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Of Banana Splits and the Classics

August 5, 2008

My sister forwarded me a menu last week from an early 1950s Woolworth’s diner counter, which she intended to give me price shock. It sort of did: A ham salad sandwich went for 30 cents, a slice of apple pie or layer cake was 15 cents, and a banana split cost a whole 25 cents.
Not exactly gourmet dining, mind you, but those prices set off waves of nostalgia in me, most seriously for the live music performances available on radio during the 1940s and 50's, and later on television. Those were my teen and early college years. Contemplating what was available back then, today’s all-classical radio stations rarely measure up to the excitement of the old formats. I miss old-time radio far more than I do banana splits.

There were a lot of classical broadcasts even where I grew up, a small river town of 5,000 in southern Louisiana. I was born and lived literally one block from the levee of the Mississippi River. That location held special advantages, for the river acted as a kind of conduit for distant AM radio stations, especially during their nighttime broadcasts.
Music from Anywhere, U.S.A.
After all, the River Road — as the Mississippi is known in Louisiana — extends as far north as Minneapolis-St. Paul, with tributaries reaching as far east as Pittsburgh, and as far west as Oklahoma City, Kansas City, and Omaha, not to mention the big river cities such as St. Louis and Cincinnati.

Of course, there was also nearby Baton Rouge and, about an hour’s ride south, New Orleans. When nighttime atmospherics were right, I could even pick up live concerts of the National Symphony Orchestra from Mexico City, conducted by Carlos Chávez, no less.

You didn’t need fancy equipment to pick up those concerts. I had only a little table radio, a bit over a foot long and about six inches high. True, there were no all-classical stations then, but there were so many great things to hear on AM because it carries so much further than FM. Alas, I fear such experiences were not available to Californians. Mountains forbade it.

Before the 1960s, there was a period when culture and refined behavior were looked upon as desirable assets, not pejoratives. So we had a lot of good classical music available, along with a large amount of every kind of pop and folk music you can think of. Even smaller radio stations considered the broadcasting of some sort of classical music a public obligation, beyond the fact that it drew a broad audience. It was just expected.

Once I’d decided I was seriously interested in music, I hungered for all the repertory I could find. I wanted to be able to spot Haydn or Brahms as I tried to absorb the basics. Music became my nightly routine, and occasionally a daytime event as well. That sort of learning has the advantage of nondiscrimination and I sponged it up.

Daytime broadcasts included a few special programs, some of them pretty highfalutin. In the 1940s, CBS had an afternoon program for students titled "Invitation to Learning," which covered a number of subjects in the arts and sciences. One afternoon might feature astronomy, the next literature, and the third music. Tuesdays were live classical music performances, usually recitals by major soloists and chamber music groups. And there was no mollycoddling!
Schoenberg for the Kids
It was on one such Tuesday program that I first encountered Schoenberg’s then-new String Trio, Op. 45. Even today that’s considered a tough listen, and I’ll admit that I was repelled by it at the time. Only later could I recognize it as one of the composer’s greatest achievements. Yet radio programmers were throwing 12-tone Schoenberg on the air for a grammar and high school audience. Who’d dare that today?

Live performances by glamorous organizations were the clear stars of the airwaves. I could hear the Metropolitan Opera performances and the NBC Symphony on Saturdays. Toscanini was rarely there but the guest conductors read like a "Who’s-Who" list. The New York Philharmonic’s Sunday afternoon broadcasts and the Boston Symphony live on Monday nights were musts.

When the Philharmonic took summers off, their time slot was filled by concerts of the CBS Symphony, under conductor Wayne Barlow, who often included premieres. There was also the First Piano Quartet, rather short-lived performing group, which was quite splendid. I’ve always suspected that the expense of carting around four concert grands may have done them in.

Leopold Stokowski on NBC

Toscanini’s frequent podium absences didn’t trouble me too much, as NBC’s guest conductors usually selected more interesting repertoire. On this broadcast, I first heard Erich Kleiber doing Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia, Leopold Stokowski memorably conducting Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony, the premiere of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. Basic repertoire, especially the Three Bs, was naturally paramount to orchestral programming. Yet radio didn’t stint on controversial compositions — as opposed to today’s “just-don’t-frighten-the-horses” policies.
The Power of Discovery
One especially memorable weekend I received double exposure to Anton Bruckner. Bruno Walter led the Sunday Philharmonic concert through the composer’s Seventh Symphony, and the following evening, the Boston Symphony played the Eighth. Even at about 17, I was smitten. In fact, I begged my mother for a recording of a Bruckner Symphony as my next birthday present. She came home with a large album of six or seven 78-rpm records of Bruckner’s Ninth — the Ninth, largely because it was the only Bruckner the Baton Rouge record shop had had in stock.

Bruno Walter

Weekends were great opportunities. On Sunday mornings, CBS aired organ recitals from Harvard with E. Power Biggs playing major repertory. Those were followed on ABC by the Fine Arts Quartet in Chicago. Saturday’s were the Met in late morning, the NBC Symphony in the late afternoon, and in between, Orchestras of the Nation.

That was my great favorite. It fascinated me. The network would hop around the country capturing live concerts here or there, by orchestras not regularly covered by network programming. On this broadcast, I first heard the San Francisco Symphony in live performance. (I already owned some of SFS recordings with Pierre Monteux, including one of Darius Milhaud’s Protée Suite.)

One week we might hear the San Antonio Symphony, the next the Santa Monica Symphony, the next the Indianapolis or Hartford orchestras. This held out the advantages of a richer repertory than the Big Boys usually offered. The Santa Monica Symphony introduced me to Aram Khatchaturian, St. Louis to Bernstein, Seattle to Ernest von Dohnányi’s once popular Suite in F-sharp Minor. (Why that last has so thoroughly faded from orchestral activity puzzles me.) I also remember a Kansas City Philharmonic concert, whose centerpiece was Alexander Glazunov’s Fourth Symphony.

Years later, in the 1970s, I happen to meet one of the program’s original producers. He told me that his major problem lay in trying to avoid too much duplication of repertory. “Four out of five conductors were insisting we broadcast their Brahms Fourth. It took diplomacy to straighten that out, as our fees were not exactly stellar.”
The Cream Rises to the Top
Radio occasionally founded a major classical career. Soprano Eileen Farrell began her career with a daily 15-minute recital during the early 1940s, Eileen Farrell Presents. She sang that program five days a week for six years. And Farrell sang everything: Broadway show tunes, opera or operetta selections, Schubert lieder, you name it. Unfortunately, I rarely heard those broadcasts except when sick and home from school. When I did, they served as a kind of hush puppy for me before my having to put up with Mama’s soap operas. On the other hand, Beverly Sills got her start singing laundry soap commercials: “Rinso white, Rinso white, happy little washday song.”

Eileen Farrell on the radio

Farrell would later capture the music world’s attention when conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos engaged her to perform and record Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, with the New York Philharmonic. That, and joining conductor Thor Johnson to sing the American premiere of Strauss’ Four Last Songs in Cincinnati, were her breakthroughs.

The advent of television in 1949 and the early 50's began well. We had the occasional Toscanini program, the weekly Bell Telephone Hour, and the Firestone Hour, which featured many of the world's major vocalists, string virtuosos, and pianists. Indeed, you can still see bits of those telecasts on the Classical Arts Showcase programs, telecast locally on KMTP from the North Bay. (I know of devotees in Albany, New York, and Evanston, Illinois.)

The 50s also saw a major increase in all-classical radio stations, buoyed by FM broadcasting. One of the last great radio shows, sponsored by American Airlines, was Music 'til Dawn. Those all-nighters were played over important stations in major cities around the country. Variety was limited early on, as few major stations kept a large library of the classics. As KCBS’ Dave McElhatton once said, “We played the waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier a lot, and I mean a lot.”

That changed with time. Sometime in the 1970s I was getting to bed late one night when the announcer mentioned a listener’s complaint that they never programmed “advanced” modern music. And what to my wondering ears did appear, as a dare, but Schoenberg’s loudly dissonant Five Pieces for Orchestra. At 1 a.m.? I chuckled over that for a good two weeks.

I never again found anything remotely avant-garde in late-night programming. But there could be assertive music. The late Gordon Engler, for years programmer for KKHI, surprised me by explaining that, “We’re not programming to help people get to sleep. We’re helping those who are trying to stay awake: cab drivers, cops, firemen, hospital staff, ship’s officers, and such.”

Those are just the things I miss most, and I’m sure I have forgotten many others. In the 21st century, the finest variety available to classical music lovers is found on Internet radio sites. But that’s another story.

Still, isn’t it odd how being reminded of the ancient price of a banana split can dredge up memories, so long dormant?

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Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.