Life-Changing Pieces

Jonathan Bellman

I had a conversation few days ago with one of the graduate students, who had an absolutely exalted look on his face. It seems he has gotten up close and personal with the Schubert String Quintet in C Major, cannot conceive of anything so wonderful, etc. etc. Another student has just discovered the Schubert Octet, with a similar reaction.

Experiences of this kind—both encountering such music and laying it on other people—must surely rank high on the list of reasons Why We Do What We Do. The fact is that our lives will never ever be the same after after such encounters. The memories of all of the pieces that had the same effect on me remain vivid, with perhaps the most all-consuming being the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 (the solos of which I rehearsed with the singers over the course of an entire year): each successive movement did something I found utterly revelatory, and as harpsichord continuo I sat in the middle of the ensemble, in front of the two choirs, with all the Monteverdian polyphony flowing by me. Another work that instantly became part of my cell structure was Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, as Apollonian, probably, as it is possible for music to be. (A memorable line from the analysis by Sir Donald Francis Tovey: “The music dies away in that upper ether which it has never left.”) Shorter pieces, too: an F Major Pastorale/sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, Brahms’s songs “Sonntag” and “Von ewiger Liebe.” Did I mention Brahms’s First Symphony? At the piano, numerous other pieces: Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata, the Bach-Busoni Chaconne… I repeatedly wondered—no lie—how I had managed to live without being aware of this or that piece. Of course, it sounds silly and trivial. I suspect, though, that this is as close to a universal experience among serious music students as there is. Once one has stood in that place, one really does not want to live any other way.

Another of our students is having a similar experience with Così fan tutte; why is ensemble X not as celebrated as ensemble Y from Figaro… They stay after seminars or stop me in the halls and …well, witness to me about these pieces. Pieces on my syllabus, or that I may have recommended, or that I may not have recommended. These are such joyful conversations, and from the middle-aged academic’s perspective they do truly take years off one’s life to participate in them. The price you pay, of course, is the farewells, every year—a steep price, but worth it. I don’t think many other careers have moments like this. And I haven’t even mentioned the satisfaction found in connection with one’s own research discoveries and realizations.

To those of you students struggling through impossible semesters, doctoral candidates being crucified on the job market, or nervous young’un academics looking apprehensively at the tenure process, Coraggio! This is the right path.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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1 Response to Life-Changing Pieces

  1. Charles Freeman says:

    How true, how true indeed. In just the past week I’ve encountered students having those epiphanistic(?) moments with a Barbara Strozzi duet, an Arvo Part choral piece (sorry for the missing umlaut), the Kyrie from Dufay’s “L’homme arme” mass and, just this morning, Duke Ellington’s first Sacred Concert. Three of those pieces, one might note, were straight-up anthology examples, the routine kind of pieces we might tend to sniff at or dismiss. One never knows where those elevating moments are going to come from.
    For myself, I got goosebumps just reading the post and remembering those moments with the “Denn alles Fleisch” movement from the Brahms Requiem, Coltrane’s _A Love Supreme_, the Purcell anthem “Hear my prayer,” the Shostakovich Eighth Quartet…ooh, I’m getting goosebumps again typing this.
    And you are so right; when you’ve known that kind of moment, what else can you do?

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