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Music to die for: Composing a soundtrack for my exodus



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October 01, 2013 | 03:22 PM
Some months ago my musician daughter asked me what music I want played during my last rites. Complex factors go into questions like that, to say nothing about answering them. My children, like their mother, tend to anticipate life’s obstacles and the bends in the road.

Another factor of course is my age. After all, I am in my 87th year. The tendency of my children to be realistic about life’s cycle is reasonable enough. As a result I am giving some thought to this matter, though it is not easy.

This sort of request has some surreptitious elements. Are we really able to know what others think about us? May I speculate about how those I have known think about me? Music personal to me may not have any relating power to those who know me. Does it matter? After all, these would be my swan songs, and shouldn’t I have such choices in any case?

Yet funerals are not for the deceased; they are for the living.

Though I am not a musician, music has played an important role in my life. The idea of choosing favorites is hard enough, but to consider selecting pieces to accompany me out of this life has, to say the least, tough tones (this is no time to be punning).

It is an advantage to approach music from the outside, that is, as a nonmusician. Something fascinating about perspective from the outside. I figure that most music is for audiences, and I am an audience. Why can’t I take part in its various components? So if I want to choose music played or performed at my life’s egress, that seems appropriate enough. Moreso the more I think about it.

The music that drifted into my consciousness first was the second movement of Franz Josef Haydn’s String Quartet No. 3 from his Opus 76. What intrigues me about this music is how its simplicity endures. Two violins, viola and cello play the same melody over and over.

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Usually variations follow, but here there are only embellishments. The different instruments state the melody. Yet the effect is striking. It seems much like the proposition that one’s profession can be interesting even inspiring if one learns how to make repetition interesting even inspiring. That was pretty much what teaching was all about. Haydn achieved it in spades. His famous melody is today the Austrian national anthem.

Another attractive piece of music has been bestowed with all the ironies of which World War II was capable. The igniting of this melody’s impact on me goes back to a PBS program whose theme is long forgotten, but which produced a scene forever imprinted in my experience.

In the Russian soldiers’ memorial in Moscow, there is a solemnity producing monumental overtones. Twenty million Russians died in the four years of Hitler Germany’s invasion and retreat. Yet the music playing constantly in this solemn place is Robert Schumann’s “Traumerei.” This German composer lived his life in the same Rhine Valley not far from where my mother’s paternal family originated. How do we explain such things, except to say World War II produced ironies.

One of the crowning joys of life is my love for that early 20th century outburst of song, now referred to as the American songbook. It was a time when real melodies and real lyrics made the pop charts.

George Gershwin was the leader of this clan of composers. In 1927, the year I was born, he wrote “The Man I Love,” which has survived 86-plus years and is still performed by jazz groups, big bands and vocalists.

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I will never forget carrying that heavy Sound Mirror tape recorder up UW’s Bascom Hill in 1950 so I could present a script timed to the Benny Goodman Quartet’s recording of “The Man I Love.” Needless to say, that radio speech class project was a harbinger of things to come.

It’s not to suggest this is a song to be heard at my last rites. Yet the lyrical bounty of the songbook has so affected my life that choosing favorites seems futile.

Some of them I associate with personal experiences. “Because of You” came along during the time of marriage and separation by military draft. Tony Bennett will always remain deeply in my memory.

Following are other tunes I associate with life experiences. All I can do is list them, hoping some idea of who I am and what I was, may filter through. Maybe to keep this a fair game I should list them alphabetically. No, that would be needlessly mechanical.

“Ain’t Misbehavin’“

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I could write at full emotional throttle with this song. Fats Waller! OMG!

“On the Sunny Side of the Street”

I do not know how to put in words how Tommy Dorsey’s big band and the vocal group the Pied Pipers made this tune express happy, happy happiness.

“Laura”

I still have trouble with this song. I have more than 50 recordings by different artists. Maybe that is the problem. This is one beautiful piece of master work.

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“Happy Days Are Here Again”

As a very young boy I remember this tune which was the upbeat theme of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential campaigns (1932, 1936). Then it turned up in a Badger High graduation project (1982), played by George Shearing in a slow, deliberate manner, made to order for vivid high school memories.

“In a Mist”

Not just because it was recorded about the time of my birth, but because Bix Beiderbecke’s horn, though absent, was present in spirit in this piano solo by the great Davenport, Iowa, jazz man.

“Pennies From Heaven”

This marvelous tune will always come to me through the voice and vibes of Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden in their famous Town Hall concert recording. What extraordinary happy yet subdued stuff.

“Night and Day”

The ultimate in sophistication, mystery and beauty in a song. I suppose Sinatra did it best. Percy Faith’s studio band arrangement is close. Indiana’s Cole Porter knew what he was doing when he wrote this.

“Autumn Leaves”

I once put color slides to the Mantovani recording of this enduring song. Autumn has not been the same since.

“Pick Yourself Up”

How a blind man can play piano is amazing enough, but here in the George Shearing Quintet recording, somehow the words “So take a deep breath/Pick yourself up/Dust yourself off/Start all over again,” have personal character inferences.

“Memories of You”

I suppose if I had to choose one favorite, this might be it.

“How High The Moon”

This plays constantly at the Lake Geneva Museum, 124 slides sequenced to the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Moon.” The presentation is called “Lake Geneva Portrait.”

“My Favorite Things”

The first writing assignment for my English classes, first day of the first week, was a composition over which the title “The Things I Love” had to be placed. I learned much, fast, from the results of this assignment. This song has the same sort of revealing effect when rendered by various artists.

This song and my Beverly are one. I never told her so, but is it not good that I carried around this feeling toward a woman for more than 60 years?

“The Song Is You”

I mean the song is Sinatra. If it weren’t for “The Voice” this song would be much less. Memories of magic! Beverly, the song is you!

“What a Wonderful World”

Vietnam, Louis Armstrong and my son David (aka “Smilin’ Dave”) are responsible for this song being on this list. Dave is an entertainer and I think he almost killed his voice learning to do his interpretation of Louis doing this song. With pride and tears.



Well, that is enough. This could continue indefinitely, but you get the idea.

As a final stroke for the American songbook, I’d like to declare that the last four lines of “Sunny Side of the Street” do a spirited job of describing what my life has been:

If I never had a cent

I’ll be rich as Rockefeller

Gold dust at my feet

On the sunny side of the street.

I have to remind myself what this writing is all about. We need an elegy. Edvard Grieg, the chief figure of Norwegian musical art, wrote something called “The Last Spring.” It seems to have all that is necessary to remind me of the land from which my father’s parents emigrated in the 19th century. The country, Norwegian spirit and a deep respect for life. I inherited some of that and when the “last spring” descends, I am sure I will know I have lived and understood the connection.

I thank my musician daughter for posing the question. I’m sure courage was an ingredient.

Johnson is a retired Badger High School English teacher.

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