It was the spring of 1970 when Paul McCartney announced he was leaving the Beatles. I had already grown discontent with pop music, the frenetic discord of Jimmy Hendrix touched no part of a young man brought up on Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, and Broadway show tunes. The Beatles, to my ear, wrote songs that expressed tonal continuity with the music I had grown to love.
My first year at the University of Texas, 1968, I set up an Akai tape deck on the desk of my dorm room and next to it laid a pile of reel-to-reel recordings of my favorite crooners. In my closet hung a row of Oxford cloth button down shirts next to my grey, blue, and brown wool pants. My penny loafers were kept shined, and when it grew cool in Austin I would put on my grey herringbone jacket bought for me by my great Aunt Lucile in London the previous year.
When Aunt Lucile met me in London at the end of my summer tour of Europe which she had given me as a Christmas present, she was not pleased with my attire. She hailed a taxi and told the driver, “Selfridges“! She led me into the men’s shop and told the attendant she was going to buy me new clothes and he could “dispose” of what I was wearing. Aunt Lucile insisted on adding an umbrella, which no “gentlemen” should be without. Once on the street, she was distressed that I didn’t know how to walk properly with an umbrella — she said, “Tap the sidewalk on every third step,” and I did, eventually.
Aunt Lucile lived in one of the historic houses in Austin, next to the Treaty Oak and the Coca Cola bottling plant. During my four years at UT, I served as her yard boy and as a waiter at her receptions and dinner parties. When she fed me breakfast after mowing her yard, she would lay out silver, china, and immaculate linen, in spite of the fact that I was sweaty and wearing gym shorts, tennis shoes, and a T-shirt.
My great Aunt had been a professional singer between the two world wars, singing mostly in Europe. She had sung the “Negro Songs” of H. T. Burleigh on the same program with Irish tenor John McCormack at Royal Albert Hall for the Queen Mother of England. In the summers, she sang with the well-known composition teacher and composer, Nadia Boulanger, at her American School at Fountainbleau. She was the one person in my family who appreciated my interest in, and passion for, literature, philosophy, and the arts. Years later, she was the only family member who read my dissertation on romanticism, concluding, “You’ve been a bit hard on the romantic poets, haven’t you?” And, yes, I had.
Back to the Beatles and my musical disorientation that followed. A few months after their breakup, I had just finished mowing my aunt’s lawn when she brought me a towel and a glass of water, and suggested I introduce myself to her new tenant who lived in the apartment on the side of the house. “She’s a new music teacher at the university, I think you should meet her.” I was anxious to get back to my apartment, but whatever Aunt Lucile wanted, she usually got. So I went around to the apartment door and knocked. A pretty young woman answered the door. I explained who I was and was invited in and offered a glass of delicious lemonade.
When she asked, I told her I was a junior philosophy major at UT. Then she asked what kind of music I liked. After I had shared my complaint about the direction of pop music, she asked if I had ever heard any classical music. I had heard some Gershwin, I told her, and had attended an opera as a high school student, but nothing had really left a big impression. “Well,” the young professor said, “tell me what you like in music.” “Melody,” I said. She went to a large stack of albums, pulled out a record, and put it on the turntable.
The music I heard over the next few minutes changed my life. It was so beautiful, the most beautiful music I had ever heard, and I sat transfixed until it ended. She saw my reaction, smiled, and said, “That was “Prelude to the Afternoon of Faun” by the French composer, Claude Debussy. I asked her if she had any more music like that, and she put on some Ravel and then some Wagner. I knew then that I would go immediately to the University Co-op and buy these recordings. I thanked her — I hope to this day she knew just how much I was in her debt.
At the Co-op, I bought a Debussy LP conducted by Pierre Boulez and played by the New Philharmonia Orchestra, along with some Ravel and an album of Wagner overtures. That day began a lifelong passion of exploring the entire history of classical music, every epoch and every form, from both played and sung, chamber music and orchestral, opera and oratorio, songs and choruses. Over the next ten years, I collected the entire standard repertoire and had started looking into the lesser known later romantics such as Delius, Vaughn Williams, Finzi, Hanson, and Pfitzner. At the end of my three years at Princeton Theological Seminary, I went on an opera tour of Europe with Aunt Lucile, the highlight being “Lohengrin” at Bayreuth and “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Munich Opera.
By the time I started teaching at Mercer University Atlanta in 1979, I knew enough to teach Music Appreciation in the prison program at the Atlanta Federal Prison. Being an amateur, I played my student/prisoners what moved me and found it moved them as well. Several cried when I played the Penitential Psalms of Lassus and, especially, “Pavane for a Dead Princess” by Ravel. My class was almost entirely African-American from cities on the East Coast, but the music built a bridge between us that made of all sad when the class came to an end.
What provoked these memories was the death of composer/conductor Pierre Boulez at age 90 whose recording served my entryway into the vast universe of great music we, perhaps wrongly, call “classical.” I’m startled when people ask me why my musical tastes are so “narrow” (I haven’t listened to pop music since 1970). I am still discovering wonderful music (Norwegian Ludwig Irgens Jenson (1894-1969) for example) that makes me realize I will be on this musical journey until the day I die. Thanks to my Aunt Lucile, her tenant whose name I, sadly, cannot remember, Claude Debussy, and Maestro Boulez, my life has been inestimably enriched.