Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, July 29, 2004


When we were in 6th grade my friends Rodney Webb and Rob K. and I started writing a novel together. The three of us would go to Rodney’s house after school and he would say what to write and I would write it down and Rob would agree. All I remember is that Rob was the main character, and that he would say stuff to his girlfriend Pauline, and Pauline would say OK.

In 8th grade Rodney and I had a class called “Creative Dramatics,” which was basically an hour of hanging out and making up skits. Rodney was the funniest person in the class. One skit was a take-off on the margarine commercial where the tub of margarine muttered “butter” whenever someone barely opened it. Rodney opened the tub of margarine and a friend offstage muttered “butter.” Rodney freaked out and closed the tub, eventually tentatively opening it again only to be greeted by “butter.” This repeated with Rodney growing more and more hysterical and eventually stomping the crap out of the margarine tub. Pretty funny when you’re 13.

8th grade was about the time that people started becoming conscious of what music was cool. I probably liked groups like Emerson Lake & Palmer and Kansas by then, as well as old groups like the Beatles and Beach Boys, and the classical music my mom and grandma loved and played at home. I’ll never forget Rodney saying, enthusiastically, his favorite music was Christmas music.

Maybe it’s because Rodney died, probably of a drug overdose, before we were out of our 20s that my memories of him stick so much. We had met in 5th grade and become friends immediately. My family had moved to a new neighborhood the summer after 4th grade, and a week or 2 after we moved I had been run over by a motorboat and lost several teeth and the use of some of my facial muscles. So I was starting a new school with a newly scarred face, and Rodney was in my class and friendly and sympathetically curious about my accident though not obtrusively so. But after 8th grade we drifted apart, as by high school he got on a path of armed robbery and drugs and I stayed on my family’s white collar college-bound path. That path would have been possible for him if he’d wanted it, but he would have been the first in his family to follow it. And he didn’t. 

Rodney’s love of Christmas music is deep in me, and I treasure seasonal and ceremonial music. I love Christmas music. I grew up going to U-Michigan football games once or twice a fall with my dad and his brothers and uncles and aunts, and so marching band music is part of me, and every 4th of July (at least) I dig up Sousa. On Memorial Day this year I listened to Ives’s “Holidays Symphony.” I’ll only listen to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in the spring and Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the Beach Boys’ early records in the summer.

Now it’s summer.

After having craved it for weeks, last night I finally put on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayrischen Rundfunks 1965 recording conducted by Rafael Kubelik. The group gets the diaphanous and flighty (fairylike!) quality of the music beautifully. Mendelssohn wrote the overture at the age of 17, and several years later a theater commissioned him to write a whole set of incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s play. Mendelssohn used themes from the overture and wrote new ones, including a joyous and buoyant wedding march that has become a central piece of ceremonial music in America, played as the recessional of countless weddings. (Wagner’s slow and stately wedding march has been used as a processional in countless weddings.)

There are boodles of recordings of Mendelssohn’s suite, some providing only the overture and wedding march and 2 or 3 other pieces, some with 15 tracks. The Kubelik recording has 10. I hadn’t listened to a version with so many selections in several years.

The overture starts with 4 quiet, mysterious, expectant chords, evoking -- since the play is about love & magic -- hope and the casting of a spell. The overture ends with the same four chords, in a neatly satisfying symmetry. What I had forgotten -- or never noticed -- is that the suite’s finale ends with the same four chords, and last night, it gave me chills. The closing of the curtain. The ending of the spell. The spell of the fairies & of the music & of Shakespeare’s play being the most gentle, delicate thing in the world, even as it contains raucousness within its bounds. (Shakespeare’s play contains violence and dread as well, but I don’t really hear that in Mendelssohn’s music.)

Tonight while washing the dishes I listened again, and this time the opening four chords gave me chills, the spell working deeper with repetition, and the finale’s closing repeat gave me deeper chills still and a broad satisfied smile. The fairies are leaving, flying away, hovering slightly at the edge of perception and then -- poof! -- they’re gone.

Like all of us will be someday, and many of us already are. Here’s to absent friends.

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