Alexander Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy

I chose to write about Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, which Michael Dr***, a student of Turkish, Chinese and music composition (and a regular visitor to the French House), introduced me to around the fall of 1975. Scriabin was something of a mystic and was influenced by the philosophy of Nietzsche and the theosophists. Nietzsche, you will remember, wrote about the Apollonian (intellectual) and Dionysian (sensual, ecstatic) natures and the need to incorporate both. Well, the Poem of Ecstasy conveys a sense of losing oneself in sensual desire, a continuous sense of building anticipation, and a final climactic release and obliteration of the ego. I get all sweaty just writing about it.

In the fall of 1975, (and after having spent the summer working in a lamp assembly plant), I was happy to return to the French House. I had requested an end room, which was a little larger than the others in the dorm. Unfortunately, being next to the entrance and therefore the stairwell, it turned out to be noisier–with people coming and going at all hours of the day and night.

My end room had a very important perk, though. Often, when I was studying in my room, I would leave the door open. Visitors to the dorm, seeing my light on, would often knock on my door and ask where so-and-do lived. Thus, I became the functional concierge of the French House, which, being somewhat of an extravert, I actually thrived on.

My mother has always shown almost fanatical interest in things related to health, nutrition and fitness. Back in the 1960s she started leading exercise classes at the local YMCA where she worked as a lifeguard. Toward the end of the decade, she became more and more interested in nutrition–which changed our family’s diet as she started buying health foods, using less salt, and growing organic vegetables and herbs in my father’s garden. My father, by the way loved, to see things grow. During the summer, he would work 9 hours a day in a factory and then come home and spend the remaining daylight hours working on his garden. I used to think he was crazy and rebuffed his efforts to get me to help. But eventually I learned to appreciate the near-meditative state into which gardening can lead you. Whenever I left for college in Bloomington after summer break, therefore, my parents would load me up with fresh vegetables and dried herbs, one of which, peppermint, our family had gotten into the habit brewing into an infusion which we would drink instead of coffee or tea.

A number of new people had moved into the French House in the fall of 1975, and I tried to get to know them as well. I had a little hotplate used to heat water and when people would drop in, and I would offer them cups of peppermint tea. This was one of the best things about living in the dorm: you could have a salon where people would pop ‘round to chat, have a deep discussion, get drunk, gossip, listen to music, or just socialize.

One late night, as I was getting ready for bed, someone started pounding on my door. A female voice said, “Kurt!” “Kurt! Open up.” I opened the door and there stood Kristy (name changed to protect the innocent) a woman whom I had met the year before. Kristy lived in the Spanish House, which was connected to the French House by our common lounge, and she was a very intelligent, exuberant and forward person. Whenever we ran into each other in the cafeteria, we exchanged witty remarks, but I never thought she’d be interested in me. This night, Kristy had been drinking, and she was intent on seducing me. I will never forget the excitement I felt when that realization dawned on me (and that I hadn’t even had to go through the whole pursuit and rejection dance). My heart pounded and my stomach filled with a mass of butterflies, and our night spent together was sublime.

I spent the next day walking on clouds. Later that evening, I paid a visit to Kristy at her house off campus into which she had moved with two other women from the Spanish House. We cooked a nice dinner, listened to music, danced, and then Kristy dumped me. I spent the next five years or wondering why.  We did stay friends, and for a long time, she remained the archetypal woman for me. On the down side, it caused me to approach relationships with women with my guard up, for fear of being hurt. My guard consisted of keeping an intellectual and emotional distance from the women I became involved with. I never allowed myself to fall in love and usually found some reason to dump them pre-emptively: they either weren’t as smart as Kristy, or pretty, or didn’t hold the same feminist views as she did. Building this shell, turned out to be my loss, really, because it kept me from really connecting with people who were no doubt quite decent and loving people. Oh well–that’s one of those lessons it takes some people years to learn. Or as Joni Mitchell put it–“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?  From ecstasy to insularity.  Eventually I found ecstasy again many years later.

Scriabin Biography

Buy MP3 or CD Alexander Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy – Valery Gergiev / Kirov Orchestra

Johann Sebastian Bach: “Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage!” from Christmas Oratorio, BWV.248

In January of 1974, I started my second semester of college at Indiana University at South Bend. I thought that this was a holding pattern for me: while taking a light load there, I’d apply to some serious schools. Notre Dame accepted me and was only about five miles from my house, but I couldn’t afford the tuition–$1300 each semester, which was exorbitant back then. I was attracted by Wabash College, a small liberal arts college in central Indiana. It had two claims to fame: it was located in the town where General Lew Wallace (who wrote “Ben Hur”) lived, and secondly for one of its former professors, a one Ezra Pound.

On my visit to Wabash, I learned that you could only live a fraternity house. I visited one and was shown around by one of the “brothers” who proudly boasted of the keg parties they had. It was obvious that the student body were probably prouder of “Ben Hur” than The “Pisan Cantos,” so I decided not to go there after all. Instead I put in the paperwork to transfer to Bloomington in the Fall. On an interesting literary footnote, Ezra Pound had been booted out of Wabash College after he was discovered with a young woman in his room. Seems like that should have counted for something. When he left he had this to say about Indiana: “Gosh, I won’t be so hard on European decadence next times I seez it!”

The spring semester at Bloomington turned out to be more rigorous that I had expected. My History of Western Civilization professor could read Greek, Latin, and Arabic and also taught at Notre Dame, as did my English teacher. My French professor was a sassy old “belle laide” from France, who had a voice that was half Edit Piaf and half truck driver. I tried my hand at art by enrolling in a design course where I learned the basics of oil and acrylic painting, etching, and print making. Finally, I took group piano lessons with a flamboyant old Swedish man named Einar Krantz.

The main campus of Indiana University has a fine music school and for that reason the library in South Bend had a good collection of classical albums you could check out. I must have been on a Bach kick that semester, because for some reason, one of the pieces I remember checking out repeatedly was Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248. This oratorio consists of six cantatas, which were to be performed one a day until Epiphany. I particularly enjoyed the first cantata on the album, which is “Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage!” The old, biblical German goes something like: “Rejoice and be happy on this precious day.”

This cantata starts out with one of those joyous baroque trumpet blasts, full of trills, which is punctuated by thunderous rolls on the tympani. This gives way to an incredibly complex fugue in which the various sections of the orchestra and choir, given completely different melodies and rhythms, weave in an out of each other in a truly glorious way. There follow seven more movements that are either recitatives for various voices or choruses. These are more pensive in nature. In the final movement of the cantata, Bach quickens the tempo, and gives us a stately, intricate triumphal march that praises the glory of God and the beloved baby Jesus.

Looking back, my fascination with this most Christian of Bach’s work at that time in my life works surprises me as you will see in a future post.

Bach Biography

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Beethoven: String Quartet in E flat Major, Op.127

When I saw the Guarneri quartet play Beethoven’s String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131 in the fall of 1973, (see my earlier post), the program notes mentioned the composer’s late quartets. Beethoven wrote some 15 or so quartets throughout his life, and musicologists divide these into three groups-early, middle and late. The late quartets consist of six and bear the Opus numbers 127, 130, 131, 132, 133, and 135.

After I heard the opus 131, I had the good fortune to find a used set of the entire late quartets in a used record store. They were on the Deutsche Grammophon label and had been recorded by the Amadeus Quartet as part of the record company’s effort in the late 1960s to record all of Beethoven’s works to commemorate the bicentennial of his birth in 1970.

Now these quartets are not the type of music that you just slap on and go about cleaning the bathroom on a Saturday morning. They require intense concentration, but they pay off in emotional impact. I used to listen to them a lot, and now I realize that I have never listened to them with a friend. During my first semester at Purdue University, it would have helped had I had someone to listen to them with. Nowadays, I see that this “interior exile” was for the most part self-imposed, but there exist those who are alone for other reasons.

I met one of these in my Freshman composition class. Now before college, I had dreaded Freshman composition. Somehow, I had manage to get through high school without taking a class that required me to write and extended term paper. That scared me. What if I had to write a 30-pager? I knew I couldn’t pull it off. I’d drop out of school and end up working in a factory.

At the same time, I nurtured a secret fantasy about becoming a great writer. I thought that all you had to do was get drunk, dash something off in a fit of inspiration, and you’d be hailed at a genius. Unfortunately, I ended up with a teacher almost as narcissistic as I. We read great works of prose from an anthology, and then we had to try our hand at various types of prose. The teacher, obviously thinking of himself as the next Hemingway, looked down his nose at all of us. One day, to enlighten us as to what constituted good writing, he read one of his own pieces out loud in class. It started with a description of a man looking at himself in the mirror one morning before shaving. For some unexplained reason-existential angst perhaps-he plunges the razor into the side of his face. There followed a rather graphic description of the color of the Burmashave mixed with blood.

The guy in the seat next to me–a Viet Nam veteran–looked at me and we rolled our eyes. After class, we talked about what a piece of crap the teacher’s work was, and the guy asked me if I would like to come over to his house to listen to some music. His name was Steve Applebee and he lived in a trailer home outside of town. He was quite self-sufficient and showed off the audiophile quality speakers he had built himself. He put on an song called White Bird by a group called “It’s a Beautiful Day.” This was his favorite piece and he almost went into a trance as he listed to it. Of course, since he smoked marijuana incessantly, that might have had something to do with the effect the music had on him.

I was a bit weirded-out by him, yet always said yes when he called to see if I wanted to do something. We shot pool at the student union, and one Saturday he called me up. He asked if I wanted to go riding around the countryside in his little red convertible. He picked me up and we drove back to his house. There he took out a thermos, filled it with crushed ice, gin and vermouth and we set off. We tooled around all day in the Indian summer warmth through the Indiana countryside–past fields of corn starting to turn brown–sipping out martinis and listening to music.

Steve did things like that that made me feel so “cool,” but I never quite felt comfortable around him. Maybe it was his dark streak. He never told me about his war experiences, but you could tell he was restless. Once, a nymphomaniac started hanging around my dorm. She was the kind of girl who would stand too close to you and then suddenly lick your face. She put me off. A number of the guys in the dorm made a big deal out of having “done it” with her en masse. One day, when Steve had dropped by, she showed up and the two of them left together. He later told me that for all her forwardness, she was actually boring in bed. I was still a virgin and had some romantic notion about what sex and love should be, so this whole episode seemed to me a rather tawdry picture of how people could behave with one another.

Still, Steve did distract me from the dullness of the place I lived, and it upset me one day when after class he took me aside and delivered this piece of news: “I’m dropping out.”

“Why,” I stammered.

“I can’t stand it any more. The teachers are all assholes. They’re not teaching me anything.”

“But you’re a good writer.”

“Thanks but it’s no good.”

The next week he didn’t show up in class. I called his number but the phone had been disconnected. I called directory assistance for Kokomo, where he told me his mother had lived but had no luck. It was as if he had fallen off the face of the earth.

Though he never volunteered anything about his war experiences, I don’t believe I ever asked. Despite Mai Lai and the fact that by 1973 the war was pretty much lost, we hadn’t started hating the Viet Nam vets yet. I felt naïve and green compared to him and thought that because he wrote so well that he should have been able to run with his talent. No one spoke about post-traumatic shock back then, and we didn’t have Prozac to reset people’s Seratonin levels back to a pristine state. I just hope he was able to exorcise whatever demons he had before the pot and gin did him in.

Thank god I never had to experience that kind of suffering. Years later, I met a former Viet Nam vet, who told me that being in war is like being on heroin–it feels as if every nerve in your body is plugged into about 1000 volts of pure electricity as your mind tries to cope with the realization that in the next moment you might be dead. It “focuses the mind terrifically,” as Samuel Johnson said. I imagine one could become addicted to that feeling, that sense of almost enlightenment. How dull it must have been to come back to a dull college in the dull Midwest and to sit in a class listening to some bozo with a deferment try to write about his existential angst.

So I remained alone listening to my Beethoven quartets, trying in my own way to experience genius vicariously through works of art. Hoping by that route to turn myself into a genius, or at least an intellectual.

Beethoven’s Quartet in E flat Major, Op.127 is a good piece for that. It starts with a beautiful statement that is so majestic, it really could be the finale. But then it launches into a very lyrical passage, built on the notes in the opening, played almost like a waltz that you might imagine hearing played at a 19th century soiree. The movement returns to the opening then comes back to the lyrical part a second time before moving into a tense emotive section. The first movement alternates a few more times before ending on a great flourish. The third movement, marked scherzando (playful) is a delight as it starts with a pizzicato and then launches off into series of jaunty passages. I believe Beethoven brings in a serious part from time to time, like a parent scolding a child, but then he laughs and joins in the fun as he brings back the quick, upbeat part again. Stravinsky said he preferred the finale to any of the others in all the quartets, and it changes meter and melody several times, but always conveying a sense of joy and renewal.

I do hope that Steve was able to find a sense of joy and renewal in his life.

Wikipedia entry on Quartet Opus 127

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