Pie Jesu from Faure’s Requiem

Remembering A Childhood Friend, Who Died at 59

Mark was born with a big head. My mother told me that he there had been some trouble when he was born and the doctors had to use special tools to help him be born.  The rest of his body was fine, but doctors had said he might have some brain damage later on.

I knew Mark since before first grade. He was in Cub Scouts with me. One year his mother was the den mother.  The next year mine was.

Mark and I also played a lot together at the fire station. Both our fathers were volunteer firemen. Mark’s dad was even fire chief a couple of years.  There was plenty to do at the fire station.  We could climb on the fire trucks and run and play hide and seek in the big forest that lay behind the fire station.  In the summer, they had water ball tournaments.  Teams of fire fighters would point a jet of water from their hose at a big metal ball that hung on a long wire.  Each team would try to push the ball into end zone of the other side.

When we started first grade, I was pretty upset.  I didn’t want to leave my mom.  The first two weeks, as soon as my mom dropped me off at school, I would start to cry. I cried so loud that the teachers had to put me in the hall all by myself.

On the playground at recess, lot of kids made fun of me.  They called me “cry baby.”

After several weeks, I stopped crying. The teachers were very nice and there was plenty to do on the playground.  I especially liked the monkey bars, and there was a concrete water pipe.  We would take turns crawling into that pipe have the other kids would roll you along. It made you really dizzy.

Mark spent most of recess time chasing girls.  Sometimes, though, the girls and other kids would make fun of Mark’s large head. They called him “Picklehead.”

Once when we were at the fire station, some of the other kids started to chase Mark.  I joined in.  Just as I was chasing him past the kitchen, I called out “Picklehead!” At that very moment, Mark’s mother stepped out of the kitchen.”

“Oh, Kurt!” she said to me. “Not you too.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

Mark’s mom looked so sad. She turned and walked back into the kitchen.  I never chased Mark after that.

Mark got pretty good grades. He was a fantastic speller. Whenever we had a spelling bee in English class, Mark always won.

In sixth grade, we had a school wide spelling bee.  Anybody who wanted to could enter.  I didn’t like spelling bees, but Mark signed up.

Mark was really excited about it. I thought he had a good chance of winning.

The whole school went into the gymnasium for the contest.  The spellers sat in a row on the stage at one end.

Every time it was Mark’s turn to spell a word, the kids in the audience around me would start to laugh.

“Look.  It’s Picklehead,” Joey said.

“What’s he doing up there?” snorted Chuck.

“He’ll never win,” said Mary.

“I hope he doesn’t,” Debbie said.

Mark made it all the way to the final five.  The judge said the word “receive.”  Was it I before E except after C or the other way around?  I couldn’t remember myself.

Mark got it wrong.

“Incorrect,” said the judge.

The kids around me laughed. Mark’s shoulders slumped. Mark looked so sad as he walked back to his chair.  He was disappointed for days after that.

In seventh grade, Mark started to get in trouble.  Sometimes, he got into arguments with people in the cafeteria.  He had a loud voice and when he started shouting, everybody would stop eating.

One day, my mother told me that Mark’s mother had called her.  The school principal had told Mark’s mother that he would probably do better in special education class.  That meant that Mark would take classes in a part of the school that none of us had ever gone to.  None of us wanted to see it either.

I continued to see Mark at the fire station.  Mark had a big bike that had baskets on it and he rode it everywhere.  Sometimes we would pass him in our car on our way to the mall.  My dad would beep his horn and Mark would always wave at us.

One summer day, at home from college, I was sitting at the picnic table in our back yard breaking snap beans from our garden.  My dad and Mark emerged from around the side of our house.  Mark yelled:  “Guess, what, Kurt. I’m a published writer!”

“You are?”

“You bet.  The Penny Saver newspaper published one of my poems last week.  And my church bulletin is going to have one in next Sunday.  Too bad you don’t go to our church.  Don’t worry, though.  I got all my poems right here!”

Mark plopped down a big three-ring binder on our picnic table.

“Here,” he said.  “I’ll read you one.”

It was a beautiful sunny day. The sky was really blue with big, billowy clouds.  We were sitting at the table under one of my dad’s apple trees.

Mark’s poem was about how beautiful the sky was.  How wonderful he felt to be alive.  And as he read the poem, I closed my eyes and it felt like his words were lifting me up and I was floating along with the cottony clouds.  I could have been a kid again, lying on my back in a field on a sunny summer day, with a friend dreaming of all the great things we’d do when we grew up.

That was about 40 years ago. Mark died today at the age of 59. Back in his 30s, a car hit him as he rode his bike along the highway.  He’d had a lot of surgery to fix him us, no one expected him to live, but he did.  I never failed to marvel at how he kept up such good spirits.   Maybe it was his faith.  Or maybe after all the hardship he had to endure, that’s what he got in return.

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Gabriel Faure, Pavane

Think about the wonderful uniqueness of a university: people who value knowledge actually make up the majority of its population!  Sure the jocks just mark time in anticipation of the million dollar a year contract. But the smartest of them know that it’s a crapshoot and that you ought to have a degree as a fall back. For the rest, of course the commitment to knowledge runs from seeing it as merely a means to an end all the way to and end in itself. I spent my undergraduate days in the latter camp, because, well quite frankly that’s where the most interesting and sometimes eccentric people hang out.

Take my sophomore French teacher, Starr, for example. The first day of class she strode in wearing tight jeans, a white blouse, and Indian beads. Though thin as a rail, she carried herself with a grace that shone beneath her athletic swagger. Atop her head, a nest of curly hair framed her tanned, freckled face. Large glasses sat on aquiline nose which ended above lush, pouty lips. She looked so French. Then she opened her mouth, and in a breathy seductive voice she said:

“Hi, y’all. My name’s Starr. That’s S, T, A, R, R. Here. I’ll write it on the board for you.”

Still facing us, she reached down, picked up a piece of chalk and turned to the board to write. The turn revealed a large, red, suede star that she had sown over the seat of her jeans. She fascinated me, and over the semester her enthusiasm for French, the works she had us read, and her stories of life in France (and with her French husband who made films) served to cement my resolve to master the language, go abroad, and lead a bohemian life style. Staff had just returned from France to complete course work for her Phd. But being the daughter of an admiral, I think, she grew up in France and spoke French better than most of the professors in the department.

We Americans boast of having no aristocracy, but Starr was about as aristocratic as you get. Not that she put on airs–it came from her upbringing. You know the type–sons and daughters of admirals, generals, diplomats and politicians. They get these huge educational stipends and send their kids to private boarding schools like St. Albans or the Madeira School. They have more breeding and class than the nouveau-riche (sons and daughters of the industrialists and lawyers).

Starr had all this swirling around inside of her, but, unfortunately she drank a lot. Once the French department gave a party in an old house on campus and invited all us majors to mix and sample French music and food. I stayed nearly to the end, getting absolutely paralytically drunk with Starr. We ended up finishing all the booze save for one unopened bottle of white burgundy. Then we discovered no one had a cork-screw! Starr announced in a very authoritative voice: “Don’t worry. I learned a trick in Europe. You wrap the bottle in a towel,” which she did, “and bang the bottom against the wall, slowly but firmly. The pressure will force the cork out.”

We protested, but she insisted she had done it many times before. She walked over to the wall and started banging the bottle against it. Now this occurred in the basement of the house, and the walls were cinder block. After about four bangs, the bottle exploded. She stood there with an astonished look on her face. Party over.

Starr will show up from time to time in these pages as I kept in touch with her for a long time and we even shared an apartment once. I had no designs on her but I did love her depth and breadth of knowledge, her passion for life, her sense of humor and enthusiasm for knowledge. She was a walking pastiche.

This is my segue into today’s piece, Faure’s Pavane A pastiche is a literary, artistic, musical or architectural work make up of selections of different works or in the style of different works. Musically, I don’t think you can call Pavane a pastiche, but the original score calls for a chorus that sings a text, which is a pastiche that, in the style of the poet Verlaine describes some ancient Greek temptresses. I thank my friend John Kim for playing me a recording with the chorus, which I had never heard in my previous 25 years of enjoying this piece.

Most often the Pavane is tacked onto recordings of Faure’s Requiem. It is a hauntingly beautiful piece, in which a flute carries out a dialog with the orchestra. This piece has such beautiful imagistic orchestration that it even inspired Debussy to write a Pavane of his own.  Faure’s starts out with the strings setting up a meticulous rhythm using pizzicato. The flute comes playing what sound like a pensive, almost sad, melody before it gently floats up into an ethereal trill. To keep it from becoming too saccharine, Faure lets the orchestra well up midway through the piece and play an dramatic flourish. Faure then gives the ending back to the flute, which plays in harmony with the orchestra, holding a final note as the piece slows to an end and finishes with the strings resolving on a lush plucked chord.

Which is equivalent to the feeling you get from meeting an interesting person like Starr.

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Gabriel Faure, Requiem, Opus 48

A number of my entries covering my teenage days have focused on my crisis of faith, which intensified when I went off to college and started reading books on philosophy. Paradoxically, while losing my faith in the early 1970s, I became more and more fascinated with religious music like Gregorian chants. Today, I’m going to tell you about what really pushed me over the edge.

In my sophomore year, I took a course in ancient Greek philosophy, which immersed me in Plato and Aristotle, on whose writings the fathers of the Catholic church had developed their doctrines. In these dialogs and tracts I found interesting and elegant logical arguments which the authors could use to prove just about anything. While that was intellectually stimulating, it was, after all, just speculation. The author who had the most impact on me, however, was the pre-Socratic, Heraclitus. His ideas somehow resonated with me more than anything, and since he was a contemporary of Lao Tse, that explains why I eventually became interested in Taoism and Buddhism.

Heraclitus spoke in paradoxes that resemble Zen Koans. For example, he said: “All things come into being through opposition, and all are in flux like a river.” Like the eastern yin-yang symbol called the bagwan, the light has a bit of darkness in it and darkness has a bit of light. The goal in life is to find a balance and not deny the one for the other.

Another of my favorites is: “you cannot step into the same river twice.” That is, many things that we think of as permanent are illusory, but at the same time, what lasts is always being renewed. So a while back when I heard scientists start to rave about the fashionable new theory of the world called “chaos” theory, I basically thought, “what took you so long?”

Going back to my old textbook, I find the few fragments that are all that is left of Heraclitus’s works substantial enough to build an entire world view. He said “If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it; for it is hard to find and difficult.” This has become the basis of my optimistic outlook on life. People have the potential to do bad and good things. Despite the horrors of the world around us; despite the nasty ways that people can behave; despite McDonalds; if you just keep your eyes and ears open and expect something good, it will eventually happen. It’s like the Geoffrey Rush, the actor who played theatre manager in the movie “Shakespeare in Love” keeps saying: “Somehow everything works out in the end. It’s just a miracle.”

Well, this is what I believe now and it has become second nature to me, but in 1974, this new way of thinking was displacing my old guilt and original sin fear-based world view but for a while it caused me some anguish. Oddly enough, however, I received a divine sign informing me when it was time to leave the Catholic church.

Near the dorm I lived in during my sophomore year sat a church where I went every Sunday. As the semester wore on, however, and as more and more questions and doubts beset me, it became harder and harder to sit through the sermons and recite prayers that I no longer believed in. One Saturday, I decided to go confession before the evening Mass and talk to the priest about some of my doubts. When I got to church, a line of people had already formed outside the confessional. I sat in the pew reviewing what to say to the priest. The line inched forward, and I went to join it. Then I hesitated and went to sit back down again. The church was starting to fill up for the start of Mass. I looked at the line and just then the priest opened the door to see how many people remained in line. After he went back in, I decided to go up and go through with it. I stood in line and when it was my turn slipped into the confessional, knelt down, and awaited my chance to spill my soul to the priest.

Nothing happened. The sound of rustling came from the priest’s box, and then I heard his door open and shut. He had left!  He had counted how many people were in line before I joined it, heard that many confessions and then left. I chose to take that as a pretty clear message that it was a mutually agreed-upon separation, and that is how I left the Catholic church.

Oh, I still love churches and love works of art inspired and commissioned by the Catholic church. One of my favorite works are the three huge tableaux painted by Caravaggio on the life of St. Matthew which hang in the church, San Luigi Dei Francesi, in Rome. And I still love great big works of religious classical music, like today’sRequiem Mass by Gabriel Faure.

Now, images of cavorting horses or sunny brooks do not usually spring to mind when you think of a requiem, which of course is a mass or a hymn to the dead. One need only think of the requiems of Mozart, Verdi or Brahms to realize these are usually pretty somber pieces, though often beautiful and quite moving. Faure’s Requiem therefore is unique because he wrote it purely for the “pleasure of it.” Of it he also remarked that “Art has every reason to be voluptuous,” and the music in Faure’s Requiem certainly attains that goal. In an interesting footnote, Faure reportedly said he wanted sopranos “who had known love” to sing in the Requiem not “old goats who have never known love.”

From start to finish, this mass conveys not a sense of loss or the pain and suffering associated with death. Rather, Faure tries to convey a sense of release, relief and peace. It is odd that the texts he chose for the music focus on the last judgement, which of course, is when God throws the sinners into the everlasting lake of burning fire. Here I find a perfect, Zen-like balance between the depiction of the fate of the damned and the sacred music.

The last movement, called In Paradisum sung by a boy’s choir, accompanied by a twittering organ, is such an ethereal work, that it almost gives you chills. They sing: “May the angels receive thee in paradise.” Were one to believe in heaven and hell, one could imagine this music being a fitting reward for a life well lived and playing non-stop on the 24-hour classics radio station in heaven.

Paradox. That for me is what life is all about and what makes it so interesting. In my lifetime, I’ve seen increasingly insane evil:  high school shootings in Colorado, the World Trade Center, Abu Ghraib, serial killers and cannibalism.  The paradox of human nature constantly stares us in the face.  For example, while highly unbalanced boys at Columbine High, so out of touch with reality laughed with glee as they shot their fellow students, another was comforting a young girl, near hysterics out of fear for her life. This latter boy, when interview as to how he coped said “I just had to focus on keeping together so that I could comfort her, so she wouldn’t totally lose it.” Now that is a person who has found the key to life.

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