Immediately following my seminary program, I was pastor of three small churches in for two years. The churches were located fifteen miles from the nearest village with a grocery store, about a half-hour from more substantial towns with hospitals and larger retail stores. “Why don’t you move to the country?” a visiting friend teased. I had a six-room parsonage to myself, with a pretty fence row, a silver-blue propane tank beneath which rabbits napped, a lawn large enough for two or three hours of push-mowing, tall shade trees which let through the light, and steep concrete steps where I could sit and look at my neighbor’s white-faced cattle, his pastures, the larger of the three churches (and its great old tree), and a landmark hill in the near distance. I heard birds call in the early morning and cows bawling late at night, and sometimes a coyote.
I’d say I was “fresh from seminary,” but freshness implies some sense of quality, and newly graduated seminarians (at least in my case) are fortified with excellent studies and a beginning amount of practical knowledge, but not yet the broader experience necessary to move knowledge on to the biblical gift of wisdom. What I had was a spirit of love and service and an openness to learn. I was also painfully unsure of myself, a quality I tried to put to work as empathetic leadership. Someone once said that serving God is like jumping off a cliff. You hold out your hands, knowing that God is holding them, and you jump. Perhaps you won’t know where you may come down, only that you will. I came down in a very wonderful place and, upon landing, injured myself on the second day when I cut my left thumb badly while preparing supper. I barely had furniture yet, let alone bandages, or directions to a health care center (since I should’ve had stitches). I ambled to the home of the elderly couple (church members) up the road. They’d have Band Aids, I thought. Two hours later, I walked home, bandaged and fortified with locally-grown watermelon and sherbet and two new friends. I still have the scar on my thumb, the closest thing to a stigmata I’ll ever have, and it reminds me of all those wonderful friendships I made before leaving to marry and pursue doctoral work. Some of those folks are dead now, like that couple; others still live in the area and we still keep in touch. I gained from that parish a lifelong appreciation of the laity; after doctoral work, for instance, I realized I was happier writing for church lay audiences rather than for academics, my original goal.
Most of my experiences during those two years are, because pastoral, confidential. But one aspect of my time at that parish was collecting classical recordings, especially opera. I browsed mall stores, used record shops, and mail order brochures. In Willa Cather’s story “The Wagner Matinee,” a farm lady is taken by her nephew to a Boston concert of Wagner’s music and, afterward and deeply moved, she couldn’t bear the thought of returning to her everyday rural life. I understood the feeling but since I had the benefit of recorded music, my rural life and my new passion for music enriched one another.
I had a reason for my unintentionally highbrow hobby. During my last year of seminary, I lived next door to a church organist, a good fellow more cosmopolitan than I. He disliked Italian opera, like Verdi and Rossini (he’d mockingly hum the opening piano of the Petite Messe Solennelle ), but he loved English music, Mozart, and Wagner. “Now, Stroble,” he said one day, when I wanted over to his room, “this is called the ‘Wagner chord,'” and he played the opening bars of Tristan und Isolde, turned up to Led Zeppelin level, where the themes of romantic passion and death are established in the unresolved dissonances of the music and the use of harmonic suspension. My friend (who was my best man a few years later) went on to inform me the innovativeness of this particular chord (difficult to assign to a particular key), Wagner’s advancements in tonality and chromaticism, and the way he used fragments of melody to depict psychological states and themes of an opera’s plot, so that whenever someone sings, the orchestra establishes more about them than the actual words sung. If I remember correctly, it was my friend who identified motifs from Tannhäuser and Die Walküre in the cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?”
A collector of rock and jazz albums, but untrained in music beyond childhood piano lessons and high school band, I found this all fascinating and wanted to discover more. My friend and I attended a choral concert one evening. Among the pieces was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of the Burns poem “Ca’ the Yowes.” The chorus and the ethereal young soprano came together to make the hair on my neck stand up.
While waters wimple to the sea,
While day blinks in the lift sae hie,
Till clay-cauld death sall blin’ my e’e,
Ye sall be my dearie….
From then on, I wanted to see if other kinds of classical music would do the same. I wanted to find more music that could deeply touch my heart.
While still in school, I started my “quest” by visiting the record store in a corner of Chapel Square Mall in downtown New Haven, CT (http://www.deadmalls.com/malls/chapel_square_mall.html). I’ve pleasant memories of the store where I found Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, conducted by Karajan, Don Giovanni, conducted by Karl Böhm, and also an LP of Mozart’s marches and dances, plus a record called “The Pastoral Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams,” conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Vaughan Williams’ double last name confused me and I looked for his music in the W’s. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that Mozart interested me because my favorite theologian, Karl Barth, played Mozart every day; checking out Mozart for that reason seems like such a dumb-graduate-student thing to do. My friend liked the scene “Don Giovanni, a cenar teco,” where Don Juan, confronted by the Stone Guest, is confronted with his sins, urged to repent, and is dragged to Hell. That scene was affecting when played very loudly, as my friend enjoyed doing after I brought the LPs back to the dorms.
Once graduated from seminary and established at my three-point charge, I read up on music and acquired several recordings. Some were classics of the LP era: Tristan und Isolde conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger conducted by Rudolf Kempe, Otto Klemperer’s recording of Der fliegende Holländer. I also purchased Böhm’s recording of Le Nozze di Figaro. I diverted from my friends’ tastes when I found some Verdi in used LP stores and mail order outlets: Rigoletto (with Sutherland, Pavarotti, and Milnes), Toscanini’s Falstaff, and Otello with Jon Vickers. I also bought an old set of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and, oh horrors, a used copy of the Petite Messe Solennelle, which I enjoyed. I passed over a new LP set of what later became a favorite: Puccini’s Turandot with Sutherland, Caballé, and Pavarotti. One day at the parsonage I had Marriage of Figaro turned up loud so I could listen as I raked leaves outside. The first act concluded with the aria “Non piu andrai, farfallone amoroso,” where Figaro sends the annoying Cherubino off to “victory and glory in war!’ Just then a long V of geese flew over, making their own victory sign. It was one of those wonderful little moments when happy, small things coincide unexpectedly and memorably.
Eventually I purchased (used or new) LP sets of most of Wagner’s operas, even the Furtwängler and Solti recordings of Der Ring des Nibelungen. By the end of my pastorate I’d also found discount recordings of the 1953 (but then newly released) Ring conducted by Clemens Krauss, now recognized as one of the greatest versions. Of course, the whole 16-hour drama begins with one E-flat chord, sustained over 64 bars, depicting the depths of the Rhine River, then journeys among hundreds of themes until Brunnhilde sings her long aria at the end of Götterdämmerung, throws the ring into the Rhine and leaps with her horse into Siegfried’s funeral pyre. I liked to play the whole thing over periods of days, although in my loneliness at the parsonage, I found the operas emotionally draining. I was overwhelmed by the orchestra’s depiction of the bellows and flames of Siegfried’s forge (more self consciously dramatic in the Solti recording than any other); I’d never heard such music. I was also knocked over by the the orchestral conclusion of Götterdämmerung. If I want a good cry, I just play that section, not just because of Wagner’s music but because it reminds me so strongly of this special time in my life. The famous “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Tannhäuser has nearly the same effect.
Der Gnade Heil ist dem Büsser beschieden,
er geht einst ein in der Seligen Frieden!
Vor Höll’ und Tod ist ihm nicht bang,
drum preis’ ich Gott mein Lebelang.
Halleluja in Ewigkeit!
(The grace of salvation is granted to the penitent,
who shall enter into the peace of heaven!
Hell and death cannot frighten him,
therefore will I praise God all the days of my life.
Halleluja for evermore!)
….but so does the end of Die Walküre in the Krauss recording (with Hans Hotter as Wotan). Wotan’s heartache:
Denn einer nur freie die Braut,
der freier als ich, der Gott! (For only one shall win the bride, one freer than I, the God!)
….and his threatening authority, in the closing words:
Wer meines Speeres
durchschreite das Feuer nie! (Whoever fears the tip of my spear shall never pass through the fire.)
I could list other examples.
Although I loved my work at the parish and the dear people, I disliked living alone, and I missed my seminary friends who, like me, had scattered around the country. Somehow a “journey” of musical discovery helped me deal with my loneliness. When I started dating an old friend in another town and then when we became engaged, the loneliness grew, so the music became more comforting and interesting. But I also wanted to learn; learning for its own sake was important to me then and now. Discovering new (to me) kinds of music, broadening my taste so to speak, was important as I simultaneously learned to be a good pastor and caught up on reading delayed by the busyness of my seminary program. I might have waited a few years and purchased operas on CDs, recently introduced at that time, but I liked vinyl, and still do.
I also explored Benjamin Britten’s operas, although his music had a depth beyond my abilities to understand and fully appreciate. I found Owen Wingrave, The Rape of Lucretia, Death in Venice, Albert Herring, and others. I need to revisit his music again sometime. When I saw his opera Peter Grimes in a used record store–that uninteresting, white cover of the composer-conducted 1959 recording–I snatched it up and was quite overwhelmed by the music and drama. His music didn’t quite stir me the same way until I found the War Requiem (its cover uninteresting and black) a few years later. But I did send an appreciative letter to Peter Pears who, during the last year of his life, kindly wrote back on a postcard.
On trips to visit parishioners in the hospital, I listened to the two classical stations of the area. One of those stations had a long retrospective on Glenn Gould—whom I’d never heard of—when he died. I enjoyed Karl Haas’ daily music features, “Adventures in Good Music.” I miss those programs. One evening, as I was driving after dark after a hospital visit, the “Adventures” show featured Eric Satie’s music, and Haas concluded the program with “Gymnopedie I.” I listened dreamily to the peaceful music: a piece I’d heard somewhere over the years but hadn’t known what it was. Suddenly I was frantically swerving, trying to stay on the road. A deer has strolled into my headlights. … I bumped its butt with the right fender, which may have injured it but it went off into the woods. Depressed at hurting the deer, I drove slowly home, white-knuckled, “Gymnopedie I” floating away.
I liked the Saturday broadcasts from the Met. I liked Fr. Owen Lee’s commentaries and wondered if I might ever become so knowledgeable. (The answer is “no,” but I still enjoyed his insights!) Back then I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a receiver from which I recorded some operas like Parsifal. Parisfal was fascinating to listen to. I waited for the last chord of the prelude to resolve, but next comes Gurnemanz—
He! Ho! Waldhüter ihr,
so wacht doch mindest am Morgen. (Hey! Ho! Forest guardians you, and sleeping guardians at that. At least wake up with the morning.)
—The prelude ends on a chord that does not resolve! Of course, I thought of my friend and his explanation of Wagner’s innovations in tonality. The desolate third-act prelude is, I’ve read, even more tonally innovative.
One year, the Met’s Saturday matinee broadcast was Tristan und Isolde—but it was Christmas Eve, and I couldn’t yet be with my family because I had to preach the next morning. I don’t know why I listened to the opera anyway, since I was already blue. It seems like Figaro or one of Donizetti’s comedies would’ve been a cheerier choice for Christmas Eve… but, as they say, nobody asked me about it beforehand.
I never became an opera fanatic, despite what this piece may imply. After I left the area I found the 1953 LP of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony in a used record store and realized—as I explored more of his music, several years after I’d purchased that collection of shorter pieces at Chapel Square Mall–that I’d found the composer closest to my heart. So my essay about Vaughan Williams, elsewhere in this blog, continues this modest story, as well as my amateur (the word is French for “lover of”) essays about Mozart, Verdi, and other composers.
I still love to listen to and read about opera and appreciating contemporary singers like Natalie Dessay, Anna Netrebko, Nicole Cabell, Bryn Terfel, Elīna Garanča, and others. Just this past week, during a visit to Manhattan, I walked up to Lincoln Center’s gift shop and purchased some CDs and DVDs. I found the DVD of the Julie Taymor production of The Magic Flute, which my family and I saw at the Met a few years ago. As if I needed another set of the Ring, I also purchased the widely-praised 1955 Bayreuth Ring conducted by Joseph Keilberth, recorded for the first time that year in stereo but not released until recently. As for books: some time ago I found the book The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy by Bryan Magee; if I’d had this fascinating book at my little parish, I might’ve gotten nothing else done!
Even more felicitous, my daughter is a technical theatre major and has had occasion to work for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis! This past year she worked on the productions of Eugene Onegin and the new Willy Wonka opera The Golden Ticket. Although we don’t know which productions she’ll work this coming summer the theatre is daringly staging John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer, as well as Don Giovanni, The Daughter of the Regiment, and Pelléas and Mélisande. She learns about aspects of opera far beyond my own modest home listening and theatre-going. Her former choir, the Summit Choral Society, toured Europe a few years ago, and we enjoyed visiting Bach’s Eisenach home, Schubert’s Vienna home, and Mozart’s house in Prague.
An opera book I’ve enjoyed is Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, and Koestenbaum’s interesting connections of identity, desire, and music. I realized that another aspect of my “quest” for music was the sense of place, one of my own strong sources of desire and identity. I’ve written about that sense in some of my other essays, but I should think about that more. Are there cognitive and neurological insights that link music, emotion, companionship, and the feeling of being at home? I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out–and so these thoughts are, in pale reflection of Wagner’s mastery, unresolved and developing. But I know that the music I’ve mentioned here never fails to take me back to that three point charge, that little parsonage along the state highway, way out in the country, when so many good things in my life were just beginning.
(This essay originally appeared in a different form in Springhouse magazine.)