Wednesday, July 31, 2013

`What an Elixer is This Sound!'

A reader writes: “Thought of you when I saw this quote from Thoreau: `When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.’” Choice Thoreau: celebrative, no axe to grind. He played the flute and often commented on his vulnerability to music. For most nineteenth-century Americans, music meant the human voice, sometimes supplemented by a church organ, piano or fiddle, or the sound of a brass band. It’s difficult to project ourselves into the age before recording technology made Bach or Sidney Bechet instantly, effortlessly listenable. Four years ago I cited the same passage shared by my reader, borrowed from Thoreau’s journal entry for Jan. 13, 1857. It begins: 

“I hear one thrumming a guitar below stairs. It reminds me of moments that I have lived. What a comment on our life is the least strain of music!” 

Think of how layered our memories are with musical associations. Lately I’ve listened to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations again. It was his recording debut in 1955 and his final recording twenty-six years later, shortly before his death. Listening again to the 1981 version triggers a dense weave of memories beginning in childhood. I attempt the mental discipline of hearing only the sound, turning off the associations, but it’s futile. In the next sentences, Thoreau’s prose gets a little fulsomely Platonic, but I’m sympathetic: 

“It lifts me up above all the dust and mire of the universe. I soar or hover with clean skirts over the field of my life. It is ever life within life, in concentric spheres.” 

Thoreau posits that his response to the guitar “advertises me that there is still some health and immortality in the springs of me.” Contrast this with a line attributed to another great American writer, Ulysses S. Grant, who sounds like his friend Mark Twain: “I know only two tunes: one of them is 'Yankee Doodle', and the other one isn’t.” Thoreau is positively rejuvenated by music: 

“What an elixir is this sound! I, who but lately came and went and lived under a dish cover, live now under the heavens. It releases me; it bursts my bonds. Almost all, perhaps all, our life is, speaking comparatively, a stereotyped despair; i.e., we never at any time realize the full grandeur of our destiny. We forever and ever and habitually underrate our fate.” 

From here, Thoreau swoons into a spiritual rhapsody, a little rarified for my taste, but his company when he’s happy, or when he’s convincing himself he ought to be happy, is always pleasant. It’s when he succumbs to “stereotyped despair,” which he generally turns into kvetching, that I leave the room. Think what Thoreau might have written and how he might have lived if he’d owned a CD player and a stack of Paul Desmond and Jimmy Rushing discs.

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