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Unfinished Symphony
copyright 2005 by H. Paul Shuch

My very earliest memories are of music.

Specifically, classical music. In particular, Schubert. To be exact, his Symphony Number Eight.

The Unfinished.

I try to blame my father. He, in turn, blames my mother. Dad was self-educated, having immigrated to Chicago from Poland (by way of Danzig, Liverpool and Toronto) in the depths of Europe's depression (which, I am told, was even more severe than the one suffered in the US). In America, my father was told, the streets were paved with gold.

And the air was filled with music. And culture. Things to which he had never been exposed.

I suppose that is what attracted Dad to my mother. Mom was a college girl, from a good and prosperous family, and perhaps a little bit spoiled. (Today you might call her a JAP. When they wed in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the term took on another meaning altogether.)

My father's brother, Harry, was friends with Danny Thomas, the Lebanese immigrant then headlining in Chicago's comedy clubs. Harry took my parents to one of his shows, shortly after the outbreak of the War. Dad had just enlisted, and attended in khaki.

Uncle Harry had tipped Thomas off, and midway through the show, the comedian invited my father up on stage. "Tomorrow, this brave young man," Thomas told the audience, "is about to embark on a journey that will require more courage than he can imagine. Please join me in wishing him Godspeed. Tomorrow, this young man is getting married."

And they did -- accompanied by classical music, to which Mom had introduced Dad. It was something he came to love for a lifetime, a passion that grew stronger and lasted longer than his four marriages, combined. And Dad passed that passion on to me, at an early age.

I must have been two or three when my father introduced me to Schubert's Eighth Symphony. Long before I had any idea who Schubert was, Dad used to play it for me every night before I went to bed, and he invented a clever bedtime story by way of accompaniment. Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, you see, features pianissimo passages punctuated by occasional and unexpected fortissimos. Not exactly the dynamic extremes of Hayden's Surprise, but a close second. So, to make the story fit the music, Dad told me every night of a young lad walking to school. Every time the orchestra swelled, the tale had him dropping his books. The Boy Who Dropped His Books became my nightly ritual. I wouldn't go to sleep without it.

One night, my parents went out, and my mother's brother Jerry came to babysit. Dad briefed him thoroughly on our nighttime ritual: play the record, tell the story, tuck me in. Only, he forgot to tell my uncle which record!

To his credit, Uncle Jerry had the story down cold. But the music didn't fit it, and I cried accordingly. When he comprehended that the story required one particular record, he dutifully worked his way through a whole stack of 78s. "Is this the right symphony? Is this? How about this one?"

What must have seemed to Jerry an eternity later, he finally stumbled upon Schubert's Eighth, told the story for the umpteenth time, and I drifted off to sleep.

That was more than 55 years ago. Uncle Jerry subsequently raised his own kids on the classics, as did I. Classical music became a central part of all our lives. But to this day, I can't listed to Schubert's Unfinished Symphony without nodding off.

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this page last updated 14 June 2007
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