Thursday, June 17, 2010

The World of Song

I spent yesterday immersed in songs – not Barber arias, not Beethoven 9’s, not Bach recitatives – only songs.

In the late morning, I rushed down to Jersey City to rehearse for a huge and exciting recital project that my pianist partner-in-crime, Myra, and I have started to dig into this past month. At the end of our rehearsal, we started to talk about former teachers that we had studied with over the course of our lives, reminiscing about the teachers who opened up the world of songs to us. After bidding her farewell for the day, I headed home to my own piano and began to sift through the pile of music sitting on my desk that comprises my various and copious assignments in song for the summer. I spent the rest of the afternoon deciphering Hugo Wolf’s incredibly rich and dense musical language, as well as reading some Zemlinksy and early Berg. Exhausted by dinnertime, I went out for a drink and meal with friends and then came home a bit more refreshed and a tad bit nostalgic. My thoughts were still drifting through the land of lieder, and I started to troll YouTube. My ventures led me to the video below, and I sat staring at YouTube screen with tears rolling down my cheeks:

The last time I heard this song in a live performance was two summers ago at Marlboro. It was part of a very long evening of various songs, and having been the first performer of the evening, I had the luxury of sitting on stage while the rest of my colleagues performed. I was really happy to see that the song was programmed – I think it is perhaps one of the most beautiful of all German Lieder. Having not heard the song in many years, my memory played a trick on me. Thinking it knew what was coming, being so well-versed in the land of lieder, my mind mistakenly remembered the final line of the song being: "Ich leb' allein in meinem Himmel, in meinem Leben, in meinem Lieb!" (I live alone in my own heaven, in my own life, in my love!). While that would be a lovely sentiment of sorts, I felt the wind knocked out of me when I heard the singer sing “…in meinem Himmel, in meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!” (in my own heaven, my love, and in my song!”), instead. Hearing that final “t” of Lied, I was breathless, my eyes suddenly wet with tears, and the song was instantaneously and entirely changed - so much more powerful than I obviously remembered. I thought back to the last time I heard the song live, and it was back when I was a junior at the University of Michigan, in a studio class with my former teacher, Rosemary Russell. I worked with Rosie from when I was a nerdy 16-year-old teenager until I was a musical young man of 22. During those formative years, she opened my eyes and ears to the world of lieder and art song, feeding me as much repertoire as I could devour. She showed me the power of these little pieces, teaching me how each one was like a genie lantern that, once rubbed, yielded multitudes of magic.

Rosie passed away unexpectedly back in 2005. The last time I saw her was at a concert of songs and chamber music I performed in at Ravinia that she came to see that summer. After the concert, she joined my family and me for dinner at a nearby restaurant, and we talked in depth about the concert. We chatted at length about how much she liked the new songs that we premiered at the concert that night, where my diction could have been a little cleaner, how happy she was with the progress I had made since my college days of studying with her. At the end of dinner, we dropped her off at her hotel, and I gave her a hug, telling her that I would see her when I came home in the winter. She passed away before I made it back home that winter, and I still miss her dearly. Nevertheless, I still hear her voice inside my head, especially on days like yesterday and that moment in Marlboro, reminding me of the lessons she taught me that unlocked this universe of music and song.

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, 
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben, 
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen, 
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!  

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen, 
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält, 
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen, 
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.  

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel, 
Und ruh' in einem stillen Gebiet! 
Ich leb' allein in meinem Himmel, 
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied! 


I am lost to the world 
with which I used to waste so much time, 
It has heard nothing from me for so long 
that it may very well believe that I am dead!  

It is of no consequence to me 
Whether it thinks me dead; 
I cannot deny it, 
for I really am dead to the world.  

I am dead to the world's tumult, 
And I rest in a quiet realm! 
I live alone in my heaven, 
In my love and in my song!
 - Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866)

Friday, June 04, 2010


"For a moment, death let herself go, expanding out as far as the walls, filling that whole room and flowing into the room next door, where a part of her stopped to look at the sheet music open on a chair, it was suite number six opus one thousand and twelve in d major by johann sebastian bach, composed in köthen, and she didn't need to read music to be able to know that it had been written, like beethoven's ninth symphony, in the key of joy, of unity between men, of friendship and of love. Then something extraordinary happened, something unimaginable, death fell to her knees, for she had a body now, which is why she had knees and legs and feet and arms and hands, and a face which she covered with her hands, and shoulders, which, for some reason, were shaking, she can't be crying, you can't expect that from someone who, wherever she goes, has always left a trail of tears behind her, without one of those tears shed being hers."

- Death with Interruptions, Jose Saramago

I posted this quote a little over a year ago, but on the occasion of my very first performances of Beethoven's 9th Symphony this weekend, it feels just to post it again.

It had been years since I had heard the 9th Symphony live, and experiencing it in rehearsal last night was quite overwhelming. As the orchestra and choir played and sang away, and as my heart started to pound at a quicker and more excited pace in my chest, I was reminded of the Saramago quote above. Yesterday, in our conductor-soloist meeting, Maestro Honeck kept pushing me to bring as much unbridled joy to my brief solo, and I almost felt as if I couldn't bring enough happiness, excitement, and jubilation to the two pages of music. Hearing the movement with full forces last night, I saw why. The music demands that we (both the audience and the performers) give in completely to hope, happiness, joy, celebration, and elation. It insists that we live completely in the positive for this one moment, which, perhaps, might not be a bad thing to aim for in every moment after, too.