Of Note

Perceivings by Alan Dean Foster

I love classical music. Blame my mother. Also Walt Disney.

We had a Steinway baby grand. To a small child, this monster of an instrument, occupying a good portion of the living room in the house where I grew up, was a source of both wonderment and awe. Wonderment when my mother would sit down to play the entirety of Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue" from memory. Awe at the cascading, dramatic sounds it could produce. I used to just sit on the floor nearby and listen. 

Then there was Disney’s Fantasia. Seeing it for the first time at a very early age I was bemused by Bach’s "Toccata and Fugue," delighted by the interpretation (however fanciful) of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, mildly amused at Ponticelli’s "Dance of the Hours," enchanted by Tchaikovsky’s "Nutcracker Suite," awed by Dukas’ "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice," and terrified out of my young mind by Mussorgsky’s "Night on Bald Mountain." Disney added a nondescript animation of "Ave Maria" to the end of the film because he was afraid the Mussorgsky might be too scarifying a conclusion to the picture. He was right.

The first LP (hey, vinyl is back!) I ever bought was of Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring," because Fantasia’s dinosaurs (pace, Maestro). The dynamism, the stabbing chords of that piece never left me. Which was why, when I took Music Appreciation in high school, I was bored to tears with Schubert and even Schumann. But I continued to haunt a used-record store in west Hollywood, eagerly sifting through the racks of LPs for more Stravinsky and every new discovery (Wagner, Shostakovich, more Beethoven). When CDs arrived I was able to introduce myself to composers who never get played live, at least in this country. Bantock, Büttner, Braga-Santos, Touremeire, Pierné, Podesva — the list is extensive.

Then Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony arrived, in the form of a Marco Polo CD. It was a shock to my senses. The rare performance of the full symphony, employing a thousand performers, in London’s Albert Hall in 2011 remains the greatest concert experience of my life — and that of many other classical-music lovers. There is an excellent recording of the performance on the Hyperion label. If you search on YouTube you’ll find the brief excerpts of the final rehearsal that I managed to shoot before an usher shut me down. I believe it is the only video footage extant of that memorable rehearsal. And the BBC did not video-record the performance because they ran out of money, or so I was told.

Meanwhile I’ve continued to hear music in my head. As a member of the Havergal Brian Society once chided me at a meeting in London, “We all hear music in our head. What matters is writing it down.” He was tipsy at the time, but quite correct. As I tell want-to-be writers, many people have good ideas. It’s writing them down that turns them into authors.

Time progresses. So does technology. Just as there now exists excellent writing software, so, I found, there is also music-composition software. Though it would help if I could play an instrument (didgeridoo and taiko don’t count), I thought I ought to give it a try. Science learns from failures. So do writers, composers, painters, etc. After much effort, I produced a three-minute prelude for orchestra. The result sounded, to me at least, like — music. A few others thought likewise. I wrote another piece. Then I wrote a symphony, or tried to. Twenty-five minutes of orchestral playing, anyway. I may not be good, but neither am I discouraged.

My favorite band is the Finnish symphonic metal ensemble Nightwish. I wrote a short orchestral impression (not portrait) of each member of the band. After undergoing still more tech contortions, since Facebook does not allow you to post musical excerpts directly, I found something of a workaround and managed to get all six movements of my Nightwish suite posted to my Facebook page. You can judge them for yourself on my Facebook page.

I have no idea where or whether these efforts will lead to anything besides personal satisfaction. I continue to write books (and this little column). But if a 73-year old writer of fiction can do it, anyone can. Regardless, I’ll keep trying.

Blame those dinosaurs in Fantasia. And Chernobog. And my mother, who stood by patiently while I struggled with a stick to conduct those old 78s of Beethoven’s Fifth without breaking anything (much) in my room.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at

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