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There are several pieces of music that are particularly special to me. Some for their melodies, some for their lyrics, some for the way the composer highlights specific instruments throughout the piece, some for the memories they return to me of a time, place, or person. Like people and animals, each piece of music is unique in my memory, and I can distinctively describe how and why. Still, sometimes I can’t identify why the music resonates with me… it just does.
Music was a big part of my childhood. My father is an accomplished classical pianist, sang with a notable choir in college, played guitar, and occasionally banjo. My mother played organ for a time, then mandolin, and violin (although she called it a fiddle - weird). My siblings and I were all ‘strongly encouraged’ to make music a part of our daily lives, too. All of us, at one time or another, played piano, as you might imagine. My brothers and sister played guitar for a time, but eventually let it go. I began with piano, moved on to saxophone (until I discovered how difficult reed instruments are – well, that, and it was heavy to carry as I walked to school) and I finally landed on flute and piccolo. I chose flute because it was hauntingly beautiful, lightweight, and extremely portable. I loved to climb trees, and playing flute seemed to work well with that hobby. It’s tough to take a piano up a tree. I haven’t played in quite some time, choosing instead, to spend my time writing, but music is still a big part of who I am, and how I live.
Classical music flowed throughout my childhood home as easily as air. The first libretto my father taught me to read was Handle’s Messiah (both the Christmas and Easter editions). I was six or seven years old. Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, and a host of others followed. In my teens, when my friends were listening to the rock and pop of the day, I gravitated to Orchestras, Chamber Music, Opera, and Folk. Okay, yes, I did also listen to the “normal” music with my friends like Springsteen, The Beatles, etc.; but I was the only one among my peers who found great solace in the classics.
I loved opera for the combination of story and music that evoked such strong emotions, it didn’t matter what language… German, Italian, French, whatever. It didn’t matter. The passion of the story and music didn’t require translation. My favorite opera is Mozart’s Magic Flute (no surprise there), and I’ve always loved the music of Carmen, Foust, and Don Giovanni, too. As a theatre rat, I was also drawn to Broadway shows like The Music Man, Oklahoma, West Side Story, Les Misérables, and Porgy and Bess… all ‘modern-day’ operas, really.
In my early thirties, while renovating a house together, my then boyfriend introduced me to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Even with all my exposure to music growing up, this is one opera that I hadn’t yet discovered. The music was so powerful, enigmatic, and emotional… I was immediately drawn to it. You may be familiar with the opening piece, “O, Fortuna” from various TV programs, commercials, and sporting events. It’s used a lot. Of course, I’d heard it in snippets… but never in its full glory. It’s amazing. When I found a translation from the Latin, German, and French to English, I was surprised to find that this music is actually a collection of poems representing youth, drunken parties, courtship, love, and angst at the randomness of fate. The music was stirring, and when I learned the English stories to go with all that emotion, it dug even deeper into me.
As we worked on the house, moving load-bearing walls, running the new wiring, installing tile in the bathroom shower, stuffing insulation into the attic, and sanding and refinishing wood walls, we listened to this beautiful music on repeat. Okay, yes, we listened to other stuff, too, but this… this dominated our playlist. It seemed to fit well with the challenges, frustrations, and successes we experienced during the two years it took to finish the house. This music was motivating and comforting, simultaneously.
One night, we were listening to Carmina Burana… O Fortuna, specifically, for the ten-thousandth time… while putting the last finishing coat of sealer on the knotty pine walls in the main bedroom. A tremendous storm appeared, focusing the music as it dumped oceans of water that fell like mortar fire against the windows and roof, illuminating the sky with flashes of lightning, and exploding in rapturous thunder all around us. Thunderstorms are on my list of Ten Sacred Words (read more about that HERE). I connect deeply with the people, places, and activities that take place during a storm more than at any other time. Thunderstorms etch the memory of those moments more deeply into my soul. In those moments, the music of Carmina Burana fused itself with every fiber of my being and became a forever part of me.
I find it interesting, too, that The Magic Flute has a storm in it, as well… Music, particularly opera, and storms have a very strong, visceral connection to something inside me that I cannot always describe, and it will not relinquish its hold. I’m okay with that.
I have seen Carmina Burana performed several times. I work hard to buy tickets whenever the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is performing it. There is nothing quite like enjoying it with a full orchestra and choir. I keep a disk close at hand, and if it’s raining, it’s a safe bet that Carmina Burana is playing, whether at home or in the car. It’s especially tremendous to write with this soundtrack during a thunderstorm at my forest cabin. It’s a tremendous trifecta of emotion and creativity.
It may not be a genre of music that everyone enjoys… but for me, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is a Thing That Makes Life Worth Living.
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