Music Appreciation And the Phonograph

GOOD music graciously adorned my life at an early age, and long before ``music appreciation'' was introduced into my third-grade experiences, I could tell a flute from a banjo, and I knew that Ada Jones wasn't Caruso. We had a phonograph. I still have the thing and it works, and I can find about a thousand cylinder records to play on it. Many's the time I've considered putting the thing in a museum that will play it now and then for posterity, and then I subdue my eleemonsynary thoughts and go out to mow the lawn. Well, just lately I was looking in a magazine at some pictures of lucky schoolchildren learning from various electronic devices that cost a fortune, and the expressions on the tykes' faces showed no trace whatever of amazement. But I can crank my old Edison phonograph and stick on Uncle Josh at the Opera, and the most jaded of our indifferent juveniles doesn't believe it. The first question is usually, ``Where do you plug it in?''

My grandfather, the Old Soldier, lived alone in the family farmhouse, and he liked to go to public auctions around his rural area. Sometimes he'd buy some odd thing; otherwise the sale was a social occasion where he talked with friends, and if he buttonholed another ``comrade,'' the subject always turned to the pension. At the big Merrithew auction at West Bowdoin, Grandfather first saw an Edison phonograph. He hadn't any idea there was such a thing.

It was around 1877 that Thomas Edison announced that he had found a new way to record sound and could reproduce it. His tinfoil medium needed a lot of improving, but by the mid-1890s he was making and selling his patented ``phonograph'' and had a great deal of talent signed up for his recording studios.

My grandfather heard some music as he wandered along the articles for sale on the lawn, and on the piazza he found some children playing the phonograph. He was so amazingly amazed that he bought the machine and a bushel basket of records for $3.75, and when my grandfather spent more than 50 cents for anything, desire was at a peak. This was about 1910, and in the next decade and a half I was fortunate to spend considerable time with him at the old family home. He had picked up some more cylinder records at auctions; some of them played for four minutes, but mostly his inventory played two minutes apiece. Many pleasant evenings found Gramp and me with a pan of popcorn, some apples, and a cranking good evening of symphony.

And there was a lot of 10-20-30 vaudeville on the cylinders - monologs. The Uncle Josh monologs were many and give a fine history of that kind of stagecraft. When flat records were introduced (now comes the Victrola!) a lot of the old cylinders were transferred to discs, and then one day when I was maybe 10, our humdrum and underprivileged classroom got a Victrola to which we gave our attention every afternoon and learned to ``appreciate'' music. No Uncle Josh now, but we got Mendelssohn's ``Spring Song'' and now and then a Sousa march, and some opera stuff from Verdi and Wagner, and other pieces considered suitable for our cultural enrichment. Most of the tunes I had heard at Gramp's in the two-minute versions.

Very effective was the solemn approach to music appreciation. ``And now children....'' and Miss Boyle would take off the dust cover and open the lift-lid of the player - it seems to me Columbia was now in business, and instead of a phonograph or a Victrola we were dealing with a gramophone. Then Miss Boyle would select a 12-inch record and read us the details of the work we were about to enjoy - including a few remarks of a critical nature. Then she would bring up a thing that looked like a plush muff and dust the record. Then we sat in rapt attention and appreciated music. One incident I recall with joy and clarity.

Luigi Faldetti was in our class, and as his family had only recently arrived, his English was minimal, and Miss Boyle had to be careful with him. But one afternoon she put on a record, and while all the rest of us listened in a dignified manner, little Luigi burst into uncontrolled hilarity and shook throughout the music in a spasm of laughter. Miss Boyle was aghast, but completely at a loss to explain to Luigi that fine music deserved better respect. Give her credit. When somebody explained to Miss Boyle that ``Humoresque'' is meant to be funny, she explained everything to the class and apologized to Luigi.

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