Monday, June 13, 2011

Music and Memory, Part 21: Weaving False Dreams

As any classical musician in America can tell you, the Glee-like social ostracism of band, orchestra, and choir geeks doesn't end in high school, unless you go to conservatory right after graduating.  This was not the case for me; while I received my M.M. at a conservatory, and my doctorate in the music department of a large university, I attended a liberal-arts college, where I was a socially-ostracized-music-geek undergraduate voice major.  To complicate things further, I had a work-study job in the music library, with a shift on Friday nights, which limited my extra-musical weekend socializing, and to make matters even worse, the music building, which was open all night, drew me like a scrap of iron ore straight to the motherlode.  Turn down the chance to practice at two in the morning?  Not this girl.  And, having a key to the music library, I could also sneak in and study scores and listen to obscure recordings all night long, which is what I did, and which, moreover, is how I first discovered such gems as Harry Partch's Barstow:  Eight Hitchhiker Transcriptions:

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.
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.


BettyDuffy said...

Oh gosh. It's in the air. I just wrote a post about the piece of my life: that Shostakovich Quintet that always has me hankering for something else. But I really think the truth is there in the music, the life as living and suffering--but I always brought a lie to it, some lie that I wanted to believe instead of the truth. The music doesn't lie--I do.

Pentimento said...

Oh man. Reading it immediately.

BettyDuffy said...

Of course, it might just be the difference between Brahms and Shostakovich.

Pentimento said...

I dunno . . . listen to the Op. 60 no. 1 Andante and then tell me.

ex-new yorker said...

"that stirring, rushing, choking, devastating beauty,"

This is a common theme that I'm not well-read enough to have realized was so common outside of my personal observations, right?

I was all excited not too long ago to see this quote from Pope Benedict: "The beautiful and the good, ultimately the beautiful and God, coincide. Through the appearance of the beautiful we are wounded in our innermost being, and that wound grips us and takes us beyond ourselves; it stirs longing into flight and moves us toward the truly Beautiful."

recently at this blog (only now realized the post title has one of my fave word/concepts, bittersweetness, in it.)

It was the part about being "wounded" that got me and that your description above brought back to mind.

Pentimento said...

Beauty wounds, and beauty heals. I think.

And then there's this:

Anne-Marie said...

"...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."

No, oh no! Surely that's the true picture, only as the hymn says, "the eye made blind by sin" can't see it. When we have the beatific vision, the Brahms soundtrack will match what we see.

Pentimento said...

Perhaps that's why Brahms's music is so devastating; it makes us long for what we can never have on this side of life.

maria horvath said...

Sometimes I have to go to a poet, like Emily Dickinson, to understand the paradox that is beauty.

Beauty—be not caused—It Is—
Chase it, and it ceases—
Chase it not, and it abides—

Overtake the Creases

In the Meadow—where the Wind
Runs his finger thro’ it—
Deity will see to it
That You never do it—

Anonymous said...

Pentimento, you articulate what my mother could not say, though she knew that beauty is evidence of the transcendent. And your personal stories seem to lead to universal themes. Mother Teresa says that if a book leads one person to Christ it was worth reading. Keep writing. Tears are manifestation of the Holy Spirit cleansing us.

Augustine said...

Your posts are always thought-provoking and deeply affective! Sadly, my version of earning an MFA and PhD in the music/musicological world has been nothing but professional and personal oblivion. Your struggles are inspiring, yet leave those of us with even fewer successes feeling like failures at failure.

Pentimento said...

Thank you for your comment, Augustine. This will no doubt sound silly and corny, but I really believe that what we're meant to do with our hard-earned knowledge of beauty is to dispense it like medicine, which it is. While Doestoevsky's formulation that the world will be saved by beauty is false, since not beauty but only Christ is redemptive, what we know and practice of beauty can bring healing to others (even if that means making old ladies cry). If we can do that every once in a while, we are not failures.

ex-new yorker said...

"making old ladies cry"

My mother (who never learned to play the piano as a child because of a broken finger, or something like that) brought this cassette tape of Rachmaninoff she had at our house that she really wanted my son to hear. It was I don't know how long ago and I still haven't gotten out a cassette player. Do you like Rachmaninoff? I'm just curious. Even if you don't think his music is beautiful, I should honor my mother's request since she does.

Pentimento said...

I'm not a lover of Rachmaninoff -- just not my thing -- but any pianist should listen to him.