When I was 16 years old, I took a music class at Indian River State College (formerly Indian River Community College) in Fort Pierce, Florida. It was a Music Appreciation class and the professor was Louis Maser, a 1938 graduate of the University of Kansas. I never did find out what took him to Kansas for music.
He was a brilliant music teacher and a renowned trumpet player but it was his piano lessons that were so widely sought-after. He was hilarious, he was charming, and he was one of the finest chess players I ever met.
I had actually met him at the Fort Pierce Chess Club when I was 13 years old. I had been introduced to him by an old Russian named Myron Marenin. Myron was ranked as a grandmaster in the International Chess Federation. I played Myron 150 times (I kept a chess journal back in those days) before I got a draw out of him. He was so angry that he toppled the chess board and the pieces flew everyone. It was the sweetest game I ever had.
Back to Lou Maser.
In his private piano lessons, Lou was patient and he was kind. I was not a great musician but he always said, "If you could only get your fingers to co-operate with your heart."
So, it was he that encouraged me to study music literature with the same passion I had for history and philosophy. "The piano may never reveal your heart but the pen certainly will. Make others feel what you feel by your words about the music."
So, I wound up for a time following his advice about writing on music. I wrote for my high school and college newspapers and wrote a lot of concert and record reviews. He used to read those reviews and would comment on them when I went to his house for lessons.
In his college classroom, he served up musical delicacies that thrill me to this very day. Sure, we heard all the stuff from Bach and Mozart and the rest and I enjoyed listening to the music and watching him diagram the music. He played for us Saint-Saens and Sibelius, Shostakovitch and Smetana, Michaud and Mahler, Grieg and Glinka and so many others I had never heard before.
More than this, however, he began telling the personal stories of these great and sometimes not-so-great composers. It was the little stories that made me feel like I knew the composers. He got inside the head of these figures and it influenced me to do the same as I began my study of history and theology in earnest.
The French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, for example, had spent most of his career working for King Louis XIV. In those days, the conductor was not much more than a timekeeper and they used a long staff instead of the later smaller baton. They would beat out the time on the floor using this big staff. Lully was conducting a Te Deum in celebration of Louis XIV’s recent recovery from illness. During the performance, Lully struck his big toe with the heavy staff. The wound turned gangrenous and Lully died from it. No wonder they invented the baton. “Conducting is dangerous stuff!” Maser proclaimed.
With stories like that, I became intrigued with the composers as people and not just as music-writers. He told of Brahms being raised in a brothel. Beethoven was beaten by his father to make the young Ludwig play for the old man’s drunken friends. Wagner married Liszt’s daughter. Handel and Scarlatti used to have harpsichord and organ contests between themselves. Scarlatti always won the harpsichord contest and Handel the organ.
He especially loved to talk about Joseph Haydn. His favorite re-telling was how Mozart and Beethoven had referred to Haydn as “Papa” Haydn. Maser even seemed to get a little misty-eyed when discussing it.
After studying with him for the next two or three years, a couple of other students and I decided to call him “Papa Lou” Maser. So, help me, the old guy had to wipe tears away and just said, “Bless you, boys.”
It wasn’t until later that I got him talking about Jazz. We talked about Doc Severinsen and I asked Papa Lou if he could hit the concert high-C like Doc could. He looked at me askance and said, “You trying to kill me?”
When Papa Lou passed away, I tried my best to buy his house. I wanted the piano and the books and everything else. Mostly, I wanted to roam the rooms where he had lived for nearly 50 years. I couldn’t manage it but I did get the house two doors down from his house. At least, I got to drive by the house twice a day.
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