“When ‘senescent’ approaches ‘senescence’”

Parry MY  LAST  FEW  POSTINGS  HERE  WERE  MISTAKES.  Literally! (a proper use of that word). I managed somehow to transfer the postings for my other blog to this one. Don’t ask. Perhaps the “process” of becoming old has become “being” old. I’m now setting things right with a post that is intended for this space.

In 1965 at the beginning of my junior year as an organ major in the School of Music at the University of Redlands in California, Dr. Leslie P. Spelman informed me that he could no longer be my teacher. I was too “unpredictable.” When he meant was that I was unruly, not genteel, too “out” as a young gay man (this was, after all, 1965—four years before Stonewall).

Anyone who knew both of us could have predicted this separation. I was furious, but took it in stride because the School was in the process of installing the new mechanical action organ (the first I had ever seen), and Professor Boese was responsible for it. Having studied in Europe he was anxious to have a tracker organ to teach on. I was excited to be one of the first students to play on the Schlicker. I gave the first student degree recital on it, my Junior Recital (Bach Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV 548; and Hindemith Sonata II for Organ).

Although I was unpredictable (unruly and undisciplined), Dr. Spelman hired me as a work-study student, and a great deal of my work became sorting and boxing his music and books. He was not far from retirement, and was clearing his office.

He and I spent a great deal of time together, and he tried his level best to instill in me something of his appreciation for the arts and some understanding of the simple and gentle way of life of his Quaker heritage. I fear he was not markedly successful at either.

He gave me music scores and books. His copy of the works of Orlando Gibbons from the monumental Tudor Church Music series, the large volume with his inscription, “Paris, 1924” on the fly leaf, a purchase from his years as a student of Joseph Bonnet in Paris. A copy of the Frescobaldi Fiori Musicali, the Bonnet edition. An assortment of little-known organ music, for the most part gentle, unassuming works that I, for the most part, thought were next to useless.

One score he gave me I have kept these 50 or so years. I’ve played a couple of pieces from it in the past, but I’ve always thought the volume was, while quaint with its gray cardboard cover, full of music too sentimental to be of any value. I remember distinctly his giving it to me with some other volumes, telling me that someday I might understand and be able to play the music.

The gray cardboard-bound volume is titled “A Little Organ Book.” It is a collection of 12 pieces by different British composers written to mark the passing of Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918), head of the Royal College of Music. The 12 composers represented were either faculty colleagues, or composition students of Parry, or church musicians who performed his works.

Recently I’ve been learning those works. I have, perhaps, begun to understand this music. Pieces written to honor the memory of a teacher and fellow composer, and written very soon after his death, some of them apparently composed for his funeral. Given to me by my teacher.

For the past several months I have been unable to write either for this blog or for any other purpose. At the risk of seeming as sentimental as I have thought “A Little Organ Book” to be for these many years, I will offer a simplistic explanation. I am depressed. I am 70 years old and alone. This is not how my “last years” were intended to be (intended by whom? one might ask). I will write soon about my flawed thinking. It’s enough to say now that I am not alone, and I have several fulfilling and beneficial activities to keep me both busy and in daily contact with other people.

But I have not yet come to terms with this situation that may last another week or, if my father’s genes have anything to do with it, another 27 years.

And then, when I least expected it, on the music desk of my organ opened a lovely little musical work that my most important mentor told me when he was only a couple of years short of 70 that I would someday know how to play.

I get it, I think. “IV” by Alan Gray (1855-1935), organist and director of the choirs at Trinity College, Cambridge. For his friend Hubert.

The most important day of the year

I loaf and invite my soul

I loaf and invite my soul

On March 21 nearly every year I give my students a quiz of one question. “Why is today the most important day of the year?”

Almost never does a student pass the quiz.

And I’ll bet I’m safe in assuming that almost no one who might be reading this today can guess why this is the most important day of the year.

It’s obvious.

Today is the 328th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach.

But for the birth of J. S. Bach, music would not exist as we know it.

Music purists and historians and better-musicologists-than-I can (and may) dispute that assertion. Of course it’s not true. Or is it? The harmonies, the contrapuntal designs, the musical forms both great and small perfected by J. S. Bach are the touchstone for all of music since 1685. The Beatles, Beyonce, John Cage, Madonna, Arthur Sullivan, and Arnold Schönberg notwithstanding.

I’m not going to get into an argument here. Arguments require evidence. I have none.

When I was a sophomore at the University of Redlands, my organ professor Leslie Pratt Spelman (1903-2001) invited three organ majors to hear him play a small recital in the university chapel. It was a private Sunday evening recital for his Quaker Meeting. It was delicious playing, slow, simple, accurate, and idiosyncratic. He played Frescobaldi, Brahms, pieces by a couple of 20th-century Dutch composers (friends of his), and Bach.

None of the great Bach show pieces, but three or four of the rarest musical gems from the Bach Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book). One of those was Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (The Old Year now Has Passed Away). When I asked him later to study it with him, he told me I could not play it until I was an old man.

He was sixty-two at the time.

Leslie Pratt Spelman, 1994

Leslie Pratt Spelman, 1994

I am now sixty-eight and have been playing Das alte Jahr since I was about fifty. It is a setting of the tune for a New Year’s Day hymn,

The old year now has passed away;
We thank Thee, O Our God, today
That Thou hast kept us through the year
When danger and distress were near.

(Anonymous, Erfurt, 1568)

Johann Sebastian Bach was, in his own time, a relatively obscure composer and a not-too-famous church and court musician stuck off in the hinterlands of Protestant Germany. To wit, his six Brandenburg Concerti, which are now considered the towering examples of the Baroque form, were never performed in his lifetime. He wrote them for Chistian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, most likely hoping to be noticed as worthy perhaps of a higher position than Kappelmeister at Köthen, a fairly insignificant music center in 18th-century Germany. He wrote an introduction to the Margrave saying he was

. . .  begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.

Right. “. . . judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste. . .”

judge their imperfection

judge their imperfection

When I heard Dr. Spelman play, he was presenting music (not himself) for the contemplation of his Meeting of Friends. My friends and I had to rush from the chapel stifling laughter because we did not understand the silence that followed or the speaking  about the affect of the music by one after another of the members of the Meeting.

Finally at age 68, I’m beginning to understand. Bach died when he was sixty-five. Dr. Spelman lived forty or so years after that evening in the chapel.

The repertory I studied with Dr. Spelman is limited and, perhaps, odd. What he taught me was a most important life lesson, and I did not understand until decades later. It’s very simple. He told me I must learn to “invite my soul.”

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

(“I celebrate myself” from Song of Myself—Walt Whitman)

I am now that old man Dr. Spelman said could play Das alte Jahr vergangen ist. One might think that on this most important day of the year, I would record something that sounds important. Only those who have reached a certain age can understand, I think, the joy, the beauty, the importance of this small work. Sadness is, I am beginning to understand, necessary in order to experience joy. I am in a time of intense sadness the likes of which I trust I will never need to feel again because it will always be eclipsed by joy.