There were several record players in the house, and undoubtedly the sound of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and his other symphonies must have filled the house. (I certainly remember opera emanating from the Girard in my brother David’s room, starting when he was 13 and I was 8; there were choral sounds – perhaps the “Ode to Joy” movement of the Ninth, probably the recording by Toscanini, who obsessed the family – emerging from my 16-year-old brother Philip’s room at the other end of the upstairs hall.) The Melnick household was turbulent and confusing for an eight year old, and though I loved the presence of music there, it was difficult to concentrate and fully absorb it, given my spry, distracted disposition as well as my circumstances (in which adolescents and adults would act like children, even as the child was made to witness and experience adult intensities).During the year I was 8, then (that would be 1951-2), there were piano lessons I took, which taught me not much beyond the basics. At the age of 11, lessons were resumed, and I began playing simple Haydn minuets, Clementi’s easier sonatas, etc. It was not until I was 14 that I initiated resuming lessons and began truly exploring the keyboard music of Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. By then, my brothers had moved out of the house, and things were a bit more stable; I lived with my parents in West Los Angeles, and then in 1958 we moved to the northeast corner of the San Fernando Valley, a block from the V.A. hospital where my physician father worked. During the next three years from the age of 14 to 17, when I went away to college, my love of music fully flowered.
A German-Jewish émigré drove from Brentwood in West L.A. through the Valley to our remote Sylmar home to give me weekly lessons. Mr. Schumann assigned me typical fare: Bach Inventions and then a Partita, Mozart sonatas, the Scenes of Childhood by Schumann (no relation), and of course some Beethoven sonatas – first the easy opus 49 sonatas and then opus 90, not hard but not easy. More important than his assignments and instruction (comprised of encouraging advice mostly about interpretation rather than technique), Mr. Schumann loved to play the piano for me, so during the last twenty minutes of each session, he would fill our suburban tract home with music – above all, Beethoven. He was preparing the Waldstein sonata, opus 53, to play in recital, and at the end of several lessons I heard him perform the wonderful pulse and whir of the sonata’s repetitions – its pulsing chords and whirring arpeggios and continually unfolding melodic motifs. These mini-recitals, with my sitting to one side of him and turning pages, constituted a crucial education for me.Also, in these years, I finally had my own small portable record player. I particularly remember receiving individual records discarded by my older brother Philip, whose record collection burgeoned with new boxed sets. Among the LPs were recordings of Klemperer (the cover photo showing one half of his face bright and benign, the other shadowed and sinister) conducting the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, Szell conducting Schubert’s “Great” Symphony, Schnabel playing Schubert’s last piano sonata, and much else. I was particularly stirred by the record of Egon Petri playing Beethoven’s last three sonatas. The LP prompted me to work through those compositions time after time – I played them at a slower than indicated pace, but at whatever tempo they gave me great pleasure. Petri’s record educated me about what I would later want to call Beethoven’s organic form – his capacity to shape motifs so that they constantly grew, even as they contributed their energy to the encompassing arc of a movement’s structure. I came finally to understand the nature and power of form – whether sonata, variation, fugue, aria, or dance.
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