Be careful where you make music.
I don't know what it's like now, but back in the mid-70s, language studies were considered a bit of a niche field. Particularly medieval languages. Believe it or not, in the days before the internet and MMOs, hardly anybody had ever heard of, say, Beowulf, or runes, or swords with names, or any of that paraphernalia that fill up the inventories of games like Age of Conan. Seriously. You could have fit all of the people on our huge campus who could actually read Beowulf into one tiny office – and we did, regularly. We merrily parsed away and argued pleasantly about lacunae1 and the occasional hapax legomenon. No, hapax legomena are not manufactured in Denmark. Unless, of course, the manuscript came from Elsinore.
Anyway, even the non-medievalists in the German department where I was a graduate student were used to the idea that nobody outside the field had a clue what they were talking about when they mentioned such minutiae as Sekundenstil. So we kept our discussions to ourselves in the Loeffler Building. Ah, the Loeffler Building: a tidy little bijou2 of a structure conveniently located on a corner of busy Forbes Avenue, tucked above Binstock's Jewellery Store. The bowling alley was next to it, and when Professor Schmitz lectured, you could literally hear a pin drop. Next to that was an actual cinema, which was where I saw Jaws one evening after seminar. Several of us went, and later subjected the film to unflattering textual analysis, although the head of the English Department said he'd enjoyed the book while he was laid up in hospital.
The Loeffler Building consisted of an upper storey filled with little boxes lined with cheap pine paneling. The classrooms had no windows because of this peculiar arrangement3. Only the offices facing the street corner let light in. These were reserved for tenured faculty and the department secretary, who, as any academic knows, wielded far more power than the tenured faculty. Ms Rubinstein was a force to be reckoned with. We grad students sort of took the U-Boot ambience for granted, since we spent so much time there, what with seminars and our own classes to teach, and office hours to keep. We sort of got…well, isolated…from the world outside. And we tended to lose our sense of social decorum.
At least, that's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.
It was a Friday afternoon, and the last undergraduate seeker after wisdom had already departed for more interesting pursuits. The rabbi I was tutoring in German for his theology degree had taken off with a promise to stop pronouncing it like Yiddish. Heck, even Ms Rubinstein had gone shopping. We grad students – four of us – were left to our own devices. Once Redburn had given up on convincing us that Wagner was the greatest composer who ever lived, and Steve from Buffalo had stopped trying to sell us on the accordion, that staple of German American life, we fell silent, bored. We couldn't even hear the bowling anymore.
'Hey,' Steve asked the fateful question. 'You remember this week Prof Schmitz gave us that Brecht parody to read? What was he parodying? I didn't get it.'
I had to be the Know-All. 'That was a parody of the 'Horst Wessel Lied'. You remember the words to the Horst Wessel Lied, right?' This last bit was my mistake: both of these guys were musical, and so was Rob, who had joined us from the next-door office.
'I do,' replied Redburn, who besides being a Wagner geek, possessed a booming baritone. You can guess what happened next. Somehow, we ended up in the narrow hallway, singing the 'Horst Wessel Lied' at the top of our lungs, our four-part harmony bouncing off the cheap paneling, like some demented mini-Männerchor. Let me emphasise just for clarity that none of us agreed with anything we were singing about: we weren't itching to bring back the Third Reich. It was merely a musical academic exercise in a building so divorced from anything resembling normal reality that it might as well have been orbiting Proxima Centauri. Where it is probably okay to sing the 'Horst Wessel Lied', since no alien would understand it.
The same was not true of Pittsburgh. Just as we'd got to the most stirring notes, the door across the tiny hall opened. Not slowly, but quickly. There stood our most dignified German professor – the one who spoke the least English, Professor Schmitz – and he didn't look pleased.
'Meine Herren, ich bitte!' And he slammed the door – but not before I heard a chuckle inside.
It occurred to us – belatedly – why it was so quiet in the Loeffler Building. The faculty were having their weekly meeting. Professor Schmitz's outrage had to do with a lot of things: his sense of decorum, his political sympathies, his bête noire, the Polish Corridor, and above all his determination that nobody would insult our Yiddish instructor, Frau Liebowitz.
Who was the source of the chuckle I'd heard. She knew I was out there, singing. And she had me in class. She thought we were funny: clueless about history, but funny. So who cared what Professor Schmitz thought? He was a stuffy old so-and-so.
The moral of this tale is clear, children: impromptu music-making can be fun. But choose your repertoire wisely, and always know who's listening. We would have given Frau Liebowitz an encore of Bei mir bist du scheyn, but with Schmitz around, we decided not to press our luck, and hurried off to a safer venue.