The Lark, Ascending

Jonathan Bellman

The bad news is showing up on the site. This is in honor of a truly heroic battle. Look how many months my man Jonathan faced down the Reaper.
I am writing this in early April, the waning days of the life of a friend. Jonathan Pevsner, a giant at 6’5” or so, was a voice major at UCSB when I was a piano major, and he was a warm, friendly guy that hung with the singers for the most part. Our undergraduate Medieval-Renaissance music history class made blood brothers of all of us, since we were in the library for hours every night, and Jonathan and I stayed in touch intermittently over the years that followed. After his degree, he got within one project of an engineering degree, then went to medical school, which he completed, and became an internist in central California, the Fresno-Merced area. He was also a cantor in his synagogue, which was the career of his heart and soul. Then, probably a year and a half ago, he was diagnosed with a horrible kind of lung cancer. He’s already beaten the odds for survival time, but his journal posts are heartbreaking; he sees that the cancer has riddled his entire skeleton, some days he doesn’t get up, etc. He has a lovely wife (of course), three beautiful children (of course), and it drives him crazy to have to leave them. It’s harrowing reading. Did I mention that (of course) he has never smoked?

After having delicately established, in an early communication, that Heavy Topics were off limits, I told him I’d write regularly, and that he could respond, or not, but that I wasn’t leaving unless he would tell me my letters were irritating him. I yearned for something helpful and/or intelligent to say, but I will NOT fade into a well-meaning awkward absence just because I don’t know what to say. I’ve been that route, and regretted it.

I can’t think of Jonathan without thinking of Ravel’s “Enigma Eternelle,” one of the Deux mélodies hebraïques, to which he introduced me when it was programmed on his Senior Recital. The text is Yiddish, and Ravel somehow caught the flavor exactly. I think I will only be able to hear these words, in my mind’s ear, in Jonathan’s lovely baritone:

Fregt di velt di alte casche
Tra la lalalalalala
Entfert men
Tra la lalalalalala
Un az men zugt
Tra la lalalalalala

I would translate it this way:

So, the world asks the eternal riddle
Tra la lalalalalala
So, you answer…
Tra la lalalalalala
And if you say…
Tra la lalalalalala

(“One” sounds academic; “you” seems to get it better.)

Ravel’s hands-off, tiniest-shrug-of-the-shoulders treatment is as poignant an expression of the eternal existential WHY????? as, I think, it is possible to get. And to Jonathan, from a sad, sad heart: shalom, khaver, forn gezunt. Good-by, my friend. Go well!

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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2 Responses to The Lark, Ascending

  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    I’m very sorry, Jonathan, on the loss of your friend.

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