In Perfect Harmony

By Morton Cathro
Nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche said, "Without music life would be a mistake." It's a sentiment with which many passionate music-lovers would agree. Folks passionate about horses could well express a similar sentiment: Without horses life would be a mistake, or at least devoid of meaning.

Those who love both music and horses can say their lives are twice-blessed. And they can cite a confirming corollary: Horses and music, like love and marriage, seem harmoniously entwined.

Music has been the indispensable companion to one's affair with horses ever since childhood. The calliope's waltz enlivened our carousel rides, and on radio, the Lone Ranger galloped into living rooms accompanied by Rossini's stirring "William Tell Overture." "Horse operas" of long-ago Saturday matinees featured singing cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and haunting scores by Dimitri Tiomkin (High Noon) and Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven).

Now, as grownups, we're seduced by the bugler summoning horses to the post with "First Call" (more familiarly, if incorrectly, known as "Boots and Saddles"). And is there any greater spine-tingler than the moment the band strikes up "My Old Kentucky Home" on Derby day?

This observer especially remembers such a moment at the 1994 Derby. A cleric with whom I was chatting in the Churchill Downs clubhouse, the Rev. Edward Ruddmiller of Cincinnati, Ohio, pontificated on the powerful combination of horses and music: "For this many people to sing--to do anything together--is amazing," he said. "There are almost as many rituals here as in church--the parade to the post, the gorgeous raiment, the pageantry..."

Pageantry? Horses have appeared on stage at the Metropolitan Opera in Aida, Carmen, and Gotterdammerung. They inspired the Ascot Gavotte in My Fair Lady. Intricate equine ballets by touring Lipizzaner stallions, performed to traditional Spanish music as well as the classics, have entertained millions worldwide.

Modern jazz icon Dave Brubeck once told me that as a young cowhand, he got ideas for his unusual tempos, such as the 5/4 beat epitomized in "Take Five," from hoofbeats that punctuated his long hours in the saddle herding cattle on his family's California ranch. Gauchos of the Argentine pampas, paniolo ranch hands of Hawaii, and wranglers of the Old West doubtless were similarly influenced when composing their unique folk ballads.

When I was five or six, my dad took me to the circus to see Tom Mix and his trick horse, Tony. Later I learned that Mix sometimes hired musicians to soothe his spirited mount. As a young father, I trailered my daughter and her Quarter Horse to competitions on the junior show circuit; today, long after the blue ribbons and visual memories have faded, I still "hear" Roger Miller's lilting tune, "Walkin' in the Sunshine," wafting from arena loudspeakers of yesteryear.

In racing, many notable Thoroughbreds bear musical names. Eclipse Award winner Glorious Song became the dam of champion Singspiel, winner of the Dubai World Cup. Singspiel's son Moon Ballad also won the World Cup (UAE-I). Glorious Song foaled Rahy, who sired champion Serena's Song, herself now a prominent broodmare. Breeders' Cup champions have included Rhythm, Storm Song, and the mare with the musically evocative name, Soaring Softly. Champion Yanks Music captured the Alabama (gr. I), and last summer, Sweet Symphony took the Alabama at Saratoga for her fourth straight win, and Forest Music won there impressively.

By year's end Stravinsky was among the leading third-crop sires, while first-crop sires Songandaprayer (by Unbridled's Song) and Brahms had produced 18 and 13 winners, respectively. Dixieland Band ranked second on the broodmare sires list, but, sadly, we lost another old-timer on that list, Stop the Music (out of Bebopper), damsire of Derby winner Giacomo.

Among Stop the Music's offspring is a stakes winner named Dontstop Themusic. Perhaps that's a fitting high note on which to end this unabashed hymn to the horse, noblest of animals, and to music, noblest of the arts. May the melody and harmony linger on.

Horse- and music-lover MORTON CATHRO has been a member of the Oakland Symphony Chorus as well as "The Californians," a national champion barbershop harmony chorus.