Adagio – Allegro molto
Do you remember the first piece of music that made your heart expand? Or the first poem that touched your soul?
For me, that seminal piece of music was Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (from the New World). It’s a beloved symphony, especially here in the United States where Dvorak composed it. Dvorak, himself, is especially popular here in Chicago, where several of his compositions were given their premiere.
My only personal claim upon the piece seems entirely random. I was required to take two semesters of music history for my minor course of study in college. I had always played music – piano, then saxophone – but I had not spent any appreciable amount of time sitting and listening to music. Dutifully, I relinquished my ID card to the attendant in the audiovisual room at the library. (Remember when libraries had AV rooms? Do they still? Or has it all gone digital?)
My assignment that afternoon was to listen to some of the composers we had been studying in class. “Studying” is probably too kind a word – it was a survey class, so entire movements and periods and lists of composers flew past in every half hour of class time. In any event, I settled in with the New World Symphony on my large, rubber library headphones and listened.
And I listened. Twice. I may have played several sections over for a third time. I was in love.
A number of years have passed since that day. I graduated with my literature/communications major and my music minor. I did a short stint in grad school before dropping out and getting a job. I got married. Ten years and another job later I got divorced. And a few more years passed.
I make no claim to be “older and wiser,” but a great deal has happened to me since that day in the library. I do not listen with the same ears … or the same heart.
My first poem? That’s much more difficult to place. I did not study poetry in college. In fact, I took many more courses on the “Comm” side of my program than on the “Lit” side – something I regret strongly. I was exposed to bits of poetry here and there – Blake, Keats, Frost, Shakespeare – however, it was not until well after my prescribed programs of study were complete that I began reading poetry for pleasure.
But if we travel back a little farther – to the day I graduated from my small, rural high school – there was a first poem. I had done well enough in my academic career to earn a speaking part in the graduation ceremony. I was terrified! I had never given a speech to such a large crowd. And although a “large crowd” in Lanark, Illinois, would cause a Chicago Public School student to double over with laughter, these were my school mates and their parents. I was feeling the pressure.
It was not a long speech – and not incredibly eloquent – but I did quote that favorite of graduation speakers everywhere: “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. It moved me then, as a young girl making choices about her future, and it still moves me now, albeit in different ways, of course.
But where is all this talk of “firsts” leading? To a Friday night in Chicago at Symphony Center. To the penultimate concert of the Chicago Symphony’s Dvorak Festival. To a marvelous program of Dvorak favorites: the Carnival Overture, the Cello Concerto, and the New World Symphony.
I attended a total of four concerts in the festival – the Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 7 program; the Cello Concerto and Symphony No. 8; the Emerson String Quartet program; and last night’s Cello Concerto and Symphony No. 9. When I purchased the tickets, I somehow overlooked the fact that the Cello Concerto was on two of the programs – a happy accident.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first two concerts and was blown away by Alisa Weilerstein’s performance of the Cello Concerto during Week #2. The Emerson String Quartet was disappointing. I’m sure they were technically flawless, but I remained unmoved by the music. I will have to seek out some additional recordings of Dvorak’s chamber music to discover the source of the problem – me or the artists or the music itself. Although … I do not often attend Sunday afternoon concerts, so perhaps the time of day was working against me.
By the time last night’s concert arrived, I was looking forward to the New World Symphony, but I had no particular expectations. It was not a subscription concert, so I was not sitting in my usual roomy little nook in the first balcony. Scrunched between a group of 20-somethings discussing their music appreciation class and an attractive 40-something couple who seemed very much in love, I thought to myself, “Well, the music will be good and perhaps I’ll buy something chocolate at the intermission.”
Allegro con fuoco
I did not need the chocolate. Listening to the Carnival Overture was like consuming some sort of melt-in-your-mouth candy. Delightful! And Alisa Weilerstein’s performance of the Cello Concerto was even more enjoyable the second time round. I wanted the musical conversation between cello and flute – i.e., Alisa and Mathieu Dufour – to continue for the rest of the evening.
A special addition for the evening’s performance was Chicago actor Francis Guinan reading selections from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha before the first three movements of Symphony No. 9. Apparently, Dvorak had been commissioned to compose an opera based upon the poem. Although he never did so, it is thought that some of those musical ideas made their way into the New World Symphony.
I cannot say that The Song of Hiawatha has any special meaning for me. I haven’t read more than the first few stanzas of it. Guinan’s reading, however, was powerful. And more powerful was the passage of time. As Dvorak’s familiar horn theme gently sounded, I found myself overcome with emotion and catapulted backward to that day in the college library. Before my marriage. Before my divorce. Before I had felt and heard and seen the last decade-and-a-half.
“After many years of warfare,
Many years of strife and bloodshed,
There is peace between the Ojibways
And the tribe of the Dacotahs.”
Thus continued Hiawatha,
And then added, speaking slowly,
“That this peace may last forever,
And our hands be clasped more closely,
And our hearts be more united,
Give me as my wife this maiden,
Minnehaha, Laughing Water,
Loveliest of Dacotah women!”
And the ancient Arrow-maker
Paused a moment ere he answered,
Smoked a little while in silence,
Looked at Hiawatha proudly,
Fondly looked at Laughing Water,
And made answer very gravely:
“Yes, if Minnehaha wishes;
Let your heart speak, Minnehaha!”
And the lovely Laughing Water
Seemed more lovely as she stood there,
Neither willing nor reluctant,
As she went to Hiawatha,
Softly took the seat beside him,
While she said, and blushed to say it,
“I will follow you, my husband!”
Hiawatha’s Wooing, The Song of Hiawatha
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
It was as if someone had jabbed me in the belly with a sharp stick. As Guinan read the word ‘husband,’ I began to cry. After an initial blush of embarrassment, I gave up and let the tears roll silently down my cheeks. My life is much, much better now, thank you – and I am not the type who wishes to go back and change things – but sometimes the emotions and the memories sneak up on you.
I cried for all that I know now that I didn’t know then. I cried for the beauty of the music. I cried for the love of Hiawatha and his bride. I cried for the couple next to me, who clasped hands whenever the music swelled to soul-touching intensity.
I think we forget that poetry and music are such incredibly powerful art forms. We listen to the radio or read some lines of verse while waiting in line at the doctor’s office. That’s pretty, we think. Or that’s interesting. But when we really stop and pay attention, when we let ourselves become intellectually and emotionally involved in the words or the notes, then we remember.
Oh, yeah. That’s why I schlepp to the office five days a week or skip yoga class to work late or spend three days trapped in a windowless room to learn some new piece of software. I think Robin Williams said it best in the movie Dead Poets Society:
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
Now go listen to something beautiful.