Continuing last week’s theme of things I’m not (coyote), I move on as not an angel. I wish I were. Here’s why. Someone dear to me received the second-worst possible news a person can get. Even though I didn’t say it, the only response was “Oh no.” But if I were an angel, perhaps I would have some words. What mere mortal can comfort, assure, relieve?
Rather than offer words, then, I thought I’d go in with some music. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast” (not beast, sorry), but it goes on to add “to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” William Congreve, 1697. Powerful stuff, indeed.
First, simple beauty. There are two possibilities. Ralph Vaughn Williams wrote “The Lark Ascending” in 1914, inspired by a poem of the same name by George Meredith. The music is better. One story suggested that Vaughn Williams wrote the piece while watching the British troops sailing off to World War I, but it’s unsubstantiated. Regardless, the work soars and will take you with it.
Edward Elgar wrote the famous “Pomp and Circumstance March” that many of us processed to at graduation. On a lark, he wrote a series of variations after a long day of teaching violin. The theme was his own, and he dedicated each to a different friend. The one named “Nimrod” is to his friend Augustus J. Jaeger, whose name means “hunter” in German, with Nimrod the great Old Testament hunter. The orchestral version is common, but this one features 8 young people singing.
Second, delight. The Charles Widor Organ Symphony concludes with a toccata that is incredibly popular. In this version, Diane Bish introduces the piece that she played at the dedication of the organ at First Baptist Church in Dallas. And then she plays the work faster than I’ve ever heard it. In a church, of course, the dynamics are different than on a laptop. Hear it if you can there. Bish gets a standing ovation; perhaps you’ll see an old neighbor in the audience.
Third, mystery. I have heard this piece live in the past week, as well as this recording. David Maslanka wrote his Symphony No. 4 (no visuals or here, the US Navy Band) for my alma mater, the University of Texas. They got a bargain, as it was only supposed to be a brief band piece. A friend made me promise to listen to it before the concert, and I loved it on first hearing. I can’t explain why. I don’t usually love modern music, but this one takes me to a noble, profound place. You can find excerpts that are shorter than the 28-30 minute playing times, but I hope you’ll listen to all of it.
The bottom line is that I feel helpless. I’ve written before about the failure of words, and this is no exception. And yet I try. We are so compelled to do something. When we can’t, we try at least to say something of use. That can be oh-so dangerous. So I’ll end with Emily Dickinson’s “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” She captures what I cannot, with a bird and not an angel.