it was terribly cold

That’s the title of one movement from David Lang’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical work, the little match girl passion, which will be performed next Tuesday by The Bridge Ensemble on Church of the Epiphany’s noontime concert series. All are welcome and it’s free, but don’t expect to leave emotionally unspent.

The lower case letters are the composer’s and, in fact, a 2017 New York Times article asked in its title: where have classical music’s uppercase letters gone?  My favorite line, by the way, is the first sentence of the second paragraph: “But composers who channel their inner E.E. Cummings…”  Very funny.

Lang explains that he began using lowercase titles as a student, too full of self-doubt and too sure that “classical music is about nobility, about things with capital letters that are big marble busts on pedestals.” He didn’t feel worthy of writing in capital letters – that was for Beethoven, in his mind – but he also saw an intimacy and an invitation to experience his music from the inside by using lowercase titles.

Lang does more than break stylistic rules for the written word. He breaks through the Christian narrative of suffering, taking Jesus out of the story and putting in a character from Hans Christian Anderson’s story. The little match girl passion not only invites us in, but breaks our hearts too. That’s what happens when you allow yourself to witness suffering from the inside.

It was terribly cold outside, and the girl’s cruel father sends her out to sell matches. Her futile efforts lead her to seek refuge under a Christmas tree, and she lights her matches and sees vision of her grandmother, the only person who was ever kind to her. As in Christianity’s passion narrative, she is derided by strangers and left to die. The composer summed up the story’s message, and his work’s appeal across sacred/secular lines: the “message is pretty simple: you need to pay attention to the suffering of people around you.”

The music is at once archaic and universal, the story juxtaposes the horror of her reality and the beauty of her hopeful visions. You are invited in to witness these things in the performance, and to contribute as you’re able to The Welcome Table ministry of feeding the homeless which is sponsored by Church of the Epiphany. It is perhaps one small way to pay attention to the suffering of those right around us.

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Tuesday, January 28 at 12:10 pm
Church of the Epiphany, 1317 G Street, NW  (Metro Center)

The Dark Past

This is the weekend to revisit, with greater understanding and appreciation, one of our country’s finest – and darkest – moments. The Civil Rights movement shaped most of the mid-20th century and has more recently expanded in scope to include differences of sexuality, physical abilities and ethnicities. Standing up to injustice by sitting down at lunch counters…naming systemic inequalities by making those on the winning side of the imbalances uncomfortable…choosing love over hate…when does the work of seeing what is wrong in order to make it right end?

In recognition of the powerful work of reconciliation effected by Dr. Martin Luther King, that great hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing will undoubtedly be sung by millions of voices around the country this weekend.  It was first performed in 1900 as a poem read during a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday in a program at a segregated school in Jacksonville, Florida, an event at which Booker T. Washington was the honored guest that day.  Imagine the power of these words on the ears and hearts of people just 35 years from slavery.

Lift every voice and sing, ‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on ’til victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,  Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, Have not our weary feet c
ome to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, Til now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
 
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way; Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand,
True to our God, True to our native land.

There are A LOT of recordings of this song on YouTube, and I spent more time than I should to find just the right one.  I didn’t want a soloist, or something glossy and over-produced. I didn’t want it to be sung by a highly skilled Gospel choir or a staid, perfectly in-tune, yet soulless, choir.  This is a hymn for all people.  True story – I memorized this hymn and we sang it as my husband and I walked down the aisle at the end of our wedding in 1999. A hymn for all people, and all occasions!

There is one line that I ponder each time I play this hymn though, the final line True to our native land.  What is our native land?  Were African-Americans in 1900 thinking about some part of Africa?  About the United States, where everyone in that first audience was mostly likely born?  Or could we claim this song for everyone by thinking about our native land as that heavenly land where we are loved regardless of skin color or political beliefs or “differences” of any kind?  Perhaps a native land where reconciliation is not just a goal, but already complete.

I am reading a biography of Harriet Tubman these days. Her story refuses to allow us to see slavery as anything other than the cruelest institution, one that was damaging in different ways to people of every skin color. If an audience just 35 years away from that dark past can sing about facing a rising sun and marching until victory is won, then we are obligated today to continue rising, continue marching, continue standing, true to what is right, because the past has followed us and demands to be examined.

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20/20 Vision

I was heartened to read in the December 3, 2019 edition of The Washington Post that the world isn’t actually as terrible as we all seem to believe.  The editorialist looked at the many ways that people are actually better off now than they have been before. Starvation-level poverty reduced by 80% since 1970, massive gains in disease prevention,and billions of people living with the freedoms that democracy promises and more prosperous than ever before.  Read it for yourself: The world is doing much better than the bad news makes us think.  And don’t we all need some good news? ¹

I could have looked at a dozen (or more) other places in the same newspaper to find articles which point to a very different interpretation of current life,  with stories about gun violence, environmental degradation, and evidence of racism and hatred  and corruption of every kind. Which version of the world is true? ²

It comes down to a choice of living with hope, or living with hopelessness. The first suggests we avert our gaze from the bleak realities all around us and the second is just, well, depressing. If the goal is to do something, however small, to make the world better, than which of these attitudes – hopefulness or hopelessness – will spur us to action? It’s well-known that depression causes inaction, an inability to move forward or cope with life’s challenges. So that leaves hopefulness, but what to do with this chosen hope? ³

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
(from an essay by Wendall Berry, Poetry and Marriage)

I have this idea that poems, like art, can’t be sought after.  They seem come into my life when I’m not looking. Berry’s words above aren’t a poem exactly, but they did come unbidden into my life at just the right time several years ago, read by a yoga instructor at the end of class. They give us permission to live comfortably in bafflement, to accept uncertainty, to find hope, and maybe even joy, in those things which block us from the easy paths we think we want.

The year ahead promises all of those – bafflement, uncertainty, and hope too. It is Berry’s last line which makes me smile though. High on my list of favorite sounds is water moving through a rocky creek, but I had never thought about the creek’s music coming from the stony impediments along its path. Perhaps your 20/20 vision will see more clearly through the looming 2020 clouds if you sing more. It’s worth a try.

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¹ Yes
² Both
³ I don’t know, but singing will help

Another Lesson from Beethoven

Has anyone ever asked you to do something that is just simply impossible? Let’s fly to the moon kind of impossible? Do you greet that request with a wondering attitude – how could I help make this happen?  Or an immediate reality check – are you crazy?  

Beethoven asks the impossible of pianists with some frequency.  The piano is a percussion instrument – a hammer inside the piano strikes a group of strings which vibrate as long as the dampers are held off the strings by the pedal. Without benefit of a violinist’s bow or an oboist’s breath, once a note is played on the piano, it’s done. Decay is the only option. Or is it?

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Beethoven regularly puts a crescendo sign on a held note or chord – and that is simply impossible to do on the piano. Hmm, how can we make this happen?  One of my teachers years ago suggested that I should hear the note getting louder in my head and by some form of alchemy the crescendo would be communicated to the listener. That works for me. Perhaps there is an element of body language or a long drawn breath that keeps the player involved with the note in a way that at least suggests it is growing in sound and connecting to whatever follows. Sometimes Beethoven even marks a crescendo and a decrescendo on the same note or chord. Okay, that really is just crazy. Or is it?

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I find it best to do as Beethoven commands, or to at least attempt the impossible. Paying attention to the little markings in his music is the way in to his genius. Think of all the things we believe in, but can’t see – love, the mind, friendship, atoms, intuition. Beethoven helps me believe in a crescendo that can’t really exist, and that’s a beautiful first step into a world where all things are possible.

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More Lessons from Beethoven

True to form, I am out of synch with the rest of the world. Musicians are gearing up for a major Beethoven celebration in 2020, the 250th anniversary of his birth, so plan on hearing a lot of Beethoven’s music next year. Meanwhile, here I am – a step ahead, or just out of step? I think Beethoven would approve.

Alongside the “Archduke” Trio, which I wrote about last week, I am also getting reacquainted with Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata, the Piano Sonata Op. 53, a very popular work from the middle years of his creative output which I haven’t played in  40 years or so! Like the “Archduke” Trio, Beethoven has dedicated this music to a nobleman, Count von Waldstein. Beethoven so wanted to be a “von” – i.e. a member of the nobility, but a single letter doomed him to be a humble Dutch “van” without any hint of noble blood. We have that in common at least.

The “Waldstein” Sonata is part of a program that I am playing for my mother and the other residents of her retirement community. It’s a small gift I can give to the person who gave me a life of music by filling our home with the music she loved – everything from Harry Belafonte to the Mamas and Papas to Mozart. She got to choose anything she wanted for my program…and the Beethoven Sonata is joined by music of Philip Glass, and a piece by Albeniz that really should be on the guitar instead of the piano, and a sweet little piece that she loves more than anything, “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” that is supposedly from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice, with a little Chopin and Liszt thrown in for good measure. My mother has dementia, and her world seems to be shrinking more each time I see her, but music keeps us connected, at least in the moment.

Beethoven performed as a pianist for the last time when he played the premiere of his “Archduke” Trio in 1814. I wonder if he knew then that it would be his final concert as a pianist.  How often do we do something with the knowledge that it is the last time? There are happy finalities – like making a last mortgage payment – but mostly I think we would be pretty sad to know we are having a final experience of something integral to our lives. When will it be the last time that my mom knows who I am?

As Beethoven’s deafness worsened, it may have appeared that his world got smaller and smaller, but in that isolated universe he went on to create great expanses of music which pushed the boundaries of tonality and form. It wasn’t a limited experience at all inside his head, it would seem.  Even as I am shut out of the life I shared with my mother, perhaps there is a richness of sounds and experiences inside her isolated world that are unknown by those on the outside. I hope so.

I learn a lot about myself when I play Beethoven. He wears his heart, and his frustration, on his sleeve – or so it seems when I hear his music. Expressing emotions in creatively productive ways is certainly one lesson to be gained. And too, his music seems to contain everything that the beautiful reading from the Bible’s Ecclesiastes teaches us about the span of a lifetime. That there is a time to be sad and a time to be joyful. A time to be serious and another to be silly. Times to be in control of our feelings and others when we should be unabashedly exuberant. Times to sing and times to be silent, times to dance and times to be still.

 

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Failure of Imagination

We know there are many different kinds of intelligence – interpersonal, musical, logical…but let’s be honest, when we think of someone as smart we usually really only mean intellectually intelligent. Someone who is good with math or words, certified by college degrees and professional success.

I’ve written before about my fascination with Michael Pollan’s book, Botany of Desire, and the intelligence he ascribes to plant life. In the same way, a 2016 book by Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, studies the ways that trees communicate with, and even express empathy for, other trees. It’s so easy to scoff at the notion of intelligence in plant life,  but we only know what we know. What about all the things we don’t know…all that lies behind, beneath, and around what we perceive through our senses? Couldn’t any plant or animal life have forms of intelligence that we are unable to recognize or define?

I manage a concert series in downtown Washington DC (check out the link if you’re interested), and this past week I branched out a bit from the usual fare of chamber music, with a local dance ensemble, Word Dance Theater, which specializes in the work of Isadora Duncan.  I don’t know a lot about modern dance in general or Duncan in particular, but I’ve seen their work before and knew it expresses an integrity and passion for Duncan’s legacy which would be beautiful in the performance space, and which I hoped would communicate…well, something… to the audience.

Their performance was indeed colorful and thoughtful, and to me expressed uninhibited freedom. It made me think about how much more we should all be moving – gracefully and freely – throughout our days. As I watched, I thought about all the ways people get stuck – physically, emotionally, spiritually –  and wished we could learn to move with Duncan’s freedom to help us get unstuck.

2017-06-04+10.30.56Afterwards, someone I know to have considerable musical and intellectual gifts came up to me, and admitted he didn’t know enough about this kind of dance to see much of anything actually going on.  He wasn’t being judgmental, just perplexed and perhaps a bit bored by what he had seen. I would have wished for him to see something behind or around the dancers’ flowing garments and limbs, but art is unpredictable in its effect at any given time on any particular person.

I do think the gamut of intelligence includes an acceptance of what we don’t know, but what we might imagine to be possible, whether that is the possibility of messages traveling from one tree to another through a complex web of roots, or a dancer’s invitation to move with a freedom that helps to open our minds to what we cannot put into words or even fully understand. To say that something outside of human experience is impossible or ridiculous becomes, for me, simply a failure of imagination.

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A Pilgrimage: Day Three

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

A difficult day for walking – rainy and lots of hills – but apparently we traveled 27 km and ended up in Lorca. The sun appeared and a row of cold, damp pilgrims lined the road on the sunny side of the street, across from the albergue where we had found a room. It was in fact, despite this introduction, a wonderful day. Mountains in the mist, fast-running rivers, masses of wildflowers (notably, fields of poppies), birds and frogs, medieval villages and bridges.  

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503We had company early in the day with three Brits from Hereford, and then company again late in the day when we joined a sweet couple from the Netherlands.  And we met a man named Stefan from Germany, who had recently spent three years in Washington D.C. and now lives in Sweden.

We’re at the Albergue de Peregrino in Lorca. Mozart is blaring as we come in and an earnest young man seems to be in charge. I can’t help but wonder about his story. I did ask if he was a musician, but he says no.  I am guessing that “Mozart’s Requiem” and “blaring” have not been used in the same sentence before.  At least I hope not.

One more answer to the “why” of this trip…to see if I can. These two days have been difficult. No blisters yet, but sore shoulders and feet. Unhappy muscles and ligaments. I want the answer to be a resounding “yes, I can” though.  And I hope I can in 10 years and 20 years. We have certainly seen people in their 70’s on the camino.

Dessert was a choice of an apple or an orange. The sticker on the apple announced it is of the “Mozart” variety. Of course.

*****

The albergue in Lorca was small and provided just the right atmosphere for conversation with strangers. The Stefan we met had decided only two weeks earlier to come to Spain and walk the camino. He has no time limit and a supportive family at home and we learn that only four months before he had been in a wheelchair after having had a stroke at age 49. He walks slowly now, with a limp and wonders what he will learn about himself by the time he reaches Santiago. A doctor from France joined our conversation, only revealing his profession upon learning about Stefan’s stroke, quickly making a few assessments and giving him encouraging advice. The doctor himself said he was walking because, at age 50, he knew it was time to shed some things.  He didn’t say what those things were.

Our new friend Stefan had clearly been a very successful executive in the car industry and had lived all over the world, a man of means and accomplishment in his field. His physical limitations, however, suddenly took a backseat to the ending twist in his story. He quietly tells us that he lost his job after his stroke and is now unable to find a new position. He didn’t present himself as someone defined by his job, but the pain was clear.

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