When I was seven years old, everything in my grandparents' house in Lake Mills, Iowa looked breakable, including — or perhaps, especially — my grandfather.
After suffering a few heart attacks, my Lutheran pastor grandfather, Martin Thompson, had turned into a fragile, curmudgeonly shell of his kind-hearted former self. Many of the things that came natural and easy to him in the past were made difficult and awkward now, and he had to rely on the assistance of others — mainly, my benevolent grandmother — far more than his independent spirit was comfortable with. I understand his vexing discontentment now, but at the time I just knew I had to be careful and quiet around him, lest I add to his annoyance.
The one thing that I clearly remember always bringing a sense of serenity to my grandfather was music. In addition to him playing old Norwegian folk songs on guitar and harmonica, and the church hymns that he still sang with gusto in his weathered voice, he had a deep, abiding love for classical music that made a lasting impression on me as a child. His tastes in classical music — and the calm, quiet way he immersed himself in it — still influences my enjoyment and interaction with it to this day. I've gravitated more towards rock and jazz as my musical parameters have expanded with time and age, but everything I know and love about classical music I learned directly from my grandfather.
My grandfather's tastes frequently skewed towards the lighter end of the classical music spectrum: the Boston Pops, the works of Edvard Grieg, and Sibelius's Finlandia Hymn were all favorites of his. Due to the deep Norwegian roots of his immigrant parents, my grandfather was devoted to Scandinavian composers, many of whom reworked familiar, classic folk songs of the region into their compositions. My grandpa also loved piano concertos, with plenty of Bach and Debussy filling out his modest but well-worn record collection. His love of the piano would be passed down to his son, Steve, who would frequently regale us with impromptu performances around the holidays when prompted and prodded by his proud father.
More than the specific pieces of classical music my grandfather listened to, though, it was the way he listened that made the biggest impact on me. Listening to music was mostly a solitary act for him, as he fully immersed himself into the sounds while getting overtly emotional as the numbers hit their poignant, swelling peaks and fragile, heartbreaking lows. It was enlightening for me — a young Midwesterner raised on genial Top 40 radio and the harmless classic rock passed down my older sisters — to witness music actually stirring up deep emotions in someone, especially a man as typically guarded and cranky as my grandfather was at that point in his life.
For my grandfather there was a deep solemnity involved in listening to music: a respectful, dignified adoration that accorded the music a weight and depth. Being a Lutheran pastor, my grandfather naturally taught me a lot about faith and belief, but ultimately what I truly learned from him is that giving yourself up entirely to music and wholly absorbing it can — and should — be a genuinely spiritual experience. I learned from my grandfather that music has a distinctive power to stir your soul and conjure up emotions and memories that will forever be tied to something as indelible as a melody or a phrase.
Digging through my grandfather's vinyl collection after he passed away and playing his beloved copies of the Goldberg Variations or the Eroica Symphony not only provides me with a tender insight into what moved and uplifted him musically, but also connects the two of us in a truly visceral way. The profound sentiments layered within these numbers continue to speak to me just as they did to my grandfather, carrying on a conversation that has been fascinating classical music lovers for centuries while also forging a deep bond from one generation to the next.
Listen closely: the echoes of our past and the promise of our future are all there. Thankfully, my grandfather showed me the proper way to truly hear them.
Erik Thompson is a music writer based in the Twin Cities.