Melodies to Link the Generations
AUGUST 1990. Johann Sebastian Bach's music fills the church. Our son Christopher is playing the organ as a tribute to his grandfather, who would have been 100 years old this year. We the audience, 60 people from Germany, France, Switzerland, England, and the United States, related to my father by blood or marriage, have been celebrating his life during the past five days in the family's place of origin, Darmstadt, Germany. Here in St. Ludwig's church, the ebb and flow of polyphonic sound carries at least
three of us back into the past. My two brothers and I, in or near our 70s, recall how our father, Vatti, offered us the gift of music. * * * *
Our family emigrated from Germany to settle in the US in 1923 when Vatti began work there as an architect. My memory draws a clear picture of the living room in our new house. Again I stand in the archway leading from the hall and see a large window in the wall on the left, providing a glimpse of the front porch with its swing and trellised morning glories. The other, smaller window, in the far corner of the long wall opposite, illumines Mutti's graceful cherrywood desk. A table with hand-embroidered clo th stands in the middle of the room: Here Vatti read and Mutti darned our socks. An archway in the wall on the right leads into the dining room.
Most prominent in the living room was the upright piano against the long wall. Our mother, Mutti, brother Fritz, baby Paul, and I gathered several times a week by the piano to sing folk songs while Vatti accompanied us. At Christmastime we sang carols almost every night.
A Schifferlied, sailor's song, expressed Vatti's nostalgia in our first expatriate years. Opposite the page with notes and text, an illustration showed a homesick sailor leaning against the rail in the stern of a ship as he gazes across the ocean. "Would that I were still in my native land" ends the song. I can still sing it in German.
From the 1920s, another picture flashes back, of our first radio. It was a crystal set with a horn like a curved funnel; I see Vatti, face radiant, wearing earphones. At the same time, the sight scared me so badly I had nightmares of a horn pursuing me as I ran to escape. It terrified me that Vatti listened to sounds we couldn't hear; and he could not hear us.
Later we acquired a radio all of us listened to. A two-part Motorola, speaker console sporting cut-velvet flowers, now sat in the living room of our second house. This radio and the piano were our family's home entertainment center in the 1930s. Mutti, sensitive to the needs of the teenagers, installed a wind-up Victrola on the sun porch, along with our dance records. Double doors sealed the sun porch off from the living room. Vatti would have no truck with jazz.
The Motorola radio brought us Arturo Toscanini conducting the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra on memorable Sunday afternoons in the early 1930s. Vatti and I used to sit at the living-room table, a copy of the score of a particular Sunday's major work in front of us. He pointed the way so that we saw what we were hearing. At first I got very lost as page after page filled with tiny notes turned before my eyes. Gradually, repeated practice enabled me to follow the principal melodic line, usually t he violins. Familiarity with a work brought appreciation of lovely parts in other voices, like the flutes. It helped that the flutes were scored at the top of the page, superseded by piccolos when there were some. Sometimes Vatti let me turn the pages. What a feeling of accomplishment, to get lost and then find the theme later on! What shame, to wait cravenly for the repeat to catch up - and such frustration when Toscanini didn't take a repeat!
Now I can go into any library that carries symphonic scores and enjoy a concert of familiar music. Vatti's inestimable gift lets me be independent of concert halls, electronic gadgets, and instruments - and the neighbors can't complain. It's all in my head....
Both Mutti and Vatti encouraged us to make music. In my case that meant piano lessons. Fritz learned to play the flute, and Paul - when he was big enough - the cello. Vatti found or arranged works we played together. Sometimes he joined in - badly - with a second flute. Mutti sat nearby knitting or crocheting. Although she had played piano duets with Vatti during their courtship, she now claimed that someone had to serve as audience. I never heard her play; she did, however, participate in choral singing .
Paul gave up the cello many years ago. He likes to whistle symphonic themes as he walks the dog. Fritz still plays flute. I no longer play the piano, but I learned to play a recorder. This way, Fritz and I still make music together when we visit.
For himself, Vatti reserved a kind of musical exploration that was difficult to live with. As a boy he had to take piano lessons. After about two years, he tired of the effort and persuaded his parents to let him stop. When he was older and really drawn to music, he played on his own without further recourse to formal training. The music that drew him most powerfully came from Bach. I remember myself at age 12, standing in our garden one afternoon in spring. Music floated through the open window. Vatti w as playing "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden" ("Oh Bleeding Head Sore Wounded"), the central chorale from the "Passion According to St. Matthew." It moved me deeply - the first Bach music that did. Vatti's previous efforts to make Bach accessible to me had been fruitless.
Vatti also loved Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier," a work requiring much more skill than chorales do. How well I recall those Saturdays when we endured Vatti's stumbling efforts to cope with the slow fugues. "You always make the same mistakes," Mutti implored, the frown between her eyebrows deepening. "Why don't you practice those parts until you know them?" Normally the most accommodating of men, Vatti paid no heed. He was not learning to play the piano, he was savoring music at its best, hearing it in hi s head the way it was supposed to sound. At such times, his golden hair seemed to rise straight up from the scalp.
Haltingly performed it may have been; nevertheless, this demanding music became for me a benchmark of the art. My parents provided a last spate of piano lessons as a college graduation present. I managed to get through one of the simpler fugues with reasonable skill. In later years, whenever there was a piano nearby, I headed for it to try out my own favorites from the "Well-Tempered Clavier."
We children left home for careers and marriage. Our parents moved to an apartment in a another city, giving their piano away to a young friend. A record player took its place. Whenever I visited, we listened to classical records. Vatti, ever the teacher, signaled the imminence of good parts by raising his right forefinger, eyes shining as he nodded at me to pay attention. As time went on, Mutti joined us only to hear Bach. To her all other music sounded either frivolous or bombastic.
Near the end of their lives, when Mutti was in the hospital, Vatti came to stay with my family for a while. He was not well that spring, but the golden showers of forsythia and greening trees moved the artist in him to exclaim, "It's so beautiful now! It makes you want to live to 200 and see it over and over..." On Good Friday, Leonard Bernstein conducted the "Passion According to St. Matthew" on television. Side by side on the sofa, Vatti and I listened together for the last time to music we loved. At o ne point he clutched my hand. "Wir setzen uns mit Tranen nieder," sang the chorus at the end, describing us exactly: sitting there weeping.
WE had chosen St. Ludwig's for our family reunion concert because it had been built by an ancestor five generations back. One of Darmstadt's landmarks, its pale-green bubble of a cupola seems to float atop the city's skyline. Also, at the time our son Christopher still served as organist in a Geneva church, making it easier to gain permission for him to play St. Ludwig's organ.
Aware of his grandfather's feeling about the "Well-Tempered Clavier," Chris chose a fugue from the first book. Five voices meander through this fugue in C-sharp minor, rife with double sharps and unexpected harmonic progressions. It had often set our teeth on edge long ago. For good measure Chris added the prelude. He practiced both pieces in the weeks before the reunion. Other family members grafted their musical skills onto the program. After one short rehearsal in St. Ludwig's, seven of us - including
Fritz and me - offered a 50-minute concert to the family.
Bach's "Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp Minor" came at the end. Chris introduced it as having been deeply meaningful to his grandfather. I stole away from the organ loft to listen downstairs. Vatti's grandson had done his homework. The thrilling polyphonic strands moved along their appointed round toward ultimate harmony, a major chord that seemed to rise before it ebbed, as though drawn toward the luminous dome above.