November 20, 2014 2 Comments
I have written before I think of the wonderful people who have appeared at certain times in my life to show me little wondrous corners of life and point me in the right direction. Today, I write about two more, college professors, as it turns out, one of whom helped me hear a familiar piece of music as if for the first time.
Back in high school, I had bought a collection of all six Brandenburg concerti conducted by Pablo Casals, but I had not paid that much attention to the 6th until a professor of genetics used it to illustrate a point for us. (Please see my article after the description of the 6th below.)
One of the remarkable things about this concerto is that Bach omitted the violins entirely. Instead Bach gives melody to the violas and cellos, which creates a rich, mature and stately feeling. To me it brings to mind a carriage trundling along the English country side in the lengthening shadows of a long summer sunset. For the second movement, Bach removes all accompanying instruments and the cellos and violas play a moving, poignant duet that climbs and climbs before resolving and then lovingly recedes leaving an afterglow of tenderness. The final movement is the a syncopated gigue which trips along, and gives me the happy feeling of a peal of joyous church bells at Christmas.
1976: A Time of Seeing Things Anew
In November of 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected president. Not only had I voted in my first presidential election, but my candidate had one. That creep Nixon and his dolt of a vice president were gone. What more could I want?
I would like to say that the experience turned me into a political activist. That I envisioned myself one day becoming president. After all, if a peanut farmer from Georgia with a populist message could get elected, then I could, too. He started out on the school board, for God’s sake. This could have been a defining moment for me-a turning point in my career. I could have set my course for the White House. But as was the case at many pivotal points in my life, when I stepped up to the plate, I could not see beyond the end of my bat. In fact, most of the time, I didn’t even see myself as a player in the game.
Like many people who grew up at the tail end of the 1960s, I really had no clue of what I wanted to do with my life except to avoid selling out. At the same time I was a kind of dilettante and loved studying new things. Every semester I seemed to take a new language–Latin, Spanish, German and Italian. For me studying a language was kind of like doing a crossword puzzle, working out how the pieces fit together and what the message was. I could sit and translate for hours, but I was too timid to speak.
This brings me to an odd contradiction in my life–I have always done and studied just about anything I wanted, but I never felt completely in control of my destiny. How does a person get that way? Over the years I have met scores of goal-directed people who became lawyers, doctors, artists, and professors. I just couldn’t find my niche and got bored once I hit a certain level of understanding.
Yet I had dreams. I wanted to be a doctor, but I didn’t think I could get accepted to medical school so I didn’t even try. I wanted to be an artist, but would not take art classes, thinking that I had to have a natural talent for it like my high school friends Kerry and Jayne. I wanted to be a musician, but knew that I was too old to become famous at it and so abandoned it after taking one semester of piano. I wanted to be a writer, and chose as my model James Joyce, whom I knew I could never imitate–I never studied Greek!
This brings me to the other paradox of my life. I wanted instant success in the things that I wanted to do, but I ignored and failed to build on the natural abilities I had. How did I manage never to get good career advice? I’ve since come to learn that anything you want to do well takes time and over the years I have been working on writing and have been satisfied with the little successes I have had with it. My greatest challenge is to keep myself from thinking I’m too old and have missed the boat.
But way back in college, I usually only set short term goals for myself. In the fall of 1976, pretty much all I wanted to do was get through the semester and leave for Paris in January. My goal was to study at the Sorbonne or the Alliance Francaise and get my spoken French up to speed. I thought I should be able to transfer my experience into enough college credits to graduate in the summer.
Though a French major, that fall I only took two language classes. The first was a contemporary literature class in which we had to read the first volume of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdus, Andre Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican and Jean Paul Sartre’s La Nausee. The class was taught by an stout middle-aged French woman who dyed her hair and wore thick mascara and bright red lipstick. Her enthusiasm for the works knew no bounds.
The second French class was one of the most wonderful classes I have ever taken. It was an honors colloquium devoted to 18th century France, known as the Age of Enlightenment. What made this course so wonderful was that we met in the Lily rare book library on campus. The Lily foundations, founded by the pharmaceutical family, had built this wonderful, Art Deco mausoleum and filled it with rare books that the family had collected. They had a Gutenberg Bible, of course, Diderot’s Encyclopedie, and countless other books. We studied the social, political, artistic and philosophical movements of the time period leading up to the revolution and then read original authors works from the first edition books published during their life time. I loved picking up the old, leather tomes and running my hand over the vellum. We had to write a term paper for the class and I chose to write about a 35-volume collection of fairy tales that spanned that century called Le Cabinet des Fees. It contained the original versions of “Bluebeard,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Snow White.” I discussed how the genre evolved over the century and reflected the growing anti-royalist sentiment of the day. Our professor was an inspired guy named Michael Berkvam who lectured passionately about the works and inspired us with the love that he had for the writers and that time period. He never talked down to us and treated us like equals. He once invited the class to his house for a party where we stayed late discussing philosophy and getting drunk. I was amused to find a small bookshelf in his bathroom on which he kept a copy of the Bible. When I remarked on it, he said “What better place?” He always got the highest student evaluations and the French and Italian department rewarded him the next year by denying him tenure.
That fall I also took a wonderful genetics class geared for the humanity students. The professor was a genial man with horrible allergies whose desire was to convince us liberal arts majors that we weren’t scientific dolts. He tried to make the study of genetics fun, and he did a great job. One day, he showed a film about the replication of DNA, which he said occurs with a mathematical precision and at a rhythm that he realized was mirrored by the tempo of the third movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 6.
Now this wasn’t the first time I had heard the work. I had bought a collection of all six concerti conducted by Pablo Casals, but it was the first time that I really paid attention to the 6th.
I have written before I think of the wonderful people who have appeared at certain times in my life to show me little wondrous corners of life and point me in the right direction. These two college professors from such seemingly different backgrounds as science and French literature influenced me greatly and I only hope that we adults today remember the important role we can play in modeling behavior for youth that focuses on ennobling rather than preaching