We went to a concert yesterday at the Mount Baker Theatre with the Bellingham Symphony Orchestra. The first part of the program consisted of a short piece by Benjamin Britten, and a piano concerto by Bela Bartok. My relationship with Britten has been fraught ever since I took part in a Britten chorale, ‘Saint Nicholas”, as a schoolgirl in my school choir. I remember it vividly as not being an easy piece of music – which also applied to the Britten piece performed here. As for the Bartok, it was technically perfect, a bravura performance, but …
Well, what I came for was my favorite symphonic piece of all time, Dvorak’s New World symphony.
I’ve seen it ‘live’ at least four times. Once was with my father. What he said to me after sitting beside me for the duration of the concert was a slightly awed, “I don’t know where you were, but you weren’t there with me in that hall.” He was right. This piece transports me. I listen to it with closed eyes, and I AM in a New World, not necessarily the one that Dvorak meant. This one lives inside my spirit.
A living land
The first movement is the fledging of wings, it’s like casting off from a cliff and soaring amongst the clouds, surveying a sweep of land below – a land I don’t necessarily even know yet, but a land that I love. The dramatic percussion sliding into glittering strings and the woodwinds that carry the themes that will become important later on – in and out of clouds, in and out of sunlight, over rivers and mountains and lakes, and castles at whose feet the seas break. We’ll get back to those seas later.
There’s a particular theme in there that’s smaller, folksier, relatable – in between all that scenery, there are people — walking by, living their lives, people who occasionally glance up at the sky and smile. This is a living land – and I am not so much a part of it as I AM it, the spirit of it, building it with my mind, raising mountain peaks with a sweep of my hand and watching the snows glisten on their crags in the sunshine that I am pouring down on them, watching fields of grain ripple in the wind that I send down to shiver inside them – it’s a world coming alive with every breath, with every stroke of bow on string, with every echo of a drum roll. It’s a vivid exciting expectant thing, a dawn of something, *something is about to happen here*, but it’s all still creation, a being born out of a vision of my mind and heart… but it lacks something still. It lacks a reason, a motivation, a destiny…
A long slow loving dream
That comes in the second movement. This the movement I cannot ever listen to the end without crying. If you asked me why, precisely, I would be breathlessly incoherent. But if I could use it to describe pure emotion, this movement is what complete, utter, and unconditional love looks like. From those opening chords which ara a GIVING, with both hands, without hold or regret… into the simple melody of a single woodwind that carries the whole movement.
The whole thing is a long slow loving dream, a walk through sunshine and shadow, occasionally smiling out towards the horizon or into the eyes of the person next to you. In the concert yesterday, this is the movement where I sat with my eyes closed tight, clutching my husband’s hand. I hung on, because he was the rock, because love was a river, because I was a leaf on the water and I was swept along without any harbor or control. This is what loving is, what it should be, an offering of self with full knowledge fo what you are giving, and no regrets. It is absolutely no coincidence that the theme from this movement – which was ORIGINAL to Dvorak, here – was subsequently transformed into the spiritual which became known as “Going Home” – because that is exactly what it is, here. We’re going home. And home is love. If you can’t go home to love you’re lost, lost forever. And just as you feel as though you are about to disintegrate into a glittering haze of disembodied emotion, love is all you are and all you can ever be, the strings bring you down to earth again, slowly, gently, and you land, standing on your own two feet, with a final offering, a holding out of your heart to where it needs to belong.
It’s all sound and fury
And then you get woken up, almost, by the crashing chords of the third movement.
You’re now living in that land you created in movement one. it’s all sound and fury – you’re in a crowd here – can you see all those other people hurrying, pushing, hastening, on their way, going somewhere oh so important – they’ll pause to lift a cap to you and to offer a good morning, and to pass the time of day – but every so often you’re just plunged back into a busy New York street, sharing the sidewalk and the road and all the buildings around you with millions. There’s no time there’s no time there’s no time. Life is for living. Run. Do. Be.
Occasionally the strings sound an almost warning note – don’t linger; then the symphony becomes almost processional, a melody of ‘reward’ – look, you’re pacing now, awaiting someone to give you a medal, a check, or just a pat on the back. A human amongst humans – here we all are, together, all on this same road together, off we all go – hurry hurry hurry – the strings usher you, drive you, push you, go – go – go – go – you’re finally brought to a pause – and then it ENDS –
– and then that fourth movement begins….
…and everything trembles.
On the ocean
Remember that sea I mentioned above? Here it is. You’re at sea now, and it’s VIOLENT, and VIVID, and HEARTBREAKINGLY BEAUTIFUL. You’re at sea – look at the horizons beckoning you forward; feel the ship plunge under your feet, feel the sails bell out in the wind coming from the uttermost west… feel the calm as you bob on an ocean that is like a millpond with the sunlight streaming down, scintillating like only sunlight can on water, with white clouds on big blue sky. Feel the schooner pick up again, cutting clean lines through the blue – look over there, you’re being followed by a group of leaping porpoises playing in your wake… you can see the clouds gather somewhere, far away, shading the water from dark blue to slate gray, back to blue, this isn’t the storm, not yet, but you know what a storm is.
This is a game between playful and beautiful, and plunges into grandeur – it just can’t HELP itself, this is the ocean, this is pure pure pure power – you watch the clouds gather over the water – you watch the rain start – you start glimpsing the shore, the cliffs, you see the waves shattering themselves on rocks – there’s a lull – maybe as evening comes, as you see a rip in the clouds and there are sudden and unexpected stars – you pause, to gaze up, to grip the edge of the ship’s rail and look into the heavens and wonder what lies beyond them, and you recognize a star that can lead you home – but the ocean still has you – the ocean still moves you – the water is still breaking onto a shore that could shatter you – you come closer and closer and closer – and finally… that last… trembling… note… there is a lighthouse stabbing the dark from the promontory… cling to the light… hold onto it in the storm… keep the light centered in the heart of you… and it will take you…
…it will take you…
…it will take you…
At the conclusion of this symphony, after that last fading note, I sit wrung out and in tears, grateful to be reminded of what it means to be human, and what it must be like to look on a world with the eyes of God.
This time, as before, I don’t know where I was while I sat in that concert hall, but I wasn’t there.
I was flying. I was being folded in the wings of love. I was one of many, a tiny human in a throng of other human souls. I was alone on a ship on the open sea coming home at last.
For those who want to listen to it all… HERE
(PS the final piece in that particular video is Smetana’s “Moldau”, which I also love – it’s a wonderful portrait of a river. That’s a bonus for you. Enjoy. You’re welcome. 🙂 )