Recital – Fall 1964 / Research Project – Winter 1965 -Taft School

Mark Orton playing French horn 1964

Mark Orton playing French horn 1964

In my senior year at Taft I was one of the first students to participate in a novel venture for such a traditionalist institution, the Independent Studies Program (ISP). Here is a contemporary description from the school’s website:

The goal of the Independent Studies Program is to advance student independence and creativity. The ISP allows students to undertake extracurricular projects of personal interest and passion and to work in concert with a student-selected advisor and committee of faculty volunteers. To help participants find the time and means for their projects, the school waives the extracurricular requirement for one term and provides a modest allowance for materials and travel.

This sounds consistent with what it was in 1964, excepting for the “modest allowance” business.

Fall 1964 ISP

My project for the Fall of 1964 was to present a music recital. Half was solo horn work and the other half chamber music. Working with George Schermerhorn who was my horn teacher, I chose the Mozart Third Horn Concerto in E-flat major (K.447) and the Hindemith Horn Sonata (1939). The chamber music selections were scattered from Bach to Mozart.

Wollensak tape recorder

Wollensak tape recorder 1960s vintage

Stimulated by some odd desire to recall what I sounded like and how well I played I emailed the library at Taft last winter. I was not entirely surprised that they still had the reel to reel tape of the recital. The amazing thing is that the tape still was in one piece and they could convert it to a digital file.

I am pleased that the recording reveals that I was a competent player. Though, as was confirmed during my first year of college in a music conservatory, my talents were limited. No amount of solfege could bring me even close to my mother’s near perfect pitch and innate musicality.

You can listen if you wish at the end of this post. Only half the recital is available.The second reel containing the chamber music is too noisy.

Winter 1965 ISP

Rise to Power of Staling and Khrushchev - M. Orton - 1965

I had so much fun in my first ISP that I concocted a second project for the Winter session. With support from Walter Foley,1  a history teacher, my project, “A Comparison of the Rise to Power of Stalin and Khrushchev: the role of the party” was  accepted.

This was much more work than I had anticipated. I gathered a lengthy list of books and articles and trundled off to the library. Most of the materials were not available locally. Nevertheless, the librarian, Philip Sawin, sent off requests to Yale and other institutions. Soon I had an enormous pile. I spent weeks and weeks just reading through this material trying to make sense of it all.

In the end the paper was a bloated 60 page monster. When it was done, not much was said, then, a month or so later, Mr. Foley (yes, back in those days adults were always Mr. or Mrs.) told me that he had sent it off to Prof. Frederick L. Schuman,2 then at Williams College, who had reported back that he wished his upper class students did such work.

The True Nature of the Soviet Union

Looking back at the bibliography one author jumps out, Robert Conquest. In 1968, his book The Great Terror, was an early book documenting the widespread famine and death that resulted from Stalin’s industrialization policy3 After this book came out it was impossible for Westerners not to understand what a monster Stalin was and the dimensions of the totalitarian state the party had created.

The Whisperers: family life in Stalin's Russia by Orlando FigesMore recently scholarship in the post Soviet era has continued to reveal the workings of this totalitarian state.  The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia  by Orlando Figes (Henry Holt, 2007) shows how truly radical the reach of the Soviet state was in trying to destroy the family as a basic social unit to shape the new Soviet man.

 Why Russia and Russian?

Given the trajectory of my college years, lingering on through two years of graduate school at Cornell, I have recently begun to try to recall how I got so involved with Russia. I think that Mr. Foley had studied Russian history and I must have been exposed to it through a European history course at Taft. But, the exact path that led to the Comparison paper is lost to me.

I do clearly remember how I got tied up with Russian language.

When I went to Lawrence I intended to complete my language requirement in Greek. I had three years of Greek behind me at Taft, a subject that I dearly loved.4 This reminds me of another pleasure of my Senior year. I was the only student in Greek. By some miracle of scheduling this class took place at 8 am. Mr. Moskalew, very young and working on his PhD at Yale, invited me to meet in his apartment. His wife Nina served us glasses of Russian tea with the sugar mounded at the bottom. Then we spent an hour poring over texts that included sections of the New Testament in the original Greek with dictionaries and etymologies spread around for easy reference. This foray into the Bible’s original text came in handy later when I quietly poked at some of the fundamentalists with whom I worked about exactly what language God might have spoken. English, really?

When I applied as a Freshman at Lawrence to take an upper level course on the plays of Euripedes, I was met with resistance from a crusty old academician who refused to believe that a Freshman could possibly be qualified. I was annoyed and left his office. Several doors away was a door that said Russian Language and Literature, Prof. George Smalley. That lead to my Russian and linguistics career (George was a Prague School structural linguist).

My three month trip to the Soviet Union5 in 1971 only reinforced my impressions of that country as a repressive environment with an only modestly competent infrastructure and economy. Though the Soviets had built nuclear bombs and launched satellites, they couldn’t get elevators to work, had very few paved highways outside of the major cities, and had trucks and cars that broke down with shocking consistency. It was a mystery how Americans could envision this society taking over the world when it was so marginal at home. Perhaps an early lesson in perception.

In the post Soviet era it is sad to see Russia reverting back to its long history (for hundreds of years before the Soviet era) of authoritarian centralised government.

Well, enough adventures in my past history pursued along a somewhat mysterious path…….

Mark Orton playing French Horn recital November 1964

Mark Orton playing French Horn Fall 1964 Mozart 3rd Horn Concerto & Hindemith Horn Sonata



  1. It must be noted that he took a significant risk sponsoring me, a renowned under-achiever. I was regularly dragged into Mr.Douglas’s office where a corpulent finger would point to my grade average and class ranking. A jowled voice grumbled about what a shame it was for such a bright young man to do such slovenly work. The Dean never did get me and I certainly did my best to avoid him. []
  2. He had come through Taft for a lecture the previous Fall and was the author of one of the books in the bibliography, Soviet Politics at home and abroad. I only remember his thick European accent. []
  3. This is a predecessor of Mao’s Great Leap Forward 30 years later, though measured in terms of achieving its objectives much more successful. tough to justify either when millions died in the doing []
  4. Latin and Greek were a bright spot in my otherwise C minus type performance. I won the Classics prize as a Senior. Not much competition the cynics noted. I used the $250 prize money to buy the French horn I am playing in the picture []
  5. more hereRussia in Private by Richard Yatzeck about this trip []

Comments are closed.