Yes, Dad Loved Classical Music
Also appears, slightly edited and with the great 'Ludwig van Royko' image, in the October 13, 2010 edition of
Dad Loved Opera, And Beethoven Too
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg e-mailed yesterday because he was working on a column about opera, and had heard that Dad had been a Lyric subscriber. The column’s in today’s paper, titled, “Here's one thing you didn't know about Mike Royko -- Tough guy loved the opera, where all are entitled to their opinions.” (Here’s a link to the whole column at the Sun-Times website.)
This is the opening and the part about Dad:
By Neil Steinberg, Chicago Sun-Times, October 6, 2010.
Now and then, a reader will try to compress all my flaws into one sharp jab. "You're no Mike Royko," he'll say, meaning that I am not a Chicago born and bred tough guy writing the universally acclaimed best column in the city.
And I always surprise him with cheery agreement -- yes indeedy, I'm no Royko, nobody's Royko, it's impossible for anyone to be Royko ever again and, having somewhat known Royko and thus vaguely familiar with all that being Royko entailed, I'd prefer to carry my own load than his. Thank you.
For instance, by not being a tough guy, I have no tough-guy image to maintain. Thus I am free to go to Opening Night at the Lyric Opera, as I did Friday, to hear Verdi's "Macbeth," done up in my poncy tuxedo and froufy silk bow tie and twee gold studs, and not have to worry about shocking anybody.
Royko, meanwhile, was captive to his legend. He had to keep a secret, which, with the opera season under way and him gone lo these many years, I now feel free to divulge: Mike Royko loved opera.
"Dad was a classical music fan, and passionate about it," said his son, David Royko. "While there were columns alluding to that, it wasn't something that fit his image."
Royko was a Lyric season-ticket holder.
"He was a serious fan of opera, of operas that he liked," said Royko. "He had strong opinions about the opera. I remember him reaming out Carol Fox, director of Lyric Opera in the '70s. There was a premiere of a Penderecki work, 'Paradise Lost,' this incredibly atonal, difficult stuff to sit through. And was saying, 'Why don't these guys produce ''Porgy and Bess''?' He was just revolted by Puccini's 'Girl of the Golden West.' He thought it was absurd, a spaghetti western with cowboy hats."
I used too strong a word—“revolted”—about Dad’s reaction to Puccini’s “Western” opera. He did find it absurd, comical (unintentionally), and Spaghetti-Western-ish. He loved some other Puccini operas, but thought this one was silly. Steinberg’s point, though, was on-target.
Dad didn’t hide behind his column, and usually was up-front about his likes and dislikes. Through the years, hints about his broad and deep musical passions and knowledge could be found in columns, easily missed by all but his most obsessive readers. When he did refer explicitly to Classical music, it usually was humorous, like admitting he’d love to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, chorus and soloists in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but only if he could be hoisted up in the air and use all of his limbs. The word-picture he painted was hilarious.
But his true feelings for the Ninth were anything but. He adored it. It was almost sacred to him (almost, because he was an atheist), as were the rest of Beethoven’s great symphonies.
Dad didn’t grow up listening to classical music. He did grow up craving great stuff, especially literature. He didn’t go to college. In fact, he finished high school a bit later than he should have, hating it, being bored by it, and showing it by being booted out of more than one, finally graduating from Central YMCA just before shipping off to fight in the Korean War.
He was a constant reader. By the time Dad was wooing my mother via letters from an Air Force Base (Royko in Love: Mike’s Letters to Carol), he’d pepper the pages with Schopenhauer’s theories of attraction, Somerset Maugham’s views on love, and quotes (without mentioning him by name) from Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” letters. Not bad for a 21-year-old neighborhood guy who just barely had a high-school diploma.
He fell in love with jazz of the truly old school—Dixieland—while in Dixie and basic training in Biloxi, 1952. He learned how to play acoustic guitar as a young man and put his basso pipes to work singing folk songs in harmony with my mother’s clear alto in the 1950s and ‘60s. He loved Fats Waller and the Weavers, and countless other artists from many genres.
But nobody ranked above Beethoven in Dad's personal pantheon. Not Shakespeare. Not even Algren. I’ve been told by old friends of his that when he was a young reporter on the night shift and a Beethoven symphony was scheduled to air on WFMT, Dad would go to a room with a radio, shut the door, and disappear until it was over.
His was a generation of Men (with a capital M) who did not view art and culture as effete or things to scorn as elitist, but something to be embraced as the property of all, and to be enjoyed, simply and profoundly. Toscanini, after all, was big business for NBC radio and RCA records before and after World War II, providing great music to the masses who loved it, from the bank’s vice-president to the mail-room clerk.
Dad’s mentor in Beethoven was the legendary Arnie Dornfeld, his boss at the City News Bureau, and another Man’s Man. Dornfeld would invite reporters to his house for listening sessions where records of Beethoven symphonies and other masterpieces would be heard and discussed. By the time I was a kid (born in 1959), Sunday mornings would begin at sunrise with Dad blasting Sousa marches, Zorba the Greek’s bouzouki soundtrack, and Beethoven’s Eroica symphony (to name three heavy-rotation favorites) and my brother and I would run out of our bedroom to “dance” (spin around until we fell over dizzy).
Steinberg asked if Dad and I ever went to operas together, and I don’t think we did. A few Chicago Symphony concerts, yes, and a memorable “community” orchestra performance of Beethoven’s 9th are some I do remember hearing with him, all after I’d gotten into classical music myself as a teen.
It was Mom, his best friend and eventual neighborhood dream girl who also grew to love the “classics,” who was Dad’s fellow opera-goer, although they’d only been Lyric subscribers for a couple of seasons when she died suddenly of an aneurysm in September, 1979. In his state of devastation, Dad had no interest in the upcoming season without Mom. Handing me the tickets, he said, “Go yourself, throw them away, I don’t care.”
It actually wasn’t my introduction to live opera. The prior season, Dad couldn’t go to the Lyric’s production of Massenet’s Werther, so Mom took me.
But 1979-’80 was a terrific season. Pulling from an increasingly lousy memory, there was Ghiaurov, Krauss and Freni in Faust, Sherrill Milnes as Boccanegra, John Vickers as Tristan, Domingo as Chenier, and Pavarotti showed up and delivered the Duke in Rigoletto with Judith Blegen and a young Riccardo Chailly in the pit. I don’t think Dad ever knew how much I enjoyed it, or could even think about how much he and Mom would have, if only...
And he would have been tickled by my first piece for the Sun-Times last month, on Riccardo Muti’s recordings.
One of the reasons, maybe the major reason, I became a serious classical fan was Dad. Besides the typical son-wanting-Dad’s-approval, I also figured that if he thought something was great, it probably was. And, he was clearly (though quietly) elated when I “discovered” classical music sort-of on my own, or at least not obviously through him.
By the mid 1970s, I was a progressive rock nut (Gentle Giant, Yes, Genesis, ELP, King Crimson), and while I "respected" classical music, I hadn't paid much attention to it. On my 17th birthday, Mom and I were at the local grocery store where a rack of Funk and Wagnall's "Family Library of Great Music" LPs was on display, and the first one in the series was only 69 cents, Beethoven's Pastoral symphony. I asked my mother if it was any good, and she said it was one of her favorites. Within a week I loved it, and that Christmas, Dad gave me the newly-issued box of Solti and the Chicago Symphony’s Beethoven cycle. My next birthday, Dad gave me Toscanini’s RCA Beethoven symphonies set, knowing it would be a great contrast to Solti’s. Dad was not a casual listener, and differences between interpretations were a big deal to him. His all-time favorite Seventh was Mengelberg’s live 1940 Concertgebouw recording.
One of my most vivid, and moving, memories of Dad and music was a moment I doubt he would remember. We were driving somewhere and he pushed a cassette into the tape player, so this was probably the mid 1980s. I asked him about Mozart, and the idea that young’uns underrated him where more “mature” listeners were moved by his genius. Dad said that the composer that he’d come to love more with age was Brahms. The music on the cassette happened to Brahms’ first symphony, and I’d already noticed that it sounded like my own favorite at the time, Karajan’s mid’70s DG recording. I felt then, and still do, that one of the greatest moments in symphonic music is the horn solo over the cloud of strings that ends the fourth movement’s introduction – and that particular recording was my favorite for that section. As the movement, and this passage, began, I got a little anxious because I didn’t want it to be background to our yapping, yet I was sure I didn’t want to “shush” Dad in his own car (or ever, for that matter). Just then, he stopped our conversation as he cranked the volume.
“Wait, we can’t talk over this part,” Dad said.
As the sounds washed over us, I saw that his eyes, too, were a bit teary.
October 6, 2010
Willem Mengelberg leads the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra.
His 1940 recording of Beethoven's 7th was Dad's favorite.