“Recordings that Changed My Life”

by Walter Simmons

In order to apply this intriguing concept to my own personal experience, I must alter the terms somewhat, and discuss five groups of recordings that affected my life significantly. The first group would be those 78 rpm records that my parents owned when I was a child. My parents enjoyed classical music and listened to it regularly. As the story goes, by the time I was three, I was already reacting strongly to this music, and indicating distinct preferences. Within a year or two, my parents decided to give me direct access to the phonograph, and taught me how to use it. (Obviously, given the fragility of 78s and the clumsiness of a four-year-old, their collection dwindled quickly, and many items had to be replaced.) I spent hours listening to these records over and over, as I watched the strange shapes that appeared on the labels as they spun around, and I still remember most of them. My very favorite, and the first piece of music I really loved, was Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony—especially the third and fourth movements, which excited me to the point of near hysteria. This recording was part of a series my parents purchased as some sort of  premium offered by a newspaper, as I recall. The performers were identified only as, “The World’s Greatest Orchestras under the direction of the World’s Greatest Conductors.” (I remember seeing the provenance of this series discussed in these pages by a colleague more discographically knowledgeable than I.) Other pieces we had in this series included Beethoven’s Fifth, Schubert’s “Unfinished,” and Wagner’s “Forest Murmers,” (which was very hard to appreciate, as the music rarely rose above the level of the surface noise). Aside from this series, we also had Lawrence Tibbett singing two Schubert Lieder in English, Leonard Warren singing the famous arias from Carmen and The Barber of Seville, Rubinstein playing the Grieg Piano Concerto, Szigeti playing Brahms’s Violin Concerto, Strauss’s Don Juan, and Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto. I loved all these pieces and soon came to know them inside-out. However I was somewhat less taken with the “Immolation Scene” from Götterdämmerung (my mother loved to tell an anecdote about this last selection that involved my as-yet-incomplete toilet-training, but would turn in her grave if I put it into print) and Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite (which I HATED). Although I later learned to play several musical instruments, I always felt that the phonograph (as it was then called) was my main instrument, and that my personal response to the content of the music was always my primary aesthetic mechanism. So there is no question but that these first recordings influenced the course of my life, which has followed pretty consistently along the lines recounted here.

When I was about seven, during the early 1950s, we bought our first phonograph that played “long-playing records.” My parents, eager to encourage and feed my young appetite, signed up for a series of “Music-Appreciation Records,” which were being marketed by the Book-of-the-Month Club, I believe. These releases consisted of a complete performance of a work on one side of a disc, with an analytic commentary on the other. I recall that we had the 4th, 5th, and 6th Brandenburg Concertos, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, with analyses read by the rather prim and pinched-voiced Thomas Scherman (of the Little Orchestra Society). But the releases that made the biggest impression on me were Beethoven’s Eroica and Dvorak’s New World Symphony with analyses presented by none other than Leonard Bernstein. (Once he began his series of television programs on Omnibus, he became a household name and one of my first heroes.) I found these recordings (and others, too — especially one with Ezio Pinza singing Mozart arias) absolutely captivating and devoured them all — music, commentaries, and printed program notes. I enjoyed most of the music, LOVED the Eroica (still do), HATED Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (still do), and began to organize all this data together in my mind, developing my own mental biographical-chronological-geographical-stylistic musical data matrix.

Around the age of ten — maybe it was the approach of puberty and peer-awareness — I became satiated with classical music, and traded in Mozart for Elvis Presley. I just couldn’t get excited about my old favorites anymore. (My parents and relatives were heart-broken that their precious prodigy had joined the ranks of the sneering, greasy-haired hoodlums.) Then, just a month before my 13th birthday, while returning home from a visit to relatives, I heard a piece on the car radio that sounded as if it came from the dawn of time, and was the very music that my soul had been seeking. Afterwards the announcer identified it as Alleluia and Fugue, by Alan Hovhaness. I had never heard of him of course, and assumed he was some figure from ancient history. The following day I went to the New York Public Library to research this name (which I had no idea how to spell). Eventually I encountered the name Hovhaness. I was surprised to learn that this composer was still alive, although the description I read did refer to an affinity with music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. So the next thing I did was to search for this recording in one store after another, but no one had it in stock. I was told that the record I sought had been on the MGM label, but that that label’s entire classical series — which included lots of music by Hovhaness — had just been removed from circulation the previous month! I was devastated, unable to believe that all these recordings had suddenly disappeared completely — and just before I had discovered them! I could not accept this and pursued my quest in too many different ways to recount here. But in the process I learned of a library that owned many of the MGMs and allowed patrons to sit and listen to them on the premises. So week after week I would take the railroad into New York City and spend the day listening to the library’s collection of Hovhaness MGMs over and over. I also discovered a small shop that sold out-of-print LPs and had many of the MGMs, but at the outrageous price of $13.98 each. (This was a time when most classical LPs sold for $4.98, and I received an allowance of $1.00 per week, so this dealer’s price seemed outrageous.) But I gradually saved my money and eventually bought a number of them. (Of course, I was somewhat less than thrilled when, several years later, these LPs were re-issued semi-privately at a price of $1.49 apiece, although at least I was able to buy fresh copies.) Later I learned that this MGM series had been the brain-child of Edward Cole, who must have been quite a fellow. I realized that there were many other first-rate but little-known composers that he had featured on his short-lived series—composers like Vagn Holmboe and Karl-Birgher Blomdahl. There were also more familiar names, who were, however, as yet unknown to me, such as Ernest Bloch and Howard Hanson. And the program notes, which Cole wrote himself, were notable for both their erudition and their enthusiastic advocacy. What ever became of Edward Cole and the original master-tapes?

About a year after my discovery of Hovhaness, when I was 14, I was browsing through an issue of the Saturday Review at the home of my piano teacher, when I saw a full-page ad for a series of recordings featuring new works commissioned by and performed by the Louisville Orchestra. If one signed up to receive their bimonthly new releases, one was offered as introductory premium a choice of six prior releases, all for the price of one. Since one of the prior releases included a work by Hovhaness, and others included composers whose names had become somewhat familiar to me, I decided that this was a deal worth pursuing. For my six introductory records, I chose the Hovhaness work, of course, and those releases with composers’ names I had encountered before. I found myself with lots of new music, much of which I cannot recall at the moment. But in addition to the Hovhaness Concerto No. 7 for Orchestra, the works that made the deepest impression were Creston’s Invocation and Dance, Mennin’s Symphony No. 6, Persichetti’s Symphony No. 5, William Schuman’s Judith, and Robert Muczynski’s Piano Concerto. These pieces prompted an immediate visceral reaction in me, and I now felt compelled to delve into this music, and learn all I could about it. (I also decided that I must become acquainted with all these composers personally, in order to understand their music better, but that’s a subject for another essay.) And so the direction and focus of my musical identity was formed.

The fifth batch of discographic discoveries that changed my life took place several years later, when I was about 17. Browsing around the FM dial, I encountered some music that seemed to grab me by the throat. At the end, the composer’s name was announced. It was a name I had never heard before, nor could I find it in any of my reference books. The piece on the radio was followed by another by the same composer, then another. Each work gave me the same feeling: as if this music (at the risk of sounding psychotic) had been composed just for me, that it was the music of my soul. The composer’s name was Nicolas Flagello, and what I was hearing were the first three releases from a brand-new record company called Serenus. I went out and bought all three the following day, and Flagello’s name joined the others about whose music I had come to feel passionately. Over the course of the following decades, I am sorry to say, I did outgrow my enthusiasm for Hovhaness’s music. But my feelings about many of the other composers mentioned here have only deepened.