Aug. 25, 2006

Tin Ear

by Peter Schmitt

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Poem: "Tin Ear" by Peter Schmitt from Country Airport. (Copper Beech Press). (buy now)

Tin Ear

We stood at attention as she moved
with a kind of Groucho shuffle
down our line, her trained music
teacher's ear passing by
our ten- and eleven-year-old mouths
open to some song now forgotten.
And as she held her momentary
pause in front of me, I peered
from the corner of my eye
to hers, and knew the truth
I had suspected.
In the following days,
as certain of our peers
disappeared at appointed hours
for the Chorus, something in me
was already closing shop.
Indeed, to this day
I still clam up
for the national anthem
in crowded stadiums, draw
disapproving alumni stares
as I smile the length of school songs,
and even hum and clap
through "Happy Birthday," creating
a diversion—all lest I send
the collective pitch
careening headlong into dissonance.
It's only in the choice acoustics
of shower and sealed car
that I can finally give voice
to that heart deep within me
that is pure, tonally perfect, music.
But when the water stops running
and the radio's off, I can remember
that day in class,
when I knew for the first time
that mine would be a world of words
without melody, where refrain
means do not join,
where I'm ready to sing
in a key no one has ever heard.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer (Francis) Bret Harte, (books by this author) born in Albany, New York (1839). He moved with his mother to California when he was eighteen. He worked as a miner, a schoolteacher, an express messenger, a printer, a clerk, and a journalist and editor. In 1868, he wrote the famous story "The Luck of Roaring Camp," about the only baby in a wild mining town during California's 1849 Gold Rush. In the story, they call the baby The Luck, but the baby and the two men who looked after him end up dying in a flash flood. The story was an instant success, all across the country.

On this day in 1875, Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to swim across the English Channel. In twenty-one hours and forty-five minutes, he swam from Dover, England, to Calais, France. Nine years later, he drowned in Niagara Falls, trying to swim across and under the churning water.

It's the birthday of conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, born in Lawrence, Massachusetts (1918). He was a prodigy. When he was ten, his Aunt Clara was going through a divorce, and she sent her upright piano to the Bernstein home to be stored. Leonard demanded lessons. When he was sixteen, he heard his first live symphony orchestra concert. The same year, he starred in his own rendition of "Carmen" at summer camp. He wore a wig and a black gown, and stole the show.

He eventually moved to New York, met a bunch of musicians and composers who convinced him to pursue conducting, and befriended Serge Koussevitzky, the director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Koussevitzky offered him a guest-conducting job at age twenty-two, but Bernstein had to refuse because of union rules. Bernstein eventually got an assistantship with the New York Philharmonic. And he was at the right place at the right time on a Sunday afternoon, November 14, 1943. Conductor Bruno Walter got sick, and Bernstein filled in. The concert was broadcast over the radio, and a review was on page one of The New York Times. He instantly became important in the classical music world, at the age of twenty-five.

He was the music director for the Philharmonic from 1959 to 1969. He wrote scores for many musicals, including "On the Town," "Wonderful Town," and "West Side Story." He also wrote symphonies; and he wrote music for ballets like "Fancy Free" and "Facsimile," and operas like "Trouble in Tahiti" and "Candide." He wrote a book called The Joy of Music (1959), a collection of essays and conversations about music.

In it, he wrote, "Music, of all the arts, stands in a special region, unlit by any star but its own, and utterly without meaning ... except its own." The Christmas before Bernstein died, at age seventy-two, he conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Berlin to celebrate the crumbling of the wall. He died just five days after retiring. He conducted his final performance at Tanglewood, in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, on August 19, 1990. It was the Boston Symphony playing Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

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