Book of Days / 2011
I pulled on the heavy front door. The familiar alienation effect, a cool objectivity, set in—every bit as chilling as the refrigerated air that streamed out of long-closed Day's Deli into the swelter of my first night on the east coast. Looking around the musty Common Room, I took in the received hauteur on the tender faces of the students—even younger than I remember ever having been.
Faculty member Ignat Solzhenitsyn was scheduled to play the piano; two students—a clarinetist and a violist—were to join him, in the first performance of a slight new suite for trio commissioned by the school. I had returned to Philadelphia and the Curtis Institute to bow. It was March 2011. Beforehand, I dined with Emily Wallace. Over a bottle of champagne, we discussed her passion (and specialty) Ezra Pound, and how it might feel to set foot in the school again now that we are both former faculty members. We strolled together beneath the sycamores and across Rittenhouse Square.
During the concert, next to Emily, I sat where Samuel Barber had sat—between Ralph Berkowitz and Gian Carlo Menotti—in the picture displayed on Ralph's piano in Albuquerque. I nodded a secret farewell to Ralph from the seat he so loved; at 103, he had only a few days earlier joined his departed friends. Perhaps he had already had a chance to answer the Virgin Mary's question—the one she had asked him for so many years from the back of her black limousine in his recurring dream.
The première of Book of Days was velveteen, the performers suave. As I listened, I disengaged from the moment. The first movement, "Monday," began with the little chorale I composed for Ford Lallerstedt during the first week of classes I attended at the Institute. The tune was a gloss on the tune of "Ring a Ring o' Roses," a nursery rhyme which has come to be associated with the Plague.
The second movement was an instrumental version of my setting, from the cycle Phantoms of Myself, of Susan Griffin's poem "Her Sadness Runs Beside Her Like a Horse." It was a tribute to Karen Hale, my dear friend, for whom I composed Days Without You, a cycle of Anne Sexton settings for soprano and orchestra (now withdrawn) that she premièred in 83 under my baton in Curtis Hall.
The burgundies, blood-reds, and dirty vermilions of "Tuesday" were a recollection of the night I fell in love with my then girlfriend, sprawled on the richly-carpeted floor in the dark, listening to her practice the Bartok Solo Sonata in the Horszowski Room on the institute's second floor.
The clarinetist performed "Wednesday," her solo movement—my musical recollection of how it had felt in Curtis hall as a student when, tears coursing unhurriedly like molasses down my cheeks a few seats away, I had first heard Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps performed—purely, before learning its title, history, or program.
Together the trio performed "Thursday," a recollection of the night that I visited Norman in his hospital room. I listened to the sound of the heart monitor that I had imitated, "slap-tongue," in the clarinet, doubled with pizzicato in the viola, just as I had in Amelia as Icarus died. I followed the quotation of the tune to which Norman had set our favorite poem, Roethke's "The Waking."
"Friday" treated music from the beginning of Amelia, as though to give an idea of whom I have become. "Saturday" revisited music first written for a setting of Byron's "Sun of the Sleepless" in my cantata Light Fantastic in order to give a taste of the insomnia that set in like a piton during my Curtis years.
The final movement, "Sunday," revisited the Plague chorale. It was meant to soothe, to draw closed the curtain on those years. Hearing it brought me out of my reverie. I felt as though a cool hand had been placed on my hot forehead.
Of course, nobody in the audience would perceive a sliver of my secret narratives; what mattered to me was that I felt that each movement expressed in notes things that I had left unsaid at Curtis. Music is an abstract art, yes; it means, as the old phrase goes, whatever we say it does. —Or nothing at all. When the piece was over, I only knew that I'd managed to say goodbye.
The familiar Institute smells of wood polish and upholstery, mingled with the (genteel, mostly older) audience's winter coats, bay rum, and Chanel No. 5. I rose for my bow and looked out over the audience, recognizing nobody. I twisted my neck to see who was wearing the Chanel and could have sworn that for an instant I saw Mother seated at the end of the row, cancer-thinned, cheekbones like quotation marks, eyes bright and attentive, skin translucent, mauve silk blouse tucked into khaki chinos, hair bobbed boyishly like Amelia Earhart. She smiled warmly. How strange—the details that return, thought forever forgotten: it was what she wore the evening in November 82 that I conducted the premiere of my violin concerto, the orchestra arrayed on the floor where now sat the audience, Michaela's talent youthful and glowing, my nascent gift just beginning to shine. Mother raised her hand gently then as though reaching for a cup of tea; she did so now, and extended her palm outward toward me, waved gently, smiled, and vanished.
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