Monday, August 25, 2008
My Post-Tonal Back Pages
In the fall of 1989, my lifelong friend Robot Boy, upon his return from a sojourn in Europe, came to stay with me at 216 Carlton Avenue (apparently I was a somewhat erratic hostess). He got a job teaching English at a language school that catered to new immigrants, and quickly became friends with a young couple who had come to New York as refugees in the last wave of Soviet Jewish emigration sponsored by the U.S. government. A. and M., who brought their toddler daughter with them from Odessa, were both artists; A.'s work as a still photographer in Soviet cinema is known and prized by connoisseurs. Robot Boy spoke of them often and regarded them fondly, and, in one of the not-infrequent coincidences that make New York seem like a small town, they ended up being my across-the-street neighbors a few years later when I moved with my first husband to the apartment where I would live for the next thirteen years. In New York, A. and M. had two more children, and I had a special affection for their middle daughter, B., whose beautiful singing voice I recognized the first time I met her (she was three at the time, and she and her older sister sang "O terra addio," the duet from the last-act finale in Aïda, for me on my first visit to their home).
I began giving B. voice lessons two years ago. She's now graduated from LaGuardia High School (the High School of Performing Arts), and is headed to music school in another state. In preparation for my own move, I asked her to come over today to help me go through my filing cabinets of sheet music and take what she liked. In the process of this winnowing I found some interesting, obscure pieces of music of the sort I used to collect, but I had to be honest about which among them I am ever going to sing; the rest will have to be given away. With B., it was relatively easy; I made her a pile of the lyrical high-voice pieces I used to sing when I was a young soprano. Then I made another pile of the pieces that I've never sung and most likely never will (and that neither B. nor most people in the world likely ever will either).
One of the pieces that made its way into this second pile was the Fünf neapolitanische Lieder written by Hans Werner Henze (above) for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, which I not only have never sung; I had no recollection either that I owned the score or that it existed. When I opened it, however, I saw on the title page a dedication scrawled in the familiar stark hand of my first husband: "For dear Pentimento, with all love, M." It was one of those heart-churning moments that I've resigned myself to never being able completely to escape, the moments that are at once a result and a reminder of the small, ineluctable tragedies that I imagine afflict all but the most fortunate.
I suppose M.'s choice of this piece of music years ago as a gift for me was rather telling. The strongest aspect of our marriage was our artistic comradeship (he was a conceptual artist), and he both encouraged me and strove to understand my efforts in my own discipline. Near the end of the marriage, I accused him of loving me not for who I was but for what I did. "If I decided to become a lawyer, would you still love me?" I demanded.
"If you decided to become a lawyer, you'd no longer be you," was his reply.
The irony is that he is now a lawyer himself.
I also gave B. some of my old recital gowns. They fit her like a glove and looked ravishing, which gave me my first real sense of the many parts of a life that I so diligently built here, and that I will have to leave behind.