When grief becomes a beautiful memory

Wait till next year!  I grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers and their endless quest to beat the New York Yankees in the World Series.  Well, the Phillies made it to the World Series this year, but weren’t quite able to beat the Houston Astros, much to the glee of my Texas offspring.  The Phillies are still a great team.  Wait till next year!  Brooklyn finally won the series in 1955.

As I wrote earlier, having the Phillies in the playoffs brought back memories of the time that Laura was ill with brain cancer.  Memories of hard times, but remembered easefully.  Last year I compared my easeful reaction to the closure of Barnegat Light House to the vortex reaction I had when I saw the devastation that Hurricane Sandy did to Spring Lake.  With the passing of 12 years since Laura died, I’ve been going through the transition that I saw had occurred with my dearly loved grandfather when I asked the question “When does grief become memory?”

Today I realized how profoundly my grief has become more easeful, and why.  Early on in my mourning for Laura I became fixated on Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice, particularly the aria “Che faro senza Euridice?”  What will I do without Eurydice?  Without Laura?  I’ve done at least nine posts around the Orpheus and Eurydice theme.

This afternoon I went to hear the countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen in concert with the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra.  The music in the program from Purcell, Handel, and Vivaldi was a joy.  The piece written by their composer in residence Evan Williams gave a delightful modern twist to 17th and 18th century themes.  I cannot add much to all the encomiums that have been showered on Cohen’s singing.  It’s powerfully beautiful.

So much so that I smiled through his performance of Orfeo’s aria, instead of my usual tears.  (This aria is not among his pieces on YouTube, but it can be found on Spotify.)  I realized later that my joyful reaction came from just paying attention to the beauty of the music.  I had stopped thinking of me, or as Orfeo repeats “mio ben,” what was mine.

In his introduction to this 18th century “hit,” the conductor Geoffrey McDonald alluded to how the music helps in this process.  It takes us away from Orfeo’s pain even as he cries out in anguish.  McDonald said that Gluck created this paradox by writing such a “sad” song in a major key.  McDonald did not have time to elaborate, but the opera guide tells us that

Gluck’s choice of key was deliberate. The mourning was to be achieved with the simplicity of the aria and the orchestral accompaniment, only briefly turning to the minor key. Contrary to opera seria conventions, the reformist Gluck wanted to eliminate all artificial ornamentation of the singers and deliberately dispensed with ornamentation.

If you compare the pure directness of Cohen’s singing with the dynamics of Kathleen Ferrier, you can hear the outer limits of this tension between simplicity and doing the the job Gluck gives the singer here.  As Susan Rutherford points out in her essay on Ferrier’s different performances,

This, then, is an aria in which the composer acknowledges that meaning is constructed almost entirely by the singer’s capacity to imbue the music with a lacerating emotional intensity.  

She goes on to quote the great composer Verdi who argued that at times like this “Music is splendidly able to … say two things at once.”


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