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.


ex-new yorker said...

Happy Epiphany to you too. I spend a lot of time wondering if I'm irresponsible to be spending close to $100 a month on piano lessons for our oldest in our financial circumstances, but it just feels so wrong to stop them. (Fortunately, my mother doesn't want that to happen, even if we're not paying our necessary bills without her at this point.) Is it practical? No, in the sense that I find it really unlikely that he is ever going to support a family with music. I think he's fairly talented and he likes it, but I don't see him having enough passion for it, and you know well that passion plus talent doesn't mean a family wage from playing music! (Maybe from related activities, if just barely in most cases, like teaching or writing about music.) I found myself thinking about a world without the kind of music you're describing, because no one had ever bothered to learn to play it, though, or make the instruments, etc., when my second son and I were just sitting and listening yesterday, and yes, it is just indescribable what a loss/lack that would be! Even if we hardly ever do listen to it, which we should remedy.

Sometimes I fantasize about someone deciding to be my son's musical patron so we don't have to be choosing to spend the money on something like piano lessons or cutting him off after 2 1/2 successful years with so many years ahead of him, but I don't think 9-year-olds with non-prodigious talent and no real passion for music inspire rich old ladies without heirs or whoever would be a "patron" to pay for their piano lessons.

Pentimento said...

Well, you know what I'm going to say: Don't stop. Crawl over broken glass if that's what it takes to keep him in lessons, etc. Unless you're a little more sane than I am about these things. But seriously, I would never want to deprive someone of the ability to become good at an instrument -- not money-earning good, because even people who are money-earning good can't earn money at it -- but good enough to derive real pleasure and solace from playing. It's one of the greatest things there is. As the song says:

Oh lovely Art, in how many grey hours,
When life's fierce orbit ensnared me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Carried me away into a better world!

How often has a sigh escaping from your harp,
A sweet, sacred chord of yours
Opened up for me the heaven of better times,
Oh lovely Art, for that I thank you!

Sheila said...

Amen, amen, to what you have written here. So much of it resonates with my own life experience with music. Just today was talking with a new piano student about how music was a huge part of how I survived so much of my growing up. It really helped keep me alive, in more ways than one.

And I remember listening to the Hungarian Dances with my sister and little brother, who would ask, "What is this music about?" And my sister and I would make up stories to go with each dance, wild and crazy scenes. Right now all I remember is that in one of them, a man would come home drunk and his wife would chase him with a rolling pin, and they'd go back and forth....I always think of that when I hear that music. :-)

Pentimento said...

It sounds like Brahms by way of Looney-Tunes, Sheila!

I just read today that -- amazingly -- an unpublished piano "stück" by Brahms was found by the period-instrument conductor Christopher Hogwood in the Princeton University library! It seems that he had inscribed it into a visiting book at someone's house. It's going to receive its premiere in England soon. How wonderful, since Brahms destroyed all of his early works, but couldn't get to this one, since it was in someone's house!

Sheila said...

Oh, that's fascinating about the music. I just love it when something like that shows up unexpectedly. It somehow makes those folks from the past seem a bit more real. One more connection.

Yes, Looney Tunes is a fitting association!

(My word verification is ejude....)

ex-new yorker said...

Oh, it is Brahms's Hungarian Dance No. 5 that we know from Classics for Kids... figured it was probably some other Hungarian Dance when I first read this post. Little "song" guy and I are listening now and it provoked some pretty vigorous seated-baby-upper-body dancing from him, too. :)