My earliest memories of music are of my grandmother singing “Once in Royal David City,” as she drove me the half-hour from our house to her apartment, and of listening to my mother’s classical record colllection.
The minute I took ballet, my friends and I played her 33-rpm recording of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and “Nutcracker Suite,” and performed in our dining room, where the table was kept to the side. We marched to clear red plastic 45-rpm recordings of John Philip Sousa and sang endlessly Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I’m Called Little Buttercup” from records with pictures printed on them.
I learned the Morse code for “V” from Beethoven’s Fifth and fell asleep listening to Jane Froman’s “I Believe” and Bing Crosby’s “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Our mother’s classical and Broadway recordings were the backdrop of our family life and of her grandchildren’s days with her. When she died eight years ago, my college nephew said the only thing he wanted saved was her tape collection, three small suitcases full, from Vladimir Horowitz and Pavarotti to Burl Ives, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “My Fair Lady” and every Andrew Lloyd Webber production she had seen in New York or Washington.
Every chance she had, she went to hear live music, from all of the concerts at St. David’s Church in Roland Park to weekday concerts on the music pier at the beach and those wherever else we travelled. She took us to most of them. My grandmother took her on season tickets to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra when they performed regularly in Baltimore. I sometimes went reluctantly as a teenager, when Motown was my music of choice.
Now all sorts of music fill my life. On long winter nights, I fall asleep best when listening to FM stations, WETA or WBJC, or most recently to the music I’ve downloaded. One classical application for the iPad has accompanying You Tube performances. I have to stay away from those or I am awake all night.
A favorite aria is Handel’s “Umbra mai fu,” about the beauty of a plane tree. Recently, listening to a Kathleen Battle performance led to ones by many others, Renée Fleming, Placido Domingo, a favorite of my mother, and by someone I’d never known before, Jackie Evancho.
Evancho’s, recorded for NPR’s Tiny Desk series, when she was just 11, is affecting in its quality, simplicity and emotion. Accompanied only by an electronic piano, without costume, makeup or fanfare, her passionate recording reminds me of the conviction with which my young niece said years ago, “Get me some violin lessons.”
About to graduate from college, she stills plays her violin for herself and the family. Her playing of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” always carries us back to her days learning to play the violin and to her grandmother, whose love of music we share.