Left in Andover: In tune with my musical side

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

As both the wife and mother of accomplished musicians, I am often asked if I play an instrument. My response is always a vigorous no. This is not, however, strictly accurate. I actually participated in grade school and junior high band as a flautist.

But I never progressed beyond being able to read simple sheet music, and evinced
no innate musical sense. Honestly, I believe my tutoring on sheet music permanently impaired my musical circuitry.

My unused flute, still in my possession.

Even though Mom had infinite confidence in my potential as a flautist, I pretty much gave it up by high school. The fact is that I never learned to distinguish an A from a B or a C, not to mention recognize which key was which.

Over the last 40 years I have lived with a fiddle player who plays completely by ear. I have come to regard that ability to hear the music inside one’s head as the essence of musicianship.

None of this is to say that I don’t enjoy listening to music. I just don’t comprehend in any technical sense why certain compositions and keys impact me in any given emotional manner.

The apex of my career as a flautist was as the Pied Piper in Marianna Lloyd’s summer children’s theater troupe The Green Mountain Trolls in Weston, in the early 1960s.

Marianna, an accomplished character actress, served as stage manager with the Boston Children’s Theater before coming to the Weston Playhouse for an anticipated summer season. But the role was much greater than originally advertised. The same loving enthusiasm that encouraged us child actors to believe in ourselves made her a beloved member of the Weston community for another 60 years, until her death in 2018.

Children’s community theater production hits the main stage — the Weston Playhouse — with Susan on the flute in the early 1960s

In the Grimm Brothers parable, the town of Hamelin, Germany, is overrun by rats. A straggly haired stranger in multi-colored garb contracts to rid the town of its rats in exchange for 1,000 guilders.

Playing a strange and haunting tune on his pipes, the stranger lures the vermin into the river, where they summarily drown. But the town fathers refuse “to pay the piper.” In retaliation, the Pied Piper unleashes another hypnotic tune and virtually all the children of Hamelin follow him through a crack in the mountain, never to be seen again.

Scholars believe this grim tale to be based on the true disappearance of 130 of Hamelin’s “children” in 1284. However, these were not juveniles, but rather colloquial “children of the town” displaced by the feudal system of land succession.

Susan, surrounded by ‘rats,’ playing the flute as the Pied Piper of Hamelin with the Green Mountain Trolls in Weston in the early ‘60s

Supporting this Emigration Theory, their youthful exodus predated the bubonic plague by 100 years. The rats were not incorporated into the storyline until centuries later.

Turning the grim story on its head, by drowning the rats, the Pied Piper may well have been the instrument of salvation for Hamelin’s actual juvenile population.

The Piper was a silver-tongued recruiter who enticed Hamelin’s unemployed young adults to come away with him to settle certain sparsely populated regions of modern day Poland, where to this day lower Germanic surnames such as Hamel, Hamler and Hamelnikow still abound.

I have no memory as to what tune I played enacting my part as the Pied Piper on the Village Green in Weston. Certainly, however, the real piper employed mathematical
precision selecting the key for his enchanting tune.

In 1668, Marc-Antoine Charpentier wrote his Regles de Composition, synthesizing the emotions that each musical key is particularly well-suited to arouse. According to Charpentier:

C Major: gay and warlike
D Major: joyous and very warlike
E Major: quarrelsome and boisterous
F Major:  furious and quick-tempered subjects
G Major: serious and magnificent
A Major: joyful and pastoral

Old Bunch of Keys is an emotionally resonant fiddle tune of ancient origin. The name refers to the tradition of a “cup of terror,” a magical brew made by, among other ingredients, soaking metallic keys in water. Possibly there were certain elements that leached out into the water effecting magical relief  — or poisoning.

Played in the key of A Major, Old Bunch of Keys holds the potential to transport the listener to a “joyful and pastoral state.” In G Major, it leans toward the “serious and magnificent.” After listening to the two versions live this morning in my kitchen, I find the latter more compelling. (see video.)

See, Mom, I can learn!

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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  1. N. Jamison says:

    Thanks Susan,

    Fascinating history of a “grim” tale. Learning goes on!