On a regular basis, cultural pundits appear as if from nowhere and bewail the fact that teenagers seem to be listening a lot more to [fill in name of current chart-topping act] than to the Old Masters. This happened just as much in the Sixties as it does in the Nineties, and truth be told, I wasn't paying attention to the cultural pundits I was trying my best to rock out. And, being the pitiable geek that I was, I wasn't succeeding very well.
The year is 1969, and I'm browsing the record racks at the University Co-Op, across Guadalupe Street from the University of Texas at Austin. Suddenly, two or three aisles over: a vision, one I've seen before but have never dared to address. Today, I don't remember her name, and can barely remember her face. What I do remember is that I had the preposterous notion, based upon half-heard stories filtered through my own special brand of delusion, that the way to her heart was through classical music if I could be seen purchasing actual concerti and such, she couldn't help but fall into my arms. I quickly decided that the time to act was now, so Santana was shelved for another day, and as conspicuously as possible, I grabbed the heaviest-looking symphonic stuff on the rack, which turned out to be a recording of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony.
Merely owning the material, I sensed, might not be enough to do the job, so I set about the task of familiarization. I popped open the shrink-wrap, pulled the disk very heavy, it seemed out of its envelope, set it gently on the platter and dropped the all-purpose sapphire stylus in the lead-in groove.
I'm not quite sure what happened after that. The side break came between the second and third movements, about twenty-five minutes into the work, far longer than most pop LP sides, yet I hadn't so much as stirred the entire time. I got up, turned the disc over "flipped" would have been, well, flippant and did another twenty minutes in much the same position. And as the last notes of the finale resounded through the room, I found myself speechless.
When my voice came back, I asked nobody in particular, "Why this piece?" To this day, I haven't answered that question satisfactorily; many works, including some of Rachmaninoff's, move me more than the Symphony No. 2. But as I spin that same disc once more today, I suspect that the real breakthrough was not so much musical as emotional: my willingness to throw myself into the music as prelude to a commitment was the key to opening up my heart. It could have just as easily been Beethoven or Debussy or Mozart or Prokofiev or, indeed, anyone represented on the Co-Op's record racks that day. What mattered then, and what matters now, was that I had heard something I wanted to keep hearing, again and again.
As things turned out, Miss Right had better things to do with her life than to hang out with the likes of me and isn't that always the case? but when I look at the four hundred or so classical recordings I've accumulated in the three decades since, I feel she did quite a bit more for me than either of us could ever have imagined. On the off-chance that you might someday read this, dear lady, thank you.
You, too, Sergei.
Posted 4 April 1998
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Copyright © 1998 by Charles G. Hill
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