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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Of Passions, forever and fleeting

WARNING: This is long, and quite likely boring.

Passions come and go in this life, don't they? Things we are just so passionate about when we're young may remain passions throughout our adulthood; others may fade into memory of something that was important to us once upon a time, while still others can find themselves subject to complete reversal as we realize that the new "Me" hates the very thing that the old "Me" found so amazing.

This is about two passions of my life, both of which I found at the same time, but only one of which has really endured. This narrative stretches back almost twenty years to my last months in high school, a time which is now starting to recede into a kind of haze where even some of the names of those involved require effort to dredge up. How distant some of those emotions now seem, however real and intense they were at the time.

This is the story of when I came to the writings of Richard Bach and the music of Sergei Rachmaninov.

I have always been drawn strongly to Romanticism, from the earliest time that I can recall being drawn to anything much at all. The Romantic in me is drawn to large gestures, bold statements, feelings so strong it seems that the force of my heart might well shift the world on its axis. Love is to be shouted from the rooftops; anger is to be no small irritation but a smoldering rage. Sadness is to be felt keenly and deeply, like the cut of a freshly sharpened knife, and beneath everything, every feeling, even happiness and joy, can be found a long streak of melancholy. That's the Romantic in me, and he still lives within, sometimes under careful guard but at other times nearly allowed complete control.

In high school, my greatest passion above all was music. I was a good trumpet player, and had I continued down that path, I believe I would have become a very good trumpet player indeed. But for all my love of the trumpet, my greatest dream was to conduct an orchestra. This I dreamed in much the same way other boys dreamed of playing center field for the Yankees. I would watch concerts on PBS or attend the occasional concert of the Buffalo Philharmonic, and my eyes would remain forever riveted on the actions of the conductor. I would buy multiple recordings of the same piece of music and study those recordings to better hear the difference in interpretation each conductor brought to the work. I learned to hear which conductors did the best with which repertoire: Colin Davis conducting Berlioz, Solti conducting Wagner, Szell conducting Brahms, Bernstein conducting Mahler. I bought orchestral scores to study, and my bedroom stereo constantly throbbed with the strains of Mozart, Schumann, Beethoven, and Dvorak.

In music my supreme love was, and has always been, the music of Hector Berlioz, that great French Romantic who wrote one of the greatest of all symphonies, the Symphonie fantastique, after he fell passionately in love with an English actress during a performance of Hamlet. In Berlioz I sensed a kindred spirit: a person who felt everything so, so deeply. Strangely, though, given my predilection for Romanticism, it was not until my senior year when I began to explore the work of the Russian Romantics, composers who imbued their works with enough lyricism and fire to melt and mold the hearts of any listener. The first of these that I explored was Sergei Rachmaninov, via a tape cassette I bought in the budget bin at a record store of his Symphony No. 2 in E minor, played by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Andre Previn. I have long since lost that tape, but I've always remembered something from the liner notes: Previn described the reaction to a performance of this work he had conducted with the LSO while on a tour of the then-Soviet Union, after which an old woman, so overcome with emotion at hearing the Symphony, pressed into Previn's hand her most treasured possession at that moment: a single orange.

Nevertheless, when I first listened to the work, it didn't move me greatly. It was long and pretty, to be sure, with lots of long melodies that dipped and soared, but it didn't really move me. That was yet to come.

At the same time, non-musical life continued. There was a project in English class when we were supposed to pick a specific author and report on several of his works. I can't remember now what author I chose – Arthur C. Clarke, perhaps – but the guy next to me (his name was Joe) did his project on Richard Bach. A few weeks later I was in a bookstore and I happened to see a shelf full of books by this Bach guy: his apparent perennial bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull, another mystical-looking volume titled Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, yet another mystical-looking book called One. Having heard Joe talking a bit in class about Bach, I thumbed through the books a bit. I didn't know what to make of Jonathan, which looked to be a short parable involving birds. (I'd later find out that that is exactly what that book is.) Illusions looked interesting in a way, but rather quasi-religious, and at that time, I was in a hostile-to-religion phase of my life that would last through much of the next five or six years (and frankly, there's still a part of me that thinks that way). One looked oddly mystical as well, although I must admit that I was struck by what was written on the back cover. No synopsis, no blurb, just two sentences:

I gave my life to become the person I am right now. Was it worth it?


Now there was some food for thought, I had to admit. I do think that's true to an extent: at any given moment, the person-we-are is the sum of the choices we've made through our years and the lessons we've learned from the results of those choices. To a great extent, what typically causes us to go off the rails in our lives is when we fail to learn lessons from our choices.

But back to that afternoon in the bookstore: the last Bach title on that shelf was The Bridge Across Forever: a lovestory. Like One, its back cover copy consisted of a single, brief item:

If you've ever felt alone in a world of strangers, missing someone you've never met, you'll find a message from your love in The Bridge Across Forever.


As a Romantic at heart, that single blurb caught me. I bought the book and proceeded to read it pretty quickly. Without getting into too many details, my love life in high school was non-existent; I didn't go on my first date until about a month before I graduated, and I didn't have what I could by any reasonable definition a "girlfriend" until I was in college. (I always suspected my general high levels of geekiness and my general low levels of good looks as being prime causes of this, but I digress.) There was something about that bit on the back cover of that book that really captivated me: Missing someone you've never met.

As I recall, I read The Bridge Across Forever over the course of a week or so. Bridge tells the story of Richard Bach's search for love, for a "soulmate". Over the course of the first part of the book he casually meets women and rejects them for seemingly good reasons, but it soon becomes clear that despite his claims to be searching for true love, he's purposely keeping love at arm's length, in favor of some kind of "freedom" where he's able to maintain open relations with a number of women. Much of this went right over my head when I read the book as a high schooler; I was mainly interested in how Richard found that person and in the book's ultimate assurance that yes, there is someone out there and that one day, if you're open to the possibility, you'll meet the person you've been missing all your life. Richard meets that woman, actress Leslie Parrish, and at first he has a great deal of fun and open romance with her, before he realizes that he's let her become too close. He pulls away, and she writes him a letter that's worth the price of the book itself; they get back together and nearly break apart again; finally Richard allows himself to "use the words he despises" and says "I love you" to Leslie. The book meanders a bit after that, as he and Leslie build their life together through some hardships (and, frankly, some very strange "New Age" type mysticism, such as when Richard and Leslie share mutual out-of-body experiences and thus learn that their current cat is a reincarnation of Leslie's former cat). The book closes with a luminous image: Richard and Leslie, after all their struggles, watching as their younger selves meet for the first time:

Dirt-streaked, glorious, she smiled at me, tear-bright radiance. "Richie, they're going to try for it!" she said. "Wish them love!"


I don't know if it happened during the time I was reading it, or shortly thereafter, but at some point in that general timeframe I listened again to Rachmaninov's Second Symphony. This time I really heard it: the epic scope of that twenty-minute long first movement, with Rachmaninov introducing one motif after another that would recur throughout the entire work. The way the piece broods with a constant sense of melancholy but never descends into outright sadness. The opening, with the tone set by the low strings before the woodwinds break through with two high chords that usher in the violins with a soaring motif that offsets what's going on in the low strings. The way that opening movement begins with a largo that is followed by an allegro that doesn't feel all that much faster than the largo.

The second movement is a scherzo that I always have a hard time relating to; its mood stands at some contrast to the rest of the work, but it too includes the motifs brought forth in the first movement, and its second subject is as lyrical as anything. But it's the third and fourth movements that worked their way into the innermost chambers of my heart, once I was attuned to them. I can barely describe those movements, and I don't even want to try, except to note that this is, to me, what "eroticism" in music sounds like. True eroticism, though: the type of sensual experience that comes from shared emotion, from the ebb and flow of shared passion, with the type of climactic bursting at the end that comes as glorious release of pent-up tension.

I don't know if having read Bridge made me more predisposed to the Rachmaninov Second, or if I simply came to two works at the same time, at the right time, at a time when I was equally predisposed to both. I suspect the latter; even when listening repeatedly to the Rachmaninov Second, I don't recall ever making a specific connection between the music and the journey shared by Richard Bach and Leslie Parrish.

My college years saw my fascination with Sergei Rachmaninov and Richard Bach intensify. I listened to as much Rachmaninov orchestral music as I could find (I was always prejudiced toward orchestral music over chamber music, solo piano, and art song), and I soon read everything Richard Bach had written at the time, an activity that was helped along by the fact that his pre-Jonathan books were reissued in paperback right about that same period. Those earlier books - A Gift of Wings, Stranger to the Ground, Nothing by Chance, and Biplane - were all devoted to the main motif of all of Bach's books: flight. Bach is obsessed with flight, having been a pilot his entire life, and flight is a constant metaphor in his books, where he is always flying to something, flying with someone, or, in the darkest moments, flying from something. Those early books were marked with none of the mysticism that would dominate Bach's work beginning with Jonathan, but I could sense it brewing beneath the surface. A bit.

Likewise, I explored Rachmaninov. His Third Symphony also became near and dear to me, although never as intimate as the Second. I admired his Symphonic Dances, and I came to love the Piano Concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini deeply (if you think that 18th variation is gorgeous, it becomes even moreso when you hear it in the context of the remainder of the work). His magical choral work Vespers struck me as both gorgeous and haunting, and my favorite tone poem of all time is very likely Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead.

I've never re-read Bach's early books, but I've always maintained a soft spot for both Jonathan and Bridge. Gradually, though, while Rachmaninov has always remained close to me, Richard Bach has slid away for some reason. I barely remember reading his Running from Safety, and I haven't read anything he's written since that. Why is this? Why have I moved on from the one passion I found in early 1989, but not the other one?

Richard Bach, for one thing, is still alive, and thus his tale is not done. And that means that things that happened to him later on could color my perceptions of his work, which happened: I learned a few years ago that the happy ending of The Bridge Across Forever was fleeting, and that Richard and Leslie divorced. In a message that appeared online (here it is), Richard painted a happy face on the ending of his marriage to the person he'd earlier declared in several books his "soulmate", but it still casts something of a pall over the book now, knowing that it all ended anyway. I'm not sure that it's fair for me to even feel this way, given my own ambivalence on the concept of "soulmates" to begin with. I've never believed that life is a quest for that one and only one person out there somewhere who can make us whole. How can it be that way, when we live in a world where a person can see his or her soulmate snuffed out in an errant turn of the steering wheel, or struck down by cancer?

Perhaps it's not fair for me to read Bridge this way, but the tone of the book is pretty one-sided in its conviction that the journey, or "flight", through life of Alone-Richard is over and all that remains is the journey of Richard-With-Leslie. But it's hard to accept their eventual divorce in light of things like a chapter where Richard and Leslie are training themselves to leave their bodies so that they might cheat death together and exist as loving spirits. And maybe there's something more basic than that underlying my movement away from Richard Bach: my sense that, as sympathetic as I may be to his brand of mysticism, I just don't buy into a lot of it. (This may be a particular failing of mine; I tend to be almost envious of everyone else's mysticism.) Maybe it's that Richard, for much of Bridge, is really kind of a jerk: he's a narcissistic prude who is shocked - shocked! when Leslie swears at a bad driver, as well as a guy who refuses to come to his friend's aid when she really needs him because he has some predetermined principle about women and ownership of other's lives of some such nonsense. (Although it's to his credit that he's willing to write himself as a jerk.) And maybe it's that I see life, somewhat as Leslie does as she writes in the letter that Richard quotes in the book, as a sonata where Richard sees it as a sequence of flights in an airplane, where the only person who matters is the pilot and where the passengers are interchangeable. It's telling that in all those books, Richard Bach never mentions his first marriage or the children it produced.

(Bach's son would later write a book of his own, dealing with his father's non-presence in his life. I read that book years ago, but I don't remember a whole lot about it.)

But what's the real reason that Richard Bach is no longer a constant presence in my life, while Sergei Rachmaninov is? It's because Sergei Rachmaninov wasn't a writer, he was a composer, and relationships with music are, I've found, much more fluid that relationships with books. Great music remains great music, even as we bring new associations and new experiences to bear. So too do great books, but there's something about writing that remains fixed in time that doesn't happen, at least for me, with music. I associate Richard Bach with a person I once was but am no longer, but I don't do that with Rachmaninov. The Rachmaninov Second doesn't represent musical rapture to me as it once did; it now represents something deeper and more primal. But it still represents something. Rachmaninov continues to show me new things through music; Richard Bach only shows me what he's always shown me. That's not a bad thing, but it shows a limit somehow. Listening to Rachmaninov today continues to feel like visiting an old friend who still looks the same but has something new to say; reading Bach today feels to me like thumbing through old photo albums and seeing faces I remember. But the memories are vague, and in some of the photos, I can no longer put names with the faces. And in a few cases, I recognize the girls I really really really liked back then...and in at least a few cases, I can no longer fathom why.

To me, Richard Bach is a memento. Sergei Rachmaninov, though, is a force.

(That said, I'll be re-reading Jonathan this week.)

3 comments:

lynn said...

Awesome post!

Roger Green said...

I love this quote: The composer also preferred the Third over the Second because it "fell more easily under the fingers" than the famous Second and was thus more comfortable to play.

blue girl said...

Wonderful, wonderful post. Just great.