His domestick habits, so far as they are known, were those of a severe student. He drank little strong drink of any kind, and fed without excess in quantity, and in his earlier years without delicacy of choice. In his youth he studied late at night; but afterwards changed his hours, and rested in bed from nine to four in the summer, and five in winter. The course of his day was best known after he was blind. When he first rose he heard a chapter in the Hebrew Bible, and then studied till twelve; then took some exercise for an hour; then dined; then plaid on the organ, and sung, or heard another sing; then studied to six; then entertained his visiters, till eight; then supped, and, after a pipe of tobacco and a glass of water, went to bed.
— Samuel Johnson, “Milton,” The Lives of the Poets
Samuel Johnson, in a famous essay on biography, shows the importance of minute particulars: how they bring a person to life and create reader interest:
It is frequently objected to relations of particular lives, that they are not distinguished by any striking or wonderful vicissitudes. The scholar who passed his life among his books, the merchant who conducted only his own affairs, the priest whose sphere of action was not extended beyond that of his duty, are considered as no proper objects of public regard, however they might have excelled in their several stations, whatever might have been their learning, integrity, and piety. But this notion arises from false measures of excellence and dignity, and must be eradicated by considering that, in the esteem of uncorrupted reason, what is of most use is of most value.
It is, indeed, not improper to take honest advantages of prejudice, and to gain attention by a celebrated name; but the business of the biographer is often to pass slightly over those performances and incidents which produce vulgar greatness, to lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life, where exterior appendages are cast aside, and men excel each other only by prudence and by virtue. The account of Thuanus is, with great propriety, said by its author to have been written that it might lay open to posterity the private and familiar character of that man, cujus ingenium et candorem ex ipsius scriptis sunt olim semper miraturi, whose candour and genius will to the end of time be by his writings preserved in admiration.
There are many invisible circumstances which, whether we read as inquirers after natural or moral knowledge, whether we intend to enlarge our science or increase our virtue, are more important than public occurrences. Thus Salust, the great master of nature, has not forgot, in his account of Catiline, to remark that his walk has now gone quick, and again slow, as an indication of a mind revolving something with violent commotion. Thus the story of Melancthon affords a striking lecture on the value of time, by informing us that, when he made an appointment, he expected not only the hour but the minute to be fixed, that the day might not run out in the idleness of suspense; and all the plans and enterprises of De Wit are now of less importance to the world than that part of his personal character which represents him as careful of his health, and negligent of his life.
But biography has often been allotted to writers who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the performance. They rarely afford any other account than might be collected from public papers, but imagine themselves writing a life when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments; and so little regard the manners or behaviour of their heroes that more knowledge may be gained of a man’s real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree and ended with his funeral.
In his preface to Letters of Theodore Dreiser (1959), edited by Dressier scholar Robert H. Elias, Elias, who knew Dreiser personally, noted that letters “that simply record data, biographical or bibliographical, or that are primarily love letters” had been excluded. My former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr., said up front, without hesitation, that this was a mistake, a serious omission. I agreed.
I happened once to mention to Dr. Colp the Penguin series of biographies: Brief Lives. I had purchased one of them. Dr. Colp said that a brief life leaving out most or many important details amounted to an insufficient biography. I realized that he was right.
I have a good friend whom I share with my wife. He was a former teaching colleague of hers.
He reads all my posts — I am very happy to have him as a regular reader. He tends to admire my writings, which is very welcome, although if he disagrees with something (such as an opinion of mine about an author), he will tell me or my wife. He is a thoughtful person and reads with care and attention. But his criticisms are not harsh.
He has mentioned several times to both of us having enjoyed my writings and thoughts on classical music. He is an accomplished and serious pianist and a lover of music, about which he is knowledgeable.
I said I was glad that he enjoyed my posts about music. “You know,” I said, “with my limited technical knowledge of music, I am surprised to find I can write about it. But it seems I can.”
He said something in response to the effect that my writings on music read like those of a music critic.
Thinking more about this, I wrote my friend a follow up email, the text of which follows.
Yesterday we were talking about early influences, namely music and art.
I seem to be able to “think musically.”
Even though I can’t read music or play an instrument.
How is it that I know (or think I do) that Bartók outranks Stravinsky? How and why is it that when I was listening once to folksongs by Bartók, I was reminded of Porgy and Bess? And, then (this was in the past), I happened to read something about Gershwin somewhere and found out that he had used pentatonic scales in Porgy and Bess and realized that Bartók did the same with folksongs that used ancient modalities.
As I said, I seem to have always been able to think musically. My father graduated from Harvard when I was around four or five with a degree in music. I don’t recall it well, but he had 78 RPM records of classical music that he would play when doing assignments. I recall that I loved the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 — if one can do that at a very early age, one is inherently musical. I enjoyed listening to my mother play classical music on the piano around bedtime. I liked some other works I recall such as Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite. Plus kids’ songs such as “Rain, Rain, Go Away (Come Back Again Some Other Day).” I still remember the words and the basic tune. We had a scratchy old record of it which I wanted to hear over and over again.
I seem to have a photographic memory for music. I always recall what the pieces were and remember them exactly, going way back and extending through my lifetime. If I hear a different rendition at some later date, I can tell it’s not the same. (This includes popular music and rock.) How is it that I remember both the music and the actual pieces, including what they were?
For example, on the first day of school I attended in the seventh grade in my new hometown, Canton, our teacher, Mrs. Sullivan, led us from the piano in singing. The songs were “Over the River and Through the Woods, To Grandmother’s House We Go. The horse knows the way, to carry the sleigh”; and, “Oh, Those Golden Slippers.” I can hear the songs still. I can hear Mrs. Sullivan playing — can seem to almost remember how that old piano sounded — remember what the songs were and the melodies.
Music is linear, like mathematics. I think linearly. I always did very well in math. Music and subjects like algebra are left brained.
I never had to develop an interest in music, like, say, someone who says, or thinks, they should take up tennis or golf for some reason, and begins by taking lessons.
It was similar to my love of books and reading in that it was never an interest that was part of academics or coursework. The best interests develop naturally this way.
So that when I was in high school, I began to seriously develop a taste for and knowledge of classical music. It came naturally.
But when it comes to playing and performing, I could never, should I have tried, come close to my siblings’ proficiency.
A footnote: My former therapist, Dr. Colp’s, intellectual development seemed similar, in some respects. He grew up in a very intellectually stimulating atmosphere of books and ideas. He told me that the life of the mind was like breathing for him.
I was very fortunate to have grown up in a home were music was a part of everyday life and where aesthetic enrichment and appreciation came with the territory. Music has always been an important part of my life.
My former therapist, the late Ralph Colp, Jr., was an extraordinary man.
Posted here (above) is one of his many book reviews. It shows how well Dr. Colp could write, with great acumen and sensitivity.
We had many discussions about writing and writers. He told me that, like most young writers, he used to obsess at the beginning over style. But he said he soon overcame this and was able to not worry too much about it. His writing is notable for its clarity and straightforwardness.
Note that in this review of Geoffrey Keynes’s autobiography, Dr. Colp reminisces about a visit he had with Keynes. Geoffrey Keynes (brother of John Maynard Keynes), like Dr. Colp, was a physician-scholar. Keynes is well known as a scholar (and lover) of William Blake. Dr. Colp told me about having met Keynes. I had told him about my interest in Blake.
I knew of Keynes before becoming a patient of Dr. Colp and have several beautiful Blake books edited by the former.
I attended a concert by Bulgarian pianist Maria Prinz at Carnegie Hall last evening. It consisted of:
Tchaikovsky, The Seasons, op. 37a
Prokofiev, Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, op. 75
I had third row center seats. I felt keenly aware of what a difference it makes to hear a piece live. Somehow this seems especially true — or at least very applicable — with the piano. The sonorities of same. The percussive effect. And so on. I wish I could comment more knowledgeably and articulately — I am neither a pianist nor an expert.
A typically great New York audience. The hall was almost full on a weekday evening. Everyone totally into the music. No one claps inappropriately between individual pieces.
You would never see such a performance being given in a concert hall anywhere else in the USA.
The twelve pieces that make up Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons are so evocative of the words, so descriptive and expressive. I wish more Tchaikovsky pieces “in miniature,” so to speak, could be heard. These ones are gems.
May I suggest, if you are in the mood, that you try Tchaikovsky’s a cappella choral pieces (settings of texts by Pushkin, Lermontov, Tsiganov, Ogarev; the composer, Tchaikovsky; and others), a beautiful LP record of which is posted on this site at
The Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet pieces are brilliant and captivating. Yet they leave me sort of cold: In other words, while I was impressed and intrigued by the arresting rhythms and melodies, they left me at bottom unsatisfied, speaking as a listener.
Ms. Prinz plays with great conviction and mastery, yet there is no showmanship. It is the music that matters and the music which comes through.
It’s okay for the mind to wander even with … great music because music both fixes the attention and engages you … while, at the same time, stirring up thought in all directions and energizing the mind, so that at one moment I am totally focused on “musical ideas” and my mind seems fused with the piece, its “inner logic,” and then, seconds later, I am thinking … of [something else which] there was no particular reason for me to associate with the piece.
I was also thinking about the concept of “unconflicted interest,” a term used by former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr., MD. Having and experiencing this type or level of engagement, so to speak, with something such as an area of study or a cultural or learning experience can revive one from dullness or apathy. I was tired at the end of a long day in the City which began with a dentist’s appointment. The concert revived me.
It is notable (and does not need commenting upon) how music stirs the listener up: the notes and harmonies; the crescendos; the forward momentum. One’s thoughts are also stirred up.
The mind wanders into bypaths, entertaining thoughts both commonplace and (perhaps) profound, and calling up a train of associations.
For example: I was thinking, as often occurs to me when I have the opportunity to experience Russian music or literature, of how glad I am that I learned Russian (though I never mastered it).
I did it because I wanted to. (Motivation is everything.) Yet I almost failed on the first try. I took Russian again at Columbia, which had an excellent Russian department, and succeeded on the second try.
This shows the importance of having an instructor/teacher, or a mentor or coach, who doesn’t underestimate or give up on oneself. Or perhaps the converse, your sticking with the pursuit of a goal.
Then, with the Prokofiev, I thought about Shakespeare. Leading to a digression — I guess one would say, another one — a digression upon a digression.
In Romeo and Juliet, there are robust young males: Romeo’s friend Mercutio, for example; and his cousin and best friend Benvolio. And, in Hamlet, Hamlet’s friend Horatio. Our high school English teacher, Mr. _______, used to say that Horatio was the quintessential true blue friend and good guy.
My mind wandered into another byway: a thicket comprised of thoughts about the teacher and my relationship with him, and a recent exchange I had by email with my brother.
I told my brother that I felt our English teacher — who was one of the best teachers in the school and was respected if not revered, because of his intellect and mastery of the subject matter (he was not “dictatorial,” but he was a teacher whose teaching you did not take lightly) — favored him. Favored my brother, that is. Was partial to him. And, couldn’t help showing it.
I always felt inhibited in his classroom (though I learned so much, as much as I ever did in any other school or class). I worked very hard, and the teacher respected my intellect and writing ability. But he would sometimes give me lower grades than I deserved, it seemed. This did not bother me that much — I was not grade conscious and would never complain — but I sometimes felt that he was hard on me. Though not always. He once gave me an A plus on a paper. My grades in his class kept getting better each term. He praised my writing highly at least once and appreciated my contributions to class discussions.
But he became lifelong friends with my brother. He once told my mother, at a parent-teacher night (she told me what he said), that my brother and I were completely different personality-wise. I didn’t know what this meant. And, something I noticed was that sometimes the teacher out of the blue would show irritation with me or pick on or make fun of me for no reason.
After years of wondering, I think I know. The mystery of why our English teacher never quite took to me as a person seems to be cleared up (in my mind).
Sometimes he (the teacher) would make an offhand remark and I would sort of tense up. This was because I feared him (as an authority figure, among other things) and found it hard to relax in his presence. It seemed (or seems to me, in retrospect) that the teacher was annoyed because I was not quite in step with him and didn’t get his jokes or witticisms, or couldn’t get into it with him. Some of the jokes were at my expense. At other times, I knew quite well what he was saying, but I felt stiff and self-conscious nevertheless and found it hard to relax and be convivial.
I emailed my brother just recently:
Mr. _______ thought that, as well as you being a good student whom he had great success with, you were a REGULAR GUY. And I was not (in his view). I think Mr. ______ could be petty, narrow minded, and judgmental about people. And cruel about what he perceived to be obvious weakness. He underestimated me, though he did give me credit for intellectual ability.
He acknowledged that I was intelligent. He underestimated me totally as a person.
He saw me as a sort of shallow cipher. Like a character, Robert Shallow in Henry IV, Part 2. Whereas you were a Prince Hal or like Hamlet’s friend Horatio.
You did not experience this. I did.
My brother was not sympathetic. “I think you obsess too much about former teachers,” he wrote back. “If he gave you credit for intelligence, of which you have plenty, what did he underestimate?”
Some people think I tend to obsess over the past and ruminate too much on past events, slights, and abuses (as I perceive them). What I think occurs with thoughtful, sentient persons — and I believe it is a healthy thing; or at least a sign of intellect, of reflection (my former therapist said, “The life of the mind. It’s like breathing.”) — is that their mind never stops churning over the past and reinterpreting it, or interpreting it anew, never stops making new “discoveries” about oneself and others, including the long departed. Something will occur that induces the mind to recall something long buried in the consciousness, and, then, by analogy, the mind makes a connection; and, often, a clarification, a new “discovery.” It’s akin to what presumably occurs, optimally, in therapy or when a writer creates a work of fiction based on his or her own experience.
A further thought: People’s judgments of others can be superficial, not well founded, and hurtful if not cruel. My English teacher thought I was an uptight, rigid sort of person, an earnest student but not quite a regular guy. Not the type you would want to have a beer with. This was wrong. We write off people with such superficial judgments. We often do them a disservice. It often seems that this happens in the workplace or at school or in some such setting where people form quick judgments when encountering you in a larger group and deciding whom they would like to be friends with or get to know.
Often such judgments are superficial and misleading. A girlfriend of one of my college roommates once told a group of their friends in a bull session that she found me to be a sort of cold fish who never showed any feeling. One of my roommates, John Ferris (who later became a psychiatrist and is still in practice), responded angrily to her. (He recounted the conversation to me shortly afterwards.) He told her: “You are absolutely wrong. Roger is a very demonstrative person.” My roommate’s clueless girlfriend took modesty and reserve on my part for lack of any emotional awareness.
Addendum: Here is one of Beethoven’s variations on a setting of an Irish folksong, “The last rose of summer,” by George Thomson. It is performed in an arrangement for flute and piano by Ms. Prinz and the flautist Patrick Gallois.
This was true of George Cohen of Newton, Massachusetts, a well known and very successful piano teacher.
My father, who became a professional pianist and himself a piano teacher, was a student of Mr. Cohen in his youth. My younger brother took lessons with Mr. Cohen for years and was one of his best students.
I myself decided that I wanted to try taking piano lessons for a second time when I was a junior in college. I had taken them briefly at age eleven with a very nice, attractive, and vivacious Japanese woman, Marsha Fukui, in Cambridge, Mass. We hit it off, but I lost interest in piano after a few months and stopped taking lessons.
I tried again in my late teens, when I was in college, with Mr. Cohen. I thought the fact that I was my father’s son and that my father must have been one of his best students would have meant something, also the fact that my younger brother was his student for a long time. This didn’t seem to matter to Mr. Cohen. Personal relationships were not of interest to him. One could say, why should they matter? You were there to learn how to play the piano. But in my case — from my perspective — such things are very important. I have to feel connected to the other person, have to be able to make conversation. If I don’t, I can’t get anywhere with them.
But that’s not the key point of this post. I wish to share a couple of amazing, serendipitous things that happened to me. One involved my lessons with Mr. Cohen.
Mr. Cohen kept telling me that I needed to strengthen my fingers as an older piano student. He said that stiffness in the fingers (they are, apparently, much more limber in a grade schooler) was a problem that had to be overcome if I was ever going to make progress. He told me to take a book and put it over my hand when playing, as a finger muscle strengthening exercise. So, I took a book at random off the bookshelf in the living room of my home and used it when practicing. A while later, I happened to look at the book. The title was The Physiology of Piano Playing.
A totally coincidental occurrence. What were the odds that that would be the book I would use?
The other anecdote involved, indirectly, my former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr.
From time to time during the course of our therapy sessions, Dr. Colp, who was a prolific writer and well known scholar, would ask me to do unpaid research for him. I remember once when he was writing an article updating some aspect of the psychiatric literature and he asked me to make an inventory of new publications in the field.
Dr. Colp’s fees were every low, well below professional norms. He made it clear to me personally and also in comments he made to interviewers that he was not in medicine for the money.
Perhaps he regarded “hiring” me to do research as a form of barter, with the research amounting to partial payment. But he only asked me to do it when he was stumped by something and absolutely could not find anything.
I told him that I was flattered to be asked. Yet, sometimes I was thinking, what will he ask me to find now? He always gave me the hardest things to look up.
Often, the research concerned, usually indirectly, Charles Darwin, Dr. Colp’s major research interest, about whom he wrote two books and many articles.
Dr. Colp was interested in learning everything he could about Darwin’s personal (as well as his scientific) life, including how he spent his leisure time and what his tastes in books (e.g., novels) and music were. He had found out that Darwin liked a popular song of the Victorian era, “Will He Come?,” composed by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame).
Could I find out where the lyrics came from?
It was known that the lyrics to the song were by Adelaide Procter. Adelaide Anne Procter (1825–1864) was a very popular poet of her day; she was the favorite poet of Queen Victoria. She burst on the literary scene as a teenager. She died of tuberculosis at age thirty-nine.
So, what poem of Procter’s were the lyrics to the song taken from? Dr. Colp, like me, was a stickler for details. He wanted to be exact.
I couldn’t find out what poem of Procter’s the lyrics came from. She published three books of poetry in her lifetime. There is no poem with the title “Will He Come?”
It seems that it would have made sense for me to consult her books, but they weren’t available to me. I cannot remember why I didn’t. This was pre-internet days. Somehow, I found out that Procter had known Charles Dickens, who admired her work, and that some of her earliest poems had been published in Household Words, a weekly magazine edited by Dickens. (I doubt that nowadays many people know that Dickens was an editor.)
I went to the New York Public Library and put in a call slip for several issues of Household Words from the 1850’s. A big fat volume with a faded green cover was handed over to me. It was comprised of several issues of the magazine that had been bound together into a single volume. The pages were old and showed their age.
I placed the big, weighty book on a table in front of me and opened it carefully, not wanting to damage it. I opened it at random to a page somewhere in the middle.
On that very page was THE poem. Miss Procter’s poem. Published under the title “Hush!”
The exact same words, verbatim, as the lyrics in the Arthur Sullivan song.
How had it happened that I had requested the right volume of the magazine, and then, amazingly, opened to the very page on which there was not only a poem by Proctor, but the very poem I was looking for?
“I CAN scarcely hear,” she murmured,
“For my heart beats loud and fast,
But surely, in the far, far distance,
I can hear a sound at last.”
“It is only the reapers singing,
As they carry home their sheaves,
And the evening breeze has risen,
And rustles the dying leaves.”
“Listen! there are voices talking.”
Calmly still she strove to speak,
Yet her voice grew faint and trembling,
And the red flushed in her cheek.
“It is only the children playing
Below, now their work is done,
And they laugh that their eyes are dazzled
By the rays of the setting sun.”
Fainter grew her voice, and weaker
As with anxious eyes she cried,
“Down the avenue of chestnuts,
I can hear a horseman ride.”
“It was only the deer that were feeding
In a herd on the clover grass,
They were startled, and fled to the thicket,
As they saw the reapers pass.”
Now the night arose in silence,
Birds lay in their leafy nest,
And the deer couched in the forest,
And the children were at rest:
There was only a sound of weeping
From watchers around a bed,
But Rest to the weary spirit,
Peace to the quiet Dead!
I was thinking today of something I read about Charles Darwin. It was in an article about Darwin by my former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp Jr.
Early in the course of our sessions, I told Dr. Colp that I was interested in writing. “I’ve done some writing myself,” he said.
“Some writing.” Indeed. His output was prodigious. I have recently been rereading some of his articles. They are all superb — superbly researched, crafted, and written. These include articles of his such as “Bitter Christmas: A Biographical Inquiry into the Life of Bartolomeo Vanzetti” and “Sacco’s Struggle for Sanity,” both published in The Nation. Also, “Trotsky’s Dream of Lenin” and “Why Stalin Couldn’t Stop Laughing,” published, respectively, in the journals Clio’s Psyche and The Psychohistory Review.
And, a plethora of articles on Charles Darwin, such as “ ‘Confessing a Murder’: Darwin’s First Revelations About Transmutation,” “Charles Darwin’s Dream of His Double Execution,” “Charles Darwin’s Insufferable Grief” (about the death of Darwin’s ten year old daughter Annie), and many others.
In an article of Dr. Colp’s, “Notes on Charles Darwin’s ‘Autobiography’ ,” published in the Journal of the History of Biology (1985), he writes about various aspects of Darwin’s upbringing and personal life, including his experience with and tastes in literature and music. He states:
He stated that he had lost his taste for music, but then admitted that music stimulated him to “think too energetically” about what he was working on. He was enthusiastic about certain musical compositions, and some songs.
This was a perceptive insight, I thought, both on the part of Darwin, and, vicariously, by Dr. Colp — it struck me and I retained it fixed in memory. This is something I have observed myself.
The other day, while doing some writing, I listened to the fourth movement of Brahms’s first symphony. It is a piece I have loved, especially the fourth movement, ever since high school.
I thought it would psych me up. I wasn’t paying that much attention, but suddenly I felt, this music is getting on my nerves.
Annoying? Brahms? How could that be?
One has to be in the right frame of mind for any mental activity: conversation, contemplation, study, a lecture or museum exhibit, reading, listening to music. (I realize that I’m stating the obvious.)
This is very true of music. Sometimes I will put on a beloved classical piece and find that I’m not in the right mood for it. But another piece works. And so on. Often, music is just what the doctor ordered: soothing or, conversely (if this is what’s needed), stimulating, a tonic. At other times, music gets in the way of mental processes. In that case, you have to choose either to listen to it with complete focus and no other mental processes going on, or to turn it off and focus on whatever it might be you’re engaged in that requires your attention.
I had a long time relationship with an outstanding therapist: Ralph Colp, Jr., MD. (In my parents’ generation, one would have been ashamed to admit that one even saw a therapist.) He was a cultured and scholarly man with admirable personal qualities. Among other things that made him stand out, he himself had been analyzed by Freud’s personal physician.
Credentials notwithstanding, he was somewhat taciturn, chose his words carefully, didn’t say things just to hold forth, indoctrinate, or impress. I guess that’s partly why I seem to remember almost word for word practically everything he ever said.
He once said to me — apropos what topic I can’t recall — “Let’s face it. America is the greatest country by far. No question.” It wasn’t jingoism on his part. What he meant was that America was the greatest country in the world to LIVE in.
Sometimes someone will say something to you that’s obvious, as plain as the nose on one’s face, and yet you’ve never quite thought of it, at least in not quite that way. I had often entertained unpatriotic thoughts in my teens and young adulthood, because of resentment over things such as the Vietnam War and hatred of politicians such as Presidents Nixon and Johnson, But Dr. Colp’s remark struck me then as true and has stayed with me.
Jingoism aside, we do live in the greatest country on earth, by Jove. We are so lucky to. It’s a blessing that is often taken for granted.