Dead Leaves

Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves) – Claude Debussy

The short work linked above, from Debussy’s second volume of preludes, has a decidedly straightforward title. For the composer, at the height of his career, but having learned recently that he had cancer, perhaps the desolation he expressed in this music required such a stark title. Though the music can seem blurry, Debussy was a master of clarity in capturing the essence of a feeling or a moment in sound, in this case the leaves of autumn, fallen and desiccated. Harmonically and rhythmically vague, as his music often is, it is music that seems filled with mournful sighs.

Why do we sigh? Whether we do so from frustration or from sadness, there’s one theory that suggests that our sighs serve as a re-set button. In all the ways that breath is life, our sighs overcome the shallow breathing we sometimes fall into and re-energizes our lungs. Maybe it’s a pointed “snap out of it” message from our brain. We can’t really know what was going on in Debussy’s own brain as he composed, but I’m grateful for the “snap out of it” messages that keep me from settling too comfortably into melancholy.

Feuilles mortes had another incarnation that many of you will recognize –

Fueilles mortes-Yves Montand

The translation of “Dead Leaves” sounds somewhat more alluring in French – Feuilles mortes. But then, as I learned this past summer while traveling in France, even the voice of the GPS sounds more alluring when he (there was no way this GPS voice was an “it”, nor a “she”) gave directions.

Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle, les souvenirs et les regrets aussi.                   Fallen leaves can be picked up by the shovelful, so can memories and regrets.

The American version softens death into merely falling, and changes the title from Dead Leaves to Autumn Leaves, but we often retreat into the prettier words of euphemism in order to save ourselves from confronting the hardest truths.

Of course, as with the lefts and rights of my friend’s French navigation system, allure is part of anything sung by Yves Montand.  He sings here a tender song of nostalgic longing, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that this was a song written in France in 1945. There is no euphemism for all that is lost in wartime.

Nor for the loss of talent taken too soon:  Eva Cassidy singing Autumn Leaves

Debussy’s dead leaves are disorienting and bleak. Cassidy’s autumn leaves are heartbreaking. I gave myself permission to cry and to live in melancholy for just a bit as I listened, and so should you before you sigh and reset for whatever comes next.

Peace,
Sonya

if you’ve read down this far, you might be interested in a concert I’ll be doing on October 21 – Debussy’s Feuilles mortes is included – let me know if you’d like to attend.  Four Seasons of Caring – a house concert

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was, and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

 

 

A Rose By Any Other Name

In the past couple of years I have taken on a few adult piano students, and found that I enjoy teaching piano now so much more than my younger self ever did. One of my students has been working on the Debussy prelude Voiles. It’s a beautiful piece, perfectly capturing Debussy’s ethereal language of whole-tone scales and glissando-like figures.  I had always known this piece to have an English title of “Sails,” and was surprised to learn that is only one of many meanings of the French “voiles.” It can also mean “veils,” or “shroud” or “fog.” Debussy was purposely vague about the title, but it changes the music completely.  Are we playing music that evokes a sun-filled day on the lake or a foggy world seen from behind a veil? You decide:

Voiles – take one                Voiles – take two

Or maybe it’s a foggy day on the lake!  Words matter. How we interpret something changes everything, as we well know from the proverb of the glass half-empty or half-full. Sorry, Mr. Shakespeare, but I respectfully disagree.  A rose that’s called a latrine-blossom probably won’t smell as sweet.

This Sunday at Church of the Epiphany we’ll hear one of the newer additions to the lectionary in the Episcopal Church, the canticle A Song of Wisdom. Christians have inherited a patriarchal theology, but the church does try sometimes to widen the scope of our understanding, and we find that even small words, like pronouns, matter.

Wisdom freed from a nation of oppressors a holy people and a blameless race.  She entered the soul of a servant of the Lord, withstood dread rulers and wonders and signs…She was their shelter by day and a blaze of stars by night…

Wisdom

It was over a year ago now that I finished writing about Bach’s Goldberg Variations, tying each of the 30 variations to a personal quality that I found worthy of cultivating. In the final movement, the opening Aria returns, now seemingly imbued with the wisdom gained by a lifetime of experiences. Wisdom is so very different from being smart or academically gifted. It’s slow, thoughtful, and simple. Wisdom is learning to not respond immediately, temporarily walking away from a difficult moment, knowing that the answer will come. It’s being quiet and listening.

My own name is a variation of Sophia, Greek for wisdom. I don’t claim to have an abundance of it, but I so admire it in others. For me, wisdom has been gained when I’ve tried harder to see both sides of an issue, or even when I choose to take a walk instead of answering emails. When I let wisdom come to me instead of trying too hard to find it.

An interesting side-note about Voiles – in French, the masculine “le voile” means “veil” and the feminine “la voile” means “sail.” Debussy left out the defining article in his title – a tiny, but clarifying word. Creatures are largely divided into male and female, but recently society has been allowed to admit that there are some people in between that clear division. Time and the urban dictionary will find the right words for us to express this in-betweeness in our everyday language. Meanwhile, we can push gently (or not) against cultural taboos and boxed-in thoughts. Remembering that words really do matter feels to me like a step towards wisdom.

Peace,
Sonya

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was, and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

 

Going Home

I know something about immigration.  My father immigrated from India, my first husband came to the U.S. from Poland, my brother immigrated to Sweden, my in-laws were part of the Great Migration that so many African-Americans made from south to north in the 1940’s and 50’s, and the German and Scottish immigrants that make up my maternal half are well documented by a genealogically-minded uncle.  Immigration represents the most radical form of leaving home, and I saw, as these family members got older, how much childhood homes tugged on them.  Some part of them longed for a home they hadn’t been part of for a long time.

Going home is a theme that inspires a lot of literature, including St. Luke’s tale of the prodigal son.  A carefree young man leaves home, making his father sad and his brother angry, living a wastrel’s life, and then warmly welcomed back home when he tired of his dissipated life.  It was  story used in 1884 by a 22 year student named Claude Debussy, who entered the prestigious competition for the Prix de Rome with a brief work, L’enfant prodigue.  It was a challenge for him to compose a piece of music that was conservative enough to please an academic committee and yet still expressed his growing interest in a new musical language that incorporated the exoticism and folk sounds he had encountered in his travels.  An artistic language that came to be known as impressionism.  I’ve long wanted to do Debussy’s little one-act opera, which might more properly be categorized as a cantata, or more evocatively as a scene lyrique, and I will be joined by a wonderful cast of singers (Mary Shaffran, Andrew Brown, and James Shaffran) in a performance this coming Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church.L'Enfant Flyer

What I love about Debussy’s work, besides the shimmering hints of a musical style that would soon mature in works such as Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Clair de lune, is the prominence of a missing figure in St. Luke’s account…the boy’s mother.  Surely she anguished over her son’s absence as well.  This is a rare chance to hear this beautiful little gem and I hope you’ll join us on Sunday at 7:30 if you’re able.

The prodigal son does go home, celebrated and fussed over with great joy and feasting.  After all of his travels and experiences, I wonder if he really is able to be at home though.  The longing for a childhood home I have seen in my own family members was always accompanied by a realization that they couldn’t actually ever really go home.  Either because places and people changed, and what they remember as home didn’t exist anymore, or just as surely because they themselves had changed and weren’t the same person who once lived in that home.

We might feel sad at this inability to go back, or we might find peace when we look more deeply inside ourselves to find home within.  After all, at birth we are given a home of flesh and blood and mind.  We are told then that at death we are welcomed into an eternal home with God.  In between, our earthly homes are really shaped more by the people we love rather than the places we’ve lived.  So the prodigal son may have found home, upon his return, in the warmth of his parents’ embrace, but he will soon take his prodigal experiences with him to new homes.

 

Peace,

Sonya

Where I’ll be:

April 24 – performing L’enfant prodigue, Debussy’s one-act opera, with Mary Shaffran, James Shaffran and Andrew Brown, at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, 7:30 p.m. ($15 suggested donation)

May 22-August 14 I will be serving as a sabbatical replacement for the Music Director at St. John’s Norwood, 6701 Wisconsin Avenue, Chevy Chase, MD

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much to be grateful for.