Friday, January 6, 2012
Epiphany and Manifesto
Yesterday was my son's sixth birthday. We started the day with a birthday tradition of wild dancing in the kitchen to Brahms's Hungarian Dance no. 5 in F-sharp minor (above; the sound quality is poor, but it was one of the few performances on Youtube that I actually liked. The one we use for wild dancing -- and the one I love am bestsen -- is the solo piano version by the great but sadly-short-lived American Brahms proponent Julius Katchen), and then it was time for school.
One of the things I love am besten is taking brisk walks in the cold, and school is good for that. It's about three-quarters of a mile in each direction, and on the way back I have time to look around and think. The combination of Brahms and the cold early-January weather, though, is a poignant one for me, bringing up memories of countless cold walks in the desolate post-industrial neighborhoods of the wintry Bronx, walks that were nevertheless wonderful and full of all kinds of interior riches influenced by the bleak exterior landscape. Here there's none of that. But there's still Brahms.
Brahms's music dominates the inner landscape of my life. His music is so inextricably woven into the warp of my earlier life, from my childhood listening to my mother's LP of Glenn Gould playing the Op. 117 and 118 Intermezzi, to my earliest days of performing his art songs as an undergraduate voice major, to later and more mature performances, including a turn in the four-soloist version of Liebesliederwalzer when I was still a soprano, and, most recently, the solo version of Ziguenerlieder in my last recital for my Doctor of Musical Arts degree in voice performance. (We had a three-recital requirement, and I made sure to program Brahms into each one. In the first of these recitals I performed George Crumb's song cycle Apparition for voice and amplified piano, based upon excerpts from Walt Whitman's elegy on the death of Lincoln, When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd, which was truly one of the greatest musical experiences of my life. I also sang a short group of Brahms songs early in the program, and one of my best friends -- a non-musician but no stranger to twentieth-century music -- said afterward, "The Crumb was just astonishing . . . but I loved the Brahms.")
I think now that if I hadn't had access to the kind of order and beauty that the practice of classical music has allowed me to take hold of, I would have fallen apart even more in this place where there is no discernible order, and not so much beauty, to my everyday life. We left New York when I was just finishing my doctorate, and I was teaching music, studying music, writing about music, and performing music with my esteemed instructors and colleagues. But here, my practice of music is largely solitary. I still have a few gigs a year, nearly all of which involve travel, which means that what I work on at the little piano in my living room does not ripple out into the community at all, and essentially has no effect upon the place where I live, and is brought instead into other marketplaces and other communities, and I wonder why it is that the people and places that most need beauty that have the least access to it.
I have been thinking of A., too, whose life is lived minute to minute as she attempts to meet her own and her children's basic needs with the scanty survival skills she's learned in a hard place. The beauty of Brahms's music, and the music of so many others, has scarcely been short of salvific for me: it shines light upon the soul's darkness; it converts the tattered rags of a wasted day into a rich tapestry. I've always thought of this music as having not only real form, but also real, tangible substance, as if it were something that you could actually erect standing structures out of, something you could build with. And perhaps you can: as misshapen as my inner self might be, it was trained like a vine around the trellis of music (in other ways, it could be said, though certainly hyperbolically, to have been stretched like a tortured body upon the rack of music). In any event, the discipline of music gave order to my life where there was none, and gave me all kinds of mad coping skills in the face of crumbling chaos. But A. has never heard it, and perhaps never will.
My son's wonderful violin teacher came with his quartet from Budapest to New York City in the 1960s. He has told me about playing school concerts in the inner city ghettos, and about how well-prepared and attentive the children were. Their teachers knew, then, that their young charges needed this music -- as who doesn't? But many teachers and educational theorists today reject that notion, believing instead that students, especially disadvantaged students, need forms of cultural expression that speak specifically to their circumstances. I don't deny that there is a place for particular, time-and-place-specific, vernacular art. But to say that each subculture should be sequestered with its own small and particular and self-referential art forms is to deny -- again to speak hyperbolically, even Beethoven-esquely -- the universal brotherhood of man; it's parochial at best, and bigoted at worst. All people, and especially all children, deserve to learn and to study and to know the great soul-strengthening and spiritually-deepening works of the great wielders of the highest forms of artistic expression of our culture, which, for all of us living here, is western culture. And they deserve to learn and to study and to know these things not because they make you smarter or better at math or better at sports or whatever the hell, but because they are beautiful, and they speak to the essence of what makes us human.
Where that leaves me, I don't know. It's still cold out, and I'm still listening to Brahms. Happy Epiphany, everyone.