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< Echoes of Memory

Enduring Melodies


by Peter Gorog

If someone could grant me one wish, I would ask, without hesitation, for perfect pitch. The people I envy are the ones who can play music by ear. I love music and would love to be able to play an instrument, any instrument. Although if a second request would be honored, my choice of instrument would be cello or maybe clarinet. 

Unfortunately, I am tone deaf. I can hear music perfectly well, at least I think I can, I just can’t sing. I instantly recognize if someone sings or plays out of tune, but I cannot repeat any pitch I hear.

From my earliest memories, music has always been an important part of my life. The first tune I can remember is one of the most well-known prayers in Jewish liturgy, the Shema. It’s a custom of Jewish mothers to sing it to their babies every night when they tuck them in bed. So did my mother, even amidst the most horrific times in our life during the Holocaust. Interestingly enough, according to some experts, I sing the Shema today with a perfect pitch. Maybe 70+ years of practice does the trick.

When I grew up in Communist Hungary, there were music classes in elementary school, but all we did was sing Hungarian folksongs. I attended an all-boys school, so when 25 prepubescent boys sang at the same time, no one noticed that I could not carry a tune. I only got into trouble when there was a tryout for choir and I had to sing solo. After the first few notes, the class burst into laughter as I was so off tune. The teacher gave me two other opportunities, but my singing just got worse. Because the laughter got louder and louder, the teacher assumed that I was mocking her so she sent me to the principal’s office. When I told the principal what had happened, he asked me to sing the same song. After the first few notes he realized that I had no talent in singing, so he walked me back to the class and told the music teacher that I was born without any musical talent. I never had to try out for choir again.

Schools in Hungary after World War II had no instruments; there were no school orchestras. We were very poor. My mom could not afford to buy even a recorder, which I assume is one of the cheapest instruments. Earlier in my life I wanted to be a world famous accordion player. Of course even if someone had donated an accordion to us, we could not afford a private music teacher.

My first fascination with classical music started when I was in ninth grade. Our math teacher was an old-fashioned gentleman. He was born in the 1880s, he wore a bow tie all the time, and he even had a very ornate walking stick. I cannot recall the reason, but he frequently sang the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Ta-ta-ta-taa, Ta-ta-ta-taa. It had something to do with algebra or maybe with integrals or calculus. So when I first heard the real symphony on the radio, I fell in love with it. Ever since then, when I hear this music, I close my eyes and I am back in ninth grade, sitting next to my friend Domokos.

While in college, my musical preference was jazz. It was very popular, and although it was the music of the “decaying capitalism,” as the Communist propaganda tried to make us believe, it was tolerated. Not like the rock ’n’ roll and Elvis, which were banned for a while. Hungarian music stores did not sell records of Western musicians, but one could buy them on the black market for the weekly salary of an average worker. In the ’60s everyone was an average worker in Hungary; a doctor’s salary was the same as the gas station attendant’s salary. Their real income was quite different, but the corruption and black market activities in Communist countries belong to another story.

Fast forward to July 1980, when I defected to the United States. The first musical event I attended was an Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles double concert at Pier Six Pavilion in Baltimore. I thought I had died and gone to heaven, almost literally. While still in Hungary I knew about them. I had their records, but they were like demigods whom I never thought I would see personally. There they were alive and well. The experience was so overwhelming that all of my fear of my still uncertain future evaporated. I was in a new country. I hardly knew the language. I still did not have a job. But who cared when you could hear Ella and Ray live?

My next musical epiphany came a few months later when I heard Mstislav Rostropovich at the Kennedy Center playing the Cello Concerto by Antonín Dvo řák. If the Baltimore concert was heaven, this was nirvana. By hearing the world’s best cello player ever, according to me, playing the best cello piece ever, again according to me, my defection was fully justified. It also helped that by that time I had a job. I had my first apartment and my first brand-new car that I had bought with a $10 down payment. That’s correct, TEN dollars as a down payment.

Classical music played a very significant role in finding my future wife. The year was 1984, yes the famous 1984, and I was at a summer retreat with my synagogue somewhere in Pennsylvania. One day between programs I was walking in the corridors of a building at the college campus where we stayed, and I heard someone playing Sergei Rachmaninoff ’s Second Piano Concerto. It was not perfect, as if someone was learning it. I entered the room and there she was, young, beautiful, and playing Rachmaninoff without sheet music. I was impressed. Precious little did I know about her, but she immediately jumped to the top of my list of potential wife candidates. The piano player, Jorgy Walker, and I got married on March 9, 1986.

©2018, Peter Gorog. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

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