Wednesday, February 01, 2012
Swan Song XXX--a song of triumph in the neighborhood
I suppose even significant moments, moments of great triumph or indescribable loss, make no visible wakes in the neighborhood. They leave shadows in personal memories, shadows that never really disappear. We're all touched by such events in one way or another. At least, in this case, I was. After all, the victims--and it hurts to call them that, but they were and still are--were colleagues, neighbors, even friends and actual relatives. They lived just down at the end of our block, and I know there's nothing here to commemorate their story.
When they lost their son, the entire community quaked--after all, their oldest boy, so talented, seemed so clearly destined to continue his father's significant legacy that only God himself could have created such a set design. But then, if that promise was true, where on earth was God when their son was killed? A job interview had been set, the kid was bright, creative, all things were in order, the music of the spheres was in the air, the planets in a row.
And then death, an accident.
I have no doubt that within our neighbor and friend and cousin that immense loss banished the joy that music had always given him, both in performance and composition. Inspiration was snuffed when his son's life was. I'm not sure how people walk to work again, much less how they dream or imagine after such loss. For our neighbor, composition ceased because creativity did. After all, what is composition, really, but a human desire to create order out of chaos, to make sense of things? "People without hope don't write novels," Flannery O'Connor once wrote. People without hope don't write music either. Artists take snippets of our lives, sometimes jagged and sharp, and somehow create tapestry.
In the wake of his son's death, our neighbor's composition stopped, creativity vanished, as did desire. The death of a child, like no other event in a person's life, I'm told, kills the spirit because it reverses the order we know by instinct. We are programmed to believe that someday we'll bury our parents; no parent ever dreams she'll bury a daughter or son.
I'd never heard this part of the story until last night. So this musician, our neighbor and friend and cousin, froze solid in the grief he and his wife had entered the moment someone called and told them their son was dying half a country away. That they loved their son goes without question, their son the musician; but it probably wasn't just the loss of his life that ushered in darkness. His death--the death of children everywhere--shuts down vision itself because, especially in this story, everything had been in place, so perfectly designed and masterfully set that when he was killed, his death destroyed order, leaving only chaos. In the madness, our neighbor lost the strength and faith and vision and will to make order, to make music.
So the story goes this way: his wife finally told her husband to leave, to go to his office and write. He had to write. He had to create, she said. He had to say what it was he felt in music. He left the house just down the block from ours.
He didn't return for lunch, and he didn't return for dinner. And when, that night, he finally walked back home, just a few blocks from the campus, he stepped in the door and laid the papers, his composition, on the table in front of his wife, as if to say, "there--I did it."
What he'd written has become the best of his work, people say, "A Song of Triumph," the musical rendition of his grief and his consolation, an anthem whose richness is created, like some psalms of David, by equal portions of dissonance and harmony, despair and faith.
All of that was thirty years ago now. Thirty years. Today, that son of theirs, had he taken the teaching job that seemed inevitable here, had he moved into an office in his father's own music department, would be close to 60.
Our ex-neighbors have entered their eighties, and last year, when a special gathering was set to honor his music and their contribution to the college, at that last minute they decided they couldn't come--for health reasons. Soon enough, I suppose, they'll be gone.
I had their grandson in class last semester, and I liked him. He seemed interested, but he didn't know exactly where his grandparents had lived when they lived here, didn't know the back door his grandpa must have walked in one night thirty-some years ago, "A Song of Triumph" in hand to show his wife, the woman who threw him out and told him he had to tell the story, in music. He should.
Somehow, last night, when I heard that part of their story for the first time, when I heard a musicologist explain exactly why the richness of that anthem exceeds most anything else our neighbor had ever written and how that piece, "A Song of Triumph," is still being sung by thousands of voices, I couldn't help but think that it's some kind of shame so much of the story is no longer here in the neighborhood. Today, who knows anymore?--who remembers? Shouldn't there be a plaque on the lawn? Shouldn't we at least try to stop time's relentless march? Does what we do, finally, mean nothing at all? Do our greatest moments of joy and grief and sorrow simply disappear like sunlight? Maybe life is chaos.
But then, thank goodness, there are our songs of triumph. Thank goodness his wife told him to leave and not return until he'd written something, anything. Thank goodness, once upon a time a father, struck to the heart with grief, sat down in his office and emptied his soul in notation, in an attempt, a richly human attempt, to create harmony out of dissonance, order out of chaos.
In the neighborhood where I live, hardly anyone, I suppose, knows that story.
But thank God there is the music. There is, after all, a song of triumph. What a song. What a triumph.
Listen for yourself. Here it is.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:37 AM