Yesterday I took out a favorite record of my youth: French Dances of the Renaissance, an old Nonesuch record by the Ancient Instrument Ensemble of Paris. Now, to my friends, colleagues, and cognate scholars in the Performance Practices sub-disciplines who cringe whenever they hear Old Early Music of whatever kind, let me just say: pace. (Recte: STFU!) Decades ago, I would barricade myself in my room and listen to recordings like this, and recordings by the New York Pro Musica, and various other things, and these were sounds unlike anything else in my environment. Maybe they aren’t even my favorite recordings of this repertoire now, but it’s like the pop music of one’s youth; even if no longer completely relevant, they take you back youthful feeling of doors opening wide, musical terra incognita. Medieval and Renaissance music? In my early college ears, it was just mind-blowing, regardless of the quality of recordings and performances. So, now, I take out my old vinyl, with Renaissance dances played on modern harpsichords and some vibrato in the vocal pieces and so on. Throw on that certain recording, and all the youthful electricity is back coursing through the veins, and the Southern California Santa Ana winds whip across my face, and the delicate beach zephyrs of Santa Barbara waft in dorm window and caress the skin. Really.
Seems unjust that this privilege should only be accorded to a few, I know, but those of you who opted instead to become filthily dishonest politicians from Alaska have other rewards. In hell, too, I hope.
Where was I?
So, out of the record jacket falls an advertisement. “All Nonesuch releases are $2.50 each, both mono and stereo.” Oh. Interesting. Of course, in my local record store I guess they weren’t selling that well; I remember an entire couple of bins of Nonesuches going for 97¢. Yes, 97¢!! I would love to tell you that I dumped all the money I had on Morton Feldman’s Silver Apples of the Moon and French Baroque Music and Lukas Foss and Schumann and Mendelssohn partsongs and everything else I’d never heard but…no. Like any other idiot, I only bought, even at prices that obscenely low, what I thought I’d enjoy. To wit: Baroque Trumpet stuff (ensemble, trumpet and organ, etc.—I no longer listen to these much because I don’t like piccolo trumpet, and now that my son plays real Baroque trumpet and I know what a bigger instrument should sound like), Renaissance Xmas music (well, how can you resist it?), Scott Joplin etc. It wasn’t until later that we got Paul Jacobs recordings of Bolcom, Busoni, Stravinsky…
Actually, French Dances of the Renaissance was one of the recordings from my parents’ library that I presented to them with the announcement that I was filching it. With their blessings, they said. Odd that Jonathan likes this stuff, but that’s OK. And Peter Frankl playing the Chopin Ballades too? Sure! Take it!
A digression: Nonesuch will ever be, in my mind, in a kind of Righteous Corporation category. There was a triumvirate: Nonesuch, Penguin Books, and Dover. Impossibly obscure stuff reprinted and made available to you—you! The impoverished student with bizarre interests! You have friends and benefactors!—for a song. Penguin: Bede, Celtic Miscellany, Chaucer (that one wasn’t a very good translation, actually), Dante, Virgil, Pliny the Younger, Adam Smith…for a song, folks. The stuff you only see cited elsewhere is yours! Dover: music availability, old books, Debussy’s M. Croche, Jamews Huneker on Chopin… Surely they’re taking a loss on this stuff! I worked fast food jobs for a while, and would bring Penguin classics to get me through. Remember Macchiavelli’s account, from his exile from Florence, about dressing in his best clothes every evening and dwelling among the Ancients and conversing with them? That was me at 19, minus the good clothes—Virgil and Pliny on my break, and the miserable Burger King on Holt Avenue in Pomona would fade into invisibility around me. I mean, come on! Pliny was talking about aqueducts!
When I was in London in the mid-1970s, there was a Penguin Bookshop. All Penguin books! No lie. It was like walking into heaven. All in one place. Sweeter than any candy store.
For what it’s worth, Penguin is still around—not so obscenely low-priced, but sic transit gloria mundi—as is Dover. I look forward to receiving my Dover catalogues. Now, Borders and, I think, Barnes and Noble also have cheap editions of Great Classics. I don’t know how good the editions are, but—damn it—blessings on their heads. I won’t start hectoring about how Youth Today ought to read this stuff, because I don’t think Youth ever did, but I applaud those companies that at least make it available.
To return to old recordings: I find I listen to favorite classical recordings like I do rock recordings: with loving familiarity, humming along, pausing for the best bits. Maybe it’s a lazier kind of listening, because I don’t necessarily have to focus every last moment and be challenged and so on. But it is a wonderful feeling to listen to my old recording of, say, Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, and remember lying wide-eyed in my room, late at night. My God, do you suppose there’s more music like this? Then, after that, I could put on the Renaissance records (Du Fay, Obrecht) I would drive into Tower Records in Los Angeles to get…
I have more money now, and much less time. I try to hear new things, but revisiting the old is important too—it’s like a tune-up. It is true that listening to new things is more challenging and that repetition is most likely a sign of a less mature listening practice, but there are times when only the familiar will get you through.