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FIDDLING VERSUS BAKING — SELF-INFLICTED ILLNESS AND ITS PENALTY — SCHOOL DAYS — THE AGONIES OF SOLFEGGIO — THE CONSERVATORY — A CONCERT TRAGEDY
WHETHER pastry and music can be prevailed upon to go hand in hand is a question. Of course there is one classic instance — M. Rageuneau in Cyrano de Bergerac, whose pastry-cooks delighted in presenting him with a lyre of pie crust! The fact remains, however, that I once came very near being a baker instead of a bandmaster.
A violinist begins a tone with a turn of the wrist which may best be described as the compelling impulse. A compelling impulse turned me baker's apprentice! My father had enrolled me in the conservatory of music of Professor John Esputa, Washington, D. C. and, at the end of my last year there, our pleasant relationship of master and pupil was marred by a personal combat.
The professor had been afflicted with boils, and was reclining in a hammock swung near the stove in the recitation room, when I came for my violin lesson. I observed that he was in a very bad humor but began my exercises, unheeding. Nothing I did met with his approval. Finally he told me to "draw a long bow."
"I am drawing the bow as long as I can," I said.
That seemed to incense him greatly and he shouted, "Don't you dare contradict me!"
"But I am drawing the bow as long as I can," I repeated. "My arm is up against the wall now."
He was holding in one hand a valuable violin bow, recently presented to him. Just what he intended to do, I do not know, but in his anger he jerked the bow back and struck the stove, breaking the bow in half. His rage knew no bounds!
"Get out of here," he yelled, "before I kill you!"
Taking my fiddle by the neck, I said clearly, "You attempt to kill me and I'll smash this fiddle over your head."
"Get out," he raged.
"I'll get out," I replied, "but don't you dare hit me, because if you do you'll get the worst of it."
I put my instrument in its green bag and walked home.
My father, sensing something wrong, said, "What's the trouble?"
"Oh, I have just had a fight with Esputa," I answered and, still shaking with wrath, explained the whole thing.
"Well," said my father, "I suppose you don't want to be a musician. Is there anything else you would prefer?"
With a heart full of bitterness I said, "Yes; I want to be a baker."
"Yes; a baker."
"Well," he mused, "I'll see what I can do to get you a position in a bakery. I'll go and attend to it right away," and out he went.
In about half an hour he came back and said, "I saw Charlie (the baker just two blocks away) and he says he will be glad to take you in and teach you the gentle art of baking bread and pies; but," he added, "I have noticed that bakers as a rule are not very highly educated, and I believe if you would educate yourself beyond the average baker, it would tend to your financial improvement in this world at least; so I insist, as gently as a father can, that you keep on going to public school and pay no attention to your music. Give that up, and when you are through school the baker can start you."
Father then went on to say, "The baker has consented that you come to-night. You should be there by half-past eight."
That night I went to the bakery, and I am sure that no apprentice ever received such kindness as was shown me by Charlie and his wife and his journeyman bakers. I was there all night, and in the morning helped load the wagon and went out with the driver delivering bread to the various customers. I was particularly impressed by the intelligence of the horse, who knew every customer's front door along the route.
After I got back to the bakery about eight in the morning, I went down home, ate my breakfast and, since my father had said he wanted me to be a highly educated baker, I went to school. I had had probably half an hour's sleep that night. The bakers, after all the bread was in the ovens and the pies were ready to be baked, threw a blanket on the troughs and took forty winks of sleep, and so did I.
When I came home from school that afternoon I suddenly lost interest in playing baseball and hung around the house. After supper I went up to the bakery for my second night.
As I look back on it, I remember thinking that the baker and his assistants and his wife were slightly severe with me, for I was kept on the jump pretty constantly the whole night. When everything was in the ovens and we had had our usual half hour's sleep, we started loading the wagons. I went around delivering bread, returning home about eight o'clock, with an appetite, to be sure, but very drowsy. At school that day I learned nothing, and when night came I dragged myself to the shop. Alas, the baker was no longer the kindly employer, but a dictator of the worst description, and I was hounded at every step. About half past twelve the baby upstairs began to cry and the baker's wife snapped at me, "Here, you, go on up and rock the cradle."
I was only half awake, as I wearily mounted the stairs, and I must have fallen asleep before I had rocked the cradle three times, although Master Baby was yelling in my ears! I was awakened by a smart cuff and "You miserable lummox!" from the busy baker-lady.
When I reached home the next morning after delivering the bread again, I was absolutely tired out. My father said, "How do you feel this morning?" with a solicitude that did not ring true to me. Before I could answer, I had fallen asleep. He woke me up, called my mother and said,
"Give the boy some breakfast and put him to bed. Let him sleep all day. Of course you want to be a baker, don't you, Philip?"
"No," I moaned; "I'd rather die than be a baker!"
"Then" said he, "I think you had better make it up with Esputa and start in with your music again."
Thus it was that my father brought Professor Esputa and myself together again and we buried the hatchet for good. Ever after that (years later I orchestrated a mass for him) we were the best of friends. To prove my sincerity, I studied hard and made great progress in orchestration, harmony and sight-reading.
The incident of the bakery is ample proof of my father's kindly wisdom and common sense. We were, withal, an odd family. Father, being a Portuguese born in Spain, remained a votary of the daily siesta, Mother supplied the Nordic energy, and I, being the first boy, was inclined to despotism over my devoted parents. I was born in Washington, D. C., on the sixth day of November, 1854, and a tyrannical youngster I must have been. When I reached my fifth year Mother refused to allow me my full quota of doughnuts, and I informed her she would be "sorry later on," planning meanwhile what I intended to be a cruel revenge.
It was raining hard, and I moved out a plank in our front yard, placed it on two trestles, and then proceeded to make it my bed. In fifteen minutes I was soaked to the skin, and in half an hour my mother discovered me shivering and chattering with cold. I was carried into the house and put to bed. In a few days pneumonia developed and I was not able to leave my home for two years. My warning to my poor mother was correct — she was sorry later on!
Had I exterminated Sousa on that rebellious day, in my heartless attempt to punish Mother for having refused me the extra cruller, a kindly musical public would never have given me the title of "March King," King Edward VII would have presented his Victorian Order to some more deserving artist, the French Government would have bestowed the palm of the Academy on some other fortunate mortal, and five Presidents of the United States would have sought another bandmaster than myself.
During the two years of my illness my sister Tinnie and my father taught me to read and write and I became quite a student. It was a very common thing, however, for me to hear from some whispering neighbor, "I don't believe they will ever raise that boy!"
When I was at last able to be out again I was sent to a little private school opposite my father's house on 7th Street, from there to a larger one half way down the block, and, soon after, I applied for admission to the primary department of the public school in our district. I was there only a few hours when I was transferred to the secondary school; it seemed that the teacher thought I knew too much for a primary pupil! So I spent the rest of the term at the secondary and then was transferred to the intermediate, where I remained the following year; I was then about nine years old, and at ten I was in grammar school.
From childhood I was passionately fond of music and wanted to be a musician. I have no recollection of any real desire ever to be anything else. Washington was, in those Civil War days, an armed camp, and there were bands galore. Strange is the boy who doesn't love a band! I loved all of them, good and bad alike. So far as I know, there was no question of heredity in my love for music; I simply loved it because it was music.
The first to initiate me into the mysteries of the art was an old Spanish gentleman, a friend of my father's, who, with his wife, came to our home nearly every evening. One night when I had been particularly active in rolling a baseball around the room, to the evident discomfort of our visitors, the old gentleman suggested that a few lessons in solfeggio would do me no harm. My father thought I was too young to begin the study of music but finally consented.
The start was not particularly encouraging. The old Spaniard was a retired orchestra player and knew instrumental music, but he had an atrocious voice. All musical intervals were sounded alike by him. When he was calm he squawked; when excited, he squeaked. At the first lesson he bade me repeat the syllables of the scale after him.
"Do," he squawked.
"Do," I squawked in imitation.
"No, no," he cried, "sing do," and he squeaked the note.
"Do," I squeaked, in a vain effort to imitate his crow-like vocalization.
He grew very angry, stormed and abused me. His mental ear was alert and true enough, but the articulated sounds of his voice conveyed nothing but a grating noise to my child mind. For an hour he roared, and I floundered hopelessly after him. At last the lesson was over, and I almost a nervous wreck. During the entire time that I remained his pupil, the sound of his toneless voice hung over me like a pall.
One night after my highly irascible teacher had come to the house for my usual music lesson, he discovered the loss of his spectacles. He searched in his pockets and in his cloak which hung on the balustrade, but all in vain. His wife, who accompanied him, was positive that he had the glasses when they left home, which was but a few minutes' walk from our house; so it was proposed that the entire household should search the street.
The younger members of the Sousa family took lighted candles and the hunt began. Soon I was far ahead of the others. The street was deserted, and as I came near the old gentleman's house I saw the glasses on the lawn. Quickly I picked them up and put them in my pocket and then continued the search more assiduously than ever. When some one would point out the futility of our efforts, I would, by proposing new hunting-grounds, reawaken interest. Anything to prolong the search, so that I might escape the horror of at least one evening's lesson. My plan succeeded. We finally gave up and my teacher, with many imprecations on his ill luck, dismissed from his mind any idea of solfeggio.
Finally we returned to the house; I sat on the stair near the place where the old gentleman's cloak was hung, and when the family and their guests were engrossed in conversation, I slipped the spectacles into the inside pocket of the cloak. Then, with a cheery "buenas noches" I stole to my room, not to sleep, but to listen. On the stroke of nine, I heard my teacher walk into the hall, and when he wrapped his cloak about him, there came a loud cry as his hand struck the pocket containing the spectacles. "Caramba! Maldito! To think we have been hunting so long for that which I have just found. And I searched my pockets," — and with many angry mutterings he stamped out of the door. I crept back into bed, well satisfied with the evening's exploit, and closed my eyes for the first peaceful slumber since my introduction to solfeggio!
It was this eccentric old fellow's son, John Esputa, who started the conservatory of music in our neighborhood, and with whom I had the quarrel over the violin bow. Esputa's suggestion to my father was that "even if I didn't learn anything, it would keep me off the streets."
I was duly enrolled in 1861 as a student in Esputa's class of some sixty pupils. I am sure that during my first three years I was the silent boy of the class. I was noisy enough out of the classroom, but Iago himself couldn't have outdone me for silence when a class met. It was the result of Professor Esputa's remark to my father that if I didn't learn anything it would keep me off the street. I resented the imputation and so said little to the offending speaker but at the same time I drank in knowledge thirstily.
At the end of my third year at the academy, the first examinations were held. The Professor went to my father next morning and with the emphatic way peculiar to himself, said:
"That damned boy of yours has won all five medals, but I can't give them all to him — it would excite comment."
My father smiled as he replied, "Why, John, it isn't necessary to give him any, I'm happy to know that he has won all of them. The possession of the medals won't make him any smarter, and if you can make better use of them, by all means do so."
"Oh, no," said Esputa, "I'm going to give him three of them and I'll give the rest to other pupils." And he did. I have those three medals to-day — little gold lyres — a constant reminder, when I see them, that I had fooled everyone by silence — always golden.
When I had reached my eleventh year, I had made sufficient progress on the violin to be selected by Esputa as one of the soloists for his annual concert at St. Elizabeth's Asylum for the Insane, just outside of Washington. I was already playing as a professional. Unfortunately, on the day of the concert, I was scheduled to pitch a game of baseball. I returned home after the game hungry, tired and dirty, to find the house in a state of confusion; the usually faithful maid-of-all-work absent, my eldest sister away on a visit, and my mother so ill I was not allowed to see her. As it was near the hour for me to dress for the concert, I had but a few moments to eat a sandwich. Then, going to my room, I got out my Sunday clothes and my clean shoes and stockings, but for the life of me I could not find a shirt, the laundress having failed to return our linen. I hurried to the Conservatory to tell my teacher of the predicament.
"That's all right," he said, "run over to my wife and tell her to give you one of my shirts."
I went over, and the good-natured Mrs. Esputa put one of the professor's shirts on me. The bosom seemed to rest on my knees, and as the collar was many sizes too large, she pinned it together and I started with the party to the Asylum.
When it came my turn to play I tuned my violin and began the first movement. As the physical effort of playing became greater, the pins that held the shirt in place suddenly gave way and it fell from my neck. I forgot my notes, looked wildly at the dropping shirt and the laughing audience, and rushed off-stage in confusion, where I sought an obscure corner of the anteroom and wished that I was dead.
At the end of the concert, the superintendent invited the professor and the pupils into the dining-room to have some ice-cream and cake. I thought only of escape, but the professor intercepted me, and said:
"You made a nice mess of it. You should be ashamed of yourself and do not deserve any refreshments. You should not have spent the afternoon playing ball, but should have prepared yourself for the more important work of the evening." His lecture and punishment, for I had no ice-cream, had a salutary effect upon me, and from that day to this I have made it a rule never to swap horses in crossing a stream. I either play or work, but I never try to do both at the same time.
Excerpted from "Marching Along"
Copyright © 1928 Hale, Cushman & Flint Incorporated.
Excerpted by permission of Hale, Cushman & Flint Incorporated.
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