Claude Debussy: “La Soiree dans Grenade” from Estampes

Over the years, at home and abroad, I have met many people from the Midwest who claim that they moved away because it was a cultural backwater. It’s hard for me to point a finger at them, because I myself moved away when I was 25 and lived in Algeria and Italy, before settling in Washington, D.C. Though I did leave to “see the world,” I had quite a stimulating intellectual and artistic upbringing coming from Indiana, thank you very much. The reason was Notre Dame University.

My tiny hometown, Mishawaka, Indiana, lies next to South Bend, which  claims that private Catholic university, Notre Dame. Notre Dame gave the area an intellectual, artistic, and (as Ronald Reagan in “Knute Rockne, All American ” demonstrated) athletic credibility.

I first became aware of Notre Dame because my father used to usher at the football games there. But my father also had some artistic ability–he used to draw very funny doodles and cartoons–and he liked to look at paintings. Notre Dame has a rather nice art museum and sometimes, on a Sunday afternoon after visiting my invalid grandmother’s house, my dad would drive to the campus and take us to the art gallery. In college, when I was exposed to European culture, I began to blame my parents because–being working class–they didn’t have lots of book around the house, listen to classical music, or go to ballet. Yet, my father did take me to that art gallery on many occasions, and now I like looking at paintings almost as much as I enjoy listening to classical music. So I’ve just learned a lesson about selective memory, and I have to thank him for that.

In high school and college, I found myself paying my own visits to Notre Dame on weekends. The building that housed the art museum also was where art classes met. The halls had display cases with the works of art student and bulletin boards listing plays and foreign films that were shown on campus. Notre Dame is where I saw my first Fellini film, Satyricon. That building also housed the classical musical station, and with the art gallery it became a kind of cultural oasis for me.

The art collection was not shabby either. In addition to some nice medieval and renaissance pieces, they had a famous abstract painting by Picasso of a woman looking in a mirror and a wonderful, large canvass by Chagall called La Grande Cirque. After visiting the museum I used to roam the campus, sometimes visiting the bookstore, the cathedral-size church or just wander around by the lake. Notre Dame was a haven for me and kept me artistically fulfilled in what was a very conservative state.

For some reason, the story of Sister Wendy comes to mind right now. She’s this English nun, who has done a series of art appreciation programs for the BBC. The interesting thing about her is that until she became famous, she lived a quiet life in a Carmelite monastery in England and had never seen any of the painting she wrote and talked about. She studied art history entirely from books and post cards that friend and family sent her. For the BBC show, they just put her in front of a canvas and recorded her impressions seeing the work for the first time in person.

I tell the story of Sister Wendy because Debussy’s “La Soiree dans Grenade” was inspired by Spain despite the fact the composer never set foot in that country. Debussy was trying to evoke the feeling of a visit to Spain simply through musical impressions. He employs the rhythm of a Spanish dance, the habanera, which was popular in Paris at the time. The piece start out like his Pagodes with the piano almost used as a percussive instrument that lightly taps out the sound of rain dripping. It then swells up into the Spanish melody interlude again. Debussy cuts back and forth between these before switching to another section that sounds like a stroll down the Ramblas in Barcelona. Toward the end, he lays down another part that sounds a bit like the excitement of a street carnival before returning to finish with the habanera, greatly slowed down and interspersed with the tinkle of rain once more. What a journey we have been on!

So really there is no excuse to complain about living not being intellectually stimulated by where you live. If you don’t have a university nearby, you can go to a library. To complain is just the cynic’s way out. And nowadays with the Internet you don’t have to leave your home to view great works of art, read good books or listen to great music.

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French Wikipedia Description of La Soiree dans Grenade

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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