[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]
“Musical taste is such a private affair that I would no more criticize a man’s choice of music than his choice of a wife,” Lloyd Alexander writes in My Love Affair with Music, his fourth book for adults. “I might question his judgment a little or wonder, out of idle curiosity, what he sees in her. Beyond that, it is entirely his affair.” Alexander apparently expected less discretion from his readers, earnestly justifying his own passion in a memoir that hits a series of wise and frankly surprising notes.
In light, concise prose, My Love Affair with Music skips from anecdote to anecdote: how, as a child, Alexander learned to plink out songs by slowing down piano rolls; how he loved to sneak into the opera for free during intermission; and how, as an adult, he took up the violin, beguiled by the instrument’s “perverse, diabolical personality.” Few people alive can recall the more genteel approach to music Alexander describes here, a lost world in which records were expensive and studying classical music was an ambitious yet common pastime.
Beyond its genial glimpse of yesteryear, what makes My Love Affair with Music engaging is Alexander’s willingness to fulfill the promise of the book’s title. From the outset, music isn’t simply something he hears or plays, but an entity with which he has a concupiscent relationship. Here’s young Lloyd on the eve of his first piano lesson:
That night I tossed and turned in bed, and I am sure I had the hot forehead and dry throat of a man about to approach his beloved for the first time (although I did not think in those terms then).
With jarring sexuality, he writes of the futility of chasing musical highs:
Yet hearing something like the Brahms 4th or the Tchaikowsky 6th for the first time—or the second or third—played magnificently, under a brilliant conductor, overwhelmed me. I underwent all the surprise, and exhilaration, of a man whose beloved suddenly bites him in the midst of an embrace. The first few experiences may be exciting, even charming. After a time, it simply grows painful…
Sometimes, he simply describes childhood awkwardness with witty apprehension:
None of us looked forward to Miss LeBeau’s course, not entirely because we hated her or music—although many of us had strong feelings on both accounts—but mainly because it followed gym class. I for one usually arrived a little late, still damp from the required shower, clothes mostly unbuttoned, my underwear put on backwards as often as not, binding me in a clammy grip each time I sat down. Like gym, the class was double sized, so that as many of us as possible could be exposed to music all at once, for greater efficiency and less waste motion, something like a mass vaccination. After a few minutes, the students began to exude the foxy odour of young people packed closely together while above it rose the post-gymnasium miasma.
My Love Affair with Music teems with memories that make it, arguably, the most personal of Alexander’s early books. He admits to shedding tears over a beloved piano teacher, he writes ruefully about betraying an awkward student teacher, and he casts himself as a drunken fool banging out jazz on a piano in the middle of the night while visiting the home of prim family friends. If Lloyd Alexander later wrote perceptively about the hard task of growing up, perhaps it’s because he remembered his own youth so keenly, and with such exquisite embarrassment.
Of all Alexander’s early autobiographical books, My Love Affair with Music also contains the most full recounting of his time in Europe during World War II. With typical self-deprecation, he describes being assigned to play the cymbals and the glockenspiel in an Army band before taking up international folk singing. “I collected songs,” he quips, “with the absorption of a philatelist on the trail of a rare blue triangle.” Sneaking away from his detachment in a jeep, he plays a broken piano outside a shattered French house and joins a quest for a full set of recordings of Schubert’s Die Forelle, accompanying a German-American colleague to confront the German neighbors who betrayed his family. Alexander finds sufficient music in his Army adventures that it’s easy not to notice that he elides most of the actual war. With half a century of hindsight, I wonder if he ever recorded those experiences, or left the worst of them untold.
In 1960, Alexander seemed on the verge of becoming little more than a gentle humorist who mined his own life for amiable books. Stories about a workplace choir hark back to his banking memoir; his obsession with the violin irritates the cats he wrote about so fondly; and his fondness for Parisian street music recalls his book about his French wife.
Fortunately, My Love Affair with Music also looks forward, unknowingly. In a chapter set in the early 1940s, Alexander’s mania for musical instruments takes him to a pawn shop:
Another attraction, stored far in the back amid a jackstraw heap of old furniture, was a harp. Most of its strings broken, dangling from the pegs, the rest completely out of tune, the harp with its fluted pillar rose up like a Greek ruin. I could not look at the curve of the neck without feeling my whole body trying to imitate its sweep.
I moved out one of the chairs, sat down and brought the harp to lean against my shoulder. Starting at the narrow angle of the treble end, I touched what strings remained, down to the pillar which seemed a mile away. I would have gone on caressing it indefinitely if the proprietor had not shouted at me to stop that racket.
Readers of the Prydain books know that harp. It’s Fflewddur Fflam’s, and discovering it on the pages of My Love Affair with Music is this book’s most accidentally poignant note.
I don’t know why a major publisher let a mostly unknown author collect his anecdotes into an entire book about amateur musicianship, but the result is not only charming but also perceptive, especially Alexander’s continual rediscovery of music—and his adult realization that his record collection is filled with “things I had heard before and never really listened to.” Literally grappling with the fiddle, he concludes that for an adult listener, music shouldn’t be “something to dream over,” but a physical, human phenomenon. “The harp, that lovely and innocent-looking instrument, could bite a harpist’s fingers until they bled,” he concedes. “The result was music—not ethereal, unworldly, although it might well sound like it—but very much in the world of flesh and blood.” My Love Affair with Music makes a childhood icon seem equally real: a man of bemusement, frustration, and thoughtful regret.