My mother, Harriet Sue Fox Riehl, passed away last week. Our family’s full remembrance is here. I’m writing here as a special tribute to my mom’s musical legacy which she left to me and my siblings — music was so much a part of her life, from beginning to end, and I wanted to document this as best I could and to share
Yes, it was the ’80s. And maybe they had a sale on the glassses.
with friends who may have picked up on one or another aspect of my mom’s musical tastes — but perhaps not everyone understood the full spectrum or its origins, and also so much of what I inherited from her (and her mother).
My mom taught us many things, but highest among them was having fun with music, not just as background party noise but also as a way to connect with spiritual feelings others found in doctrinal religion, which we were not raised in. And by this I don’t just mean piano lessons (although those happened, and I’m grateful they
Grandmom Fox and my Mom
did.) For me, a lot of my mom’s musical legacy was with the Classical form, which she inherited in large part from her mother, Helen Fox. Maybe because I was the first of three, I caught on to this aspect of the legacy the most, and maybe also because Grandmom had a lot to do with my upbringing.
As with all legacies, the question is where did it start? Harriet wasn’t a prodigy, but she picked up her taste and passions for music along the way from family and from the circumstances that her colorful life exposed her to over the decades. Like her mother, she soaked in the new cultures and sounds she was exposed to, made them her own, and passed them on to us kids.
Her mom, Helen Fox, was a child of immigrants whose few forms of escape in a very tough upbringing in the Depression years was listening to Sunday opera broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera from New York. There were long programs, coming over the scratchy wireless, with Toscanini conducing Wagner and Beethoven and Puccini and Bellini. As a grandson she told me about these afternoons in detail, naming soloists and conductors she’d heard — less prone to mention the conditions her family lived in. Music was an escape for her. When Grandmom Fox was herself suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, she was adamant in asking me to bring her recordings of her favorite works, including Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony with Karl Böhm conducting (always very specific, she was).
And Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde with Karajan and Berlin — all four hours of it.
I was exposed to a lot of this in utero, and who knows what that had to do with how things turned out! Mozart makes babies smarter, or so the cliché goes — but I don’t honestly know how much Mozart I was exposed to! We are doing the best with our twin babies now. In quadraphonic!
Decades later it was me dealing with the frustrations Gramdmom had in regulating the volume on these CDs I’d bought her, in her apartment — everything was either too loud or too quiet, something that frequently comes along with ALZ symptoms. As a uterine symphonic audience member I hardly had such control, but I suspect when Helen and my mom had the volume control it was LOUD, as was their predilection, and my wife can attest this may well have been inherited. Suffice it to say I frequently cause our windows to rattle. And of course hastening my own hearing loss!
My mom inherited the love of Classical music from her mom, and it grew further from my dad’s involvement with the arts while they were in Costa Rica and he served in the Ministry of Culture. She came to love works by Dvorák, especially the Cello Concerto,
which she heard with Leonard Rose in San José, and later adopted Rostropovich and
Outrunning the Secret Service
Karajan’s version as her favorite. A funny anecdote bears mentioning from my early years as a concertgoer. We were invited to hear the Costa Rica Youth Symphony perform on the lawn of the White House in 1978, with president Carter presiding, and I was naturally in attendance with Mom and Dad given their background with the arts in Costa Rica.
Baby Geoffrey was my audience of one, on the piano my parents rescued from Symphony Hall in Philadelphia, and may have have been used by Rachmaninov as he warmed up for performances with the Orchestra
As the story goes, I bolted up at some point and took off at breakneck toddler speed straight for the huge fountain at the base of the South Lawn. We only have one photo of the incident, taken before the Secret Service had to wrestle me under control and return me to my seat. Needless to say, my behavior at performances has become much more proper in years since. And yes, I went on to be a runner; apparently able to outpace the Secret Service even in my younger years.
But back to Dvorak: we had a family friend in Virginia who had in fact defected with Slava on a fateful New York City metro ride in New York in the late 1970s. Mom always loved hearing Mr. Lezhnev practice when Geoff was over at their house with their son. Fellow Russian composers joined her favorites, notably Rachmaninov with his Piano Concertos and Vladimir Ashkenazy as a favorite interpreter.
The Tchaikovsky 1st was also a permanent favorite, with Cliburn, or course.
Helen, her mom, meanwhile, in retirement, served as an usher with the Delaware Symphony in Wilmington, near where my parents settled post-Costa Rica. There she came to know the Music Director Stephen Gunzenhauser, who became a family friend. Stephen was a champion of Dvorák’s works and also of Camille Saint-Saëns, whose 3rd Symphony — the Organ Symphony — would be one of my mom’s anthems, which we heard Stephen conduct in Washington at the Kennedy Center with its magnificent organ. The recording here is Stephen’s early CD version — he was a pioneer with the Naxos label and was sure to include the Saint-Sëans as one of the first releases aside Tchaikovsky and other masters.
Mom could air-conduct the piece into her final years, even when language had left her as a means of communication. She could direct the Dvorák Cello Concerto measure for measure as well, to an extent that was always amazing to witness.
Saint-Saëns was always her true favorite though. Harriet would no doubt have been delighted that it became the theme for a little pig whose films led James Cromwell to jump in the air dancing a jig — in fact, I can’t think of a more fitting memorial. She would have jumped for joy as well…
Less so than her mom, Harriet enjoyed opera — mostly arias rather than entire works — her favorite was always Pavarotti. She loved the Puccini showpieces most of all, from Boheme to Turandot. Nessun Dorma consistently brought her to tears, in her younger years and still into the time of Alzheimer’s’ onset.
After a Pavarotti concert in 1981
But the brighter side of Pavarotti’s verismo arias lit her up (and still get me jumping) from Rigoletto to the Neapolitan folk songs. In my obit of Pavarotti I wrote about his magnificent voice as being “as big as a house,” and with my family’s sound system that included speakers in nearly every room, that was hardly an exaggeration (especially when dad wasn’t home and mom had the remote control.) That tradition has continued, and it’s been fortunate we’ve mostly had classical musicians as out basement tenants, who raise no objections and have occasionally even played along with my high-volume in-hone concerts.
Dad found his typical churlish ways to educate me in Classical knowledge; when the Water Music or Royal Fireworks came on, he would quiz me on the composer with hints by way of jiggling the old handles on our farmhouse door. What’s this? Who’s this? (“Handle…HANDEL!”) My mom was more emotive and performative, always putting my up on a pedelstal when Karajan’s Beethoven cycle came on to conduct, and I was learning the measure-for-measure of the full cycle of 9 from a young age, air-conducting with her assistance to make sure I got every down beat (my analyses are in a few places elsewhere on this blog, thanks mom!) Years later I actually studied conducting with one of von Karajan’s pupils, Ruben Vartanyan, and some of this intuition did indeed come back. (It was a family friend, mentioned earlier, conductor Stephen Gunzenhauser, who pled with me to pursue any career besides conservatory and conducting, as the market was and is so bleak.)
While my mom and dad both emphasized the Classical repertoire, mom in particular also loved music theater and Broadway, and this too was a part of how we were brought up — the classics, of course, notably The Music Man (“Ya Got Trouble, Right here in River City” was a family catchphrase growing up)
I could, and still can, recite Harold Hill’s monologues with a somewhat disturbing accuracy all these years later. “Do you wish to acknowledge the presence of a poool table here in your community?” And of course who can escape the coincidence that I am now married to a librarian (My Marian) “what can I say, in here, to make you hear, I love you madly, madly, Madam librarian?”
And then were other classics like Oliver and Fiddler on the Roof, whose “Tradition” summed up my mom’s views on religion an family. She was half Jewish, on her father’s side, so maybe it makes sense after all — it was “in the genes” as she’d say. And in its shorthanded way the song tilted toward her spiritual sense that perhaps came through from her Jewish grandmother — how tradition and religion are really the same thing translated by an unknowable god.
The heart wrencher she always sang to us as children — Sunrise, Sunset — if she’d been herself, I’ve not doubt this was song she wanted us to play at our weddings. In hindsight, in hindsight, in hindisght….it was a mistake to not include this in our ceremony. Maybe we’ll keep that promise years from now, in her memory.
Mom filled our lives with music, and for me it was the Classical stuff that stuck, but she had a much wider taste than that, broadening out from musical theater. I can’t remember a road trip that wasn’t filled over and over with cassette tapes of Motown and fifties rockers — the ones that stick in my mind are “Sea Cruise” by Frankie Ford,
“Dancing in the Streets” from Martha and the Vandellas,
and “Keep a-Knockin'” from Little Richard.
And too many more to name.
Mom’s love of all things French affected her musical taste as well, and one of my mom and dad’s first dates in Washington was a concert by Charles Aznavour, who she responded to even after Alzheimer’s hit.
And lest we forget Jacques Brel, whose anthem she shared with my dad all the more in the final stages of their ability to cope with her condition. It always seemed to hit my father harder than my mom, for pretty obvious reasons, as you read the translation.
It was only after ALZ that the infamous Harriet-Elvis period emerged…although Mom was a rock and roller, it wasn’t until these later years that she became so enamored of The King. Everything Elvis. I wonder if somehow it was striking a chord that was missed, or denied, from her youth — because Elvis was never among the singers we listened to growing up. All of a sudden, though, from Hound Dog
to Can’t Stop Loving You and Can’t Help Falling In Love With You
to In the Ghetto, which always made her tear up.
she loved him above all others. The “big sound” made sense with love of the Russian romantics and other classical composers; Elvis’s majestic entrance to Also Sprach Zarathustra was much of the same tenor. The Big Elvis Sound was all the more enjoyed in the restored quadraphonic system I paid for to have installed in my parent’s Cape May house, and the library of quad 8 tracks kept her in glorious supersonic 70s surround sound by the King and his band. Just like my dad had installed speakers in every room in Falls Church, mom now had Elvis blasting from all corners of the Benton Avenue in his ’70s glory.
To the end it gave her almost uncontrollable enthusiasm and joy. In her nursing home finale, Elvis was the be-all and end-all. The staff always knew the easiest way to affect her mood — put on Elvis! (Which we had had programmed into her iPod.) Her last letter, which was dictated to me, went out to Priscilla Presley in 2008; to our surprise she wrote back, thanking mom in a touching tribute.
She also loved big-sound pop artists ABBA — the album Super Trouper was a permanent soundtrack to my early years. I confess I still listen to it, and in fact own every ABBA album, and even created a ABBA resurgence among my high school friends long before Mama Mia and Abba Gold.
I never much got into pop music of our generation with my mom, though I think my brother and sister did; I know she made some effort to encounter Stone Temple Pilots and music of that era, though I wasn’t really around to witness that. With me, she revisited some classic rock when I began playing music by Billy Joel and particularly Elton John, whose Bennie and the Jets was one her favorites (although it’s pretty hard to carry off as a solo act! Tiny Dancer more so, and mom loved them both.) My mom and Dad and I had the chance to see Elton live in the late ’90s on the lawn at Wolf Trap, and I’m pretty sure she was standing and dancing the whole time.
I do remember sharing with her one of my favorite (relatively) new pop songs, The Killers’ “Human” during the last year I spent with her and my dad in Cape May in 2009, walking her through the lyrics word by word and having to fight back tears.
I also know she went to a Madonna concert with my Dad in Atlantic City in her last years there, and loved the theatrical bombast of it all, and also as a feminist, admired Madonna for the star she had become. I also remember a Tony Bennett concert we attended in A.C., a totally different vibe — but mom was up dancing in her seat when Tony started singing Sinatra songs.
She found a spirituality in music as well, not just in the fun and happiness and camaraderie of rock and roll, but also explicitly religious works. Beethoven’s Pastoral was a kind of hymn to her connection with nature: Here in the finale, a storm rains down and then a glorious clearing emerges.
As a college student she also performed Handel’s Messiah
with Hood’s choir and she passed on her love of the work to me and my siblings. No Christmas passed with its constant sounds, along with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, which we paid yearly homage to at the Washington Ballet and which my wife and I still see annually at the Kennedy Center.
Overall, it was as much how she listened to music as what the music was that mattered to her, and was what she passed on to me — be it Beethoven or Elvis.
In the classical music sense, I wrote about Grandmom Fox in her passing as having her epitome in Mussorgsky’s Grand Gate of Kiev, a big, dramatic finale to a colorful life. I intentionally include Stokowski’s re-orchestration of Ravel’s version here because she favored it — an even bigger sound than than the original orchestration.
For my mom, the finale has to be Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, no less dramatic and outsized, but so much happier and full of joy. This is the Telarc recording I grew up with, Ormandy leading the Philadelphians.
Even when Alzheimer’s started to interfere with her ability to speak clearly, it was uncanny that her ability to follow complex symphonic music never dissipated. I’d often put on the Organ Symphony or Beethoven or Dvorak’s Cello Concerto at the nursing home, and she’d conduct measure for measure. The only documentation I think I have of this is a quick video of her spontaneously giving her best Stokowski impression when the credits started rolling at the end of Star Wars. I remember at the time scrambling for my phone and thinking, this has to be saved…which I’m glad it was, and it makes a fitting grand finale.