Sunday, January 25, 2009

Epiphany

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.

Polish me.

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(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?

14 comments:

  1. I love it!
    Such deep thoughts.
    Now I'm wondering what music piece I'd be.
    And I have to hear yours.

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  2. Okay, can I say with all true honesty, that I *loved* this post?? I loved the way that you set up the piece--with the teenage crush--and how that led into Dvorak and his 7th symphony. (Maybe it's because Dvorak has had this effect on me as well. His music is emotionally overwhelming, and I'm not even playing the instruments!) You just put the whole thing together beautifully. I honestly, honestly think you should enter this into one of the many North Carolina writer's contests. Really. Bravo!!!!

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  3. Um, WOW. I'm new to your blog, but old in your life, so to speak. I'm a symphony conductor, music teacher, etc., etc., and I know exactly how you feel. The thing is, I haven't listened to this Scherzo. But your beautiful post helps me feel like I've heard it. Played it. Lived it.

    Well writ, you!

    I don't know what music I'd be, but if my kids were to decide for me, it would be the first 16 bars of Haydn's "Surprise Symphony" and all the cannon-intensive sections of Tchaikovsky's "1812" overture. Maybe if they cleaned their rooms once in a while, they'd get the occasional "Pavanne", maybe even a "Humoresque", but nooooo...

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  4. Beautifully written! I don't have much experience with Dvorak--he wasn't a staple of my symphonic band experience. I'll have to check that out.

    You will laugh if I tell you what piece of music I would be. Everyone does. I would be Angels We Have Heard on High. After my grandma's funeral recently (with music picked that my grandmother mostly wouldn't have cared for) I told someone that I want Angels at my funeral. I have a cd with 22 different versions of Angels on it. I like it that much. It's the beautiful harmony of the chorus, and it gets me every time!

    I know...now *you* think *I'm* looney!

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  5. Wow, I felt like I read the beginning of a great story...I wanted to read more! I wish you could have attached a section of the piece on here as an mp3 but I felt like I was hearing it in my mind anyway. Beautiful!

    If I were a piece of music I don't know what I would be, but I love anything folky and with acoustic guitar. Singer-songwriter stuff. I like classical too, but I am an everyday simple gal and don't listen to classical everyday.

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  6. I love everything about this... and everything about you. :)

    It is improved from the first version, thought it didn't actually need much improvement in my estimation.

    I'm not sure what piece of music I would be... my response to the same writing prompt was variations on twinkle twinkle little star... a simple melody that makes you smile, but can be interpreted in many, many more complex ways... I think it may still fit. There is a new song though, just entered in to my realm of awareness is hugely inspiring to me. It makes me feel like writing, which is a such a good thing. It's on William Joseph's new CD Beyond... called Once upon a love. And it's lovely.

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  7. read your comment on another blog about racisim and souther accents, etc.... just really captured much of what I think/ feel. thanks!

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  8. Beautiful. I'll have to ponder this question.

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  9. Wow, this was beautiful. I'm so glad you posted it, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

    I don't think you are looney after reading this.

    I thought you were looney before.

    ahem.

    I am not sure I could even answer this question right now. I'm probably a sappy Josh Groban song. Heh.

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  10. Um, I did return your CD didn't I? I'd feel terrible if I accidentally stole it.

    I looked up Maestro Cortese--I can see it, though I am fond of beards.

    Google Carter Brey and you'll see my orchestra crush. Pardon the receding hairline, but you should hear him play. I worked a summer at a university in NYC in HR and discovered quite by accident he was on staff there. I had his address and everything in front of me. I seriously considered stalking him, but managed to talk myself down.

    I would probably be Dvorak's Cello Conterto in B Minor. Simply because when I heard Mr. Brey play it, I too was completely overcome. I haven't listened to it in quite some time. But I'd really like to hear him play it again.

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  11. What a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing this for my blogiversary. It's OK if it was late...it's more than worth sharing, no matter what or when. Thank you.

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  12. I have never reacted so strongly to a piece of music, and your description makes me ache with envy. Beautifully written!

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  13. Beautiful post! I could "see" what you were writing. I'm going to have to check out that particular piece of music! I'm not sure which piece of music I'd be. Maybe something from the Messiah "All we like sheep". Or one of Holst's planets (Mars or Jupiter)

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  14. Oooh...thank you so much for pointing me to this post. I loved it, and I feel understood. And you've made me want to go listen to the Scherzo. I know I've heard it, (because it's on my CD of Dvorak 8, too) but not being an orchestra musician, I don't know that I'm all that familiar with it.

    If I were a piece of music, I think I would be Mimi's Aria from La Boheme. And yes, it makes me sob every time I hear it. I just identify with Mimi so much.

    PS: I had to laugh at your crush on your conductor. So many of my husband's orchestra members develop crushes on him for the same reasons.

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Sock it to me!