In a yellow notebook hidden behind an encyclopedia, my father collected thirty years’ worth of unpublished poems in his impeccable cursive. One, dated in the 1970s, requests Albinoni’s Adagio for Organ and Strings at his funeral.
Wanting to heed his wishes after we brought my father’s ashes to his hometown of Celaya, Guanajuato, my aunt Evangelina arranged for music to be played during the rites. It wasn’t Albinoni, but there was singing, a cello, and a keyboard to accompany the prayers. For the very first time, I pretended to sing that unfamiliar music.
My brother and I both took flute lessons for six years, but neither of us became a professional musician. He dreamed less of Jean-Pierre Rampal’s dinner jacket than of the gloves worn by Adrián Marmolejo, goalie of the Club Atlante. For my part, hell-bent on failing as an actor, I left our Yamaha gathering dust. Like my friend from Hamelin, I was horrified to imagine an audience of only children and rats.
In the end, my brother didn’t devote his life to soccer, just as I didn’t pledge mine to the theater. My father, meanwhile, was a lawyer, and that was enough for him. He worked in legal management for thirty years, and although he always had a foot in the arts, he never threw himself into them. He was more comfortable as a declaimer than a poet, more a melomaniac than a musician. He’d read Fray Luis de León and listen to Tchaikovsky not with regret, as countless aspiring artists do, but with the fervor of a spiritual experience. As he ate breakfast, had a drink with my mother, or watered the garden, he’d play music in the background. And I’d tiptoe down to the living room, hypnotized, longing to decipher these murmurs from another world. Come to think of it, I ended up becoming the captive audience to a flautist I had refused to be.
My father crossed paths with all sorts of singer-songwriters: he met José Alfredo Jiménez, also from Guanajuato, in a cantina; he overlapped at soirees with Álvaro Carrillo; and he once dined at the home of Roberto Cantoral. Still, his very favorite was Agustín Lara. At the country club, he bumped into the baritone Roberto Bañuelas, who had recorded an LP under Austrian conductor Von Karajan before devoting his energy to weightlifting and flash fiction instead. He regularly met up with Tehua, a singer who managed to survive the moniker she’d been granted by the poet Jaime Sabines: “the voice that bullies the birds.” He cultivated an enmity toward jazz, rock, and trova. His ear was less absolute than absolutist. He muzzled his many demons: I’ve known no other silence so corporeal, so fierce. My mother, brother, and I always knew the storm had passed when he started humming illogical boleros or ridiculous rancheras.
His eclecticism cured me of my adolescent rebelliousness. Still, I cooked up ways to contradict him: if he put on some Brahms, I’d opt for Hans Rott, his less famous and more tragic contemporary. If he listened to Mexican piano waltzes of the Belle Époque, I’d set my sights on the sophisticated chauvinism of composer Silvestre Revueltas. If he’d praise the piano of Agustín Lara, I’d laud the requinto of the trio Los Panchos.
While he plumbed record stores for a certain version of Mozart’s piano concertos, I, a thirteen-year-old music-thrifter, would retrieve unknown composers from the “dump,” a kind of mass grave for CDs: Ruth Crawford Seeger, Selim Palmgren, Giovanni Paisiello, Grace Williams . . . Deep down, my pretensions were cornier than snobbish: I wanted my father to get to know, through me, this society of anonymous surnames. I wanted him to rank me a music lover of his stature, not an inamorato of other people’s love.
In short, I wanted him to admire me for being what he wasn’t. But my father was proud of his humility, so he never would have admired himself. And I, at the time, was performing an apocryphal version of him.
He played the guitar with a stubbornness that made it difficult for us to make music together: I’d speed up and he’d linger a beat behind. When we sang, though, a two-part harmony could correct the discrepancy: Sufro la inmensa pena de tu extravío, / siento el dolor profundo de tu falsía . . . (I suffer the great sorrow of your loss, / I feel the deep pain of your deceitfulness . . .)
“It’s supposed to be partida, not falsía.”
“No, it’s falsía. A Cuban friend told me so.”
“That’s made up. I learned ‘Lágrimas negras’ fifty years ago and I’ve never heard anyone sing falsía.”
“I’m telling you, those are the original lyrics.”
“. . .”
“Let’s sing it the way you know.”
He hated early Mozart and loved the timeless works of his later years. Of the singers in La Sonora Matancera orchestra, he was partial to Celio González, Bienvenido Granda, and Daniel Santos. He was bored by opera but made an exception for the overtures of Wagner and Verdi. His favorite trio was Los Tres Ases. Guillaume de Machaut terrified him: he said it was like listening to the medieval soundtrack of a horror film. Chelo Silva, not Paquita la del Barrio; Jorge Cafrune, not Atahualpa Yupanqui; Édith Piaf, not chanson française; the Chavela Vargas who sang José Alfredo, not Almodóvar’s muse. Piano sonatas, not string quartets. And nothing baroque but Bach. This counts as a biography, too.
“Why don’t you compose music like you used to, like Transfigured Night?”
To which an irritated Arnold Schoenberg replied, “I do, but no one seems to notice.”
The father of the twelve-tone technique had flung open the doors to the twentieth century, which meant boarding up the entrance to the nineteenth and its melodious decomposition.
Recalcitrantly romantic, my father worshipped several composers of the century we were born in: Mahler, Poulenc, Shostakovich, Sibelius . . . All four had just the right amount of dissonance for him to tolerate and hum along to. Maybe that’s why, even more than Transfigured Night, he was partial to Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1. The same for the Suite Carmen, by the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, where the percussion balks against Bizet’s bullfighting Spanishness, and for the cadenza that Alfredo Schnittke, also Russian, wrote for a phantasmagorical violin in Beethoven’s Op. 61 concerto. The minor interferences of a noisy century, now extinct.
José Antonio Bravo González never seemed to realize how contemporary he really was. He came into the world in 1942, the year Shostakovich wrote Leningrad, his favorite symphony; Schoenberg, the Piano Concerto; and John Cage, a couple of Imaginary Landscapes. Like me when I started reading poetry, my father viewed music as an art from an earlier, better time; it was a kind of guilty pleasure, an aristocratic vice. Like smoking, reciting poems from memory, and interweaving other people’s quotes and his own improvised aphorisms into a long conversation.
My father hugged and kissed with awkward virility, clumsy as a true son of his century. “How can you whistle a tune—not that it’s ever in tune—by Schoenberg?” he’d ask me. “You just get used to it,” I’d answer.
Anything audible can be remembered.
Stanza by stanza, the song “It Was a Very Good Year” seems to narrate four seasons in the life of Frank Sinatra. When he recorded it with Count Basie’s orchestra in 1966, the singer had just turned fifty. He seemed, in his glory, a long way off from the “autumn of the year” invoked toward the end of the song, when he sees “his life as vintage wine / from fine old kegs / from the brim to the dregs / It poured sweet and clear / It was a very good year.” No more were the small-town romances of seventeen, the big-city pursuits of twenty-one, the swaggering pretensions of thirty-five. A turbulent love life gives way to an open horizon, emptied of outbursts. With serene acceptance, Sinatra reaps—and certainly drinks—what he has sown.
When he retired from his job at sixty-eight, my father coveted that undisturbed life, an old age of scant but authentic pleasures. Right away, his body, as my adolescent body had done, set out to defy him: rheumatoid arthritis, prostatic hyperplasia, depression, anxiety, and chronic pulmonary obstructive disease progressively buried him like paperwork in a new and unexpected office.
However, Sinatra’s song became my father’s favorite in the “winter of his years.” He’d play it three or four times during dinner. He was especially stirred by the orchestral chords when the song, with melancholic fury, announces its conclusion.
“It was a very good year,” he’d say, staring out into the garden. “It was a very good year.”
Months before his death, once he’d been hospitalized for two weeks, he asked me for a portable radio so he could distract himself from the nurses’ hustle and bustle, the rosaries chanted for other patients, the white noise of the respirators.
I tuned the radio to the classical FM station Opus 94 and rested it on his chest. But my father was in no shape for distractions anymore. Everything was an augury by then: news reports, informal chats, administrative requirements. Any song was a reticent prognosis.
“About life’s end,” Fabián Casas wrote, “the only existing music / lives outside us.” At my father’s funeral mass, there was more peace than music. Disconsolate, and incomparable with any other, but peace in the end. And peace, as we do well to ignore, is deaf.
“Outside Music” © Hernán Bravo Varela. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2022 by Robin Myers. All rights reserved.
Editor’s note: Be sure to return next week for a companion piece and playlist of the songs that defined the relationship between Hernán Bravo Varela and his father.