May 29, 2015
Dots and Threads
I’ve had the incredible luck of having parents naturally inclined to confront all of their children with copious amounts of beauty in any shape or form, even if sometimes complex for very young minds. Not only was reading books, listening to music or appreciating art very much encouraged but also developing a sense of superior harmony in manners, kindness, humbleness and sense of humour.
I’m not absolutely certain that the way I’ve led my life has always made them justice; come to think of it very often it has not, but be it as it may, the dots are still here in the sense that I hope that what they meant is that our quest was never one for absolute perfection but rather for a continued clarity and modesty in bettering our ways.
They are responsible for my first contact with classical music: it was a book-and-record version of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. I couldn’t have been older than ten and at that age, at least to me, music wasn’t “classical”, “modern” or anything else, there were just two kinds of music: good music and bad music.
Prokofiev made a profound and long-lasting impression on me not the least because Peter and the Wolf is one of the few pieces of classical (or rather, “classical”) music written specifically for children. It should come as no surprise that there is an animated version by Walt Disney, which was the one I first experienced. Since it is a piece specifically for narrator and orchestra, the combination of story and music, for a child of ten, is simply too potent a fix to resist: I was hopelessly hooked.
I loved everything about it (still do) especially the way the characters are portrayed by different instruments which makes it fascinating to identify them and their dialogues throughout the music: Sasha the bird is a flute, Sonya the duck an oboe, the french horns play the wolf, the strings play Peter, the grandfather is a bassoon and the hunters Misha, Sasha and Vladimir are woodwinds and martial trumpets, their guns the percussion instruments. For a portuguese kid at the other end of Europe just those names alone were a promise of wonder. My favourite however was always Ivan the cat, played by the clarinet. I’m not a cat person at all and have always liked dogs better but that clarinet sweeping like a comfortable, gentle and familiar breeze over the music is simply fascinating. It’s not an obvious instrument to like of course and I have no other explanation to offer other than the fact that Sydney Bechet’s music entered my life at approximately the same time.
There’s a movie version somewhere which I can’t find but here’s the original book version:
Prokofiev naturally led to Fantasia, still one of my top ten movies of all time and one which incidentally made me both very afraid and very curious about Mussorgsky: listening to Night on the Bald Mountain at that age gave me actual nightmares. I don’t know if it still does because I remain a little afraid of discovering that it will.
At this point I was an addict and there was no going back.
I needed my dose at regular intervals and it thankfully appeared in the form of a Sunday afternoon television program called Young People’s Concerts, where Leonard Bernstein explained and demonstrated everything about classical music with such an apparent simplicity that to this day I still hold them as the very best way to create new addicts out of anyone, young or not. It has everything you’d want to know about concertos, symphonies, music modes, melodies, sonatas, waltzes, orchestras small and large and even jazz.
There is a DVD for sale (9 DVDs actually) and I’m sure you can find the individual episodes on YouTube (all 53 of them), but do try to watch them in the proper sequence. It will change your life, I promise.
Since then, it’s just been a matter of connecting the dots, sometimes adding new ones, making sure they fit with the existing ones in a way my parents would likely agree with even if they were new to them too.
In the end what my parents gave me, knowingly or not, is priceless: they planted a few or many dots (it doesn’t really matter how many) but more importantly they made me aware of everyone’s natural curiosity to connect them and set them alight. They made me see that beauty lies in connecting those dots in as many ways as you can with endless and gleaming threads of light.
They made me see that that’s precisely and simply where love (love, yes) is.
And it never stops.