and a large chunk of John Cage's recorded oeuvre, among many other treasures.
One year, my piano professor wanted me to audition for the music department's annual concerto competition -- on the piano. I knew I would never be able to practice enough to get to the technical level required, and that it would be folly to compete against real pianists when I was not one. Professor R. was a real pianist with a solid performing and teaching career who commuted to my college from New York, where she also served on the faculty of a major conservatory, so I was surprised by and a little mistrustful of her enthusiasm for my playing. She explained to me that I had innate musicality, a gift, she said, which can't be taught, and she wanted to bring my piano technique up to the level of my natural musical proficiency. I was flattered, but I turned her down. I was a singer, and it was hard enough bringing my technique up to snuff as a singer, let alone spreading it thin between two equally-demanding instruments.
I was nevertheless delighted and honored when Professor R. asked me to be her page-turner for a performance of the rarely-heard Brahms Piano Quartet Op. 60, no. 1 in C Minor. Chamber music is my great love, and I knew I would learn invaluable lessons about ensemble music-making by observing her and her colleagues at close range in their rehearsals, and I did. I also came to know and love the gorgeous third-movement Andante, with its heart-stopping cello solo, truly one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written:
There was a beautiful young man at my college, with long, flowing hair, about whom I began to concoct elaborate romantic fantasies to the soundtrack of the Brahms Op. 60 no. 1 Third Movement Andante. I never expected him to cast a glance my way. Why would he? The other girls at my school were beautiful and rich, and I was ethnic-looking, and from a family that my best friend described as "middle-class poor." And to top it off, I was a music geek down to my very bones. Besides, he had a long-time girlfriend.
One night I saw him eating dinner in one of the campus's smaller dining rooms. On the table across from him lay a white rose. "Would you like to have dinner with me?" he asked, as I walked past with my tray. "I'm having dinner with a rose." I couldn't believe it. In a swoon, I sat down. I have no idea what we said, but I remember that he was sensitive, poetic -- and he had that hair.
In the middle of our dinner, his girlfriend walked in, saw us, wordlessly plucked the white rose off our table, threw it with dramatic flourish into the nearest garbage can, and marched out. So much for Brahms.
As the last post on the evocatively-titled, now-defunct music blog "Nihilism, Optimism, and Everything In Between" says about Brahms's Piano Concerto in D Minor:
Brahms, you old Master! You weaver of dreams, you liar! You encourage my “hopeless romanticism” and you know it! Life is not as colourful as you would have us believe! Of course you know that I know, and I can hear you laughing.
You dear Master, you! You—and the worthless dreams you sell me! No, keep them coming. Weave on and on. Go from here to the depths, then further into the depths, then rise up again—portray that impossibly rich, romantic world as you always do. If only life were really as romantic.
. . . . If only life were so rich.
Last weekend I participated in a house concert here in my new town, to which, it seems, the toniest local classical musicians were invited to perform. While most of the singers sang transcriptions of opera arias, I sang Brahms's incomparable art song "Unbewegte laue Luft" (my translation here), which has been called a "Tristan und Isolde of the Lied." When I had finished, a sort of sigh rose up from the audience. A very old woman told me, afterward, that she had cried, and the head of the voice faculty at the local public university (who knows me and my work, but can't offer me even an adjunct position because of a statewide hiring freeze) said afterward, "I'm so glad you sang that. People need to hear it."
Oh, yes, I agree. People need to hear Brahms; they need that stirring, rushing, choking, devastating beauty, that beauty that makes their veins throb with teeming life. Or maybe they don't. It made an old lady cry, after all. Perhaps the writer of the short-lived "Nihilism, Optimism" blog had it right after all, and Brahms -- or better, all music, all beauty, of which Brahms is only the exemplar -- is a deceiver, making us believe that life is so much richer, more poignant, more unifying, more exquisite, more imbued with meaning and deep feeling than it really is.
It seems to me sometimes that, as we grow up and grow older, we become more and more diminished by life. It as if life strolled up to us with a surgeon's scissors every now and then to cut off a different little piece of us. But we must go on, and so we go on wounded; and, if we're lucky, our wounds will remain open and tender, so that we can learn how to truly love other people. Nonetheless, it is very hard for me sometimes to wake up and realize that my life is not at all the same as the music I spent most of my life studying, that it bears little resemblance to the mystical world of beauty hinted at, even whisperingly promised, by Brahms.