Monday, September 07, 2015

`As When She Played Them First'

Even among those of us who are stubbornly unmusical, music is a reliable trigger of memory and emotion. The classical station played an old warhorse I’ve heard ten thousand times, Für Elise, and the memory of my cousin playing the piece more than half a century ago in her basement returned. Her posture was excellent. She sat at the upright with her metronome on top of the piano and played. The walls were paneled in knotty pine. My uncle’s National Geographics were stacked in the corner. Julie was two or three years my senior and the first person to beat me at chess. She would abruptly stop playing, stand and open the hinged top of her bench, and impatiently riffle through the sheets of music for the one she wanted. That’s what impressed me—translating black marks on paper into beautiful, orderly sounds. It still seems like magic.  The widow in “Love Songs in Age” (The Whitsun Wedding, 1964), while “looking for something else,” discovers her old sheet music, and looks at it,

“Relearning how each frank submissive chord
Had ushered in
Word after sprawling hyphenated word,
And the unfailing sense of being young
Spread out like a spring-woken tree, wherein
That hidden freshness sung,
That certainty of time laid up in store
As when she played them first.”

Larkin has a gift for coupling unexpected adjectives. No one else could have written “frank submissive chord.” The emotions released by the woman finding her old music are sweet and sad, as it would be for anyone who has lived long enough. I haven’t seen my cousin in more than forty years, and the memory of my ancient, secret crush is unexpectedly vivid and innocent. Someone else, not I, admired her so, and the thought of  sheet music releases another memory. In 1975, when I worked for Kay’s Books in Cleveland, Tiny Tim visited the shop. His career, brief and intense as many things were in the sixties, had already peaked, and he was in town to perform at a small club on the West Side. He was looking not for books but sheet music, which was heaped in the cramped space beneath the steps leading to the basement. He spent several hours digging through the pile and left with a shopping bag filled with music. We had him autograph the wall in our shipping department, and I won’t pretend to quote him verbatim but in effect he said the old songs were always the best.

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