Memories of My Childhood (1925)

By Carol J. Oja, College of William and Mary

Written for the concert The Musical Romance of Childhood, performed on April 5, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Few escape the politics of their time, as Charles Martin Loeffler’s Memories of My Childhood vividly shows. Seeming on the surface to be a series of innocent snapshots, the work is framed by painful behind-the-scenes episodes.

Subtitled, “Life in a Russian Village,” the work looks back on three years of Loeffler’s childhood (1869-1972), when his family settled in Smela in the Ukraine. He was eight years old when the residency began. Following a tradition for tone poems, Loeffler provided an introductory statement about how he sought “to express” through music the vision in his “heart and memory” of “Russian peasant songs, the Yourod’s Litany-prayer, the happiest of days, fairy-tales and dance-songs.” The work ends by commemorating “the death of Vasinka, an elderly peasant, a Bayan or story-teller, singer, maker of willow pipes on which he played tunes of weird intervals, and the companion-friend of the boy who now later in life, notes down what he hopes these pages will tell.”

True to his word, the composer shaped a series of lush impressions, opening with the sound of church bells, alternating between pensive and playful scenes, and delivering vignettes of a distant time and place. There is no question about where this tale unfolds. The reeds deliver plaintive minor tunes with an Eastern European cast, the strings soar, the surfaces glimmer, and the work fades off into hazy retrospection-until, that is, Loeffler delivers obligatory power chords at the end.

As it turns out, Loeffler carefully selected a memory to capture in music. His father directed a sugar factory in the Ukraine, and after leaving that post, he and his family returned to Germany. The timing turned out to be fateful. One year earlier Otto von Bismarck had become chancellor of the German Empire, and Loeffler’s father joined the resistance against him, protesting especially the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine. According to Loeffler’s biographer Ellen Knight, the nature of his father’s political activities is not fully known. But the elder Loeffler ended up in prison in 1878, when his son was seventeen, and he probably died there. The young composer kept this episode carefully hidden, sharing it with only a few friends over the years. It came to represent, as he confessed at one point, “the most dire distress” of his life. Against such a backdrop, Loeffler’s years in the Ukraine must have seemed “happy” indeed.

Ironically, Memories of My Childhood faced political hurdles after it was composed in 1924. By then, Loeffler was living in Massachusetts, where he had settled after emigrating to the United States in 1881. He was a much-respected violinist, performing first with Leopold Damrosch’s orchestra in New York and then with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he was second concertmaster for over twenty years. He also established a strong reputation as a composer, especially as an exponent of French impressionism. Soon after completing Memories of My Childhood, Loeffler submitted it to a competition sponsored by the North Shore Festival Association in Evanston, Illinois. There was to be a cash prize, together with a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Although Loeffler ultimately won, the jury’s proceedings became mired in political paranoia, as one of the judges later recalled. “You may remember,” wrote Deems Taylor in Of Men and Music (1945), “that in the early twenties we enjoyed a witch-hunt in this country . . . [against] Communists.” When one of the judges saw the subtitle of Loeffler’s score, he “suddenly smelled tainted gold,” as Taylor recounted. “Did we actually mean that we were going to sit there and award this prize to some Russian immigrant, presumably unwashed, probably with whiskers, and indubitably in the pay of Lenin and Trotsky, some insidious alien who was adopting this dastardly means of taking the bread out of the mouths of honest American composers? A thousand…oh, fifteen hundred times…no!” Taylor remembered that when Loeffler’s identity was finally revealed, the suspicious member of the jury ended up with a face that “turned the color that is usually associated with Communism.” Frederick Stock conducted the premiere of Loeffler’s work on May 30, 1924, and it was subsequently performed by orchestras around the country.

Thus Memories of My Childhood demands a double-vision, taking in its overt nostalgia but remaining alert to the murky edges that surround it.