Johannes Brahms: Symphony Number 4, in E minor

If I had feared entering middle school, the thought of going to high school filled me with dread. My older siblings had told me stories of how seniors made freshman carry their books, dunked their heads in toilets and performed other degrading acts on them. Much to my relief, because my class was the first to go to the new middle school, which was for grades seven through nine, by the time we got to high school, we were sophomores, and so we didn’t have to suffer the indignity of hazing.

In contrast, I actually found a ready-made subculture waiting for me which greeted me with open arms—the swim team. Oddly enough, the swim team had a number of individuals with similar tastes in music to mine. We were the underdogs of the athletes—not necessarily muscle-bound like the football players or nose-bleed kings like the basketball players—and got attention by relying on our wits. The pecking order on most teams is determined by physical prowess, but on the swim team, you could also rise to the top of the heap by demonstrating keen mental abilities as well.

The year I joined the team, there were a number of fast swimmers who were to be admired, but the real leaders were two brothers, who had high I.Q.s and SAT scores and swam well—the Mankowski brothers. Paul and Mark (respectively one and two years older than I) came from a family everyone regarded as smart. Their mother taught high school English and the father, though a quality control engineer in a factory, had gone to the University of Chicago for two years on the G.I. Bill after World War II. They had three bright sisters as well: a set of twins my age and a little sister two years younger. Some of us used to rendez-vous at their house on weekends before going out to parties.

The Mankowski’s household was completely different from mine. They all listened to classical music, read The New Yorker, discussed classic works of literature, and studied languages. This opened up a whole other world for me. I felt so uncultured in their presence that I devoted myself to turning myself into an “intellectual.” (Partly because I had a crush on one of the sisters.) I read voraciously, studied the works of great artists, and began buying or checking out from the library classical albums that the Mankowskis recommended.

My three years in high school, therefore, turned out to be one of the most fertile in my intellectual life. The Mankowskis introduced me to quite of the few pieces that I will write in the next few weeks. Others I stumbled upon while browsing through the shelves at the library. And finally, our town was blessed at having two classical FM public radio stations, which I began to listen to religiously. My parents began to worry about me at this time, but I felt as if someone was giving my brain a massage and I had to make up for lost time.

One of the first pieces I remember the Mankowski’s telling me about was Brahm’s Fourth Symphony. The recording they had was by Carlo Maria Giulini, who had taken over the baton of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra after Fritz Reiner died. The daughters pointed out to me that the rock group “Yes” had done a synthesized version on one of their albums, and the parents didn’t seem to particularly mind. The third movement is a marked allegro giocoso or “fast and jocose,” and to me embodies ebullience and joy. I also love the first movement, which seethes with passion and near climaxes that reminded me of the constant crushes I experienced as hormones began coursing seriously through my adolescent body. Brahms was probably the greatest Romantic composer that lived and many of his pieces have a movement that nearly reduces me to tears. The second movement does that to me, and though the last movement is entitled allegro energico e passionato its energy makes the symphony end with an upbeat, happy feeling.

Though I pretty much lost touch with the Mankowskis after I graduated from college, I think of them often, and wonder how much duller my life would have been not having met them. They will resurface in these pages as I write about other pieces I discovered in their company. I am eternally in their debt.

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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