Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dreams and False Alarms

The other night I dreamt that I met a garbageman who was also a virtuosic singer of early music, a tenor who sang according to all the authoritative research into authentic seventeenth-century performance practices.  I was floored when I heard him, and wondered why he worked as a garbageman.  "It's great, man," he asserted, explaining that, as a garbageman, he was free to sing what and when he wanted, and didn't run the risk of becoming a dessicated "professional," hustling to make his living as a singer and  losing all joy in singing in the process.

The next night, I dreamt that I was eligible for a gigantic grant which was, however, contingent upon the recipient's agreeing to live a more corrupt lifestyle.  So I signed on to become the second wife of a friend who was already married, and kept waiting for the money.  But somehow the weariness that sprang up in my soul nullified the benefits of the cash I was poised to receive.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Scènes de la Vie de Bohème

We were the closest of friends: a group of young aspiring artists living in the East Village, moving from one provisional household to the next, drinking Hungarian red wine because nothing else was cheaper, staying up late into the night, sprawled across one another's sofas (which were generally old, upholstered with shabby velveteen, and draped with Indian-print throws to keep the stuffing from spilling out onto the floor), conversing animatedly about art and beauty and the other deepest desires of our hearts.  We were young women in our teens and early twenties.  We were generally both broke pocket-wise and broken heart-wise, except for the one or two of us who appeared to have found our soul-mates, deep wells into whom we could sink all of our intense need for contact, for engagement, for communion; not one of those unions now survives.  We were painters, photographers, writers, musicians, and performance artists.  We all worked together in the same cafés and bars and lived within a few blocks of each other, ranging from Avenue B to Avenue D and from East 14th Street down to Rivington.

None of us entered into this circle of friends unfamiliar with betrayal.  Some of us went on to betray each other, or our most deeply-held principles.  After three or four years we had all dispersed to different parts of the city, because the East Village had gotten too expensive -- a few of us went to Brooklyn, one to Spanish Harlem, one to Inwood (also known as Upstate Manhattan), one to Canada.  Having to move physically out of the charmed circle of our magic-aesthetic friendship dealt a heavy blow to its continued existence.  Our alliances with our soul-mates likewise crumbled.  Some of us attempted to settle down into more traditionally-defined domesticity.  One of us had come into the circle already married, but eventually took up with someone else; her husband became gay (I never knew if this was a conviction or a passing fad for him).  The two of them had had several abortions already, and when she got pregnant by still another man, she kept the baby, who's now a teenaged girl; sadly, I have heard that the girl's father is now a hopeless crack addict.

But there was one of us who was tough enough, driven enough, and ambitious enough (some would say opportunistic enough) to follow her plans through to the end.  S. is now a successful artist, whose works are in collections throughout the world.  She picks up plum temporary teaching gigs as a visiting artist, and is not infrequently profiled in the haute women's fashion magazines.

It's been years since I spoke to S., but she recently spent time with our mutual friend G., who now lives in Canada -- S. was there for the opening of a solo exhibition of her works (my friendship with G. is the only one that has endured from that time, and it has never wavered).  G. told me about S.'s visit, how S. is still the same as she was twenty years ago -- seductive, self-justifying, and somehow, at the same time, heartrendingly vulnerable and shy.  Then G. let drop that S. was pregnant (she is the single mother of a five-year-old), and I asked her about the baby's due date.  "There's not going to be a due date," G. replied cynically; apparently the baby was the fruit of a causal one-night reunion between S. and her son's father, but they generally loathe each other.  It felt like a blow to my heart.

I began storming heaven, asking the Holy Spirit, during the week leading up to Pentecost, to inspire S. to choose life.  I asked G. to float the idea of adoption in her conversations with S.  I wasn't thinking so much of our family, though we are in the process of adopting.  S. is the kind of person -- for all her accomplishments, deeply insecure -- who loves and admires her friends so much that she insinuates herself into their lives in uncomfortable ways, trying to become them, and one of the ways she's historically done this is by sleeping with their boyfriends, so I figured that if we adopted her baby it would all get very messy and complicated fast.  But there was a couple I knew, friends of friends who live in the South, a couple who wanted a child and who would be wonderful parents and were removed enough from S. for her not to cause any trouble.  Please mention them to her, I begged G.

I spoke to G. yesterday and asked her if there was any news.  It was too late, she told me; S. had taken the RU-486 pill, and it was already all over.  Besides, S. had told G. that she could never give her child to someone else.

So now, though S. is not Catholic, though as a child she woke up every morning to see her naked, bohemian mom sitting on a different man's knee, though, like so many women, it was easier for her to consider the unbidden, unwanted, unseen life she carried as something best to dispose of, I'm storming heaven again so that she will somehow be inspired to seek and receive the abundant mercy, healing, and forgiveness that Christ is ready to shower upon her.

Ironically, and also too late, S. has just sent me a friend request on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Moral Theologian and Me

This blog almost never comments on current events.  There is no need for it.  Plenty of other blogs do, after all, and I usually find such commentary -- often no less than the current events themselves -- distasteful at best.  But I feel troubled enough by the case of Sister Margaret McBride, the Irish Sister of Mercy excommunicated for consenting to the performance of a so-called therapeutic abortion in the hospital where she was a long-time administrator, to address it here.

I have no idea what happened in that hospital, and I agree with Gerard Nadal that we don't know enough about the mother's condition to understand why Sr. Margaret thought the procedure was justified.  There is plenty of the expected hand-wringing about "liberal nuns" flying through the interwebs, and it's probably safe to assume that Sr. Margaret is one of them, but I do not think it's safe to assume that her tragic decision was guided by any political ideology.  The mother had four children at home, and someone appears to have been convinced that she would die if she continued her pregnancy.  I myself do not know if death would indeed have been the outcome; nobody does.  Nor do I know if her condition might have been stabilized to the point that her baby could have been delivered at the earliest possible point of viability and be kept in the NICU for several months.  My interest, instead, is in the misguided compassion that leads mothers, fathers, friends, grandparents, doctors, nuns, hospital administrators, and all the rest to believe, even if only for a moment, that the taking of one human life is justified in the interest of saving another.

What Sr. Margaret consented to was wrong.  We are forbidden from taking one life in order to save another (although, interestingly, this proscription is not found in Jewish theology).  But I am about to risk the sort of foaming-at-the-mouth vituperation I've received in the past when I've appeared on this blog not to take the hardest possible position on pro-life, by asking:  in this mother's situation, how many of us would have the heroic courage to leave our other children motherless?  In her husband's situation, how many husbands would willingly consent?  Exactly how many of us have the heroic virtue, faith, and selfless courage of Saint Gianna Beretta Molla (above) and her husband, Pietro?

In 2007 I had an ectopic pregnancy that ruptured.  I knew I was pregnant, but I wasn't exactly sure how far along I was, because I was nursing my baby at the time, and my cycles were all over the place.  One night I was overcome by a pain so intense that it had me first vomiting. and then immobilized; I was unable to sleep at all that night, because every breath I took sent stabbing pains up and down my spine.  It took several days, countless ultrasounds, and three emergency room visits to determine what had happened, at which point I was immediately wheeled in for emergency surgery.  In the meantime, when an ectopic pregnancy had begun to look like a likely scenario, I had gone to talk to my parish priest, to find out what treatments were permitted under Catholic moral theology.  He dryly xeroxed many pages from a book on the subject, gave them to me, and told me to call Monsignor Bill Smith, a respected moral theologian at St. Joseph's Seminary. 

Msgr. Smith died last year, and was lovingly eulogized throughout the Catholic press as a giant of his field.  I have no doubt that he was as they said.  My experience of him, however, consisted of a cell-phone call from the emergency room, during which Msgr. Smith expostulated at some length on the treatments that were and were not permissible to me.  Was I at a Catholic hospital?  I was not.  Well, then, beware of methotrexate, whose use was not permitted in the Catholic hospitals of the Archdiocese of New York, but was the subject of much controversy in other dioceses.  I could tell that Msgr. Smith was quite at home at the seminary lectern, and I supposed he had found his true calling as a scholar and teacher, because he seemed virtually devoid of any pastoral impulse whatever.  There was no condolence for a grieving mother, no prayer offered, no good luck or God bless; I was simply exhorted to do the right thing.  Fortunately for my soul, there was no need for methotrexate, as there was no trace left of my baby; the fetus had ruptured through my tube and perished.  So, while I had to have my tube and one ovary removed, no children were harmed.

What if things had been just slightly different?  What if my pregnancy had been discovered to be ectopic before it ruptured?  My OB worked at an Episcopalian, not a Catholic, hospital:  what if methotrexate had been administered, or what if the doctors had removed my tube with the fetus still in it, another treatment forbidden in that moral theology textbook that Father R. had xeroxed for me, as it directly harms the fetus?  (The fact that ectopic pregnancies are never viable doesn't count in moral theology.)  Would it have mattered to my body?  I got pregnant with the other ovary a couple more times, and lost those babies too.  Would it have mattered to my soul?  Well, yes, evidently it would have.

God, nonetheless, in His mysterious grace, allowed me to experience the loss of several of my unborn children through no fault of my own, unlike the loss of my first unborn child through my own fault.  I love Him no less for it.  As Robert Herrick's poem "To God" says:

Beat me, bruise me, rack me, rend me,
Yet, in torments, I'll commend Thee:
Examine me with fire, and prove me
To the full, yet I will love Thee:
Nor shalt thou give so deep a wound,
But I as patient will be found.

As for those who are inclined to condemn Sr. Margaret McBride, or me, or any of the usual suspects, I pray for you -- and I suggest that you pray also for yourselves -- that you will never be put to the test.  May God have mercy on us all.  May Saint Gianna Beretta Molla intercede for us. 

By the way, Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix did not excommunicate Sr. Margaret.  Canon law states that anyone who consciously participates in an abortion is automatically excommunicated (latae sententiae); Bishop Olmstead simply stated that fact.  If you have participated in abortion, please go to confession, and ask the priest to lift the excommunication from you.  Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, God will run to you when He sees you approaching from ever so far off.

"Trying circumstances such as these are an invitation to ponder all we do not know. We believe that God wants both mother and child to live, but accept the possibility of other plans and even other—to us shocking—ideas, such as this one: What if that was all the life the mother was meant to have?"  Taking Jeremiah 29:11 as a template, Elizabeth Scalia (aka The Anchoress) explains the position of the Church quite beautifully here.  

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Still Life with Dutch Oven

I have had a cast-iron dutch oven for years, and it seems to have gone off completely.  Something has happened to the seasoning, and no matter how long or how often I boil vinegar in it and try to season it anew, the rancid smell lingers, so now I am going to have to purchase a rather expensive piece of cookware.  I suppose it evens out in the end, though, as the now-rancid one was free to me.  It used to belong to A., a conceptual artist who was a lifelong friend of M., my first husband.

A. and M. had come of age together, smoking pot in the basement of Buddhist church when they were supposed to be attending Sunday school.  Both became conceptual artists and moved to New York City.  A., who was several years the older than M., hit some rough patches in his life there, and spent time living in a storefront in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, known as the Cave, whose only furniture was the backseat salvaged from a defunct car and a bunsen burner for cooking.  This all took place before I ever met him, but I suspect the dutch oven originally dated from the Cave era.  I first encountered it a good while later, when it had ended up in A.'s painting studio, a basement apartment he had rented in a tenement on an ungentrified block of the Upper West Side when he was somewhat more flush.

A.'s studio was like an oasis for me.  Going there was like entering into some kind of strange clubhouse where everyone understood one another without needing to speak.  I truly loved his work, which consisted of things like sand in buckets stenciled with the word "FIRE" and bricks painted to look like wood, and I can't quite explain why.  There was something very clean, and also very heartfelt, about it; its ethos encompassed both bemusement in the face of the created world and compassion for those who stood in its face, bemused.  When I walked around the little basement room, surveying A.'s oeuvre, it all made perfect sense to me.  I would talk about it for hours afterward, and M. couldn't fathom why I loved A.'s work so much when I didn't really get his own.

When A. entered his forties, however, his life changed once more.  He and his longtime girlfriend bought a spacious apartment in the neighborhood between Columbia University and Riverside Drive, and their large monthly payments made it necessary for him to get a "real" job.  He and M. had worked side by side on the night shift in the word processing center of a large multinational investment house, but now A. needed a high-paying full-time job with benefits.  He began customizing computer programs for financial firms, and took a permanent position as a programmer for another investment bank.  He would no longer have the time to make his art, but, as he told M., computers would be his art now.  This comment made M. so furious that he dropped A. completely.  M., a purist, felt as if A. had gone over to the dark side, and as far as I know they never spoke again.

When A. was cleaning out his basement studio in preparation for his move to the apartment off Riverside, he passed the dutch oven on to us, along with a high-legged butcher block table.  M. left both these things behind when he moved out, along with our stereo and the dining-room table that I still have, which he kindly let me keep in case I ever wanted to entertain, which I didn't.  The dining-room table and the dutch oven have moved with me four times since then, though I left the butcher block behind in Washington Heights when I realized that its joints had become nests for roaches.  A. came over once after M. left to pick up some drawings that M. had made for him many years earlier (M. also left many of his paintings behind, which I lent to a friend, no longer wanting to have them around but unsure what to do with them.  As far as I know, my friend still has them.  M. no longer wanted them, as he had moved on to different media, and he, like A., eventually abandoned art too.  He is now a lawyer in a different city).

I have made scores of stews in the dutch oven, including many iterations of my favorite lamb stew with cerignola olives, and it's also made many wonderful round loves of crusty bread.  But I had completely forgotten its provenance until today.  It's funny how the implements of quotidian life can seem to possess all the animation of being and memory when we want them to, as if they had their own souls, and shared in our experiences.  And when we no longer want them, we divest them of the life with which we have infused them, and put them out by the curb.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I don't feel as if I'm used to living in a house yet.  One of the things I've noticed about being a homeowner is how exposed it makes you feel.  Or, I suppose I should say, how exposed it makes me feel, which I think has at least something to do with my status as a not-yet-licensed driver.  Most people who live in a place like this, whenever they leave their houses, get into their cars and drive away.  I do not do that, and so, as I go out onto the stoop, lock the front door behind me, shoulder my capacious purse (a holdover from my life in New York, where, not having cars in which to stash all the day's gear, the citizenry resorts to carrying it around with them), and get hold of my son, a stroller, a Bronx-style folding stand-up shopping cart, or some combination thereof, I feel awkwardly conspicuous.  My feeling of conspicuousness comes not only from my accouterments, but also from my very presence, standing there on the front porch, walking down the front walk, and taking to the sidewalk in order to go where I need to.  Very few people go out their front doors (after all, their garages are in the back), and very few people use the neighborhood sidewalks as a path leading to a destination that must be gotten to.  Some people use them for recreation:  in the course of the day, I generally see a few dog-walkers, sometimes a mother with a baby in a stroller (never a preschooler, another New York custom), a jogger or two, and one young man with Down's Syndrome who, like me, walks the neighborhood with a purposeful stride in all weathers. 

I'm also not at all used to living in a neighborhood of homeowners.  In order to cut down on the feeling of being exposed, I was careful to hang a clothesline in the backyard in a spot that would be as inconspicuous as possible from the street or the surrounding houses.  The backyard is quite shady, while the front yard gets the sun, so I know I will have to take a deep breath and allow myself to be seen gardening there, visible to the neighbors and to people in passing cars.  In New York, you can make yourself socially invisible by the unspoken code of avoiding eye contact with other pedestrians and even with your neighbors, who generally understand, but in a place like this, where so few people are out walking, it would seem rude to try to avoid conversations with neighbors and passersby.  At times, I've tried to go out of my way to avoid talking to people.  Last week, however, I realized I was being a little ridiculous when, on my way home from somewhere, I could see my across-the-street neighbor (who, incidentally, sold us our homeowners' insurance) doing yard work from half a block away.  In order to avoid having to talk to him, I made a turn instead of keeping straight, walked to the next block, and tried to determine whether there was some secret passageway into my backyard through someone else's.  When it was clear that I would have to hack my way through a sheer wall of hedges, I gave up, and walked back to my own street.  My neighbor came across the street to talk to me, and we actually had quite a pleasant chat.

Friday, May 14, 2010

There and Back, Part 11: Religion for Drugs

This entry in this blog's "There and Back" series is actually someone else's story:

It's significant that I started this 'blog very soon after my "reversion" (I'm starting to hate that word), when I was predisposed to think of it as the fruit of those same graces I liked to call (following God knows whose non-Catholic tradition) my "second Pentecost." It never crossed my mind that Sancta Sanctis might be a symptom of something else. Yet the fact is that inasmuch as this 'blog became a major expression of my Catholicism, my Catholicism became little more than a serious hobby, which is what all non-professional 'blogging is.

Now, the last truly serious hobby I had before this was my study of the occult. If I had known about 'blogging at that time, Sancta Sanctis might now be trying to live down an "Aquarian" older sister 'blog. Think of an addict substituting religion for drugs: I was like that, except that I substituted an intellectually rigorous religion for the mind games of the occult. Indeed, as long as I kept writing about my Catholicity and putting up an intellectual front, I could mask that truth about myself, from myself. Religion may not be the opiate of the masses, but it has some sedative properties where I am concerned.

-- Enbrethiliel, making a brief and provocative appearance on her mostly-now-defunct blog, Sancta SanctisRead her whole story here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

He Tried to Do His Best

Today a line from a Neil Young song that I hadn't heard for years flitted across my mind.  The song, "Tired Eyes," is from one of Young's most despairing albums, Tonight's the Night, and is about a cocaine deal gone horribly wrong.  You can either love the song or hate it, just as you can either giggle at or take very seriously Young's delivery of it as a spoken narrative over the accompaniment of his band, rather in the style of nineteenth-century romantic melodrama. 

The line that I remembered was the recurring: "He tried to do his best, but he could not."  It struck me as a simple, sad assessment of the situation of fallen man, and at the same time a sort of mysterious tautology:  if the subject of the song tried to do his best (and it's safe to assume that, since Young suggests that he is a "loser" and a "heavy doper," his personal best was of a rather low standard), then why couldn't he even manage that much?  Well, that is the rub.

Since starting this blog, I have been lambasted, both publicly in the combox and in private communications, for exactly the pitiful dilemma of the poor loser in "Tired Eyes":  I tried to do my best, but I could not.  It seemed to me that my readers who were young orthodox Catholics faulted me particularly heavily for my failures and sins.  One woman made it clear, in a comment deploring my sinfulness and the grief that resulted, that she was in no way as sinful as I was, and it was also clear that she expected never to be.  This strikes me as a very precarious attitude.  Saint Peter wrote:  "Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." Those who believe that that someone is always going to be one of the losers and heavy dopers, or one of the reckless young women starved for love who lacked Catholic formation and diligent parental guidance, are often proven fearfully wrong.  Saint Paul's admonishment to the Philippians to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, after all, applies to us too, and not just to those of us who have been mercifully kept free (kept free, I might add, by the grace of God, and not by their own merits) from serious sin.

We should pray for ourselves, lest we fall into the trap that is laid for us everywhere, and also for everyone else, especially those we're quickest to condemn for trying to do their best but falling pathetically short.  Saint Ephrem the Syrian is supposed to have said, "Be kind to everyone you meet, for everyone is fighting a great battle."  We are fighting it everywhere, and more than we know.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Happy Returns

It's that time of year again, boys and girls.  Today is the 177th birthday of the most humane, and the most human, composer I know, Johannes Brahms.  Have a strong coffee or a pint of Saint Pauli Girl in his honor while you listen to Artur Rubinstein playing the Intermezzi op. 117, nos. 1 and 2, the pieces that Brahms called "cradlesongs of [his] sorrows."

Rubinstein, best-known for his virtuosic performances of Chopin, was born during Brahms's lifetime, in 1877, and became the protégé of Brahms's great friend and recital partner Joseph Joachim, so it's safe to assume that his playing is close in style to the performance practice that Brahms, himself a virtuoso pianist, had intended.  I love his straightforwardness and simplicity of expression -- in effect, his anti-virtuosity -- in these pieces.

(By the way, whenever I remember to, I pray that my beloved Brahms is in heaven.  In fact, one of my intentions for the Advent Novena last Christmas was the repose of his soul.)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Baritone and I

In my recent listening to Hans Hotter, I've gotten to thinking about the baritone voice.  It is, I think, the quintessential American voice.  It is the most naturalistic of voice types, in the sense that it is the voice that most closely approximates the pitch of (male) human speech, and thus it can be manipulated in all kinds of ways:  think of Bing Crosby's crooning, for instance, and then think of the very different male vocal style that supplanted it: the revolutionary singing of Frank Sinatra, in turns swaggeringly declamatory and beautifully, evocatively conversational.  In its very naturalness, the baritone voice apotheosizes the frank, unadorned American aesthetic.  I suppose it's no accident that my favorite singers are baritones:  Thomas Quasthoff, Thomas Hampson, Thomas Allen (that's a lot of Thomases, come to think of it), Hans Hotter, Sinatra, Johnny Hartman.

Kurt Elling's is one of the most true and beautiful American voices I know.  He wrote his own preamble to a song made famous by Sinatra, "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning."  Listen carefully, and you'll hear that he makes even his breaths part of the expressive landscape of the piece.  He and his pianist, Laurence Hobgood, do the song as a slow, sad waltz, with the accompaniment picking out a resigned, lonely, late-night heartbeat figure.

Oh, and if you click on the Johnny Hartman link, be sure to listen past Coltrane's introduction.  The story goes that, in the recording session, Hartman was so enthralled by Coltrane's beautiful solo that he forgot to come in.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Advice to Young Singers, Part 2: Muttersprache

The first repertoire I sang seriously, in high school, was French mélodie, and I remember how happy I was when I bought my first score at sixteen, the International edition of Debussy's collected songs.  I also learned French in high school, and Italian was a language that I always knew fairly well without having to study it.  As soon as I entered college, though, I set myself to learning German.  In fact, I think nothing else could be as important to a young singer as studying German when the opportunity arises, though I'm sure this conviction is hopelessly old-fashioned.

For two or three generations of singers before my time, German was actually much more important to American singers than it is today, as many of them went to Germany to seek a living.  Every town in Germany has an opera house, and American singers were very much in demand in the 1970s and 1980s, because American singers are rightly considered to be the best in the world:  our training focuses on developing rock-solid vocal technique, and we are discouraged from specializing, so we learn to sing all the major national styles and in all languages, with the result that your average American opera singer can sing pretty much anything well.  So Americans would go over to Germany (West Germany at that time) in search of fest employment, which meant they were attached to a specific opera house.  It was not glamorous work; the house tenor or lyric soprano had to sing every role in his or her fach, or voice category, in every opera that the house had in its repertory, which is quite different from the American system, in which all the singers are guest artists, coming to Opera House X to perform a particular role and then going elsewhere.  The Americans in Germany were excellent journeymen singers, and performing several shows a week for years on end was hard work, and everything -- Le Nozze di Figaro, La Traviata, Porgy and Bess --  was performed in German translation.  But in Germany, American singers were employees of the state, with full benefits.  They would never be famous, but they had health insurance and job security (something American singers still don't have), and they were able to make a living doing what their education and years of training had prepared them to do. Many American singers stayed in Germany for years, marrying other American singers and raising their children there.

In the 1990s, all of this began to change.  After the Berlin Wall fell, the German opera market was flooded with a new crop of Eastern Bloc singers who were eager to work, would work for less money than Americans, and could still sing better than Germans.  And American presenters, flush with cash left over from the brief period in American history during which arts funding was a national priority, founded new regional opera companies and young artists' training programs for native-born American talent, so singers seemingly had more opportunities at home.  And, after a fallow generation or two, Germany started producing a few world-class singers of its own.  I knew a couple of singers who went on audition tours in Germany ten or so years ago, but the German door was closing fast, and then 9/11 changed the face of opera in America, as it did so many other things.

I was not planning to go to Germany.  I simply set about learning German so that I could sing German music as well and truthfully as possible.  Plenty of American singers sing German music without really knowing German, but I don't believe that you can ever do justice to a song unless you understand the literal meaning of every word, above and beyond having a notion about the meaning of the whole piece.  If you know the meaning of every word, you can start to develop ideas about why the composer set each word as he did, and once you have an understanding of this -- a subjective one, to be sure -- you are no longer singing a melody; you participate in the harmonic progression of the piece itself.  You're able to understand the aural landscape of a piece in a whole new way, a way that is text-oriented, and you can use your voice as an ensemble instrument to bring out the meanings implied by certain keys and chords. You become a collaborative musician, which seems only right in a repertoire -- German Lieder -- in which the voice and piano are given equal prominence. Since I loved German music so much, I felt it would be almost unethical to attempt to sing it without knowing the language.

As it happens, though, I've spent most of my career performing Italian and English music.  I've been told, too, that those are the repertoires in which I sound the best, which is not surprising, as I believe that everyone sings best in his own native tongue.   As my old voice teacher, one of those intrepid American singers in Germany who attached himself to the Opernhaus at Augsburg in the 1980s, told me, an American singer can't have a career singing Lieder; you have to sing opera, get yourself known, and then acquire the clout to perform the music you want to sing (with the unspoken assumption that you would be paid to do this and that people would come to hear it).  This was my plan for a time, and I worked most assiduously at it, but for complicated reasons I ended up dropping out and focusing on several obscure repertoires instead.

I don't know if there's any place for German Lieder in America today.  I think there's a great need for it, both aesthetically and spiritually, but I don't know where concerts of German art songs would fit into the current American social landscape.  Lieder are heard in the great concert halls of major urban areas, and also on college campuses, when famous opera singers come around on tour to give art song recitals.  The asethetic of the song recital is much more rarified and much less accessible than that of opera, simply because it's much less familiar.  And yet, in my opinion, it is so much more moving, so much more healing, so much more able to go deep into the core of what makes us human.  It would be a good thing, I think, for everyone to hear some Brahms and Schubert on a regular basis.

I always told my voice students that the most important thing they could do was to learn German.  I'm sure they thought that was extremely arbitrary, but I felt very gratified when my former student S. recently started writing her Facebook posts in rather good German, and said that she wanted to marry Brahms.

Here is some more Hans Hotter; I'm discovering all over again what a fantastic singer he was.

The poem, by Karl Friedrich Lappe (1773-1843):

O how beautiful is your world,
Father, when she shines with golden beams!
When your gaze descends
And paints the dust with a shimmering glowing,
When the red, which flashes in the clouds,
Sinks into my quiet window!

How could I complain, how could I be afraid?
How could anything ever be amiss between you and me?
No, I will carry in my breast
Your Heaven for all times.
And this heart, before it breaks down,
Shall drink in the glow and the light.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Down in the Valley

I was practicing my métier today, allowing myself to sink into the morass of nostalgia, and found myself thinking about the final exam I gave to my first voice class of non-music majors, three years ago right around this time.  I had started teaching part-time as an adjunct at my university just after my son turned one -- shortly, in fact, before I began writing this blog -- and it was the end of my first semester.   I had twenty-three students, from wildly divergent backgrounds:  one, an art major from Queens, was the great-great-granddaughter of Mikhail Fokine; another, S., was the Canarsie-bred child of civil servants, who spoke French and Japanese and was teaching herself Urdu (I later designed a one-on-one tutorial for this student, funded by a grant designed, perhaps wrongheadedly, to attract minority students into the field of academic musicology).

It turned out to be an eventful semester.  In March, I had to be hospitalized briefly for an ectopic pregnancy that ruptured, costing me not only the baby but also one ovary (I was pregnant again the next month, but lost that baby over the summer).  Then one of my students, a waifish Chinese-American girl whom I'll call K., disappeared from sight.  I was planning to give her an unofficial withdrawal from the class, which is tantamount to an F, when suddenly she showed up in tears one day after class had ended and confided in me that she had had an abortion and was not functioning well in its aftermath.  Another student, a young Orthodox Jewish girl, was in the last trimester of her own first pregnancy, and K., post-abortion, could not bear to be in class with her.  This was sort of my territory, and I tried to comfort K., and cast around for ways to help her.  K. had told me she was a Christian, and so I totally overstepped the boundaries of the student-teacher relationship in a secular public institution by talking to her about God's mercy; a friend of mine even offered to pay for K. to attend a Rachel's Vineyard retreat, but K. never followed through.

Then another student, a beautiful, upper-class West Indian girl, had a psychotic episode that kept her out for many classes.  I didn't know the cause of her absences, and I was about to fail her too, when the Office of Disability intervened. Then we had torrential rain in April, which resulted in school closings throughout the New York metropolitan area -- except at my university, which never closes, the theory being that the subways keep running through rain and sun and sleet and hail, so everyone had better suck it up and get there on time.  My babysitter, however, assumed that the university was in fact closed, since every other school within twenty-five miles was, and so she didn't show up, which led to the realization of one of my worst fears when I had to plough my stroller through the five-inch-deep puddles to the train and take my toddler to class with me. The girls went crazy for him, but I had to end the class after just twenty minutes, because, after a few minutes of running around in bewilderment while I sat at the piano and tried to teach, he began crying inconsolably.  I didn't want to nurse him in class, and it didn't seem fair to designate one of my students babysitter.  And then one of my favorite students, a mature, compassionate graduating psychology major whom everyone loved and respected, plagiarized his final paper.

I had assigned each of my students two pieces that semester.  Everyone got his own individual piece, and then they all got "An die Musik," Schubert's famous paean to music itself:

(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!)

I also assigned each student a singer to study and listen to throughout the semester.  I picked the singers based on my students' voice types, but also tried to suit them to the inclinations the students seemed to demonstrate.  S., for instance, was curious about twentieth-century music, so I assigned her Jan DeGaetani.  Some of the students ended up feeling profoundly connected to their study singers:  Jimmy, a lanky, ponytailed Puerto Rican bass-baritone, took to signing his papers "Hans," after Hans Hotter, his assigned singer.

For the final exam, my students had the choice of singing either their assigned individual piece or "An die Musik."  For extra credit, they could sing Brahms's setting of the folksong "Da unten im Tale" -- Down in the valley -- in English (though it may sound like it, I didn't assign only German Lieder; their individual songs spanned styles and languages, from Handel to Irving Berlin.  I just thought that they  needed to know some Schubert and Brahms in order to know what was truly beautiful in this world).

Although food and drink were forbidden in the classroom, I spent the night before exam day making dozens of sandwiches and chocolate-chip cookies, since the exam period was two hours long and spanned lunchtime, and I picked up bottled water and coffee on my way to the university.  I had arranged for the music department to hire my friend and colleague J, a Korean-born monster pianist and vocal collaborator, to accompany, so I could focus on my students' performances.  I let students who were unhappy with their performance start over, and everyone encouraged each other.  At the end, I got up and sang "An die Musik" for them myself.  I will never forget how touching it was to hear Jimmy (a.k.a. Hans) and S. sing "Da unten im Tale" as a duet, like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau did on their legendary 1966 recording of Brahms's folksong settings.  The text:

Down in the valley there
the water flows so sadly,
and I can't tell you
that I love you so.

You always speak of love,
you always speak of faithfulness,
but a little bit of falsehood
is always there too.

And if I tell you ten times
that I love you,
and you do not want to understand,
then I will have to move on.

For the time that you have loved me,
I thank you kindly,
and I wish that somewhere else
things might go better for you.

Jimmy and S, like Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau, sang the song as a conversation, trading off the verses in a he-said-she-said dialogue, which gives the song a rather different feeling from the solo piece that Brahms had originally conceived -- less gallant, more resigned, and more moving.  Here is the excellent German tenor Werner Güra singing it.

And here is a less-polished but heartfelt and lovely performance by a group that calls itself Tre Sorelle -- I assume they are indeed three sisters.

At the end of the semester, I picked up my packet of anonymous student evaluations.  Some students were unhappy with the fact that I didn't dedicate the entire class to teaching vocal technique, but tried to present the art of singing in the context of music and social history, and also made them write two papers. Some felt they didn't belong in the class at all (this was not my feeling; it was a beginning voice class, and was open to everybody).  But some students were genuinely excited by what they had learned -- S. switched her major from English to music, is graduating this month, and hopes to continue on to her Ph.D. in musicology (the grant bore its intended fruit in her case) -- and I'll never forget the one evaluation that contained the highest praise I've ever received as a teacher, or perhaps as anything else:  "She's cool."