Back in the 1950’s younger brother Nickie would play harpsichord records from dawn to dusk if he could get away with it. Our childhood household had all the keyboard masters of that recording genre and era: Wanda Landowska, Sylvia Marlowe. Everyone in the family except he and our mother hated it. We made fun of it. I, a loud-mouth vociferous teen, was embarrassed by it.
Here today I sit listening to a Couperin CD – Mysterieuses Barricades, and other Pieces de clavecin. Technically a far superior recording than anything available in 1958, the artist is Blandine Verlet, French, maybe well known in France but I have never heard of this person. The playing style is a little gilded, with frills and gratuitously extended trills where Marlowe would have just let the light shine through the traditional Couperin score, and where stern, metronomic traditionalist Landowska would have turned it into a funereal dirge.
And I’m enjoying it immensely, almost over-emotionally: “you were right”, I would say, but these days there’s no one left to phone.
There’s more, I realize. I’m beginning to fathom how many decades of distance have crept between me and that old oversize sun-flooded living room of the old days. This could be scary. I could be at risk of turning into one of those fragile oldsters who can no longer reconnect to the past without bursting into tears.
Exactly as it happened to my mother in 1989:
By that year my mother was no longer able to drive, but my youngest brother bundled her into the car and they drove over to visit me where I was staying in San Lorenzo. It was a wonderful sunny Saturday afternoon, and shafts of late morning sun were filtering through the living room window plants, almost like our living room of old. I decided to treat my mother to some classical music I thought she wouldn’t have heard in a long time. I had a nice stereo system and enormous Klipsch theater speakers that could flood a home with intensely rich music even at very low volume.
The opening chords of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto wafted out of those speakers – the notes everybody remembers if they remember nothing else of Rachmaninoff. The speakers made the piano sound like it was in the living room. And Mum burst into tears.
My brother and I looked at each other in alarm: what could be happening? I hurriedly turned the music off. “What is it? What’s the matter?” we asked.
It turns out that, long before she’d met my father or her first husband before Dad, she used to date a Russian named Sergei. This is the piece he used to play for her, and she’d loved it. She never listened to it again after she and Sergei stopped seeing each other – which explains its absence from the vast musical library she amassed for her children in the old house on the hill.
So I guess it’s OK for me to reconnect. I never “stopped” listening to most of the old family music, because I carefully built my musical collection around it. I didn’t play Bach of almost any sort until about 1989 (as it happened). I started listening to the Goldberg Variations and 3-part Inventions about a year ago. It was only by chance I missed ordering“Mysterious Barricades” (Francois Couperin, 1668-1733) until just last week. A very short piece, it was always my one unabashed favorite. So, look at it as self-denial or penance or what have you, I am so glad to be hearing it once again.
But I waited too long. There’s nobody left to call who would remember.
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