Musically illiterate and tone-deaf since birth, I just learned from a feature on
NPR’s To the Best of Our Knowledge called “Why Do We Love Sad
Songs?” that Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings was written,
like all sad music, in the minor third, although the twenty-six-year-old Barber
was happily in love when he wrote it in Paris in 1936.
Then, after Toscanini commissioned it for orchestra, it was played all day when
Franklin D. Roosevelt died, and it’s been played at funerals ever since. But
there was no mention of Shostakovich’s third movement of his Fifth Symphony,
an elegy for the victims of Stalin that is for me the most heartbreaking music of
The Adagio had overwhelmed me when I first heard it, though not until this
morning did I learn from the young woman in the Music Cognition Lab at Tufts that
the minor third in speech would be like “let go,” and that I’ve
been keening a minor third all my life.
My father had a stroke around the time Roosevelt died, and we had a radio on the
little Frigidaire in the kitchen where my brother would listen to Make Believe
Ballroom, and the radio may have been on when Roosevelt died, and maybe
that’s when I first heard Barber’s Adagio, since it always
seems to come from my ancient past.
“What’s your saddest jazz song?” asked the program host, and without
pausing I said to my cat curled at my elbow, Louis Armstrong’s “(What
Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” composed if I’m not mistaken by
“Even the mouse/ran from my house
I never knew a minor from a major or a sharp from a flat, but I was a child prodigy
in my love for music when my mother was earning “good money” with her
piecework in the postwar garment boom, and she bought an RCA® console so my
father could “play records while he was home alone all day,” though
I can’t imagine how when he was half paralyzed.
In any case, my brother then began buying not only Turkish-Armenian music for himself,
since like my father he too loved “oriental music,” but the early Sinatras
and Artie Shaws and all the others of the 1940s that would, along with the bubbly
loud and wild violin, become the folk music of my childhood.
But one day he brought home a twelve-inch album of another kind of music, and then
another and another, and though he himself rarely listened to them, I would sneak
into the albums when he wasn’t home, why I don’t know, maybe because
it sounded heroic like the movie music in our little neighborhood theatre.
So by the time I was in third grade I knew by heart every one of those albums that
I can now not only list but even remember the colors of their hardbound covers:
- Beethoven’s Violin Concerto,
- Brahms’s Third Symphony,
- Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony,
- Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade,
- Wagner’s “Overture to Tannhauser,”
- Bizet’s Carmen Suite,
- Caucasian Sketches by Ippolitov-Ivanov,
- Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole,
- and of course Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto and Violin Concerto
and Gayane ballet suite.
I remember it was the third grade because my third-grade teacher, Miss Mandelkern,
was talking about music, and I told her my brother had a Khachaturian album, and
when she who was so strict got so excited, I brought it the next day so she would
Yet how terrified I was my brother would find out, since he was like Stalin to me
“Don’t play with my records!” he had said in the same way he said
not to touch anything of his.
My brother had become, though only a teen, the tyrant of our little row of rooms
where my father sat impotent and my mother was always working; yet it was he who
became the patron of my prodigious love.
Coming home on rainy afternoons, I would go to my brother’s albums while my father
sat silent in the corner, and stacking with my little fingers the precious records,
so frightened they would break when they dropped with such a loud clap on the metal
plate, I would enter that realm where, admiring myself in the parlour mirror, I
became the conductor of the universe.
Then standing on a stool and waving my mother’s wooden ladle like a wand,
I would rise and flow with all those magical crescendos and andantes, while who
knew what he who sat so silent in the corner might be thinking of his little boy
to whom he couldn’t speak and who couldn’t speak to him, my father to
whom I would be writing for the rest of my life, as if he were the very silence
of the cosmos.
He must have also loved music, since my mother said he had taught himself the violin
after he escaped the Turkish massacre of 1915, and during the boon of the 1920s
he could even afford a violin and lessons for his little nephew Ashod.
His older brothers, my mother would say, were such good musicians before their necks
were sliced that “the Pasha himself” had them sing and play the zither.
In those ancient times before the phonograph, everyone knew how to sing and play,
since music was what made us human, though live music would vanish after my father’s
stroke, and only the records would be left.
And so the years passed and my father died around the time of my first wet dream,
and my brother married and moved away, and the console was converted to a cabinet,
and the albums evolved to the 33s I could buy with what I earned from my paper route
and then play on our new portable stereo. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition
was one of them, and I could see it in my mind’s eye, since music had always
been visual to me, and though I couldn’t read notes, I could wave my wand
as if painting landscapes like he ones in Disney’s Fantasia, where
I first heard The Rite of Spring and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.
In the meantime, in the noon-hour dance of my little high-school gym came the new
rock ’n’ roll; and I might have enjoyed its powerful rhythm, rooted
as it was in the same jazz of my brother’s bebop had I not become by then
so crippled by what would keep me from crossing the court for the girl of my longing,
the knots of my fear tightening behind my eyes and my belly as I suffered the suffering
of the ages.
The new rock ’n’ roll, so explosive and vital, was dance music, but
I was too afraid to dance, and I still can’t dance, and to this day I’ve
never crossed the court and let go of my fear.
I was always afraid and I may have been born afraid. I was afraid of the dark, as
in the darkness of the cellar where a dragon lay coiled under the boiler, and most
of all I was afraid of being alone, though I would live alone for the rest of my
And yet something kept me alive as if it were in my very breath, and my private
music seemed a part of it, like when I would hitch across the continent so unafraid
and alone on the dark highway and whistle my Scheherazade to the silence of the
By the time I left for college my love for music was so much part of me it seemed
connected to my need to write, as if it were the mother of all the arts and the
breath of life itself—the aum a Buddha would hum to the void until
the silence would hug me like a father and I would never be afraid again.
Then at Rutgers, in that first September when I moved into the freshman dorms, I
walked to the student centre one evening and suddenly streaming from across the
hall came what the disc jockey happened to play that night, and it pierced me as
if I were a Percival struck by a vision of the Grail. Yet it wouldn’t be until
a lifetime later that I learned from Michael Tilson Thomas’s Keeping Score,
that this music that came from a cello and an oboe and a harp was derived from a
hymn in the Russian orthodox church that was like a hymn in the little Armenian
Church where I would light candles for my father to be whole again.
“The Author as a Child with his Father”
Oil on canvas, by Peter Najarian
“Please make my father better,” I would whisper over the candles, Sunday
after Sunday from when I was five to when he died when I was ten and never prayed
But I didn’t of course think any of this as I stood transfixed in the student
centre that night. I never thought anything when I listened to music, since that’s
what music was about when you really listened: you stopped thinking and closed your
eyes and saw a vision of an opening space in the rise and fall of your breath, as
I did that night not knowing I was hearing the slow movement of Shostakovich’s
Fifth Symphony, composed not only for the victims of the Purge but the nightmare
of history itself, since that’s what music was also about, the wail and cry
even wolves and whales will sing when they lose each other and search for home.
And so the weeks and maybe the semester passed in that blaze of being eighteen when
you throb with life and can’t get enough of it, and one afternoon, returning from
the field to the lockers in the gym, still in my red and black shorts and T-shirt,
I came upon a music that was not really music but a cacophony of instruments the
Philadelphia orchestra was tuning to rehearse for a concert that night. Never having
heard such instruments live before, I sat in one of the chairs that filled the gym,
entranced by how beautifully the sounds flew and fluttered through the air like
birds whistling and chirping and competing with one another.
Then they stopped, and a little old white-haired man limped to the podium and tapped
the what’s-it-called, and this was the great Eugene Ormandy, whose only audience
was of course the kid in his gym shorts looking up again like a Percival in awe.
And then there was a pause.
Or maybe there wasn’t and I’m imagining it all, and yet what difference
would it make, since I was that child again with his crippled father and his mother’s
wooden ladle; and the little old white-haired man struck his wand and cracked the
silence with the opening of Brahms’s First Symphony, the greatest of all symphonies,
and I lay stunned as in my first wet dream when the cosmos opened and the light
poured through, the old cripple now the lame god Hephaestus himself saying through
Brahms that there would be no more elegies but only triumph and apocalypse, as in
the triambos to Dionysus, and the apokalupsis in the unveiling
of the Grail.
“You’re not a cripple,” he said, “you never were a cripple,
let go your fear and dance the dance of the ages, let go, let go!”
—Chapter One (a prelude) from Najarian’s memoir-in-manuscript,
The Artist and His Models
—Previously published in Brick: A Literary Journal, Number 87
(Summer 2011); reprinted here by author’s permission
is a painter, poet, and author of three novels, a story collection, and a memoir.
His work appears in numerous anthologies, journals, and galleries.