Compositions behind classical minds

With all the holiday music around us, could “Jingle Bells” and “The Nutcracker” form a shared experience for our first memory of classical music?

Surprisingly, just one respondent to a personal survey of music-loving friends around the world answered in the affirmative.

Here are some answers to the question “What is your earliest memory of classical music making a personal impact on you?”

World-renowned mezzo Frederica von Stade: “My first musical experience was hearing my mom play some Gershwin around the house. I started singing then. I think I was 5 as she used to tell stories about my dancing around the living room.”

Choral director Vance George (providing a tentative exception): “My sister singing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ at 3; then ‘O Holy Night’ and Italian voice teacher’s ‘Caro Mio Ben,’ both at 7.”

Piano teacher : “We had a tradition in our family in Baku, having a music evening on every weekend. We’d play instruments, sing, read music. Then my father introduced me to opera, I was 8 or 9 years old, and that was ‘Eugene Onegin.’ It’s been my favorite opera ever since.”

Scientist Lászlo Somogyi, father of opera executive Peter Somogyi: “In January, 1945, I was hiding in a Budapest shelter with several other kids, when we heard the guns of the approaching Soviet army. One of the older boys started to sing Osmin’s aria from ‘Abduction from the Seraglio,’ ‘Wie will ich triumphieren,’ in Hungarian, which is rather explicit about the standing gallows — so we all understood it that he meant hanging the Nazi leaders. Soon all the kids were singing this aria in chorus. Strange setting for starting a lifelong love of Mozart.”

Google technical writer, musicologist Lisa Hirsch: “I was riveted by Leporello’s Catalog Aria [from Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’] at about age 5 or 6, recorded by Ezio Pinza in the late 1940s, under Bruno Walter. After that, in my mid-teens, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Stravinsky’s ‘Petrouchka.’”

Mike Richter, former NASA engineer, maintainer of the music site: “Family gathered around mother at the Baldwin spinet making singing-type noises to the tunes of George M. Cohan and other favorites of my grandparents. First such memory dates to about 1946 — age 7. H-A-double-R I G A N spells ‘Harrigan’ — on a good day (or is it a bad one?), I remember the rest of it.”

Music critic Michael Zwiebach: “My dad owned an LP copy of the 1937 Toscanini-New York Philharmonic recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. I must have played it a million times, air-conducting it with a pencil in my room. Later, I bought the full score, and that’s how I learned to read and follow scores.”

Computer programmer Edward De Jong: “Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ with Bo Derek unveiling herself. Also ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ particularly the part where the duck is eaten by the wolf.”

Music critic and virtuoso whistler Jason Victor Serinus: “The Sextet from ‘Lucia di Lammermoor.’ When I was 11, my father brought home a 3-LP Caruso reissue album and put it on, I recognized it immediately, exclaiming: ‘Daddy, I’ve heard that before!’ ‘Yeah, you broke it when you were 2,’ he replied. I started whistling to Caruso recordings right after that … eventually leading to my whistling career.”

Music critic Robert Commanday: “I remember while being young, sitting on my bed and listening to the ‘March Slav’ over the radio and being excited and carried along by it. I also remember sitting on that bed in 1930 or ‘31 at age 8 or 9, and reading in Popular Mechanics (I devoured it) about the German army using trucks with wooden covers disguised as tanks in maneuvers (the Versailles Treaty forbade use of real tanks) and shivering with fear, alarmed at the notion.”

Former San Francisco bookstore owner, current European film festival official Charlie Cockey: “It was, believe it or not, ‘Ionisation’ by Edgard Varese! When I listened to this at first, my reactions were ‘This has been recorded, therefore it is music. This is music? Then what is music?’ As I listened more, and I did listen a lot, I grew to look forward to it. And the first time I heard it live, I was very confused — there was an instrument missing, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. When I finally figured it out, I had to chuckle — the missing instrument? The shwssh-shwssh-shwssh of the needle tracking in the rapidly spinning 78 rpm groove.”

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