In 1958, shortly after my family had moved from rural Sacramento to urban Oakland, I discovered the wonderful world of FM radio. Specifically, I discovered late-night music broadcasts on the left-leaning, listener-sponsered station KPFA, which accompanied my high-school studies night-after-night. Broadcasting at 94.1 megacycles, it had a smaller, lower-powered sister station, KPFB, broadcasting at 89.3, which reached parts of Berkeley and Oakland that KPFA couldn't. Mostly, programming was shared, with a small amount of programming peculiar to KPFB. The philosophy of the stations, far from a shrill, hectoring cry to man the battlements, seemed to be that art itself was subversive, and that introducing an already sophisticated audience to unusual lectures, poetry, points of view, and at night, music, would broaden horizons and tolerance. My musical tastes were far from sophisticated, but--starved as I was for big-city culture--I took to it as a fish to water.
Radio tuning was far from precise, and stations--especially small, low-powered stations--drifted off the band, and good reception required frequent fiddling with the tuning dial. Sometimes, this resulted in getting a completely different station when atmospherics increased the range of one station or decreased the range of another. This could result in getting a surprising Spanish-language broadcast, or weird radio chatter consisting of random words or numbers, that seemed to make no sense at all.
Occasionally, in the very wee hours, I picked up a third station--KPFC--which broadcast music that I head nowhere else. The unnamed host was gifted with a deep, soft, almost mesmerizing voice, and played, without preamble or explanation, an eclectic selection of music, all of which pre-dated the twentieth century. Alien-sounding choruses in languages that I could not understand; music that sounded like it was made by the wind; long monotonous chants. Two selections stand out in my memory: a performance of Felix Mendelssohn's "Elijah" featuring the soprano Jenny Lind, and a performance of Guillaume de Machaut's "Messa de Nostre Dame."
I have never since encountered a recording of either that sounds anything at all like what I heard then. Try as I might, I could not find the station after mid-1959, and no one at KPFA seems to know anything about either KPFC, the mysterious late-night music program; or its host.
Jenny Lind's last public performance was in 1870, and she died in 1887. The earliest voice recording was in 1878, and there are no known recordings of her singing. The first known recording of the "Missa de Nostre Dame" was in 1956, conducted by Safford Cape for the Deutsche Grammophon Archive Series.
(May 3, 2010)
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