I once had a dog with a musical ear.
His name was Toto, aka Toto Barbarossa, aka Totempole, aka Totie, and he was a dark brindle Cairn terrier who was the light of our lives for sixteen years. We acquired him when I was all of five (hence the name) and had him until my senior year of college, when old age and disease caught up with him. I had a dog before him, and Mum had a dog after him, but Toto was such an original that it's hard to imagine any other canine taking his place in my heart.
He came to live with us in the winter of 1965-1966 courtesy of my uncle Oscar. Our wire-haired fox terrier, Terry, had died very suddenly, and of course my parents wanted to get another dog. Terry, smart and patient, had been my parents' darling since soon after their marriage, then segued into my playmate, protector, and best friend since the day my parents brought me home from the hospital. He'd chased off dogs twice his size if they so much as curled a lip in my direction, let me dress and play with him as if he were a living toy, and generally put up with me mauling him until I learned to be gentle.
If he occasionally snacked on my Crayolas when no one was looking, well, that was just about his only flaw.
Terry's death was my first real encounter with the long night that comes to us all, and I was inconsolable until Toto arrived, courtesy of my uncle Oscar advancing Dad the cash when it turned out that a purebred Cairn terrier puppy from excellent bloodlines cost a truly shocking amount of money. "I can't stand to see her like this," my uncle told my father, and Dad, who was proud but not stupid, agreed.
The puppy, small, dark, and wiggly, arrived in Dad's pocket the next day. I immediately snatched him to what passed for my heaving bosom, proclaimed him "just the puppy I wanted," and proceeded to hug, kiss, pet, and carry my new little friend around the house until he (and I) were all but dropping with fatigue. He slept with either me or my parents almost immediately, and the light came back into our lives as I delighted in his energy, his playfulness, and his complete lack of interest in my Crayolas.
As for Toto, he realized almost at once that he'd landed in clover, with not one but three Giant Slaves to see to his needs. This we did despite learning that Toto was not only cute and affectionate, but opinionated, stubborn, and so fiercely loyal to his Giant Slaves that any burglar who'd been dumb enough to attempt entry would have been reduced to his component elements in about five seconds, tops. We all loved him back, and as the months and then years rolled along Dad taught him tricks, Mum taught him good manners, and I taught him the finer points of music.
My parents, like so many others, thought that music lessons would be a fine way to advance my cultural and intellectual development. They both loved to sing (especially Mum, who had a sweet, warm alto), both could play an instrument, and when I expressed an interest in the piano, they ordered a spinet from Sears and I began my lessons. Soon I was good enough to justify private lessons, and soon after that I was banging out Beethoven sonatas, Clementi sonatinas, the occasional
Mozart Mendelssohn piece that was not the Italian Symphony, and Bach's keyboard suites.
That was about the time that Toto got interested.
Toto had frequently been in the room when I practiced - it was his house, too, even if Dad's name had been on the deed - but about the time I graduated from the cute little minuets that Mozart wrote between such worthy pursuits as teething, toilet training, and Child Prodigy European Tours to compositions intended for adults, he started actually listening. Originally he'd lie underneath the piano bench, but after the dozenth time I bodily moved him so I could use the pedals, he moved to the hearth rug a few feet away. There he would sit, patient and calm, until I'd finished up with my five-finger exercises and moved on to pieces with names, tunes, and a decent beat.
That was when the show would start. Toto, who had gotten into the habit of napping flat on his back, all four feet sticking up in the air, would flip over sunny side up as soon as I'd pulled out my sheet music and struck the first note. Soon he'd be snorting, flinging himself back and forth, and even rolling himself completely into the hearth rug to show his approval of my work. By the time I'd finished practicing there would be a dog-shaped lump next to the hearth, with only a flicking tail and the occasional deep, happy sigh to prove that the family companion animal had not expired of sheer joy.
This was not to say that Toto liked everything I played. He loved Bach and other Baroque composers the best, and it's entirely possible that my obsession with Handel's operas may have had its roots in the dog's fits of ecstasy over The Harmonious Blacksmith. He also enjoyed Mozart's sonatas quite a bit, and I'm fairly sure he liked Clementi. At the same time, he was no fonder of Bartok's Mikrokosmos than I was, and was distinctly indifferent to Mendelssohn, Schumann, and the other mid-19th century Romantics. He showed no particular interest in Gershwin or other American modernists, shrugged at show tunes and movie soundtracks, and only liked one or two Christmas carols.
Only one composer really seemed to drive him crazy, and it was a real shame since he was one of my favorites: Ludwig van Beethoven.
I first noticed this when I was working my way through Beethoven's easier sonatas. Toto, who was still recovering from his usual burrito imitation during Bach's French Suites, jerked awake, shoved himself free of the hearth rug, and made a less than pleased noise. A few seconds later he'd trotted out of the room, tail ramrod straight, nose in the air.
I shrugged and went back to my work. I was only ten or eleven, so it truly didn't occur to me that the dog might actually like one type of music or not another. Toto probably had other things to do, like worrying at the the bone he'd "buried" on top of Dad's pajamas, napping on the sofa in the family room, or crawling under one the beds in quest of the Dark Secret Places that only he could see. There was no reason for me to think anything of his abrupt exit.
No reason, that is, until it happened again.
Soon Mum was asking why Toto, who loved music so much, was basically fleeing the living room midway through my practice time. I was just as puzzled as she was, especially after he started coming back to the living room as soon as I'd finished up the Beethoven and shifted to something like the Songs Without Words or even Mikrokosmos.
'Twas a puzzlement, at least until we realized that it was Beethoven, and only Beethoven, that sent Toto flouncing off in high dudgeon. Something about the great symphonist's works offended his tender sensibilities enough that he felt compelled to leave the room whenever I attempted to plunk out The Moonlight Sonata.
And it wasn't just the master's piano works or adaptations, oh no no no no. I soon learned that Toto would take a powder as soon as I dropped the needle on William Steinberg's gorgeous interpretation of the Pastoral Symphony, Gary Graffman's luscious version of the Appassionata Sonata, or Herbert von Karajan's magisterial take on the Leonore Overture #3. The dog simply did not like Beethoven, artist, conductor, or work be damned.
Our friends found it amusing, that a mere dog had definite ideas and preferences when it came to classical music. Surely we were exaggerating, especially Mum. "He's only a dog," they'd say. "He can't possibly know the difference."
"You have no idea," Mum would murmur, and then ask me to play some Bach followed by some Beethoven, just to see how the dog reacted....
People have accused my family of anthropomorphizing Toto, and there may be some truth to this. He was a dog, after all, albeit an unusually intelligent one. But a dog that actively shunned Beethoven and all but had multiple orgasms over Bach is not precisely normal. Add in all the other ways he simply refused to behave like a stereotypical canis domesticus, and is it anys little wonder that Mum began referring to him as “your hairy adopted brother”? Or that the closest I came to having sibling rivalry was being jealous over Mum cooing about what he was a good boy right after excoriating me for not doing my Home Ec homework about the joys of breastfeeding and infant care?
Or that I grew up to an adult who has always had pets? Or that I tell people that though my name may be on the deed to the Last Homely Shack East of the Manhan, that I may be the one who pays the taxes, covers the utilities, and nearly blew out my shoulders waving around a roof rake trying to clear the ice dams in the gutters earlier this week, it’s actually Diamond Girl’s house?
Being an animal lover has its moments, let me tell you.