What a responsibility! What a gift!
SOME years ago a world-renowned Dutch organmaker was engaged to build a pipe organ appropriate to the size and beauty of the lovely Gothic chapel on the Duke University campus in Durham, N.C. There were many tales about the grand scale on which this project was undertaken. One had it that this master craftsman had stepped out into the empty nave of the chapel before accepting the commission, clapped his hands, listened to the reverberation, and said imperiously, ``This will not do!'' So the trustees applied a hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars treatment to the soaring limestone walls to make sure that the acoustics met the exacting specifications of this great artist. Just before the dedicatory concert was to take place, I happened to be on the Duke campus, working on some genealogical research in the fine library. As is my wont, I ran out of steam for such endeavors after a few hours and needed a break. So I wandered over to the chapel to see how things were coming along. I went in and discovered that the organist was practicing right then, to my great delight. This organ is on the west wall, just above the entrance, where a rose window might be, and the organist sits up there with it, just below the big pipes. It is a big blue-and-gold affair. Some say it is too gaudy, much like a huge steam calliope. But there is no arguing with it for its ability to produce the desired product: great music, in the sense of both scale and quality.
The door to the little stairway up to the clerestory (the passageway that runs along beneath the nave's stained glass windows) was open, so I tiptoed up to get a better view of the proceedings. As I came out onto the walkway, I found that I could look right over the organist's shoulder, so to speak, a really perfect vantage point. He was sitting there, with his earplugs in place, his faithful page-turner at his side, unloosing grand waves of sound into the air. I was the only witness, it seemed.
As I stood there, drinking it all in with immense pleasure, I was suddenly struck by this peculiar feeling. It seemed to me that I was standing at a remarkable place, a virtual focus of history. It occurred that this very moment, this place in time and space, had been prepared for by thousands of men and women who had preceded us. They had done the work that made this moment possible. Not only the great masters of music, like Bach and Widor, though obviously they were supremely important. But all those uncounted artisans whose skills of observation and craftsmanship led from the primitive pipes-of-Pan to those huge metal pipes; men and women who had discovered the arts of metallurgy which made it possible to make the pipes; the clever engineers who discovered the countless tricks of leverage and sliding valves in the actions of the keys and stops. The contributions of these people have gone virtually unnoticed, and yet without the on-the-spot discoveries, the ``I see an easier way to do that,'' the attentive response to a musician's expression of need, this great instrument would not be here today.
Not only that: What about all those who had contributed to the body of music that led from the tunes played on those Pan-pipes to these amazingly complex toccatas and fugues? And again, it's not only the musicians themselves but the patrons, both great and small, the listeners who supported the growth of these beautiful arts. Which brings us to the role of the church in Western music: Where would our cultural lives be today without the inspiration over the ages of the religious core of men's lives? When you begin to think about it, it is hard to exempt anyone from having made a contribution to this very moment. All that went before has made a difference! And it was all focused on the hands and mind of that organist sitting above the empty chapel in that small Southern city. What an opportunity he had! What a gift! What a responsibility!
That moment stayed with me, you may be sure. And this summer the feeling came back, though in a different way. This time it was the wedding of a favorite niece on the shore of Lake Tahoe. A more beautiful locale or sweeter occasion can scarcely be imagined. Friends of the bride and groom had gathered from across the country to be a part of this joining-together. And family friends, young and old, were there to celebrate.
As an uncle I was asked to offer a toast to the wedding couple. Thinking of appropriate words for such an event, again I felt that this moment was the focus of history. In a restricted family sense, the mothers and fathers of the bride and groom had spent the preceding 20 years before that preparing them . . . and so on back through time. Here, in a very real sense, all Western civilization was coming together. All the hopes and fears, the plans for betterment of the next generation, were being placed on the line today. Even families totally unrelated, except through a common humanity, had contributed, as they had struggled to develop a sense of values and then to live those commitments. Every failure and every success has contributed to our common understanding of who we are, even if we don't personally recognize it. And at this very moment, civilization's accumulated baggage was being placed at these young people's doorstep as an offering.
``Take of it what you can. It's yours if you want it. Travel light, or struggle to carry it along. It represents what we have: ourselves, our loves, our fears, our ideals. Take it!''
And there was a very real feeling of urgent hope, of opening-up of self to share the very best, somehow to make sure that the gift was firmly planted in their lives.
Very much like the earlier occasion with the organist, these two young people were the recipients of great responsibilities. They hadn't asked for them, but they got them anyway. And yet the feeling that afternoon among the guests was that these two gentle, loving, concerned human beings would do very well at choosing only the best from that unsorted collection of humanity's gifts -- and pass them on to their successors.