Music has been part of my life since before I could walk. When I was just a few months old, my parents would put me in a contraption called a teeter babe (believe that’s what I’m in in the picture), put on a stack of 45s (that’s a record speed, for those who are not pre-digital) of Strauss waltzes, and let me bounce away until I was ready for a nap. As I got a bit older, and able to talk, one of my favorites became a 78 speed version of Ravel’s Bolero, which I called “Tapping Feet.” As I grew old enough to understand, my dad taught me to recognize the change in key that comes near the end of the song as it reaches its crescendo.
Most of what I learned –and learned to love–about music in those early days came from my dad. The source of his knowledge, which seemed quite extensive, is more sketchy. He never learned to play a musical instrument, but when he was a boy and young man, he apparently had quite a good voice and took singing lessons from a local lady named Gertrude Kunze, who may have also taught piano. Evidence of those days still exists in a box I kept from my parents house—sheet music of vocal numbers by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart (in the days before Rodgers and Hammerstein), Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, and others from the Great American Songbook. Gertrude died before I became a teenager, but whenever we ran into her in the grocery store, she would beam at my dad and announce to me proudly that he was her “best pupil.” (As it happened, I ran into Gertrude in the grocery store AFTER she died as well—she was one of the few people in our small town to be cremated, and her husband, who was rather deranged, took to carrying her ashes in a purse around town, where it was not beyond him to offer you a view of them while waiting in line to pay).
My dad loved many types of music, but he was partial to classical, especially piano music, and he loved Broadway musicals (Oklahoma, South Pacific, Porgy and Bess,and Carousel, in particular). In his younger days, I think he must have liked big band hits as well, because he told about when he was single of sometimes taking a date out on a deserted highway nearby, parking the car, and playing radio tunes while they danced in the middle of the road. As for classical, he especially liked music with stories—early favorites I recall were Saint Saens’ Danse Macabre, Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, and Haydn’s Surprise Symphony–where a sudden, loud chord in the second movement was (according to my father) designed to wake up the gentlemen in the audience who had been sleeping. He liked some Beethoven—Van Cliburn’s rendition of the Emperor Concerto and the Moonlight Sonata– and most Brahms and Mendelssohn, but in general he did not prefer German composers, finding them too heavy—I don’t ever recall hearing Bach or Wagner in the house (although he did like the Russian composers Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky). His favorites were Chopin, Debussy, Saint Saens, and a French composer named Benjamin Godard—whose 2nd Mazurka I learned to play when my piano skills had advanced sufficiently. And among American composers, George Gershwin and Aaron Copland were tops.
When I was 7 or 8, our town got an AM radio station. My dad did not approve of the music—it was largely rock as I recall—and seldom listened, having invested instead in an FM radio receiver kit from Radio Shack so he could tune into FM stations further south that played music more to his liking. But, as a local merchant, he soon found himself being asked to advertise on the new local station. He resisted for a while, but finally struck a deal—he would sponsor a one hour broadcast on Sunday afternoon (to be called “The Hennigar Hour”), but he insisted the music had to be of his choosing. The radio station accommodated him, and even set up an arrangement with the newly established 101 Strings, which specialized in light symphonic music including movie tunes, to provide him free records to make his choices. Among his new favorites were the Soul of Spain series, along with Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofe. This show ran a few years until, I think, my dad finally tired of it. He did gather a large collection of records out of the deal.
Although I learned to play both piano and clarinet, I never have considered myself a musician—like my father, I would much rather listen than play. Eventually I advanced my own education to be able to introduce him to pieces I liked as well—but the only real sale I recall making was Gustav Holst’s series on The Planets. And he did not care for any kind of “modern music” to speak of, including the Beatles.
When he fell ill from dementia and was no longer able to communicate well, he could still listen to music—and would sometimes “conduct” along with the sound. This gave me the idea to put together a playlist of all his old favorites—and mine, which I used to take to the nursing home and let him listen to. I could tell it gave him great pleasure. Ironically, only recently the New York Times came out with a piece recommending a “dying playlist” which really confirms what I did then—for him, and more recently, for myself.
Now, while my listening repertoire is much broader than his was, I still gravitate to these songs from my youth, and they bring me comfort. It is said that the sense of sound is the last to go, and when the time comes, I feel calm and ready to exit on what Leonard Cohen terms “a tower of song.”