The Gardners Get Culture

Since we lived in a grimy industrial suburb just outside Boston, we sometimes ventured into the city for cultural uplift. A couple of times we went to the Gardner Museum, founded by the eccentric and rich Isabella Stewart Gardner—no relation of ours, unless the family of her husband, John Lowell Gardner, came from the Jews with German names (ours was Gärtner) who lived in Romania. Which wasn’t likely.


gardner museum b


On one occasion the free Sunday concert was given by a soprano with piano accompaniment. For some reason, my mother assumed that such a recital would include Broadway show tunes and imitations of bird songs.

As my mother and I settled into prim little seats that were lined up in austere rows in a large, dark salon—my father had the good sense to stay downstairs, maybe in the garden where he could smoke his cigars—it became clear that the soprano would imitate neither ornithological novelties nor Mary Martin. Whoever she was—for all we knew, she may have been a world-class representative of her species—I found her program of Schubert and the like excruciating.


soprano cartoon



She seemed like the singer in a cartoon or low-comedy movie—a woman with an impressive upholstered bosom, shrieking away in a number of foreign languages. The texts we were handed didn’t help, not even to explain the little joke that the audience chuckled at as one song came to an end. Somehow most of the well-dressed audience seemed to be enjoying the experience, since they were totally silent as she sang and applauded each time she stopped.

The worst aspect for me—and I’m sure for my mother—was that there was no way to sneak out of our chairs and leave the salon without being totally obvious and rude. So we stayed to the bitter end.

In subsequent years I grew up and also came to know and like much of the lieder literature. Some that I like are linked to below.

I’ve attended a number of recitals, often with pleasure at much of what I’ve heard. Although I sometimes wish they would throw in a few Broadway numbers and bird imitations.






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