Music has had deep, enriching effect on life of columnist

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I think music has been a part of my life since I was old enough to hear. My parents were not musicians, but they loved music and had good singing voices. So has my sister, Elizabeth, and my father’s sister, my Aunt Maud Gallagher, and her son Harry.

I started singing at an early age. One of my memories is of being placed standing up on the bar in Tom Mooney’s saloon one night on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side and singing “It’s Only a Shanty in Old Shanty Town.”

I remember most of the song. What was a pre-school kid doing in a saloon? Tom was a political district leader and I doubt anyone challenged what he did in his place. I don’t remember being given an alcoholic drink.

I learned to whistle at an early age and still indulge in the habit. When I worked for a corporation in Manhattan, I learned that the CEO was a whistler, too, and on occasion I would hear him in the hallways of the executive floor. He might have heard me as well, but we were never rivals.

I remember doing homework while listening to WQXR when we lived in Elmhurst. Neither of my parents knew any technical matters of music and their knowledge of what we call classical music might have been limited to listening to records of Enrico Caruso. It seems that at one time everyone in America listened to Caruso records.

I took one year of piano lessons when I was an adult. My sister remembers having a player piano in the apartment where I was born on Tompkins Street — now the FDR Drive — on the Lower East Side. She took piano lessons when she was a child and sang in a church choir at an early age.

For one term I sang in the Newtown High School choir. I sang for a few years in the Queens College Choral Society. Since early 2008, I have been a member of the choir of the First Presbyterian Church of Forest Hills, where I have been a member for many years. David Yurick, the organist and choir director, is a fine musician and knows how to get the best responses not only from the choir but from the congregation.

My first records were a set called “The Heart of La Boheme,” with a young Licia Albanese and Beniamino Gigli. It was wonderful and it hooked me on opera, especially Puccini. I was fortunate to see or hear Albanese many times at the Metropolitan Opera and to me she is one of the great singers of my time. I measure all singers against her and her frequent partner, the tenor Jussi Bjorling.

The record she and Bjorling made of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” is a gem. The elegance and passion of their singing is extraordinary. Albanese’s recordings of “La Traviata” and “La Boheme” with Toscanini are classics. She was Toscanini’s favorite soprano.

The power of music has struck me many times, perhaps first when my nephew Eugene was visiting my parents and me in Elmhurst. I had a recording of the “Addio alla Madre” from Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavelleria rusticana,” in which Turiddu cries out “Mama!” several times. Eugene was not in pre-school when he heard this. He began to cry and wanted his mother so desperately as the result of that music that his father had to come from Brooklyn to take him home.

I did not appreciate chamber music until Elaine took up the cello some years ago. In a concert in Brooklyn Heights, during the playing of Beethoven’s “Archduke” trio, one of the movements was particularly moving to me and I realized during that Andante how much music has meant in my life and what a pleasure and source of comfort it has been to me.

The next day, I saw Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at the Whitestone Cinemas and again experienced the power of music to reach not only my emotions, but my thoughts as well. Two masterpieces within 24 hours was an exceptional treat.

I have many favorites, in opera and other forms of classical music, but the more I hear Johann Sebastian Bach, the more I understand how music can be a tremendous influence on our lives. To me, he was a genius beyond compare.

Some years ago, I read that someone said Mozart wrote for the soul, Beethoven wrote for the mind and Bach wrote for God. You do not have to be a believer to treasure the magnificence of all three composers, as well as so many others, whose music has enriched our lives beyond any estimation.

Posted 12:00 am, November 4, 2011
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