Monday, October 10, 2011

Debut of a Masterpiece

In the movie "Amadeus," Mozart makes a reference to his own music as "the best yet written."

In the movie, it was kind of a running joke. A composition by Mozart's rival had been publicly praised as "the best yet written" so Mozart defiantly referred to one of his pieces that way.

I don't know if Mozart ever really said that, but, seen from the perspective of the 18th century, it may have been true even if it was said in jest. And, more than 200 years after his death, I am still inclined to think of many of Mozart's compositions as the best classical music ever written.

But there has been music that was written in the last two centuries for which that phrase is appropriate as well.

On this day in 1966, Simon and Garfunkel released what was probably their best album to date. They had only released two others, and both were good, but neither really came close to the quality of the album that was released 45 years ago today, "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme."

Whenever I listen to it, that album always brings back special memories of my mother, who has been gone for more than 16 years now.

During her life, she was a fan of the music of Simon and Garfunkel. That is one of my strongest memories from my childhood — Mom's admiration for their music. Originally, she only bought the old 45–rpm singles of her favorite S&G songs, then later she branched out and bought some of their albums (I think they only recorded five).

When I was a child, it seemed the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel constantly filled the house. I grew up knowing the words to just about every song they ever recorded. I can still remember them, too. (Can't sing worth a damn, but I can remember the lyrics.)

On what turned out to be the last Christmas of Mom's life, I gave her a set of the Simon and Garfunkel albums on cassette tapes. They had been remastered and represented what was, at the time, state–of–the–art quality. And Mom listened to those tapes on her cassette player in her home office.

Unfortunately, though, she died in a flash flood a little more than four months after I gave her those cassettes so she didn't have long to enjoy them.

I don't remember which Simon and Garfunkel single Mom purchased first when I was little. She seemed to like all of their songs, but one of her special favorites was "The Dangling Conversation." It was included on "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme."

About three weeks ago, the Washington Times compiled a list of the 10 best Simon and Garfunkel songs. It was gratifying to note that "The Dangling Conversation" was on it.

"This haunting song about broken love and failed communication reveals some of Mr. Simon's best lyrics," wrote the Times — which is saying something, when you consider some of the songs Simon has written — many of which were listed in the Times.

But I agree with that. I've always loved the song's imagery — "You read your Emily Dickinson/And I my Robert Frost/And we note our place with bookmarkers/That measure what we've lost." I consider it one of the unheralded gems in Paul Simon's body of work.

I was a mere child when I heard it the first time, but the stark beauty of those lyrics literally took my breath away. Even then. Perhaps that is when my love for great writing truly was born.

Hearing that song today brings back memories of my childhood, when Mom would play that album. She got what I can only describe as a faraway look in her eyes when she listened to "The Dangling Conversation." I don't think she could equate it to her own life. I think she admired the storytelling, the richness of the words and the beauty of the music.

In my mind's eye, I can still see that old album — and the cover, which became worn and faded much sooner than it probably should have. The record itself became scratched and darn near unplayable, but that didn't keep Mom from playing it, anyway.

And sometimes she would sing along with it.

I'm not a trained musician — and I was biased, anyway — but I always thought Mom had a beautiful singing voice.

Today, I have most of Simon and Garfunkel's albums on CD — including "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme" — and I always think of Mom when I listen to them.

And I miss hearing her sing along with those songs.

I have tried to pick up the slack, but I just can't do it. I honestly do believe that I inherited some of Mom's talents, but singing wasn't one of them.

I still admire the music, though.