Almost every night my wife and I settle in with our books and read. It is something we have always done; it’s a release from the work that we do during the day. She is a tax accountant, and I am a piano teacher. Both of us find that we spend most of the day deep in thought, working at 130% capacity to do justice to our clients and students. Reading allows the brain to slip to another track.
A couple of nights ago I came across a phrase in my book that referred to the sounds and sights of war. I experienced the most incredible series of images, all in a matter of 3 seconds. The images were clear, vivid, and worthy of a Hollywood director. I provided the sound track, thank you! Below, I have written the scenario, as best I can relate it, with “flashbacks” intact.
I am on the familiar stage of Howard Auditorium at Louisiana Tech University, in Ruston Louisiana. I love performing there. It is a real concert hall, with proscenium stage, balcony and carved plaster for decoration. The piano sits midway between the two chambers of pipes for the concert organ. The curtain behind me is a deep blue, one of Tech’s colors, and to the best of my recollection, it does not sport the ugly Bulldog face of its mascot. I love looking straight ahead at the round school clock; it is reassuring to me. The clock has been there through every one of my many recitals on this state, and it has become almost a friend. The time never registers on my mind; I think it functions like the focal point that Lamaze mothers choose when they’re in labor. The clock helped me to NOT think about the extraneous.
I do hear everything that comes from the audience, but that just becomes part of my “script”. I believe it has always been important to occupy my conscious mind during a performance. One teacher I heard recently says that if we don’t occupy our conscious during performance, it will cause trouble. I keep mine busy with images that bring my music to life… for me, and I hope, for my audiences. On this wonderful Sunday afternoon, I heard a baby cry; I love that baby. I have convinced myself over the years that it was my youngest daughter, who would have been at the recital. She has never been shy about her utterances. The wonderful part is that she let out her bellow during the “dead baby” section of the Sonata I was playing.
I guess that got your attention? Yes, I had a section of this grand piece that I thought of as a cemetery, probably in Europe (France, I think) with long rows of white crosses. This was a World War I graveyard; that was a brutal war that counted many civilians among its casualties. The saddest part of my cemetery was where they buried the countless babies… the innocents that never even had a chance to object to war, or poverty or the cruel twists of fate that might have made up their lives. I’m pretty sure that Cheryl, my daughter, helped me to convey that deep despair during that performance. I did perform the Sonata of Charles Griffes again, but I never captured the emotion quite like that.
Charles Griffes was a remarkable American composer. He spent four formative years from 1903-1906 at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin. He loved Germany, and one particular German composer, Konrad Wölcke, helped Griffes through rough times after Griffes’ father died in 1905. Wölcke even loaned Griffes money to continue his studies. World War I was traumatic for Charles Griffes; he was an American patriot, but he had personal relations and friendships with Germans, and Germany, and the evils of war broke his heart. His Piano Sonata of 1918 bristles with sounds of bombs and rockets, tension and trauma, and in one particular section, the wide-open sound of still and loneliness convey to me everything about war that is both fascinating and hateful.
I have never fought in a war, but I have a somewhat personal relationship to a different war that Charles Griffes did. My father and several uncles fought in World War II. One of my uncles fought in North Africa, against Field Marshall Rommel, and another was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, and incarcerated in a Nazi prison camp. He made it out. As a result, I’ve heard enough stories to enliven my fascination. Uncle Reub gave me a Nazi armband, an insignia from a German officer’s hat, and a copy of Mein Kampf in German. I interviewed Uncle Slug about his prison camp, and wrote a paper in high school. I am possibly one of the few that read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” while still in high school… twice!
I tease people who ask about my Army experience; I tell them that I fought the Battle of Stuttgart! I did live in the Stuttgart area for almost two years. I worked on the base that Field Marshall Rommel used as his administrative headquarters. Four kilometers away was Panzer Kaserne, where Rommel’s tanks were housed. The underground tunnel between Patch Barracks and Panzer Kaserne was sealed in 1945, flooded by the British and killing all who hid in the tunnel. One night, late, as I was doing preventative maintenance in Bldg. 1 (Rommel’s living quarter, when he was at “home”) I know I saw a ghostly apparition walking down the staircase. An MP told me that I was not the first to see the ghost of Rommel’s mistress.
I really knew I was in the Battle of Stuttgart however, when I drove home one day and found a sign taped to my door. “Warnung vor schlusswaffen gebrauchen.” Loosely translated, have your weapons ready when entering. It turned out that my landlord had recently been released from a mental ward. He sometimes transported himself into an era when blackout curtains and fear dominated the town of Stuttgart. He had seen a friend of mine in army fatigues, and it triggered a little hysteria. The next morning I was very convincing in explaining to a Frau Niebergall of the US Army Housing Office that my family, with one-year-old twins in tow, would be moving to another house. The traumas of war seem to live on.
I’m once again on the stage of Howard Auditorium, this time in a recital of two-piano music; there is such a wealth in this literature, and it is too rarely touched. With twin 9 foot Steinways to bring the music to life, my partner and I opened with En blanc et noir, by Claude Debussy. Written in 1915, Debussy insisted the work was not a comment on the First World War, but since virtually all of his correspondence from this period indicates a near obsession with the subject, it’s hard to imagine this music without WWI as a backdrop. There are suggestions of bugle calls and quiet military drum rhythms. The second movement, dedicated to a French army officer that had been killed in battle is overpoweringly sad, filled with the sounds of drum beats, chimes, and out of the silence comes a powerful quote from the Lutheran hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. I can’t but help think that if that movement could bring chills and tears to the performers that day, the audience left unmoved. A war which was over before my father was born, came back to inspire me to a powerfully satisfying musical experience.
Three seconds to evoke all of this. I swear this to be true. The images and experiences of life, and those of music, seem inseparable to me. I hope they will always be thus.