“. . . the fiery sun now goes his way; shed thou within our hearts thy ray. . .”

Sunset over Paradise Beach, Oregon

(Sunset at Paradise Beach, Port Orford, Oregon. Photograph by Harold Knight, 2010)

Some people have the songs of Sondheim musicals in their minds. Some have Gilbert and Sullivan. I have one friend who claims to be able to sing every John Lennon melody. I know a pianist who studied with Rosina Lhévinne and at any moment of any day or night can play from memory any movement of any Beethoven Sonata. I tested him.

When I was a kid, we sang a (shall I say, ‘banal’) little tune, of which the “chorus” is the most memorable part. I often sing it yet. Not exactly. I think it when I have some unbidden tune caroming around in my head. I often try to supplant the unwanted tune with another unwanted tune.

In my heart there rings a melody,
There rings a melody with Heaven’s harmony;
In my heart there rings a melody,
There rings a melody of love
.

Many of America’s finest musicians grew up in the same musical milieu I did—composers Virgil Thomson and Gardner Read come immediately to mind, and more church musicians than I could count. I’m afraid unlike them in many ways, I never really rose above the musical level of “I have a song that Jesus gave me.”

That is not to say I have not lived with, loved, and performed great music all of my life. I’ve written before about the near sanctity in our home of Monday evenings and the “Bell Telephone Hour,” the “good music” (as my parents called it) program. I wrote recently about the operas I heard as a child. I grew up hearing the very best and the very worst in music.

The hymn tune Bromley was composed by either Jeremiah Clarke or Franz Joseph Haydn. It seems each of them left a trio version of the tune, identical but for a couple of notes in the last line. Musicologists are in some debate which came first—obviously Clarke lived first. His version is, however, in a manuscript which is of uncertain origin. The Haydn manuscript is undoubtedly authentic. Did Haydn copy Clarke, or did some third party copy Haydn and put Clarke’s name on it. Oh, the arcaneness of musicology.

This evening on the way home from my friend’s home where I had a delicious but sensible Thanksgiving dinner, I found that “in my heart there [rang] a melody, there [rang] a melody with” –Bromley, with either Jeremiah Clarke’s or Joseph Haydn’s harmonies.

The text I sing to Bromley is the evening hymn, “O Trinity of Blessed Light.”

O Trinity of blessed light,
O Unity of princely might,
the fiery sun now goes his way;
shed thou within our hearts thy ray.

To thee our morning song of praise,
to thee our evening prayer we raise;
O grant us with thy saints on high
to praise thee through eternity.

Words: Ambrose of Milan, fourth century; trans. John Mason Neale, 1851

The tune sounds Haydnesque to me. It trips sweetly along in F major for the first eight bars, but in the ninth it moves to F Minor on the word “fiery,” and moves to a B-flat minor sub-dominant on the word “sun.” One does not need to understand this musical jargon to hear the startling result. It’s one of those tiny moments (nearly unnoticeable) that carries with it the entire cosmos. It is one of those rare events in the music I know wherein I would be willing to posit a connection with “heaven’s harmonies.”

Few music theorists or musicologists or composers, I daresay, would use such important sounding language to describe this tiny two-chord, almost millisecond harmonic progression. They would say I need to get a life, that only the Mahler Sixth can be said to carry with it the entire cosmos. Or the David Diamond Ninth. Or the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata.

I learned Bromley singing the Office of Compline with the Chapel Singers of the University of Redlands Choir in 1966. We sang without conductor, standing in the darkened chapel at 9 PM on Sunday evenings. I have in my heart, and do not have to conjure it, the physical, mental, and spiritual—to say nothing of emotional—effect those minor chords had on me every time we sang the hymn, the fourteen of us breathing and vocalizing together in as perfect harmony as it is possible for any group to experience.

If I have not spoiled my genetic heritage by smoking (years ago), drinking alcoholically (years ago), and being overweight, I could possibly live another twenty years. In that time, the fiery sun will go its way approximately 7300 times. I have already experienced slightly fewer than 25,000 sunsets.

As best I can remember, the Service of Compline begins:

READER: The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.
CHOIR: Amen.
READER: Brethren, be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour; whom resist. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us.
CHOIR: Thanks be to God.

Later the Service continues:
CANTOR: Keep me as the apple of an eye.
CHOIR: Hide me under the shadow of thy wings.
CANTOR: Preserve us, O Lord, while waking,
CHOIR: and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we rest in peace.

Whenever for the last time I see the fiery sun go its way, whether the seventh or the seven thousandth time from now, I will carry into the void with me that minor shift in harmony in Bromley. I will know that the Lord Almighty will grant me a quiet night and a perfect end. I will be kept as the apple of an eye.

Truth be told, I don’t believe any of that. Or do I? My one certainty is this. Every time I sing (or play) that F minor to B-flat minor progression in the middle of that F Major tune, I have already experienced that quiet night and that perfect end.

OK, professor, what happened to the “light-hearted” writing about getting older?

Light-hearted enough? Children at Klyde Warren Park, Dallas

Light-hearted enough? Children at Klyde Warren Park, Dallas

More than one reader here has reminded me that the purpose of my writing on this blog was stated to be to write light-hardheartedly about the nonsense of getting old. (Don’t you love using passive verbs to eliminate all responsibility for the indicated action? Since we don’t know who “stated” it, I am free to write what I want.)

I have two rules for writing: never, ever, under any circumstances use a passive verb; and never, ever, under any circumstances use the expletive constructions “there is,” “there are,” “it is,” “it was,” and so on. I have my students, as the last step in editing their own writing, do a word search for “there” and simply delete it and rewrite the sentence without it. Getting them to recognize passive verbs is like shoveling sand at the seashore.

My favorite passive construction, by the way, is one that more politicians than you can shake a stick at have used, “Mistakes were made.” The ultimate wiggle-room statement. Who made the mistakes? Obviously not me. Some unknown, unnameable force. They were made. By aliens. Not by anyone in MY office!

Listen to political speech. Politicians predicate their speech on the passive voice. “Ain’t no one responsible for mistakes here.”

Sheesh! Sometimes at 5 AM I find it difficult to be light-hearted. Especially if I really want to be asleep. Another writing rule I find hard to follow: never use an adverb that has fewer than four syllables. “Really” has only three, so if it were not 5 AM, I would not use it.

“It were not” is, of course, the expletive construction. Sometimes figuring out how to avoid the construction is too complicated to bother with. “It is raining.” “It is 5 AM.” Such constructions are simply too useful to avoid.

I do this because I must.

It’s the same as counting every step between the train station and Jerome’s apartment. Sometimes I have to struggle to keep myself

Light-hearted enough? Picnic in St. Petersburg, Russia

Light-hearted enough? Picnic in St. Petersburg, Russia

from going back and starting over if I lose count. Funny thing is, I don’t know exactly how many steps it is, and I’ve been doing it for 18 months. Hmmmm. A problem to solve.

I’m getting much better about that. I was seeing a psychologist for awhile whose only accomplishment was to suggest I read Getting Control by Lee Baer. The book was actually (four syllables) helpful in stopping things like counting steps.

My old office at SMU, by the way, is 99 steps from the men’s room door. I will have to figure out how many steps my new office is to the first-floor men’s room in Clements Hall.

I think these are the sorts of obsessions they (whoever they are) find out people have when they’re in first grade these days. Think how much less interesting my life would have been if “they” had given me some drug to make me normal in first grade.

How the *^’* did I get off on that tangent? I was going to write light-hardheartedly today. Well, too bad if you don’t want to know what goes on in my silly little brain. I’ll bet it’s not that much different from  what goes on in your brain. I like to talk about it, that’s all. Well, no, I have to talk about it. I have to write about something, and you don’t want me saying serious and objectionable things about Alice Walton and capitalism, so, since I don’t have anything to write about that isn’t serious, I’ll write about what’s going on in my brain—not in my mind, you understand. My brain. The two are different, after all.

What’s going on in my mind is thinking about finishing this in time to get ready to go and warm up to play the organ for the service at St. Michael and All Angels (substituting).

Gardner Read (1913-2005) was one of America’s premier composers and music teachers of the last century. He was, for many years, Composer in Residence at Boston University. Generations of conservatory students and college music majors studied the craft of orchestration using his book on the subject.

When I taught at Bunker Hill Community College, I had the great honor of meeting Professor Read and becoming friends. I played two organ recitals on which I included groups of his “Preludes on Southern Hymn Tunes.” He attended both recitals.

After the second, he gave me a copy of his “Prelude on Jesu meine Freude.” The copy was old–it was published in 1934.

So here’s what’s on my mind. I’m going to play Professor Read’s piece this morning. I made a recording of it with my iPhone yesterday as I was practicing. It’s s little bizarre–the recording, that is, because I didn’t know how to start and stop the camera and get it set up at the same time. But here’s the link (it may take awhile to open). Read-Jesu meine Freude

I need a valet or a personal planner or. . .

Whose fault was it?

Whose fault was it?

Getting ready to do anything that requires a modicum of organization is nearly an impossibility for me. Always has been. Trips especially.

My favorite class at the University of Redlands was the Physical Geology class I took as a Junior. Honest. It started out as a pain in the backside—memorizing types of rocks and names of the “elements” and geological periods (it’s The Cretaceous, not The Cretaceous Period, by the way). And then the fun started. Within an hour’s drive from the campus is an example of every kind of geological formation such a class would ever want to study. Including the San Andreas Fault (a crack of which transverses the campus).

On a Saturday near the end of the semester the class went on a field trip to see the most famous and important formations. The date was announced the first day of class, and we were told not going on the trip meant failure. Period. For most of us (the music majors, at any rate) the class fulfilled our one-physical-science-course requirement. It was one of only half a dozen classes I took outside the School of Music.

The day of the field trip, I woke up early (as always) and rejoiced that I had nothing on my calendar and had an entire day free to practice for my Junior Recital which was fast approaching. I much of the day, and only when it was much too late, realized I had forgotten the field trip. Long story short, I eventually convinced the professor (Dr. S. W. Dana) that I had not just blown it off. He agreed that if Dean Umbach would allow me to take the field trip the next semester, I could have an incomplete and finish the course then and graduate on time.

That was by no means the first nor the last nor even the most important such experience of my life. It comes to mind every time I’m getting ready for a trip.

Two weeks in Scandinavia is a trip almost incomprehensible to the organizational part of my brain. Don’t get me wrong. I have lists of things to do—the first task when I finish writing this should be to consolidate the lists. But there is no way I can figure out how to do everything on the listS.

When things throw me off—yesterday I discovered boarding my diabetic cat will cost $616 instead of the $280 I thought I had been told three weeks ago, for example, and I have to figure out some other way to get him his insulin shots—I become not more efficient, but less.

Is this the result of bad parenting? I wish I could blame my over-organized, incredibly efficient parents (my father’s library was shelved and catalogued by the Dewey Decimal System), but what I logically should have learned from them is not borne out in my reality. Is this the result of sloppiness? Is it the result of not caring about details—thinking I’m too special to have to do anything as mundane as get organized? The result of TLE that has made my world seem all too often like a dream? Laziness? Forgetfulness? You decide. I can’t.

A California Alluvial Fan

A California Alluvial Fan

All I know is that I have too much left to do before Thursday, and here I am trying to make a recording of the “Meditation on Jesu meine Freude,” by Gardner Read. (I want to record it because that’s the best way I know to simulate an audience to practice for public performance.) I’ve finally discovered a work I want to record on my little practice organ that I can’t force onto the instrument. Purists and real organists most likely shudder at many of the recordings I post, but . . . (I won’t say what I think about that).

I had the privilege of knowing Garner Read. He was an old man by the time I met him—retired as Professor of Composition and Composer in Residence at Boston University. I don’t remember how we met, but I knew who he was because many generations of music students, including mine, used his textbook on orchestration.

Honored to Know Him

Honored to Know Him

In about 1990 I played a recital including three of his “Chorale Preludes on Southern Hymn Tunes,” and he attended. It was great fun. He gave me an old copy (original, from 1940) of his “Meditation.” It is an intensely sweet melody spinning out over a simple harmonic accompaniment. I wish I could record it. Perhaps if I get myself organized enough to get on the plane Thursday, I’ll record it on one of the organs I’ll play in Scandinavia. I hope so.

“. . . decay is the green life of change. . .”

nasatv2When I was working on my M.A. in music composition at California State College at Los Angeles—now University—in the early 70s—for most of that time I was working the graveyard (sic) shift at Los Angeles County Hospital as a technician in the blood gas laboratory (and trying to stay sober enough in the evenings to get to work at midnight), I became obsessed with the notion that I would not live beyond age 27. That would have been 1972.

I’ve obviously made it 41 years longer than that.

I like to watch the NASA channel. It has a more-or-less non-stop program called “Education Hour.” You can see the astronauts on the International Space Station puttering around doing experiments. I never know quite what’s going on (and I’m not sure if it’s live or old video). But that doesn’t matter. I like the fact that someone somewhere, without fanfare  or sufficient introduction is trying to teach me about the experiments being done in space.  I like it that the channel and the experiments are as mysterious as space exploration.

Sometime between 1987 and 1994 while I was teaching music at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, I became aware that the composer Gardner Read lived in Manchester-by-the-Sea, a stone’s throw from my condo in Salem, MA. I remember none of the particulars about how we became acquainted. However, I soon played an organ recital at my church in Salem including three or four of his settings of Southern hymn tunes. He and I had lunch together several times, and he came to my performance of his work. He was pleased at least by the recognition if not by my performance, and we kept in touch until I moved to Dallas.

I first learned of Gardner Read the way most wanna-be composers did/ do—through his magisterial book, Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice, which was (is) required as a resource for all composition students. The revised edition was published in 1972, the projected year of my death, but in fact, the year I wrote my Concerto for Organ and Orchestra as my M.A. thesis. When I look at it now, I wonder who on earth did all of that. It has never been performed, and I doubt that it could be or that anyone would want to listen if it were.

When I failed to die in 1972, I set about finding and studying poetry about death. I have dribs and drabs of notes here and there about that stuff, photoreadand much has ended up stored on my computer (I’ve never lost my interest in that kind of writing). Of course, as my Shakespeare professor in college said, quoting God-knows-who, all literature “is about either kissing or killing,” so I never want for poetry about my immanent death—or is it yours?

I recently came across one of my favorite such poems, “All nature has a feeling,” by John Clare (1793 – 1864).

All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal it its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.

My fascination with the NASA channel (or is it my need for a sleeping potion?) is pretty much summed up in “All nature has a feeling.” I think about it a great deal of the time. Is it true there’s “nothing mortal in” nature? Does that mean I’m not mortal? (yes, it’s all about me).

When I think about the current state of my existence, I sense that my mind is still very much alive. My body seems to be catching up with the abuse I’ve given it over the years. I don’t think I have much control over that. But I do have some control over my mind. Decay is the green life of change.

Now we come to my usual leap over a giant logical chasm.

An experiment in aging

An experiment in aging

Gardner Read and NASA. I’m trying an experiment. At one point in my life I found the easiest way to learn a new piece of organ music was to memorize the melody (or some part) in my mind before I ever played it.

Now I’m conducting an experiment. Can I still do that? Is decay the green life of change or simply decay?

My first attempt is with a short piece Gardner Read gave me twenty-five years ago that I’ve never played.  I’m also working on a piece of Gerhard Krapf’s in my mind. Stay tuned.