in D major, Op. 61, performed by Jascha Heifetz and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Munch, on “Favorite Beethoven Concertos,” RCA (vinyl), 1971 (by Ludwig Van Beethoven – born, winter of 1770; died Mar. 26, 1827)
While I am no scholar of classical music, I have listened to enough of it to choose Beethoven as my composer of choice, with Handel second by a margin of brooding angst. This is certainly the concerto I listen to most often, and I prefer the Heifetz over a couple of other versions I own, and a couple more I’ve heard performed live, because, to quote a record store clerk I met while trying to find a CD version, “It’s sweet.”
Generally you wouldn’t take the “romantic style” of fiddling seriously. Who likes schmaltz except maybe on Friday, in Ma’s mashed lima beans – cheap fat to lend the insipid a bit of flavour (tam, as Ma would say). But Heifetz caresses every note, conveying real love for each phrase, his cadenza sprouting organically from them. Then, too, “classical” musicians have become so clinical and commercial, the effusiveness here induces profound nostalgia. Maybe that’s partly because the orchestra sounds so muddy in spots; but nostalgia muddy or misty, this is certainly where Miss Westfall* comes in.
I grew up to a soundtrack of popular music and jazz, the radio running whenever the TV (Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Durante, Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Dean Martin, Dinah Shore, Dick Clark, Harry Belafonte, Allan Sherman, …) and phonograph weren’t. The latter Grandpa bought for us when I was about ten, from “Monkey Wards,” and we could afford few records. (The first I bought out of my savings was a “45” of “Stay,” by the Four Seasons, a.k.a. Jersey Boys.) Our grammar school bussed us to a children’s matinee at the Denver Symphony Orchestra, which performed Bernstein’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” the overture to “William Tell” (the “Lone Ranger,” whose title music featured this piece, was a favourite kids’ TV show), and selections from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” This did not teach me to love “serious” music. It taught me that you don’t teach a love for any sort of music with pandering or condescension. (Mind you, even a child knows intuitively that “Baa-Baa Black Sheep” is calisthenics, not song.) To boot, it engendered an abiding distaste for so-called “program music,” as with pieces about art exhibitions and fairy tales. Pandering.
But then there was Miss Westfall. I took a class from her in high school that combined music appreciation, history, and theory. Although I now imagine she might have been in her early to mid fifties, she seemed ancient to us teenagers, and she seemed to feel “past it,” alone in a cow-town with her visceral love of burnished expression, of real art. Apparently she was what we called a spinster back then; and, yes, she might have been gay in a time when that was anything but liberating or happy.
It was a small class, and she loved the bones of every bored, snotty adolescent of us. But this was more than gratitude. She loved the music beyond anything. On a beat-up old A-V Department record player, she introduced us to all sorts of serious music (including Mussorgsky), and spoke rapturously of concerts and musical friendships, forgetting where she was, really, time-travelling back to her own more serious-minded youth – of Antonia Brico, Nadia Boulanger, women conductors and composers who had to set up their own orchestras to do their thing. (Not much has changed in this sense?) She also made us (gently) “take dictation” as she played piano, laboriously set down chord progressions in every key, and write a tune that I just now managed to find in my basement (along with that copy of “Stay”): “Love and Other Illusions.” “Pretty cynical for a sixteen-year-old,” my wife Phyllis notes. But Miss Westfall did not so much as snigger.
I was hopeless at the dictation and my tune (written on guitar, but for some reason including a bass clef) is, uh, a little simple-minded (see right). Yet when Miss Westfall played it on the piano for the class, she smiled and went after it like it was young Mozart. I’m pretty sure I got an A for the term.
I (obviously) never forgot this rare, marvellous woman. In all probability she has passed, but a few years ago, for a short story, I imagined visiting her in her retirement, and I ended up with a song inspired by her glory as a teacher, and also by something indelible she taught us: there are no new tunes, just new ways of playing and understanding them. And so does Miss Westfall live on in her students.
No New Tunes**
(click here (http://jeffreymiller.ca/words-music/) and scroll down to “No New Tunes,” to hear a living room (unmixed) performance of the song)
I was once your student, you don’t remember me?
Basic Music Theory, nineteen seventy-three.
I heard you had some health scare, retired to take it slow,
Thought I’d pay a visit, stop by and say hello.
Never got that trick of writing what you played,
The notes on your piano rarely made it to my page.
But smiling you kept playing, and lately I can see,
The music that I saw in you is what you glimpsed in me.
/“No new tunes,” that’s what you used to say,
“It’s not the notes upon the page but how and why you play.
“Life’s just the same, it’s in your DNA,
“And then there’s what you do with it,
“Year by year, day to day,
“When there are no new tunes.”/
Was the heyday of the Beatles, the Kinks, and Rolling Stones,
Seemed to all us high school kids you just dug up old bones.
Beethoven, Bach, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff and Ives,
You played them on that phonograph,
As you swayed and closed your eyes.
Brico was your mentor, and Nadia Boulanger,
Conducting philharmonics, that never came your way.
Instead you called for quiet from kids just marking time
While yours all seemed to slip right by, in tempo without rhyme.
You thought you were forgotten, retired and sick, alone
You never led an orchestra, wrote no music of your own,
Your schooldays finally ended, and your life seemed over, too,
But I’m not the only ageing boy remembering it was you
Who taught us …
* I am ashamed to say that, after more than four decades, I had no independent recollection of Maxine Westfall’s name. After I ransacked my house in vain for my high school yearbook, the current principal of George Washington High, José Martinez, kindly helped me put a name to facing musical nostalgia.
**Copyright 2016, Burden of Proof Research Inc.