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A Fond Farewell to Michael Steinberg

Suzanne Ryan, Senior Editor

This news of Michael Steinberg’s death comes as a terrible blow, a truly sad moment that we had all hoped would never arrive. Yet it leads us to reflect upon the strength, passion, and grace of Michael’s character, the intelligence and infectious joy with which he approached music and his writing, and the integrity and clear mindedness which he carried throughout his life and illness. His gift to the world extends well beyond his rich and innumerable insights into the classical music repertoire, which invite generations of enthralled readers to enter into and explore this glorious art form. Micheal’s greatest gift, I believe, was his ability to show us, through his eyes, the beauty and the goodness of our own familiar world.

On behalf of all at Oxford University Press, I extend our deepest condolences to Jorja, to Michael’s family, and to his friends and communities. He will, most sincerely, be missed. To celebrate Michael’s life and amazing career, please enjoy this excerpt from his book For the Love of Music: Invitations to Listening, co-written with Larry Rothe. More information about his amazing contributions to music and scholarship can be found at the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle.

I fell in love with music in a murky alley when I was eleven. Sometimes I ask friends when and where and how it happened to them, and they recount childhood memories of hearing a beautiful cousin play a Chopin etude, of being stunned by a broadcast of the Saint Matthew Passion, or sent into reveries lying under the family piano while Mother practiced Songs without Words. My own fall was less romantic.

More precisely, I was seduced and then proceeded to fall in love. It was Fantasia…that did me in. I saw it just once, at the Cosmopolitan, a dingy movie house in Cambridge, England, and although this was more than sixty-five years ago, I remember it more vividly than most of the movies I’ve seen in the last sixty-five weeks. I saw it just once because as a schoolboy on threepence a week in pocket money…I couldn’t afford to go again. Besides, the guardians of Good Taste would not have encouraged, let alone subsidized, a return visit. But I also realized I did not need to see it again because the most important part was available for free. Behind the sweet little fleabag where Fantasia was playing, there was this alley where I could stand every day after school, stand undisturbed, and listen to the soundtrack of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra playing Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and Stravinsky…

…Not that Fantasia was my first encounter with “classical” music. I had done the first phase of my growing up in Breslau in a cultivated, affluent, German Jewish household with a Bechstein grand and a good radio (but no record player, not an uncommon lack for the day)… Going to concerts in Breslau was out because by the time I was old enough to be taken, public events of that sort were forbidden to Jews. Not knowing what I was missing, I was much more bothered by not being able to go iceskating or to the zoo anymore. So, while there was a general sense at home that music was A Good Thing, and a few names and titles were familiar…I had nearly nothing by way of actual musical sounds to tie to them…

At ten I went to England on a Kindertransport. There I spent most of the year in boarding school, the rest with the highly literate, politically aware, and quite unmusical English family that had taken me in. Even so, the paterfamilias maintained a surprising totemic reverence for two symphonies, Beethoven’s Ninth and Elgar’s Second, actually suspending his obsessive gardening when they showed up on the radio, which we still called “the wireless.” Otherwise, [their] indifference to music was complete…

All of this meant that I had to find my way to music on my own. Or, rather, it found me. Fantasia came to the rescue at the right moment, and after that it was a question of learning how to still my growing hunger… I discovered record stores, which in those days had tiny listening rooms in which one could try those imposing, shiny, black, dangerously fragile disks. (When I revisited Cambridge for the first time more than twenty years later I wanted to go into Miller’s to thank them for what, unwittingly and probably not happily, they had done for me on my journey toward music, but I am sorry to say I didn’t actually do it.)…Miller’s was a treasure trove, and I took pains to learn the schedules of the various salespeople so that no one of them would see me too often and I would not wear out my thinly based welcome…

…What have I learned? In the alley behind the Cosmo I learned…that I did not need Mickey Mouse or those bra-clad centaurettes or even the beautiful images of darting violin bows…to make the music enjoyable. I learned that music repaid repeated listening. Most music anyway… I learned to pay attention, because if I missed something it was gone… I learned that my focus changed from details to at least something like the whole, from the raisins to the cake. And I learned that there was a lot to hear in some of those pieces and that they did not cease to be full of surprises. I could of course not have articulated any of this then…

…What else did I eventually learn? To pay heed to my first reactions but also not to take them too seriously and certainly not to assume that they have permanent value. Not to think too much at the beginning and not to think at all about what I thought I was maybe supposed to be thinking. To be patient or—better—suspenseful, to wait and see how the piece or I might change (the former is of course an illusion)… That in the end the only study of music is music, that good program notes and pre-concert talks are helpful ways of showing you the door in the wall and of turning on some extra lights, but that the only thing that really matters is what happens privately between you and the music. That, as with any other form of falling in love, no one can do it for you and no one can draw you a map. That listening to music is not like getting a haircut or a manicure, but that it is something for you to do. That music, like any worthwhile partner in love, is demanding, sometimes exasperatingly, exhaustingly demanding. That—and here I borrow a perfect formulation from Karen Armstrong’s memoir, The Spiral Staircase—”you have to give it your full attention, wait patiently upon it, and make an empty space for it in your mind.” That it is a demon that can pursue us as relentlessly as the Hound of Heaven. That its capacity to give is as near to infinite as anything in this world, and that what it offers us is always and inescapably in exact proportion to what we ourselves give.

Recent Comments

  1. Mark Powell

    Beautiful words Suzanne, yours and his.

    I remember him with much love and more than a little reverence as my friend, mentor, and colleague. He was a musical and humanitarian giant whose intellect was matched only by his love for what music does, and by his incredible wife, Jorja Fleezanis. His kind being and guidance will be missed in ways I cannot at this time even begin to fathom.

    I consider it one of the highest artistic compliments I ever got, when upon looking at a season I’d programmed for the American Radio Chamber Orchestra, he turned to me and, with much emphasis on the first word in the sentences, said “I’d buy a subscription.”

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