On the last day of school I worked again with the Ukrainian violinist and finally heard her play. The special-education room was noisier than usual, the kids excited or confused by the coming of vacation, the end of one routine and the start of another. Teachers packed books and papers and stripped posters off the walls. A girl sat in the corner with an alarm clock/radio pressed against her ear, listening to “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)?” by Junior Walker & the All Stars. The violinist – a stocky, competent-looking woman, shorter than some of the students -- took her instrument from its case and tuned it. Because some of the kids were graduating her first number was Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.”
Most of the kids, who up till then had been ignoring her, began clapping, yelling and laughing. She smiled but otherwise ignored them and moved seamlessly from song to song: “Edelweiss,” “If You’re Happy and you Know It,” “Amazing Grace,” “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “Rockabye, Baby.” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Sunrise, Sunset.” Her playing was crisp and confident. I requested “Ashokan Farewell” but she didn’t know it, and instead leaped into a vigorous “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.”
Music organizes people, for good or ill. Most of us can’t ignore it. When I’m in the presence of a proficient musician, particularly in an informal setting, I feel excited yet calm – “mindful” is the word that comes to mind. When she played the Mozart, I felt a cool breeze, a morning in October, in my consciousness (a sensation I’ve also known from less licit stimulants). Edgar Bowers said his heroes were Mozart, Pasteur and Valery. His devotion to music was absolute and he liked to claim no music worth listening to was composed after Haydn. His first book, The Form of Loss (1956), includes “From J. Haydn to Constanze Mozart (1791).” It’s written in the form of a verse letter from Haydn to the composer’s widow. Here is one of its four stanzas:
“The mind of most of us is trivial;
The heart is moved too quickly and too much.
He thought each movement that was animal,
And senses were the mind’s continual search
To find the perfect note, emotional
And mental, each the other one’s reproach.”
Listening to the violinist play Mozart in the company of 20 damaged children left my mind feeling trivial and exalted.
(Go here to read “Intelligence perfecting the mute keys: Edgar Bowers and Music,” a remembrance by Kevin Smith which includes the complete text of the poem.)