A music without beginning and without end

Nadia Boulanger was a composer and music teacher in France – one of the best teachers ever. Among her students were Aaron Copland (Fanfare for the Common Man), Quincy Jones (producer of Michael Jackson’s best albums), Astor Piazzolla (bandoneon [accordion-type instrument] composer – I heard his music from a street band in Italy), Philip Glass (pianist and Truman Show soundtrack composer), and Joe Raposo (creator of the Sesame Street theme and Kermit the Frog’s “Being Green (It’s Not Easy)”).

George Gershwin sought her as a teacher but she declined because she said he had already found his voice. That was what she was good at and that’s why her students had such diverse styles – all she did was help them find their voice, without imposing her own on them. Astor Piazzolla came to her for classical music training and she perceived that he had another love — he reluctantly admitted that he loved tangos on the accordion. She asked him to play a tango for her. She said, “Astor, your classical pieces are well written, but the true Piazzolla is here, never leave it behind”.

She would ask prospective students: “Can you live without music? If you can live without music, thank the Lord and goodbye.” (See video where she discusses this.)

“Nothing is better than music; when it takes us out of time, it has done more for us than we have the right to hope for.” – Nadia Boulanger

She became friends with Leonard Bernstein, the great conductor of the New York Philharmonic and composer of West Side Story. Their final visit took place in Fontainebleau as she was floating between coma and sleep on her death bed. He was surprised to be recognized. “Cher Lenny,” she called him.

In Bernstein’s words:

“Then I heard myself asking: ‘Vous entendez la musique dans la tete?” (Do you hear music in your head?)

Instant reply: “Tout le temps, tout le temps.” (All the time, all the time.)

This so encouraged me that I continued, as if in quotidian conversation: “Et qu’est-ce vous entendez, ce moment-ci?” (And what do you hear right now?)

I thought of her preferred loves. “Mozart? Monteverdi? Bach, Stravinsky, Ravel?”

Long pause. “Une musique. . .” (A music. . .)

Very long pause . . . “ni commencement, ni fin” (. . . without beginning and without end).

(From Findings by Leonard Bernstein)

Post-Christmas Letdown

I always get a little sad after Christmas. I have very high expectations every holiday season. And I love it all – the music, the family and friends, the gifts, the movies, the lights, the less-mundane-than-usual thoughts and activities.

None of these things really have to be limited to Christmastime. If we’re so inclined, we could incorporate more of what makes Christmas amazing into everyday life. A few ideas:

  • Listen to good music. For a whole month I listen to mostly classical and choral music with the Good News (or at least family and friendship) as its focus. While Christmas tunes are kind of forbidden in July, nothing stops me from listening to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert – music that has lifted souls for centuries.
  • Work toward the happiness of others. Much of the thrill of Christmas is imagining the excitement of others as they open the gift you got them. But all year I can send people a surprise note, build them up in person or online, express thanks, or even give a little gift for no particular reason.
  • Read good books. Nothing quite compares to A Christmas Carol, but there’s a lot of uplifting and mind-expanding literature out there for the other 11 months of the year.
  • Spend time with your family. Remember those who have passed. Document the present so you have some say in the way the grandkids remember you.
  • Eat well. Who says you can’t make a batch of wassail in June? And hot chocolate is good for the soul any time of year.
  • Surround yourself with light. The tree and the exterior lights have to come down, but you can decorate your room with art and photography that inspires you. And you can change it as often as you want. For me, I can make my office look completely different just by cleaning it.
  • Be grateful. Make sure your parents and grandparents know you love them. Send thank you notes. Count your blessings.
  • Assume the best intentions. The rest of the world isn’t out to get you, even in summer.
  • Focus on what’s good in the world. Stay informed, but maybe not by the local news or anyone who relies exclusively on shock and emotion to get their message out.

Your list might be different. The point is, Christmas isn’t just magically different than the rest of the year (although maybe there’s some of that). It’s different because we act and think differently than we do during the rest of the year. Figure out what makes it special for you and work to get more of that into your January through November.

It Is Well With My Soul

This is a favorite Christian hymn, lyrics written by Horatio Spafford in the 1870s after his 2-yr-old son died in the Great Chicago Fire, his finances fell apart, and his four daughters drowned in a shipwreck.

It has been a source of comfort for me. Chris Rice has a great version in his Hymns Project.

(By the way, the music is by Philip Bliss, the same guy who wrote Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy. Oh, and the lyrics mention Trump in the last verse.)