Mozart, Father Ted and Me

Author: Joseph Lewis Heil '59

On Palm Sunday, 1959, I finished reading The Education of Henry Adams, a required Great Book my last seminar in the General Program at Notre Dame, now called the Program of Liberal Studies. Adams described his German education as a total failure except for his “only clear gain—his single step to a higher life.” That single step happened at a music hall “drinking beer, smoking German tobacco, and looking at fat German women knitting, while an orchestra played dull music.” One day he was surprised to notice that his mind discovered beauty in that dull music: it was a movement of a Beethoven Symphony. Adams declared, “Among the marvels of education, this was the most marvelous.”

My own music education had no such epiphany. I was raised on good music. My father was a gifted, amateur pianist who did justice to the Steinway ‘L’ that my mother’s father had bought for her back in 1927. That fine ebony grand graced my parent’s living room for 61 years until my mother’s death in 2002. When I was a youngster, my father played it often. One night I was awakened by my father playing for company. I found the music to be beautiful and choose to listen rather than fall back to sleep. I was only 6. Years later I learned that the piece my father performed that night—and many times thereafter—was the celebrated Liebestraum No. 3 by Franz Liszt.

I was 9 when I began formal piano lessons. At age 16 I played Debussy’s Clair de Lune in recital. I did not play it particularly well but many of the younger students and their parents applauded enthusiastically. My father said little. Unfortunately, meager talent is intimidated by the stage. He recognized that in me. In the privacy of our living room, with my impassive parents and indifferent brother as audience, I played reasonably well. More important for my informal music education, in my first 18 years I developed a genuine love for many of the great but diminutive masterpieces for piano: the Chopin Nocturnes and Preludes, the Brahms Waltzes, some of the Mendelssohn Songs Without Words, To a Wild Rose by the great American composer, Edward McDowell and many more.

I entered Notre Dame in 1955. When my father asked how I found my first year of studies, I replied that it seemed like a fifth year in high school. College Algebra was the toughest, English Rhetoric and Composition the best, but getting from the Rock— showered, dried and dressed—to O’Shaughnessy on time after a morning swim class was impossible.

At a mixer at LaFortune Student Center I met a Saint Mary’s girl. She was from the province of Quebec, and we began to date. Saturday nights we’d go to a movie in South Bend. Curiously, it was after those Saturday dates when my true, music education at Notre Dame began.

The weekend curfew was midnight. At about 11:30, off the last bus from South Bend, I kissed Gillianne goodnight, watched as she ascended the steps of Holy Cross Hall, and then walked back to Notre Dame. I’d stop at the Grotto for a brief prayer and then climb the steps to the walkway that led behind and, literally, through and beneath the rear ventilating shafts of the Main Building. As I passed lighted windows along the north wall I heard music. It was serious music: string quartets, violin sonatas, a solo cello, perhaps. It didn’t take me long to learn that this was Father Hesburgh’s office. He worked and read late into the night and, as he did, he listened to classical music.

Often I paused there, just to the side of the window, eye on my watch, hoping I could linger for a moment or two and enjoy the unknown masterpieces that the president of the University knew so well and was enjoying on the other side of that old, thick, masonry bearing wall. He must have noticed our dark forms as we hurried by. But did he ever know that one lowly freshman from Cavanaugh Hall looked forward every Saturday to spending a few secret moments just before midnight, hidden in shadow, eavesdropping on the glorious music this great priest loved?

Early my freshman year I discovered that WSND had a classical music program weekday mornings. I had a break in my classes and went back to Cavanaugh to listen. The program’s theme music was unlike any I had ever heard: slow, an adagio, with a dreamlike melody of shimmering beauty. How I came to know that it was the third movement of Mahler’s great Fourth Symphony I haven’t the faintest idea. Some time later, when I purchased the LP vinyl recording played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I fell in love with the entire piece and love it to this day.

I first met Mozart in an alcove, still early my freshman year when I was 18 and he an ever-young 199. A student from Taiwan introduced us or, more precisely, he presented Herr Mozart on an old mahogany grand that resided on the second floor parquet of LaFortune. It had an undercarriage with wheels so it could easily be rolled around that large ballroom. When there was no formal function it was parked in the northwest alcove where anyone could sit down and have a go at it. A friend and I were walking back to Cavanaugh, an all-freshmen hall then, after dinner at the South Dining hall, but I wanted to stop at LaFortune to play the piano. As we entered the front door we heard the old piano singing a beautiful, poetic song set against a tense, tremulous bass. What music is that? I wondered. We bounded up the stairs and could hardly find the face of the small figure behind the music rack. We approached and he stopped playing. I said something like, “That was great.” He smiled. This Chinese student told us that when he was a little boy, a Christian missionary had passed through Formosa, as Taiwan was then called, and taught him to play the piano. She must have lingered awhile, I thought, because this pleasant chap played very well indeed. When I asked what it was, he showed me the distinctive, yellow, front cover of the well-worn Schirmer score: Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K-453. He had brought it with him from Formosa.

Mozart! I never liked Mozart. But now I felt impelled to get to know him better. I worked numerically up and down from the Seventeenth. Each new Mozart piano concerto amazed me. The great British musicologist, Sir Donald Tovey said of the Mozart 9th Piano Concerto that it was the first unequivocal masterpiece in that genre. Mozart had literally invented the modern piano concerto at the age of 21.

That first fall semester I made the Glee Club as a bass. I met tenors and baritones as well as basses. Blend those voices together and it was another new and wonderful revelation. Our director was Dean Pedtke: a true gentleman, kind but rigorous. He taught us—wonder of wonders—to sing in four-part harmony. What a joy that was! We learned the triumphant chorus All Hail the Guardian of Brabant from Wagner’s _Lohengrin_—my first encounter with Wagner—and the brilliantly clever Conspirators Chorus from Verdi’s Rigoletto: Zitti, ziti moviamo a vendetta:

Hush come quickly, revenge now our father,
Take his daughter away in the night.

It was to be sung softly, with staccato accents and dramatic crescendos. I loved singing it. In the drama, the kidnappers believe Gilda to be Rigoletto’s mistress, but for the sake of our innocence the Dean had us sing "daughter."

In the early spring of my freshman year, 1956, I attended a South Bend Symphony Orchestra concert at the Navy Drill Hall. It sat on land that stretched almost to the present site of the Hesburgh Library. Back then it served multiple functions: a drill hall for the ROTC programs, a ballroom for large dances and proms and, on occasion, a concert hall for the South Bend Orchestra. It was cavernous with a clear-span, arched roof resembling a high-class Quonset hut. On that Sunday afternoon, though, it became a palace of high culture. It was the first symphony concert I ever attended, and it remains an indelible memory. The stage was at the east end of the vast hall. Perhaps a thousand folding chairs were set up in straight and unvarying rows, like a battalion ready to parade. I sat near the middle and eagerly awaited this new experience. The program began with Grieg’s Holberg Suite, a delightful piece whose melodies charmed me. Next was Edward Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnol for solo violin and orchestra. The program closed with Beethoven’s magnificent Seventh Symphony. A conversion occurred on that spring afternoon; I became a life-long symphony concertgoer. The love that I have for the great orchestral works played by large, modern symphony orchestras began, unforgettably, in the now-defunct, nondescript Navy Drill Hall.

My sophomore year I roomed in Morrissey with a boy from Buffalo who liked music. He just didn’t like any music written before about 1940. Father Thomas Engleton, our second floor rector, loved classical music, just about everything from Bach to Shostakovich. He had a fine stereo in his room, and occasionally he’d invite me in to listen to something. In those days I was fond of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. He told me there was a new recording of it by the American pianist, Leon Fleischer. A few days later I went into South Bend and bought it. Father Engleton listened to the piece impassively. At its conclusion, he flipped the record over and said, “Now I want you to listen to this!” It was a piece for piano and orchestra unknown to me: The Symphonic Variations by César Franck. Not terribly impressed, I returned to my own room and offered to play a snippet of the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody for my roommate, the famous 18th Variation. He would have none of it. His ears and mind were sealed shut against any exposure to classical music beyond what he had to sing in the Glee Club.

As the months passed that second year at Notre Dame, I began to listen more and more to the Franck Symphonic Variations, which I eventually came to regard as highly superior to the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody. It delights me to this day. Therein lies a simple lesson: as in everything in this life—whether its music, wine, novels or Notre Dame football teams—some prove, with time, better than others.

In my junior year—1957, ‘58—everything was just about right. Juniors feel comfortable at the University; they know the ropes. I lived in Sorin Hall with a friend from Baltimore, a classmate in the General Program. Our second-floor room had a fine view of the Dome and Sacred Heart Basilica. I was inching towards my 21st birthday and felt amazingly content to be at Notre Dame, which I loved now passionately. The only bump in my road was Catesby Taliaferro’s Rational Mechanics course, a five-credit course that traced the development of celestial and terrestrial mechanics from Ptolemy to Einstein.

Once Dr. Taliaferro commented to me that he thought Berlioz a fine composer, much underrated. I knew nothing then of Berlioz’s music but at home at Christmas I discovered a record my father had bought of favorite pieces by Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic. On it were three excerpts from Berlioz’s opera Romeo and Juliet. I liked them. I found his Romeo and Juliet superior to the Romeo and Juliet Fantasia that Tchaikovsky had composed. Then I discovered another composer’s vision of Romeo and Juliet. It was Prokofiev’s brilliant score that finally and completely satisfied my understanding of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Prokofiev captures the hatred between the Capulets and the Montagues with a relentless musical force that overwhelms the human heart’s desire for peace and understanding, and he laments over the young lover’s love with melodies that transcend ephemeral romantic bliss with a shadowy foreboding of doom that intensifies the passion of both body and soul.

In March, 1958 the Julliard String Quartet came to Washington Hall. With several friends from Sorin I attended my first chamber music recital. The blending of the four string voices was analogous to the four-part harmony of the Glee Club; that’s easy enough to grasp but the music—no simple, pleasant tunes—demanded total attention. I didn’t recognize then the beauty that I hear now, but as the years passed I grew to like chamber music more and more. The important thing was that my interest in chamber music, just like in symphonic music, was kindled at Notre Dame. During the second half of the program, my mind began to wander. On the back of my plain white paper program I sketched the grouping of the formally attired musicians. It was an amateurish effort but sufficiently well done that a young woman seated behind me tapped my shoulder at the end of the concert and asked if she could have it. I gave it to her cheerfully.

On Sunday, March 23, I walked over to Saint Mary’s new Moreau Hall to hear the South Bend Symphony. I asked some friends to join me, but no one did. Gilliane had left at the end of the first semester of our sophomore year. It was bittersweet to walk that gray, romantic road knowing she was gone. The concert opened with the Egmont Overture by Beethoven and closed with the Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann. The soloist was the American pianist, William Doppmann, only 24 years old but he looked, in his white tie and black tails, mature and distinguished. I wrote my father that he should add that piece to his record collection. At home, in June, I found the recording by Artur Rubinstein. The Schumann Concerto is one of those sublime works I have never tired of.

My senior year I lived in Alumni, in a single sandwiched between a history major who seemed tolerant of all music and a commerce guy who was as passionate about rock and roll as I was about classical. He had a television and every afternoon he watched Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. He was a considerate guy, though, because if he was playing the music a little loud I’d ask him to turn it down and he always did. I did the same for him.

My parents gave me a handsome, wood-cased AM-FM table radio the Christmas of my junior year. I didn’t take it to Sorin but I did bring it to Alumni. When I turned the FM on I got nothing. Ninety miles west were several Chicago classical music stations, but there wasn’t a single 19th century note to be heard. On the back of the radio were two leads for an external antenna. Maybe, I thought, if I had an antenna I could corral those Chicago stations into my room.

In South Bend I found a television rabbit ears antenna at a second-hand shop. I connected it to my radio, turned it on, and heard some faint noises that I hadn’t heard without the antenna. Clearly, my only chance at having the classics in my room would be to mount this thing high up, outside and pointing towards Chicago.

I then began a careful observation of Alumni Hall. On the north roof there was a dormer directly above the room across the hall from me. The roof was steeply sloped and made of slate tiles. My room was the second door from the chapel in the northwest corner of the building. The attic stairs were at the far southeast corner. I checked every day for a week, and one day the door to the stairs was open. I entered the attic expecting to find a maintenance man but there was no one. I hurried toward the dormer on the north roof; cranked the window open and looked down at the passing students. A splendid view of the Dome and Sacred Heart’s lovely steeple rose above the yellowing trees. I would be able to mount my antenna outside, but how, I wondered, could the antenna be anchored? Wind at that height would be fierce.

At a television store downtown I purchased 100 feet of antenna cable and a small spool of galvanized wire. Back at Alumni, the wire in my pocket, the antenna and cable under my London Fog, up I went. I stabilized the antenna by tying two pieces of wire back to brackets on opposite sides of the window frame. Then I pointed the slender, telescoping, metal ears toward the Windy City. Next I attached the cable to the leads on the antenna. I buried the cable in the frothy insulation above the third floor ceiling, passed it below the catwalk, beneath more insulation, up to the opposite dormer and then dropped about 50 feet of cable over the sill of the casement and down the outside of the building to the window of my room. With my fingernail scissors I cut the rubber insulation off the low voltage wires and curled them around the antenna leads on the back of my radio. I tightened the small, knurled nuts, pushed the dresser against the wall and turned on the radio. Nothing but a low hum. I turned the dial slowly—searching—and then it was there.

I can’t recall now the first music heard, but my little antenna, high up on the roof of Alumni, was catching those magical beams streaming out from Chicago, high above the steel mills and refineries of Gary, racing above the toll road and the Indiana landscape, ever weakening as they neared Notre Dame but still strong enough that they could be caught and amplified and fill my little room with the music I yearned to know.

In February—it was now 1959—Andres Segovia visited Washington Hall. I went early with a group of friends to get seats close to the stage. When Mr. Segovia appeared, applause acknowledged his reputation as the world’s greatest classical guitarist. He took his chair at center stage and waited until every distracting cough and stirring had ceased, waited until there was almost perfect silence in the antique auditorium. Then he began to play. The sounds that he drew forth from the six strings were haunting. He played transcriptions of keyboard works by Bach, Scarlatti and Albeniz. Pieces that were written for the broad range of the piano were condensed into the range of the guitar. But nothing of the melodies, harmonies and counterpoints was lost; all of the profound beauty was preserved and presented. It was an unforgettable experience and I have loved the classical guitar ever since.

My last spring at Notre Dame was idyllic. The weather was sparkling and warm, the campus lush with life. Near the Main Building I snipped a lilac blossom every other day and put it on my desk just to have that fragrance near. Classes weren’t tough anymore. All my friends and I were going to graduate on time. Nothing seemed tough so long as I didn’t think about my future. After the day’s last class we’d hike south several blocks to that old pizza place on Notre Dame Avenue. We ate pizza, drank cold beer, talked and occasionally glanced at the Cubs’ game on television. Then we’d stroll back to campus. We’d have our supper, as late as we could, and then stroll over to Saint Mary’s Lake to pester the swans and watch the sun slip behind the trees along the far shore. What a brief, sweet month that last May was! Alone in my room I had the classics from Chicago to accompany me as I read the last required text of the last seminar and completed my prosaic senior thesis, my final paper. On June 7, 1959, we graduated. Father Hesburgh gave me my diploma. It was the only time I ever shook his hand, the only time I ever thanked him. Within two hours I was driving away from Notre Dame with my parents just as I had driven with them towards Notre Dame four years earlier.

I had earned a degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Notre Dame, which I have always treasured for the education, experiences and persons that it represents. I also had a music education that Notre Dame proffered to all, but few seized. Both were starting points for a lifetime of learning. Victor Hugo wrote, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” At Notre Dame I learned that lovely, ineffable language.