I spent my seventeenth summer playing viola at a world-renowned music festival. Each day was filled with practices and performances, theory lessons and master classes, orchestras, opera pits, string quartets, private practices and sectionals.
I toted my viola and a foldable wire music stand all through the mountains for group rehearsals, and, when it came time to practice on my own, in search of a vacant tin-roofed cabin so I could add my strains of Bloch and Schubert to the symphony of sound carried on the breeze. The hills rang from Reveille to Taps, and the almost daily thunderstorms did little to dampen the song.
That summer I dyed my hair a rich, dark auburn (because I could), I ate only carrots and peanut butter (because they were the only edible things at the dining hall), and I had a crush on Glen Cortese (look him up . . . and don't hold the beard against me).
It's not what you think. It was totally unrequited and I was okay with that -- in fact, I would have been surprised if he had known my full name. You see, Dr. Cortese was my conductor. I arrived at rehearsals early just for the chance to say hello before we began to play. I listened intently to every word he said and gleaned every possible scrap of musical wisdom from his erudite musings about form. I nodded in agreement to every suggestion of dynamic change and nearly applauded his brilliant analysis of the composer's intent. I worked hard to hold onto first chair not only so I could lead my section, but so I could stay near Dr. Cortese.
And this is why I was so absolutely mortified the first time we read through Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 in d Minor. I had always loved Dvorak -- he was sassy, and he wrote fantastic viola parts -- and the first two movements were great fun to play -- but the third movement, the Scherzo, hit me with something I had never before felt.
My musical experiences thus far had been varied, and I certainly had pieces I loved that evoked intense emotional responses. This piece was different. It filled me up from the heart out and before we were 20 measures in, I was openly weeping -- nose running, eyes tearing, chest heaving, desperately trying not to audibly sob during the quiet parts. It was cathartic -- and still is, every time I listen to it. I don't know if Dr. Cortese even noticed -- then, I prayed he hadn't -- but it didn't matter. My crush on my conductor faded, but the song I discovered under his tutelage became the background music of my life.
Fastforward 15 years. A friend asks to borrow my recording of the Dvorak 8, which is on the same CD as the 7th. On the way to a rehearsal where she will also be I slip the disk into the player in the car and listen. It's so familiar, so lovely, so much still my favorite -- and then the Scherzo. Still, tears sting my eyes as the lush melodies wash over me. I feel like someone has unexpectedly dumped out my bucket of soul and I struggle to clean up the spill. My throat tightens, and I wonder -- why this piece? I listen over and over and over, and then I see -- it is me.
The first time you hear it, it's lovely, but something harsh and contrary bubbles under the surface, struggling to be heard over the mainstream melody above. It changes rapidly back and forth between duple and triple time, an internal battle so at odds that at times they are expressed simultaneously and you can't figure out which one is winning. It is a study in contrasts: the Slovak peasant melodies over skillfully composed counters; the serene calm of wind solos and the intense bombast of the brass choir; the gritty low open strings hit so hard you can hear the sticks, then exultant soaring upper registers that are so pure they seem to resonate with the very elements.
The more you listen and discover the depth and complication of the melody and counterpoint, the more unsettling it becomes. Dark but still playful, turbulent, complicated, disarmingly brash, sometimes too harsh for the average listener, thoroughly and engagingly composed, but unsettling -- this is the Scherzo.
This is me. We are alike: simple folk songs layered over complicated rhythms, struggling within to balance a complex structure. More than we were before being refined at the hands of a skilled creator and master. Straining upwards, ever upwards, to find that perfect resonant place where everything works in perfect harmony. Rough edges waiting -- wanting -- to be polished.
(I wrote this last year as a response to a writing prompt: if you were a piece of music, what would you be? It has been nagging at the edges of my consciousness ever since and I can't usually get rid of the nagging until I finish a piece. After some fine tuning and tweaking, this is the reincarnation. You're all going to think I'm loony after you read it, but so be it. Criticism is not just welcome on this post . . . it's encouraged. After all, I'm here, to a degree, to become better at my craft.)
And I'll put the same question to you, dear readers: if you were a piece of music, what would you be?