“How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?” (J. S. Bach)

Warm-fuzzy North Park Center

Warm-fuzzy North Park Center

.

.

.

I had a couple of problems this morning.

First, I wanted to look at my copy of the piano-vocal score in (a stultified) English translation of the J.S. Bach Christmas Oratorio. I can’t find it. It’s on a shelf or in a box or in some other place I put it for safe keeping when I moved to this apartment 11 years ago. I probably have not looked at it since then.

I wanted the English words of the 5th movement of the first section. I could reconstruct them from memory except the 5th and 6th lines. I must have looked at 20 websites before I found the words. I found one recording of a (not professional) choir singing it in English, but I can’t make out the words as they sing.

Searching for the score did accomplish one thing for me. I put a whole bunch (more) CDs and DVDs of operas, extended musical works, and movies (the complete Godfather, for example) into boxes to take out of here. Any such recording I have not listened to or watched since I moved here 11 years ago is going! I obviously don’t need them.

The words of that chorus of the Christmas Oratorio are warm-fuzzy words about Christmas, particularly about the faithful’s response to the birth of the Baby Jesus.

How shall I fitly meet Thee
And give Thee welcome due?
The nations long to greet Thee,
And I would greet Thee, too.
O Fount of light, shine brightly
Upon my darkened heart,
That I may serve Thee rightly
And know Thee as Thou art.

Lovely Christmas sentiment, No? Yes, of course. The words have been sung from the 17th century onward to a lovely and sweetly introspective tune by Johann Crüger. Similar to “Away in the Manger.”

Aye, there’s the rub, as Hamlet might say.

Bach used a different tune. The tune everyone in America who uses a church hymnal knows as “O Sacred Head, now Wounded,” by Hans Leo Hassler, contemporaneous with Crüger.

Black Friday, greeting him

Black Friday, meeting him?

These words traditionally go with that tune—or some similar translation.

O sacred head, now wounded,
defiled and put to scorn;
O kingly head surrounded
with mocking crown of thorn:
What sorrow mars thy grandeur?
Can death thy bloom deflower?
O countenance whose splendor
the hosts of heaven adore!

My guess is 99% of the people who attend a performance of the Bach Christmas Oratorio in the next two or three weeks will think the tune is just lovely, a nice way to sing about the Baby Jesus. Even those who recognize the tune will not be jarred by it. How could J.S. Bach compose anything other than grandeur and elegance?

So it’s not jarring to sing about meeting the baby to the tune most of us know for words about the baby’s eventual murder?

Let’s not belittle Bach’s power as thinker and composer. I don’t know if he was the first composer to marry those sentimental words with that gruesome tune, but I know that to anyone listening with anything other than their most uncritical and unconscious ears and mind, that movement of the Christmas Oratorio is shocking. Just shocking.

Who sings songs about an unjust execution as a lullaby to their children?

The other problem I had earlier today was the news that Kourtney Kardashian had a baby. Who gives a (insert your own word here) that Kourtney Kardashian had a baby? Well, there, I’ve cheapened whatever argument I was making. And what does it say about us that anyone other than her family even knows her blessed news?

And now I wish I were a philosopher or a great preacher or theology professor or even one of those people who gets to speak ad infinitum helping PBS raise money. Or perhaps a TED speaker. I want to preach. If I had standing to do so, I’d say something like this.

Isn’t it sad that—taken as a whole—we as a people are more interested in how we should fitly meet the Baby Kardashian than how we should meet anything related to truth, goodness, beauty, or other noble pursuits. I won’t speak about theology or religion because I frankly can no longer get my head around those kinds of ideas.

Old Sebastian Bach knew a thing or two about us. We have this elaborate ritual of warm-fuzziness and camaraderie (“mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together”) that makes us feel more generous than we have any right to feel about ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we actually believe in the [original] “reason for the season.” We all participate in the orgy of “spending and pretending.” Pretending we love everyone, when what we really want is to keep our economy on track. I don’t need to say all of this.

Everyone who has more than 30 seconds to be reflective knows it.

So Old Sebastian Bach stuck this hymn into his Christmas Oratorio, right in the first section. The choir (and presumably the congregation at St. Thomas, Leipzig) sang these heart-warming, goose-bumpy words about meeting the Baby Jesus (or the Baby Kardashian).

But if you’re paying attention, you realize he’s tricking you into singing also about police brutality in Ferguson, MO, about our desire to change the law so we can carry murder weapons openly in Texas, about the estimated 300,000 kids in North Texas who live in food insecurity. And I won’t mention (because most people—even those who might agree we need to sing about murder and hunger—absolutely do not want to think about it) the racism that so pervades our culture that we who are in charge of things can’t even see it.

In place of the words to the Christmas Oratorio I find news of Kourtney Kardashian’s baby—at least partly because those words are lost in piles of stuff I don’t need. Stuff that makes me feel warm-fuzzy, protected, successful, while I ignore the homeless black man sitting yesterday a couple of yards from the gate to my apartment complex.

“O sacred head. . .”
BigHeartMinistries

“. . . as we gather losses, we may also grow in love. . .” (Julia Spicher Kasdorf)

Salome - a moment of reality

Salome – a moment of reality

In about 1986 my friend (in some ways my dearest friend) Gina told me that her 30th birthday had been wild and fun; that on her 40th birthday she threw herself the biggest party of her life, remembering the old book, Life Begins at Forty by Walter B. Pitkin; that she and David had a quiet dinner on her 50th birthday; that she had had another wild party on her 60th birthday; that none of those “milestone” birthdays had bothered her one bit. “But my 70th—this is hard. I can’t imagine being 70.”

In 77 days, assuming nothing untoward like my being run over by a Mack truck, I will endure my 70th birthday. I will have completed my 70th year with only minor (perhaps) disappointments. I wish Gina were still around to assure me it will be OK. She lived to be much older.

Julia Spicher Kasdorf was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, December 6, 1962. She has published several books of poetry and two widely acclaimed works of non-fiction. She teaches creative writing and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University.

I’m not sure how someone who is only 52 years old can write a poem about getting old, or—perhaps—about dying. However, that was Shakespeare’s age when he died, and he wrote a great deal about aging and dying. Of course, as I understand it, 52 would not have been thought of as an early death in Shakespeare’s time.

For the past ten days I have been trying to write to no avail. That’s not exactly true. I have written a great deal, none of which I would put here both because of the incomprehensibility of the writing and because of the subject matter.

Happy Birthday, old timer

Happy Birthday, old timer

Gina was about my parents’ age. I’ve forgotten exactly when she was born, but she was of my parents’ generation. I remember my father’s 40th birthday, August 21, 1954. Our church, the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff, NE, of which he was pastor, had a picnic—a large gathering—at Pioneer Park just north of the high school. Someone gave my father a copy of Pitkin’s book as a joke (but he read it and found it interesting after he stopped laughing about it).

The other memorable event at the picnic was that, when everyone else sang, “Happy Birthday, Pastor Knight,” at the appropriate point in the song, my brother sang (shouted, rather), “Happy Birthday, old timer,” and cracked up the crowd.

How, how on earth, do I remember that?

I don’t remember my 40th birthday. Probably because it was just another drunken evening. I have no idea. My partner Frank had bought his house in Beverly, MA, by that time, and we were living there in splendid inebriated isolation. My PhD was on hold while I tried (several times unsuccessfully) to get sober. A couple of months after my birthday, I got it together enough to travel to Los Angeles to play an organ recital at the Wilshire Avenue Methodist Church, where a dear friend was the music director, marking the 300th birthday of J.S. Bach.

Now I’m approaching the end of my 70th year.

Everything I’ve written for the past 10 days has been about the process of becoming an old person. I’m not hating this. I’m not depressed by it (any more than normal). There’s little in my life that is not OK. I’m tutoring my guys (SMU football and basketball players—what fun that is!). I’m teaching my little ESL class for adults at the Aberg Literacy Center. I’m substituting as organist now and then. I’m keeping too busy and making enough money that I haven’t yet had to dip into my retirement funds.

I think—at least it’s my experience, and I can speak for no one else (I haven’t talked with friends about it)—my feelings about things in general are more intense than they ever have been. I thought as one aged, one had less emotion. I have more.

It’s not my clinical depression that makes my feelings about, for example, the genocide of the Palestinian people being perpetrated by the Israelis while the world stands by doing nothing—no, actually assisting—more heightened as time passes.

It’s not my clinical depression that makes me care more about the racism and classism that surrounds and stifles my guys, and all college athletes who happen to be black.

It’s not my clinical depression that nearly makes me weep over the idiocy of the American public’s conviction that we have an “Ebola crisis,” when the entire fixation is trumped up by the news media and politicians who will use racism to influence votes.

It’s not my clinical depression that grieves my own personal losses of my job, my balance when I get up too fast, my parents (even if that was three years ago), my partner (even if that was 11 years ago), and my ability to think of any word I need at the moment I need it. Or—perhaps most important—my ability to rely on the permanence of loving relationships.

No, I feel grief—and also pleasure and joy—more acutely than ever. I need to begin asking my friends if this is their experience, too. When I was 40, I could imagine that eventually the problems of the world I care about would be fixed. I could imagine that, when a dear friend moved away I could easily find another. I knew that everyone would die eventually, but it was eventually, not soon.

So here’s my reaction to all of this. I have my tickets to the Dallas Opera productions of The Marriage of Figaro on October 29, and of Salome on November 6. I’ll watch the Countess forgive her philandering husband and Herod’s daughter dance with John the Baptist’s head on a platter, and lose myself in reality.
__________

“First Gestures,” by Julia Spicher Kasdorf (b. 1962)

A long-ago performance

A long-ago performance

Among the first we learn is good-bye,
your tiny wrist between Dad’s forefinger
and thumb forced to wave bye-bye to Mom,
whose hand sails brightly behind a windshield.
Then it’s done to make us follow:
in a crowded mall, a woman waves, “Bye,
we’re leaving,” and her son stands firm
sobbing, until at last he runs after her,
among shoppers drifting like sharks
who must drag their great hulks
underwater, even in sleep, or drown.

Living, we cover vast territories;
imagine your life drawn on a map–
a scribble on the town where you grew up,
each bus trip traced between school
and home, or a clean line across the sea
to a place you flew once. Think of the time
and things we accumulate, all the while growing
more conscious of losing and leaving. Aging,
our bodies collect wrinkles and scars
for each place the world would not give
under our weight. Our thoughts get laced
with strange aches, sweet as the final chord
that hangs in a guitar’s blond torso.

Think how a particular ridge of hills
from a summer of your childhood grows
in significance, or one hour of light–
late afternoon, say, when thick sun flings
the shadow of Virginia creeper vines
across the wall of a tiny, white room
where a girl makes love for the first time.
Its leaves tremble like small hands
against the screen while she weeps
in the arms of her bewildered lover.
She’s too young to see that as we gather
losses, we may also grow in love;
as in passion, the body shudders
and clutches what it must release.

“. . . those who expected lightning and thunder are disappointed. . .” (Czeslaw Milosz)

A bee circling cloverr

A bee circling clover

Today is today. I have to keep remembering that.

It’s almost (no, absolutely) a commonplace, people say it so often that it means nothing, that one must “live in the moment.”

I have a few moments at the moment. I can write—which is what my mind and body both tell me I should be doing—or I can do any one of the hundred other things I can think of doing simply by looking around this room without moving a muscle except to swivel my head.

Laundry. Vacuum the floor. Sort books to give away. Watch “Love it or list it” on the HG channel. Listen to the “news.” Make another cup of coffee. Practice the organ.

Practice the organ or write. Those are the real choices. The writing is winning out at the moment.

What do those 30-40-or 50-year-olds know about living in the moment?

Don’t get all philosophical or doctrinaire about it. I’m sick to death of being told as if were THE truth that I need to live in the moment.

People mean things like “don’t dwell on the past, it’s over—you can’t do anything about it.” Or, “stop worrying about the future—you can’t control it.” So live as if yesterday didn’t happen and as if there’s no tomorrow?

Yesterday DID happen. I wasted quite a lot of time doing things that didn’t accomplish anything much. Or make myself happier or more comfortable in that “moment.” And tomorrow WILL—presumably—happen. I need more time tomorrow. I know that already. I can’t do all the things I want (or need) to do.

Only a white-haired old man, who [is] much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be. . .

That’s living in the moment, I guess. The old man knows today is the end of the world, but he keeps caring for his tomatoes. Like Martin Luther who, at least in legend, when asked while he was planting a tree, what he would do if he knew the Second Coming was about to happen, said he’d keep planting his tree.

If you think you’re living in the moment, you should rethink. According to people who know (such as neurologists and psychiatrists) everything you’ve ever done your little brain remembers. It’s possible to act in the moment, but living there is, well, a fantasy.

I’ll stop talking to “you” and talk to me. I don’t really want to forget (or even to live as if they didn’t happen) the moment when I was 4 years old that I first discovered how much pleasure it gave other people when I played “Silent Night” from memory—and how much pleasure their pleasure added to the pleasure I had simply in the playing. And I can’t (I wish I could) forget the night about the same year that I woke up in my uncle’s bed with his semen all over my body.

Back to “you”: if you can’t face the realities of the past, you should not be reading this.

While he binds his tomatoes

While he binds his tomatoes

If you don’t like to read about my uncle’s semen, I’d suggest you read about Cyberloney. I don’t want to refer anyone to Commentary. It’s a propaganda rag for the most rabidly conservative and one-sided thinking in America, but this article is pretty funny and thought-provoking. (I tried to get the rag removed as a “scholarly” journal from the EBSCO databases, but failed to prove my point, as I single-handedly did with the equally absurd journal First Things—it’s no longer listed as scholarly in EBSCO. I’ll keep trying.)

So two absolutely opposing experiences happened to me at about the same time, and—contrary to the advice to “live in the moment”—both are still with me every moment of every day.

When you get to your 70th year, you might understand (you might not if you’re determined to be successful and happy and rich). And if you’ve never had a year in which two things so chasmally different happened to you and gave you a bit of confusion about “the meaning of life,” you are so lucky that you ought to be selling everything you have and giving to the poor without even a second thought.

Don’t ask me why I’m writing about those two events. Except to say that I need three extra days (thinking about the future) between now and Sunday because I’m going to play (there, I’ve said it—projecting into the future) the organ at one of the most prestigious (if not important) churches in the city on Sunday, a prospect that is both exhilarating and terrifying every time the organist asks me to substitute for him. Those two feelings at once because of the two experiences I had when I was 4.

And I need the three more days to make sure I’ve practiced enough to play well enough to give the church folks pleasure. And to give me pleasure.

And my opinion is that it would destroy my being who I am if I didn’t carry those two experiences with me always. I live in the past. No, I carry the past with me. Perhaps if I didn’t, I’d be the organist at a large and prestigious church or playing recitals all over the world. But I’m not.

For me, living in the moment is not the point (and it wouldn’t be very interesting). My goal is to carry the past with me always, but carry it in such a loving and grateful manner as to make the future—which for me is soon, oh too soon—bearable and beautiful.

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover.

So I want to stop worrying about “living in the moment” and find a way—finally—to hold past, present, and future balance. All of it. Good and bad.

“A Song on the End of the World,” by Czeslaw Milosz (1911 – 2004)
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be

Czeslaw Milosz was a Polish poet, born in a part of Lithuania that was part of Poland after WWI. After WWII he was a Polish diplomat, and in 1950 he was granted political asylum in France. In 1960 he moved to the United States to become a lecturer in Polish literature at the University of California at Berkeley. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.

I hope James doesn't mind my posting his picture

I hope James doesn’t mind my posting his picture

“. . . In a stable, dark and dreary, who will be the first to kneel . . .”

Who will be the first to kneel?

Who will be the first to kneel?

Among the contradictions, inconsistencies, and dissimilitudes in our celebration of Christmas [or the Winter Solstice or whatever you celebrate at the end of December] is a misconception about the definition of the word “humble.”  Dictionary.com first defines it as “not proud.” Then come the interesting meanings. “Having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience . . . low in rank, importance, status, quality . . . courteously respectful . . .”

Who in America (or any other Western country) wants to have a “feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience?” Not movie stars. Not professional athletes. Not recording artists. Not Rachael Maddow. Or Ted Cruz. Or Alice Walton.

NOT YOU OR ME, EITHER.

You’re educated enough to understand the word “dissimilitude,” and you have a computer of some sort. You probably drive a nice car and know the best restaurant in your city. (Stephan Pyles in Dallas. I’ve eaten there.)

Given all of that, whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Humanist, or none of the above, you would not be caught dead kneeling in a pile of cow shit. Might ruin your Gap jeans.

But, with the best of them—even you non-Christian folks—we sing, in the holiday spirit,

In a stable, dark and dreary,
Who will be the first to kneel?

(16th-century Polish carol, “In a manger He Is lying”). Never mind if you don’t know that exact one. You likely know “What Child

Vierne "Final." All those notes!

Vierne “Final.” All those notes!

Is this,” sung to “Greensleeves.” I have Muslim friends who, of course, don’t know those carols. But, believe me, there’s plenty of Ramadan sentimentality to go around. And, my goodness, Chanukah? So we all get ooey-gooey feelings about holidays based loosely on our religion.

Back to my original assertion—you wouldn’t be caught dead with your knees in a pile of horse manure. But you’d sing a song about it and feel ever-so-spiritual (or at least cuddly).

ME, TOO.

Here’s this baby in a place no self-respecting mother would give birth—a manger. Have you ever been in a barn where cows and other such filthy animals live? I’ve helped shoo the cows in from the fields to the dairy barn and sprayed the floor with water to keep the cow shit washed away so it doesn’t get mixed in with the milk. Nebraska, 1959 or so.

That’s as far from the windows of Neiman Marcus on Main Street in Dallas sporting their Alexander McQueen fashions as you can get. But I’ll bet everyone who buys one of those dresses either as a Christmas gift for his wife (do men do that?) or for herself to wear to the Christmas party she simply has to attend would sing

In a stable, dark and dreary,
Who will be the first to kneel?
At the crib where Christ is sleeping,
Who will be the first to kneel?

BUT DON’T GET SELF-RIGHTEOUS.

Those of us who buy our underwear at Target because we can’t afford McQueen will sing it, too. While we all refuse to kneel in the cow dung.

I’m not getting all holier-than-thou here. One of my heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt, said,

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

I’m grateful people like her keep things moving in (at least now and then) the right direction. But frankly, I’m more grateful I was born with weakness, fear, and timidity instead of courage. Epilepsy and bipolar disorder. And self-centered fear. I’m grateful I’m a wimp. Otherwise I never would have discovered that it’s OK to kneel in cow dung. In fact, it’s sort of a natural place to be. For all of us.

Not because I’m a piece of it—don’t get me wrong, I’m not groveling.

No, I’m (I think by this age I can be confident that I am) moving into the real meaning of “humility.” That is, “low in rank, importance, status, quality . . . courteously respectful.”

When I play the organ, it’s usually not very fast. I’m neither physically nor mentally adroit enough to play all those notes. (My “normal” temperature is 97.5.) Nothing about me is athletic—not even my fingers. I used to hate that my organ playing is best when it’s slowest.

Once when I was practicing at the University of Iowa on the Clapp Hall organ (destroyed by a flood) a friend—a real organist (played at the Mother Church in Boston)—wandered up to the loft. I was playing the Bach chorale prelude on Allein Gott (BWV 662), a languid work with the melody ornamented and strung out over a long introspective accompaniment. When I finished she said she was glad someone in the department could make sense out of that kind of slow music.

I resented it. I wanted to play the Vierne “Final” she was working on. No way could I then, or now.

And now I know. Or am beginning to understand. “Low in rank, importance, status, quality” is where I belong. That’s not self-hatred or any of those things your therapist or AA group warn you about. At least for me, it’s where I can pay attention. Where those mysterious tones we call music fit together so I can comprehend them. Where I’m most likely to understand anything. Anything at all.

In a manger He is lying
Who will greet Him as He sleeps?
Baby Jesus, infant Christ-child,
Who will greet Him as He sleeps?
Wake, ye shepherds, and as ye play
Gladsome songs and carols gay,
Seek the Babe ere break of day;
Seek the Babe ere break of day.

Angel hosts have sung their story,
Who will follow the bright star?
Told of Christ in all his glory,
Who will follow the bright star?
Wake, ye shepherds, and sing Noel,
Help the angel chorus swell,
To the earth glad tidings tell;
To the earth glad tidings tell.

In a stable, dark and dreary,
Who will be the first to kneel?

At the crib where Christ is sleeping,
Who will be the first to kneel?
Wake, ye shepherds, Seek out your King!
Play your songs and loudly sing,
Till the air with echoes ring;
Till the air with echoes ring.

Will I go silent (or gentle)? For those who do not fear reality (old people, mostly)

Do not go gentle

Do not go gentle

.

Dylan Thomas’s most famous poem begins

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

My Grandmother Peck, my Grandfather Knight, my mother’s Cousin Ruth, the Rev. Ginger Georgulas, Sue Mansfield, Janey Fields, Dorothy Seuberling, David and Gina Quinlan, Bill Houghton

Friends, family, mentors who, I assume, did not go gentle into that good night. They may well have gone calm, but I cannot imagine they went gentle. They all loved life too much to have simply given in to the end. I know that for sure because

Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.

Last night a friend opened a conversation, “How do you feel about dying in Dallas?” He he’s a youngster at 62. For LGBT persons without children this is a particularly vexed question:  Where should one be when one can no longer care for oneself – or, even if care never becomes an issue, when one is in the end stages of life and growing more and more alone.

My siblings live in California and Louisiana—and all of their children live in California.

My family of origin is not immediately present in my life although we all do keep very close contact (thanks to Facebook, and email). It is my family of choice, that myriad friends and colleagues, and my inamorato that are most likely to be aware of, if not burdened with, my eventual need for help and tender loving care.

For me thinking about this now is—and I think it should be for everyone over about 60—important not so much because I am thinking about being old and decrepit (and I am not obsessed of thoughts of death) but because I want to be sure that I am in a place where I am comfortable mentally, physically, and spiritually when my time comes. That does not need to be a retirement community run by some upscale hotel chain or anything special at all. But it must be a place of my choosing where I can live (as long as I am physically and mentally able) with freedom and dignity.

There. Enough nuts and bolts and depressing stuff.

The Lone Ranger?

The Lone Ranger?

Non sequitur.

A somewhat startling number of composers’ last works are, if not robustly joyful, at least in some way different (and more accessible?) than their previous work. Take the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, for example. Or, better, his String Quartet in F Major, opus 135, his actual last completed major work. Listen to it and marvel in its joy.

Even the most uninterested opera goer will find the hilarious romp through love and madness of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff irresistible. Or listen to the Mahler Ninth Symphony. Or, if you’re really imaginative, listen to the Shostakovich Fifteenth Symphony with its almost silly quotation of the Rossini “Lone Ranger” theme (I absolutely love it that, the first time I opened this link, the advertisement was for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds).

These composers did not go gentle. They went joyfully!

That list of friends and family I began with are like these composers. Each of them lived out her or his life in dignity and comfort. And I had contact with most of them shortly before they died. I know they ended their days as they had lived them. Fully, and in some cases, boisterously! They are the angels who dare, in the words of Sherman Alexie’s poem, to “ride [me] piggyback!” They are all over me, burdening and unbalancing me with my memories of their examples.

My favorite, though, is  Johannes Brahms. His last composition, Opus 122, is a group of settings for solo organ of eleven hymn tunes—all of which are about death. And there is not a sad or dreary note in the lot.

Brahms went neither silent nor gentle into that good night. I wrote yesterday about my teacher Leslie Pratt Spelman. I studied the eleven pieces with him as a college student. Twice in my life I have played recitals consisting of all eleven of the preludes, bracketed by the great Bach Prelude in C Minor, BWV 546 at the beginning and its fugue at the end.

Now I am playing them at home for my amazement.

The words for the last of them O Welt, Ich muss dich lassen, are:

O World, I must leave you,
I travel from here along my way
to the everlasting fatherland.
I will give up my spirit
so that my body and life
lie in God’s merciful hand.

(Please see the note below the video link for a word about the playing I seem to be determined to upload these days.)

I am fully aware of two obvious deficiencies in my recordings. The first is, my playing is not necessarily stylistically correct – or mechanically perfect. The second is that my recording equipment is so lacking that I cannot capture the real beauty of the sound of the organ. I have to have the camera so close that the mechanical sounds sometimes overwhelm the music. I know that’s not fair to Steuart Goodwin who built the organ more than 40 years ago—his first opus. But I happen to like the way my playing and the sound of the organ are simply what we are.

A friend says I should use the moniker “The Barefoot Organist.” I should because I am not going to do anything to make these recordings other than what they are—my private reveling in the music, which I am happy to share with you. Besides, my psychiatrist (a gerontological specialist) has given me the assignment to play the organ every day for my own emotional good, and making these tapes helps me stick to the program!