The Living and the Dead: Winter, New Jersey and Joyce

During a recent trip on a NJ Transit train somewhere outside of Hackensack, the train paused for five minutes alongside a cemetery.  James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” came to mind before I even took this picture:

It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.

It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones,  on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.

From the end of “The Dead“:

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.


This story has been on my mind ever since June 2014 when WNYC’s Greene Space (with the Irish Arts Center) in New York produced Arthur Yorinks‘ audio play Dubliners: A Quartet.  I had a small part in the chorus (thanks to the Chorale‘s Ed Barnes who arranged a number of Irish hymns and folk songs and directed the musicians), so for two nights at the end of June I spent four hours listening to (and singing for) four of the Dubliners tales brought to life for the radio recording.  No costumes, no sets, just the actors’ voices and Joyce’s words.  The poetry of Joyce’s prose is no secret to anyone who has read his work, and neither is the musicality of his phrasing.  The surprise for me was how these stories — “Araby,” “Eveline,” “Clay,” and “The Dead” — which had been familiar to me for twenty years took on a fresh new form, and all these months later I still hear the stories in my head. They’re nagging me to find a way to work them into my curriculum.


The students in my English class have just finished discussing Huxley’s Brave New World.  One of the major questions that book asks is whether it’s nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune if by doing so you’ll lead a rich, if emotionally turbulent, life; or, would it be better if we could all live an anaesthetized existence whereby everyone is content with their lot in society at the cost of the desires, dreams and emotions that make each of us individuals.  Through the character of John, the Shakespeare-quoting “Savage,” Huxley clearly argues for the former when he has John say, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”  My students almost unanimously agreed with him, as do I, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to John’s foil, Mustapha Mond, when he tells John that his choice to keep his humanity means accepting a world of pain: with our ability to love comes our ability to betray; with the freedom of expression comes the awkwardness of not knowing what to say; with the acceptance of heartache in theory comes the inability to know how to process heartache in reality.

So we’ll follow up thematically with two short stories that illustrate this tragic beauty of John’s (and our own) choice to be human: Jhumpa Lahiri‘s “A Temporary Matter” and — you guessed it — Joyce’s “The Dead.”  I’m looking forward to showing my students the video from the performance at the Greene Space.  I’m not going to tell them that I’m in it — let’s see if anyone notices… — but for those of you not in the class, you can spy me towards the end, around 1:10:35.

The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Verdi’s Requiem

“I have a good friend in the East, who comes to my shows and says, you sing a lot about the past, you can’t live in the past, you know. I say to him, I can go outside and pick up a rock that’s older than the oldest song you know,  and bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn’t go anywhere, did it? It’s right here, right now.  I always thought that anybody who told me I couldn’t live in the past was trying to get me to forget something that if I remembered it it would get them in serious trouble.”  ~Utah Phillips

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

22 May 1874, Milan.  Verdi conducts the premiere of the Requiem Mass he wrote for Alessandro Manzoni, the beloved novelist.  Manzoni wrote the novel The Betrothed that stands out as one of the great works of world literature and is credited with helping to solidify structures of modern Italian language.  Verdi admired him greatly and took a movement from an unfinished Requiem for Rossini — the “Libera me” — and created what would become one of the most loved, most famous choral works of all time.  It premiered in the cathedral in Milan; I was at the cathedral almost 125 years later to the day, but I can’t say that I was able to imagine the Requiem being performed there: I was wearing shorts and they wouldn’t let me inside. So I walked around the perimeter admiring the hundreds of chiseled saints that cling to its walls like barnacles.  I imagine those stony martyrs and mystics were pleased with what they heard on that day 125 years before: the work is so dramatic it’s hardly ever been used for liturgical purposes since its premiere, but saints are always unconventional and pretty dramatic themselves. In fact, if Wikipedia is to be believed, the work went nearly unperformed for a number of decades until it gained popularity in the 1930s — a popularity it has held ever since.


Rafael Schächter (1905-1945)

Rafael Schächter (1905-1945)

30 November 1941, Terezin/Theresienstadt Concentration Camp.  Rafael Schächter, a Jewish Czechoslovak musician and conductor, is imprisoned in the concentration camp.  Among the possessions he was allowed to keep with him were several musical scores, including Verdi’s Requiem.  There was a smuggled piano in the barracks, and playing it helped him to alleviate some of the pain.  Could it help others, too?  It did.  He organized his fellow prisoners into a choir, rehearsing them in the evenings after long days of useless toil.  With only a single score, he taught everyone their parts, which they memorized.  The Nazi leadership gave them permission to hold concerts — fully realized operas — which were not only highly acclaimed, they earned the choir members clemency for a time.  With his place in the camp somewhat secure, he decided to perform Verdi’s Requiem both to inspire his fellow inmates and to deliver a subtle message to the Nazis: You’d better fear Judgement Day, because your evil surpasses all.  Week by week, his choir diminished, whether through death or deportation, so that the piece became a Requiem that was by the Jews, but for them as well.  The work was such a success, ironically, that when the Red Cross and world leaders asked to see what life in a concentration camp was like, they were directed to Theresienstadt where they witnessed children eating ice cream and an incredibly fine choir singing Verdi.  Little did they know that the original choir had dwindled from 200 members down to 60.

Hangar 11, Tel Aviv. Our stage for the Requiem.

Hangar 11, Tel Aviv. Our stage for the Requiem.

18 July 2012, Tel Aviv.  We awoke that morning to news that a bus transporting Israeli tourists from the airport in Burgas, Bulgaria, had been attacked by a suicide bomber, killing five Israelis and the Bulgarian bus driver, and injuring thirty-two others.  That night we (The Collegiate Chorale) performed Verdi’s Requiem in a repurposed airplane hangar along the coast in Tel Aviv in an artsy part of town.  It was my first time ever performing the Requiem, and we were conducted by Maestro Riccardo Muti, one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Verdi’s music.  I’m told that his mentor had a mentor whose mentor was Verdi, so in terms of the transfer of musical knowledge and genius, he’s kind of like Verdi’s great-grandson.  The manager of the Israel Philharmonic announced to the audience that the concert would be dedicated to those killed in the morning’s attack — respectful yet solemn applause. — and then we started to sing.  A older woman in the third row began to cry as soon as the music started, and I noticed a few others followed suit.  I looked at the woman for the duration of the entire concert; she never stopped crying.  I sang to her the whole time.  When we finished and walked back to our own buses, none of the singers spoke to one another, which was highly unusual.  It was clear to all of us, I think, that we hadn’t just performed a beautiful concert: we actually sang the Requiem as a Requiem, and it was a deep, powerful experience.

Maestro Murray Sidlin

Maestro Murray Sidlin

2006, Terezin.  Conductor Murray Sidlin assembles a choir at Terezin in the dilapidated hall of the concentration camp to commemorate the performance of the Requiem the prisoners gave for the international community.  He’d learned of the historical concert conducted by Schächter and was fascinated by the fact that such an Italian Catholic piece should resonate so deeply with the Jewish prisoners.  He interviewed survivors who had performed at that concert and they told him how the music gave them hope and courage, how simply rehearsing gave them something to look forward to in a place where everything around them reeked of death, oppression and misery.  In this commemorative performance the piece is performed with full orchestration, but there are moments when the orchestra drops out to allow the piano to play all the parts as it did for the entire work when Schächter’s choir performed it — as the survivors who attended as audience members could attest.  Sidlin would go on to establish the Defiant Requiem Foundation which would produce the concert in this way — reminiscent of Terezin — around the world.

9 March 2015, New York City.   I’ll be singing the Requiem for the second time, again with the Collegiate Chorale, but this time at Avery Fisher Hall and with Murray Sidlin conducting.  We’ll perform it as his orchestration of Schächter’s Defiant Requiem, not as the traditional Requiem that you may know (not that it’s so different musically, just a few poignant reorchestrations as mentioned above).  As we’ve rehearsed it these past few weeks, I keep thinking back to those performances in Israel and that woman with the tears.  I can still see her face, every detail of it.  I wonder why it should be that, for me, this piece — so utterly Catholic — should be so completely associated with Judaism.  Every time I will have performed it, it somehow ends up addressing anti-Semitism and is a direct response to cruelty, injustice and terrorism directed towards the Jews.  But then I read the news, and I cease to wonder why.  Anti-Semitism is alive and well, along with many of the other types of hatred that have been with us for so long.

There is something redemptive about Verdi’s Requiem.  It captures the fear of dying, the fury of Judgement Day, the impassioned pleas for salvation, both loudly insistent and quietly sincere.  You don’t have to practice any particular religion to feel the sway of its power; by the end you’re simply in awe of its enormous beauty.  Which doesn’t make it an antidote for evil — it obviously didn’t cause the Nazis to have a change of heart.  But it does provide a kind of sanctuary, as if God, in response to our singing “salva me fons pietatis” — Save me, fount of pity! — saves us with the Requiem itself.  He says, “Here, there’s a Requiem concert in March; just hang on to this.  I know you can’t comprehend all the wickedness you see around you in the world, but that’s okay.  Just hang on.”  And we do.  The piece is 140 years old, but still feels relevant and fresh

The past didn’t go anywhere, did it?

Et lux perpetua luceat eis.  


If you’d like to know more about the Defiant Requiem, click here to watch the documentary film and learn more.

And if you’d like tickets to hear us perform the Requiem in March, click here.

Alexander Hamilton: the Man, the Book, the Musical

In 2012 I was sitting on the beach in Tel Aviv with two friends from the Collegiate Chorale.  We performed with the Israel Philharmonic for three weeks that summer, and on this evening early in the tour the three of us were drinking wine at one of the open air bars scattered along the coast and talking about…(wait for it…)…Alexander Hamilton.  One of my compatriots had recently finished the Ron Chernow biography and was clearly excited to share what she’d learned.  She told us of his exploits with a beaming air, as if he were her own son.  Hamilton, she said, was far and away her favorite Founding Father.

This struck me for two reasons.  First, my friend is Syrian by birth, educated in Europe, now an American, and she is so passionate about history that she has a favorite Founding Father.  Which prompted my second thought: my DNA arrived on American soil in the mid-1600s, long before Hamilton & Co. were even born, and yet I’d taken their contributions for granted.  I know that’s common: when we study history in schools, everything that happened in the past feels like a foregone conclusion.  It’s only as an adult that I began to realize that none of it has ever been preordained and that the present could have been very different.  Even so, I have to admit I was a little bit ashamed for not having a favorite Founding Father myself, especially considering I grew up in Cincinnati, which is in Hamilton County, which is named for that same Hamilton (a fact I didn’t realize until I read the biography; no one ever told me and I never thought to ask).  In that moment, in Tel Aviv, it seemed as though a fave Founder was something one ought to have.

Hamilton's grave at Trinity Church in the Financial District in NYC.  I always make a point of visiting him when I'm in the area.

Hamilton’s grave at Trinity Church in the Financial District in NYC. I always make a point of visiting him when I’m in the area.

Naturally, then, I started reading the book as soon as I got home from the trip.  It was immediately clear why she’d been so drawn to him.  His biography is like something out of Dickens: a ragamuffin West Indian kid grows up on the wrong end of town with a cast of colorful characters, moves forward in life by impressing the right people with his wit and scrappy intelligence, makes his way to New York to study, finds himself hobnobbing with the elite, eventually becomes Washington’s most trusted aide.  He also happens to be the father of modern finance and was one of the very first prominent abolitionists.  And all of this is only the tip-of-the-tip of the iceberg.

And now, two centuries after his death from dueling Vice President Aaron Burr, he’s one of the hottest characters on Broadway. Since he’s now my favorite Founding Father, too, I was both shocked and excited to read about Hamilton the musical.  Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of In the Heights, was also moved and impressed by the Chernow biography and turned Hamilton’s story into a hit show that’s got both Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd-Webber singing its praises.  A quick search turned up this fantastic video from a performance by Miranda at the White House in 2009.  No doubt the piece he performs has gone through many changes before finally making it to New York, but if the show in its current form is anything like this recording then my guess is that Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber weren’t just being nice.  It’s sold out through April, but I’m going to do my best to get $20 tickets in the lottery.  I’ll report back if that actually happens.

In the meantime…

(ps: Who is your favorite Founding Father?)

Across the White

(This was an inaugural post for a music blog that never quite got off the ground.  I’m reposting it here because this site will also discuss music, especially in conjunction with history and literature, but also for its own sake.  Full disclaimer: I sing with The Collegiate Chorale here in New York, and because I have such a deep respect and love for the group and what we do, you can expect to see proud promotion of our concerts and projects when appropriate.)
Everyone Sang
by Siegfried Sassoon

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchard and dark-green fields; on; on; and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted,
And beauty came like the setting sun.
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O but every one
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing
will never be done.

from Verdi's Requiem

I am no musicologist.  I’m not even a very learned musician.  I can tell you the difference between a third and a fifth on paper, but I can’t hear the difference in sound immediately.  And yet, despite this lack of a sophisticated ear, I’ve sung with choirs for most of my life and it has been one of my chiefest joys.  When I sing, when I throw my voice in with all the others to transform black dots on a white page into a stirring harmony, I am more present than at just about any other time.  My mind can’t wander off the page because it would ruin everything, so I’m very focused and my cares, be they positive or negative, have no bearing on me in that moment.  My concern, rather, shifts in an attempt to understand the world of the piece we inhabit and to place my voice in that world exactly where it needs to be.  Sometimes this process can open me up to curious insights.  Once in awhile, singing is even revelatory.

Because much of what we sing was written by composers who died long ago, every performance is an exercise in time travel.  For the duration of the piece, we bring something back — usually something truly beautiful — from a bygone era.  In order to best perform it, however, or to benefit the most from each work’s richness, a hefty amount of understanding is required.  Every conductor I’ve ever worked with has been a font of information and anecdotal trivia which they share in order to finesse the shape of our sound (or to simply entertain us).  As different as they’ve been in personality, they speak of every composer like an old friend and bring him or her into the room, almost as a consultant.  I love this about singing.  I love the time travel and the sense that the past didn’t go anywhere because it’s here, right now.  And you can hear it.  Through us.