Friday, July 1, 2011

Music and Memory, Part 23: Auf dem Strom

Warning: if you dislike reading about poop, venture no further.

My son, whom his preschool teachers call "brilliant," scores in the mentally-retarded range on IQ tests because of his near-total non-compliance.  He can memorize a book or a song after a first hearing, but our daily violin practice sessions are fraught by my continual redirection of his efforts, and by my own efforts to quell my frustration at his insistence on "playing it my way."  I picture myself jumping to my feet and shouting, "This is MUSIC, dammit! This is only the single most important thing in the created world!" but I manage to restrain myself, because he's five years old.  (I was going to write, "because he's five years old and has special needs," but his ability to comprehend the importance of music is not one of them.)

Yesterday we were having one of our frequent bathroom struggles, in which he refuses to poop, swears he doesn't have to, flings himself to the floor and lashes out, screams and cries, has to be physically transported to the toilet, and then sits meekly and finishes his business.  The process is generally quite demoralizing to me. Yesterday, after having plunked him down on the toilet, I went into the other room to catch up on some ironing, and thought maybe I could snatch a few minutes to practice before he needed me to help him wipe.  The motion of the body in ironing, it seemed to me, would pose no obstacle, and might perhaps even by an aid, to working on certain vocal technical issues.  Singing, after all, is a physiological process that involves the fluid motion of the entire body, usually enacted in subtle movements which audiences do not see.

As I stood ironing and singing, however, my focus was interrupted by other concerns. I thought of a poem I'd read in college by Tess Gallagher:

I Stop Writing the Poem

to fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I'm still a woman.
I'll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I'll get back
to the poem. I'll get back to being
a woman. But for now
there's a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it's done.

And, for some reason, a totally unrelated piece by Schubert came rushing into my head, a piece I've never sung because it's for tenor or high soprano, the little chamber scena "Auf dem Strom" (On the River).  (I do not have time to write my own translation, so I am copying someone else's of the poem by Ludwig Rellstab.)

 Take the last parting kiss,
 and the wavy greeting
 that I'm still sending ashore
 before you turn your feet and leave!
 Already the waves of the stream
 are pulling briskly at my boat,
 yet my tear-dimmed gaze
 keeps being tugged back by longing!

 And so the waves bear me forward
 with unsympathetic speed.
 Ah, the fields have already disappeared
 where I once discovered her!
 Blissful days, you are eternally past!
 Hopelessly my lament echoes
 around my fair homeland,
 where I found her love.

 See how the shore dashes past;
 yet how drawn I am to cross:
 I'm pulled by unnameable bonds
 to land there by that little hut
 and to linger there beneath the foliage;
 but the waves of the river
 hurry me onward without rest,
 leading me out to the sea!

 Ah, before that dark wasteland
 far from every smiling coast,
 where no island can be seen -
 oh how I'm gripped with trembling horror!
 Gently bringing tears of grief,
 songs from the shore can no longer reach me;
 only a storm, blowing coldly from there,
 can cross the grey, heaving sea!

 If my longing eyes, surveying the shore,
 can no longer glimpse it,
 then I will gaze upward to the stars
 into that sacred distance!
 Ah, beneath their placid light
 I once called her mine;
 there perhaps, o comforting future!
 there perhaps I shall meet her gaze.

I recalled how, in the 1990s, my teacher A.B. had had a famous coloratura soprano in his studio.  She lived in California and flew to New York for her lessons, and my knees would invariably turn to jelly and I would inevitably choke up when, having the lesson time after mine, she would open the studio door while I was working.  One day, A.B. remarked to me that she was performing "Auf dem Strom" in a famous summer music festival.  "Oh, I love that piece!" I gushed.  He laughed me off, explaining that it was dreck.

Oh no, it was not dreck.  How could A.B. and his prominent pupil gang up on "Auf dem Strom" like that -- on the gently-resigned opening melody in the french horn, drifting down, as it were, from a distant rise on the other side of the river as the speaker's small boat is already picking up speed in the current and bearing him away; on those lovely, arching vocal phrases, so full of longing and loss, but also of hope?  No, the piece was beautiful, was true, even. It was, quite possibly, even healing.

Yesterday, as I stood there ironing and waiting for my son to finish in the bathroom, I realized that I hadn't heard it or thought of it in years, but the delicate phrase, repeated in the coda, "Ach, bei ihren milden Scheine/Nannt' ich sie zuerst die Meine" (Ah, beneath [the stars'] placid light, I once called her mine) flooded into the ear of my memory, and I thought that perhaps  I too, one day, might be able to greet music once again as an old friend, might even be able to take hold of her as a balm for the healing of myself and others.


Sally Thomas said...

"My Way." My least favorite song, as performed by 3/4 of my children in virtually every life-venue in which we all appear together. I have these exact same wranglings with my younger two over the piano -- in fact, I've given up for the time being. Later, maybe. Or maybe we'll all just sing -- our way, of course.

And if it's any consolation, and if other people will pardon the continuation of the poop theme, one child of mine who shall remain even more nameless than he normally is, but who is a boy, and this wasn't that long ago -- anyway, I think if you googled "poop" and "control issue," the great search engine of the universe would cough him up. He is, generally, a genius at non-compliance, and excelled particularly in that arena, well into his sixth year. I get grossed out just thinking about what that was all like . . .

I am also thinking now that I wish I had thought of Schubert at times like these.

Pentimento said...

It gives me hope that you got through the tyranny of poop and were still able to write. Thank God for Schubert, et al., who come unbidden to shore me up, although sometimes the shoring up leaves me equally disconsolate.