`His music allowed me to see'
WE sat waiting for our flights in the Lima, Peru, airport. Peter and I had worked together for the summer, as volunteers building inexpensive houses in a dusty barriada. I had carried bricks, and Peter, who was blind, had twisted wire around reinforcing rods, working by the feel of his fingers. We had only an hour before our planes departed, returning us to different cities in the US. Our conversation was eclectic, touching on memories of Peru, plans for the autumn, and, as time grew shorter, on music.Skip to next paragraph
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``Do you know,'' Peter asked me, ``any pieces by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams?''
I replied no, that I had never heard the name. His mouth widened in incredulity. ``Oh, you must listen to Vaughan Williams,'' he urged. ``Find a recording of his `Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis' as soon as you return home.'' He was silent for a moment, moving his head back and forth as if remembering the melody, his cane rhythmically brushing against the airport's linoleum floor.
``Vaughan Williams was the first composer who allowed me to see,'' he said. ``When I listened to his Tallis Fantasia, I could see the English countryside in the summer -- dark blue storm clouds overhead, and wheatfields blown by the wind. No music had ever done that to me before.''
Our flights were soon announced, and we went our separate ways. Not long after arriving home, I followed Peter's advice, locating a copy of the Tallis Fantasia in a nearby record store. As I listened for the first time, I could envision the landscape my friend described, as well as gray, autumnal images. I heard notes that seemed to move fluidly from the countryside to the cathedral, then back again. The melody was exultant, grave, and restless. I played the piece over and over.
I soon found other works by Vaughan Williams -- ``The Lark Ascending,'' ``A London Symphony,'' the Fifth Symphony, ``Five Variants of `Dives and Lazarus''' -- encountering the most hauntingly beautiful music I had ever heard: graceful melodies with under-currents of longing. The passages were poignant yet unsentimental, comforting but not complacent.
Some tunes seemed to have existed in the air forever, simply caught, like fireflies, by Vaughan Williams. I learned this was not coincidence: The composer had traveled the English countryside in the early 1900s, collecting folksongs, turning the musical soul of a people to symphony.
Vaughan Williams was prodigiously inventive, writing in his life of 86 years (1872-1958) six operas, nine symphonies, and many orchestral works. Unexpectedly, I found the composer opening a gate into a garden of classical music. I had turned aside before, in favor of folk, rock, and jazz. But I began now to listen intently, first to records that promised echoes of Vaughan Williams, then with delight to classical pieces by composers whose names I had known all my life.
Perhaps I would have traversed the musical spectrum eventually, without Peter's introduction to the man who ``allowed me to see.'' But even now, 20 years after I first heard Vaughan Williams's name, there is no composer I turn to with more gratitude.
I thought of this recently as I watched a performance of ``The Lark Ascending.'' The violinist, having memorized the score, stood on stage swaying lightly with her eyes closed as she played the final, transcendent notes. In the momentary hush before the applause, I realized I never thanked Peter for the parting gift in a Peruvian airport: from a man who was blind, words that allowed me to hear. David Douglas