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Axel Crochet: Musicologist-at-LargeQuarter Note Tales #3
By Arthur Wenk
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Arthur Wenk
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBoston boasts the greatest number of colleges and universities per capita of any city in the United States. It also has the country's oldest subway system. Both facts pertain to the story I am about to relate.
In the late 1950's the M.T.A. or Metropolitan Transit Authority (an institution immortalized in the song of that title by the Kingston Trio) decided to expand the so-called Green Line out toward the suburbs. Two main alternatives came under consideration: southwest to Waban or northwest to Riverside. Proponents of the Riverside option pointed out that several dozen trains ran daily between Boston and Waban whereas Riverside remained unconnected by public transit to the city described by Oliver Wendell Holmes as the hub of the universe. This argument carried the day and the Green Line pushed its way northwest.
Then the Boston and Albany Railroad, citing declining revenues as America's postwar love affair with the automobile made itself felt in Massachusetts, cut off rail service between Boston and Waban, leaving only one commuter run in the morning and afternoon. Waban became like an inland port, left high and dry when the river changes its course.
These decisions had an emphatic impact on The Cloister, an exclusive women's college located in Waban. The great social issues of the 60's and 70's—the student movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-war effort, women's liberation—brought together students from institutions both august and humble: Harvard, M.I.T., Boston University, Boston College, Tufts, Emerson, Huntington. But throughout these tumultuous times the young women of The Cloister remained, well, cloistered.
One could, in fact, travel from Boston to Waban, as I did twice a week during the 1973-1974 academic year. I would walk from my apartment near the Boston Public Garden to Copley Station, where I took the Green Line to Woodland and then waited for a municipal bus that would drop me a half mile from the campus of The Cloister. Occasionally I would see one or two students during my journey, but for the most part the population of The Cloister remained quietly sequestered, far from the fray.
I worked at The Cloister as an untitled replacement for a member of the music department on maternity leave, teaching a mandatory, non-credit course for music majors. Essentially my job was to detect any shortcomings in their overall musicianship and to correct these deficiencies in individual tutorials through whatever means I saw fit.
For the most part these young women came well prepared with keyboard and sight-reading skills. In order to challenge a fine pianist named Abby Fox, for example, I had her read Brahms symphonies with me four-hands at the keyboard. Another student, Penny Lapworth, proved remarkably adept at sight singing. When I asked where she'd developed this skill she described the daily regimen at the British choir school she'd attended for a year.
All the young women shared a virtual ignorance of music of the twentieth century, a deficiency I eventually attributed to the influence of Newton Falgarwood, the department chairman, who detested twentieth-century music yet insisted on teaching the course in that area as a mark of his broadmindedness. (Privately he held the opinion that western culture, especially music, had reached both its pinnacle and the beginning of its decline in the Renaissance.)
In exasperation I would complain to my students, "The twentieth century is nearly over, and you've missed it!" I assigned the music majors in my charge to play examples from Bartok's Mikrokosmos (they had never heard of it), to sight-read Stravinsky's modest dodecaphonic song, "The Owl and the Pussycat," (ditto) and then, having observed how it was put together, to compose a similar work of their own, often with charming results.
In order to obtain this position I was examined by the former department chairman and eminence gris Hubert Lamb, who required me to carry out a number of exercises that in the eighteenth-century would have been performed as a matter of course by virtually any keyboardist but which in the twentieth century could be considered academic tasks seldom encountered outside advanced musicianship courses in a conservatory. I had to transpose a chorale, read music written in the C clefs, and realize a figured bass at sight, translating the numbers written above the bass line into proper chords.
Early in the autumn of 1973 came the installation of Marjorie Clearwater as the tenth president of The Cloister. Ms. Clearwater, a robust, energetic woman who promised in her inaugural address to shake The Cloister out of its dreamy torpor (she didn't put it quite like that), had been particularly impressed by Jewitt Tower, the most prominent architectural feature of the campus. Upon learning that the tower housed a complete carillon, President Clearwater requested that the bells ring out following her investiture. The request made its way to the music department where it caused considerable consternation since no one there knew how to play the bells which, in any event, had not sounded in recent memory. Pleased to oblige, I mentioned my college bell-ringing experience and offered to take on the task.
In order to play the bells one had to climb six flights of stone stairs arranged in a kind of square spiral around a vertical shaft, in the fashion of the mission tower in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." (Just before the film's release, Hitchcock warned the sisters of the mission abbey where the climax of the film had been shot to expect a fair number of tourists looking for a non-existent tower. For while the mission itself was genuine, the vertiginous tower was strictly a studio fabrication.)
The top of the Jewitt Tower stairs opened onto a small chamber housing a practice keyboard, identical to that of the actual carillon but connected to tuned metal bars, somewhat like a xylophone, so that one could perfect a piece of music in private before inflicting it upon the entire campus community. A locked door, to which I had been given a key, gave access to a smaller spiral staircase leading to the actual carillon keyboard, situated at the bottom of the belfry itself. Pianists sit before their instruments, sousaphone players wrap themselves in their instruments, but only the carillonneur sits directly beneath an instrument weighing several hundred tons.
On the afternoon of the installation, immediately following the investiture, I mounted the six flights of stairs, unlocked the door to the belfry, climbed the spiral staircase, took a seat at the bench, about the same size and shape as an organ bench, and performed a program of more or less appropriate music, occasionally slipping in improvised variations on one of my old college songs.
In contrast to the hefty cylindrical rods—roughly the shape of rowboat oars—with which I had had to contend at Amherst College, the Cloister carillon offered a regular keyboard on which, after getting used to the somewhat stubby keys, one could play as if at a piano or organ. And in contrast to the nine bells whose narrow compass had severely limited my repertoire in college, the Cloister carillon had thirty-two bells (ranging in weight from 80 to 1,600 pounds) allowing one to perform a relatively wide range of pieces.
I guess I shouldn't have expected the carillon, that most public of musical instruments, to remain a secret. At our next tutorial Abby Fox told me she wanted to play the bells. Why not? Certainly her technical competence at the keyboard was beyond question. So at the end of the afternoon, following my last tutorial, we walked to Jewitt Tower and began the long ascent. A lithe, athletic young woman, Abby moved with the ease of a New England aristocrat, her blonde hair cropped short, her mind darting easily from one subject to another, completely at ease in the refined world of The Cloister.
Along the way I learned a bit about Abby's background. An only child, Abigail Adams Fox had been named by her mother, an ardent feminist who had died in an automobile accident when Abby was only five. Since that time she had been raised by her father, a retired military officer.
"I think he really wanted a son," Abby told me, recalling the endless series of camping trips, mountain hikes and other Outward Bound- like adventures of her youth. "Eventually he came to see that being a tomboy just wasn't my thing."
"But he appreciated your musical talent," I said.
"Yes, I'm grateful for that. I guess you could say that my parents endorsed freedom in the sense that a child of theirs could excel in the field of her choice."
"I didn't see your father at Parents Day," I said as we passed the halfway mark in our climb. Abby didn't reply but when she next turned toward me I saw tears in her eyes.
"Daddy's dying," she said simply. "Cancer."
"I'm sorry," I said, aware of the inadequacy of these words in the situation. From her earlier remarks I understood that Abby adored her father, and the prospect of life without her only parent must have looked bleak indeed.
Abby brightened as we mounted the final spiral staircase to the carillon console. I had brought along an album of Bach organ preludes and fugues for us to attempt four-hands at the keyboard, with Abby playing the soprano and alto lines and me taking the tenor and pedal parts. Actually these "Eight Little Preludes and Fugues" weren't by Bach at all (Echtheit sehr angezweifelt [authenticity highly doubtful], according to the editorial notes), but they provided useful exercises without any unexpected technical challenges.
Together we produced quite a sound—I could not have performed these works at the carillon unassisted—and when we finished Abby's eyes shone with enthusiasm, a spirit she must have communicated to her fellow music majors for at the end of my next teaching day a delegation of a dozen students declared their desire to "learn the bells," as one student put it. In the days that followed I led several groups of young women to the top of Jewitt Tower and eventually surrendered my key to Abby, the self-appointed director of the Guild of Carillonneurs, who began performing every evening according to a schedule that Abby organized and maintained.
On our descent from that initial collaboration I had told Abby about some of my bell-ringing adventures at Amherst. The great prank in those days was to break into the bell tower at night and play the "Mickey Mouse Club Song" on the bells. The campus cops would dutifully roll up in a squad car and wait for the miscreant to emerge, after which they would administer some minor penalty. One Sunday afternoon, the time I regularly performed, some freshmen living in the dorm beside the bell tower—whose afternoon studies I regularly interrupted—persuaded me to end my recital with the "Mickey Mouse Club Song." In an effort to mend fences I acceded to the request, never suspecting that they had tape recorded the piece. Come midnight, the sound of the familiar Disney melody chimed out over the campus. The patrol car eventually rolled up and the campus cops waited, but to no avail. The exterior of the tower enhanced the verisimilitude of sounds broadcast from loudspeakers of a third-floor dorm room against the stone surface. In these acoustical circumstances there was really no way to distinguish the original from the copy.
Evidently determined that no such shenanigans would occur on her watch, Abby refused to make copies of the carillon key, preferring to make the nightly ascent herself to insure that the door to the tower console remained locked when not in use. One could still mount the stairs to the practice keyboard, but nobody could activate the actual bells without Abby's consent.
One Tuesday in mid-October, just before mid-term exams, Penny Lapworth arrived red-eyed for her tutorial. Penny had black hair pulled back in a ponytail, exposing a high forehead. She wore rimless glasses and had a slightly upturned nose that she seemed to push unabashedly into everyone else's affairs, a distinction she probably would reject: everybody else's affairs were simply hers. But today she seemed so uncharacteristically withdrawn that I had to ask what the matter was.
"It's Abby," she said. "She killed herself." With these words Penny lost control and burst into tears. I let her blurt out the story as best she could and, at her request, excused her from our session together. Apparently Abby had committed suicide by jumping from the top of the stairs into the central shaft of Jewitt Tower. Abby's father had finally succumbed to cancer a week earlier, and Abby's distraught state at our tutorial on the day of his death—an appointment that she had refused to cancel—gave me no reason to doubt the assessment. Members of the Guild of Carillonneurs invited me to join them as we performed a series of Bach chorale preludes on the bells, the eloquence of Bach giving expression to our grief in a way that mere words could not.
Chapter TwoOn the Tuesday after mid-term exams in October I discovered a flyer posted on the front entrance of the music building: "First Annual Autumn Appreciation Day. All classes are cancelled and the library is locked. Go out and enjoy the splendor of New England in the fall."
"What's this all about?" I asked a passing student.
"President Clearwater has decided to start a new tradition," she said. "Isn't it great? It means I don't have to take my counterpoint test."
"So there was no advance warning?" I asked.
"No. That's the whole idea. Nobody is supposed to know when it's going to happen."
"But presumably it has to be while the foliage is near its height. Otherwise you couldn't very well appreciate the autumn."
Another student joined the conversation. "I like the idea of a day off, but it's a good thing it didn't come during mid-terms. It would have messed up the whole schedule."
I couldn't help thinking of The Unexpected Hanging paradox. In a particular kingdom a man has been condemned to hang by the end of the week but the king assures him that the hanging will come as a surprise. The man, a competent logician, as people always seem to be in this kind of story, reasons that he cannot be killed. For if Saturday night arrived and he was still alive, he would necessarily have to be hanged on Sunday in order for the king's command to be fulfilled. But the king had also promised that the event would be a surprise, and if the prisoner knew he would have to hang on Sunday, the element of surprise would have been effectively removed. By the same reasoning, he reckons that he cannot be hanged on Saturday, because if Friday night rolled around and he was still alive, the element of surprise would again have been removed. Continuing to reason backwards, the man decides he cannot be killed at all, and consequently is completely surprised when the hangman appears for him on Wednesday. I didn't know whether President Clearwater was acquainted with the extensive body of literature dealing with this paradox, but I imagined that if she really intended this to be an annual affair, someone would eventually make the connection.
"Doesn't The Cloister already have an awful lot of traditions?" I asked the first student.
"Well the year begins with Flower Sunday, where each big sister gives her first-year little sister a bouquet of flowers."
"And don't forget Hoop-Rolling on May Day," said the second student.
"They really roll hoops?" I asked.
"Oh, yes," she assured me. "And the winner gets tossed into the pond."
"And she's supposed to be the first one in her class to get married," said the first girl.
As I entered the music building I recalled other traditions I'd heard about at women's colleges. Vassar had a 150-foot long daisy chain carried to commencement by the comeliest members of the sophomore class. Barnard had Midnight Breakfast on the night before final exams, where the faculty would prepare a repast for the students in the gymnasium. On May Day at Bryn Mawr members of the senior class would go to wake the president of the college. Smith College had Illumination Night, where the campus was lit only by colored paper lanterns. Mount Holyoke, where President Clearwater had served before coming to The Cloister, had held Mountain Day for more than a century. In the absence of local mountains, Autumn Appreciation Day would have to do as a substitute. But everybody at Mount Holyoke knew about Mountain Day. I had a feeling that the conservative music department faculty might be less enthusiastic about the unexpected interruption than the young women I had encountered.
Excerpted from Axel Crochet: Musicologist-at-Large by Arthur Wenk Copyright © 2011 by Arthur Wenk. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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