ETUDE

 

 

          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

historical coherence.

 

          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