.
To plunge from this into the Quartet #14 was quite a step, and I
knew it. People had told me it was great music, but not much else. Had
they told me to study some of Beethoven's earlier quartets first, or those
of Mozart and Haydn, it would not have helped me much because all that was
unavailable. The Hillel collection of records was not large, and (except
for a certain Mozart Piano Concerto in A) contained only the same
symphonic warhorses I already knew from my experience as an usher at the
Detroit Symphony Orchestra concerts in my high school days, and the
omnipresent "Masterpieces of Music" recordings that thinly decorated the
bookshelves of my friends' houses. What I did know about 18th and 19th
Century European music was equally thinly spread, without correlations or
The Schubert "Unfinished" symphony, for example, was to me
unique, without relation to any other music I knew, even the other bits of
Schubert ("Moment Musicale", "Marche Militaire", "Rosamunde Overture") I
happened to know from radio listening. That it was not far in time and
place from the Beethoven quartet that was giving me such a hard time that
afternoon was totally unknown to me. I wouldn't have believed it if
someone had mentioned it to me; and indeed it is still hard to believe.
It is, in fact, a very deep mystery of the human imagination.
But that was about fifty years ago, when my appreciation of
mysteries was mostly governed by ignorance. This music held mystery of a
different sort. Slow, drawn-out notes, on and on, to no purpose that I
could see, and then violent chords in two and three-note bursts. Four or
five, sometimes. Fragments of what could be dance if it had gone on for
more than a few phrases. The beginnings of a fugue. The mystery seemed
to me mainly to be, why is this stuff called music? Yet it had to be,
because I was assured it was, and the greatest music, too, by people who
understood more about it than I did, friends who had studied music --
piano, violin -- as I had not, and who were not just exercising authority,
but had reason to be respected because I knew they also understood and
loved those things in music, and that small list of masterpieces, that I
already did understand and love.
Leona Shifrin came in. Unlike Edie Rothstein, with whom I was
also in love (there were only three), Leona was not a musician. But she
was an intellectual: she had opinions, she read books, she spent her
time with Leo Litwak and Bernie Rosenberg, with people who argued
communism, Zionism, Tolstoy and Henry James.
She also read Freud. I was a student of mathematics and
physics, and while I did my best to furnish my mind with the great
literature of my time and recent past, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, Dreiser and
so on, I couldn't quite keep up with all the social philosophy my humanist
friends seemed to have time for. Overhearing their conversation, I
learned such things as the fecal import of money, Martin Luther and
capitalism; but I myself never read Max Weber or Henry James. I had
dutifully attempted Freud and Marx, but fitfully, without great interest
or understanding. Of course, Freud and James were only the beginning; my
friends read Jung, Bettleheim, Malinowski and Mead, and knew the deepest
things about how human beings who had not read such things could deceive
themselves about their own motivations and therefore render themselves
unhappy. They told me, long before I had any clear idea what a homosexual
was, that Tchaikovsky had been one.
They were also quite clear on the matter of intellectual
dominion: One must not believe what people say, one must not conform.
Everything good was the work of the avant-garde, who, like Van Gogh
reviled or ignored by majority taste, persisted in their own visions. In
fact, whatever is taken at large for truth is probably false, dinned into
us as part of a culture whose resulting stability benefits the rich more
than the poor. And if we take the conventional truths seriously, and try
to live by them, we will surely stunt our own originality as well.
Leona listened with me for a minute or two. She went over to
the record player and picked up the album, which was standing on the floor
like an open book, and read the cover. She knew Beethoven was said to be
great, and she probably knew his Seventh and Fifth Symphonies pretty well,
even as I did. At least, she had heard them as often. She put down the
album and listened another few seconds, standing. "Are you enjoying
this?" she asked me.
I knew exactly what she meant. I was plainly listening to this
record because the world had told me it was great music, but to do so only
for this reason would violate our most sacred principles, hers and mine as
she supposed. On the other hand, maybe the music was great, but I simply
was not up to its appreciation. Then I was in the category of those we
both knew who went religiously to concerts in Detroit because of the
virtue of high culture, without understanding a note of the music they
were hearing. We knew these people; without them the Symphony would go
broke, but they were phonies just the same.
Somehow I was unable to formulate, either to Leona or to myself,
what is now so obviously the true answer. If I answered "yes" I would in
some sense be lying, and pretending to an "enjoyment" of Beethoven shared
by every Philistine we despised. If I answered "no," then the question
followed, right out of Freud, Mead and all the rest, why was I punishing
myself? What was I trying to prove?
The girls I knew were good at this sort of thing. I was
fortunate not to end up marrying one. The true answer of course is that I
was studying. I was working. What made the answer so difficult to find
is that this was Hillel, a place designed for the enjoyment (and the
community observances) of the Jewish students at the University of
Michigan. Working and studying were what went on at the University
outside, not at Hillel, or at least not with Hillel recreational
facilities. The context was wrong. I had no business studying in the
Hillel music room, unless I were studying from a certified work of
mathematics or psychology while enjoying some background music. Leona
didn't know otherwise and I didn't, either, because Beethoven for amateurs
had not been listed to us as a certified object of study. It was supposed
to be pleasure, or emotion maybe, but not to be dissected except by
scholars or violinists who had technical reason to do so.
This is interesting. Violent yellow and blue splotches had not
been listed to Van Gogh, either, as methods for producing art. But he
showed how they could be, and now he is a certified artist of the highest
price, and Leona Shifrin, who believed in that certificate, therefore
imagined herself to be a scorner of certificates and an ally of Van Gogh
and all the free-thinking avant-garde. That I, studying Beethoven in
Hillel, was not enjoying myself, put me beyond the defined category of the
liberated, as she understood it.
I suppose the question does still remain: Is working fun? Is
study enjoyable? The answer is clear enough: It is like biting nails.
It inhibits sleep and family life. "Are you enjoying this?" you ask him,
and he looks up and does not know what to say. There is no answer to the
wrong question, after all. Try it. Ask any artist. Ask a mathematician.
Ralph A. Raimi
23 January 1990