Rediscovering Mendelssohn

My love affair with the piano has been, by turns, passionate, stormy, and for years at a stretch ruled by benign neglect.

My first piano was an ancient upright, which I played until the tops of the keys came off and my fingers stuck to the gluey surfaces of what remained. For the first time in memory, I wonder if we ever tried to glue the tops back on? Most likely we did. Once I had mastered Sweet Hour of Prayer and it looked like the lessons were going to “take” — my Daddy bought an Everett spinet. With my child’s limited vision at that time, it never occurred to me to consider or reflect upon what sacrifices might have been necessary to make the purchase possible.

And lessons weren’t cheap even then, yet for years my mother drove me to the half hour lesson at Mrs. Evelyn Clites’ home in Limona, near our home in Brandon, Florida. Mother sat out in the car while I went inside to soak up lessons from Mrs. Clites, not only piano and music theory, but poise, gentility, patience, joy, kindness, personal discipline and optimism. That remarkable teacher introduced me to Broadway in addition to Mendelssohn. She gave me biographies of composers to read, and I learned that few masterpieces are created from the backdrop of a sheltered, comfortable life. The classical music study revealed to me how beauty and passion can emerge only after focused practice to master the details of fingering, phrasing and expression. Only at that point, when you can forget about those details and put your own joyous suffering soul into the music, will its true transformative power be felt and heard and you will find yourself laughing and crying and feeling tinglingly alive.

The Broadway musicals sheet music that got tossed to me as reward stimulated my imagination for far away places, and stirred within me a lifelong love of lyrics. All composers, lyricists, poets, writers, sculptors, painters, and photographers are at the top of my heart’s evolutionary heap.

In those years of my mid to late teens, when the atmosphere in our home played out a mournful dirge in a chaotic and minor key, beautiful music was my solace, my bridge to the future. Playing the sheet music collection from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, I was enthralled. Exhilarated, I would sing “I Feel Pretty” in my high, quavery voice, while whirling around mother’s furniture with a dust cloth. Leaping and sliding while singing “I Could Have Danced All Night” from Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s My Fair Lady, my dance partner was a broom.

Once in high school, I accompanied a beautiful red haired girl in the Miss Tampa beauty contest on the piano while she sang “Tonight” from West Side Story. I can recall being on stage at a huge Steinway grand piano, the lights hot and bright, a sea of blurry faces somewhere out there. My soloist wore a luminous blue gown to accent her gorgeous coppery tresses and mitigate her thin, reedy voice. I was too shy then to mix and mingle, but rather slipped onstage, played and went home. No matter. I had a ball, and the experience was yet another shiny rock to added to my collection of ways to be in the world.

I left that Everett piano behind, along with almost every other personal possession, when I divorced my first husband. I gave the piano to my younger brother. He had never had an opportunity for lessons, but seemed to have a talent for improvisation and a desire to play. He kept it for awhile.

Living without a piano for several years seemed an appropriate penance to me for various failures and missteps in my life. This was a period of self-examination and change, an exfoliance of fake skins and false personas, a return to the tree-climbing girl of my youth. Through it, I found the love of my life, accepted responsibility for the first time and began to live my destiny.

It was during this time that I read Ira Progoff’s “At A Journal Workshop” on the recomendation of a psycholgogy professor friend. The cognitive journalling techniques were extremely helpful, especially the Twilight Imagery exercises, and the metaphor of “progressively entering the well of inward experience until we are able to reach the underground stream.” Here is an unedited entry from my first Period Image journal entry during that time of growth and change back in the early 1980s:

“Period Images — searching, a wandering pilgrim. I imagined myself climbing into the well of inward experience. The water was slightly warm and felt soothing. The water level lowered gradually, much like a slow elevator, until I found myself on the banks of an underground tream. I saw a young girl, about twelve years old, with long dark hair, dressed in a burgundy dress with a white lace pinafore, dressy white socks with round-toed black patent leather shoes. She is holding a baby doll of some sort, and is sitting on the bank of the stream. The stream itself is dark, cool and quiet. It is night, but there is a bright moon and there are many stars. The stream reflects the light back to the young girl.

The young girl is me. She is watching a slowly revolving carousel. Instead of horses on the carousel, there are cutouts of me in various adult personas. One with a ‘dress for success’ tailored suit and briefcase; one relaxed in jeans and old blue sweatshirt; one in cocktail dress and fur; one in negligee; one in flannel pajamas. This image fades, and I (as an adult) find myself walking alongside the stream. I pick up several stars lying along the bank and put them in my pocket. I have an image of speaking to large audiences. They applaud and reach out to me. I also see the young girl in a pinafore wanting to be a kind woman in an apron.

I sit beside the stream building a sand castle. I must be careful to let the stream continue its free flow. If I build the castle so large it blocks the stream, the moat of protection will become a stagnant pool.”

Buck and I married in 1984. He designed our first home, which we moved into in 1986. Soon after, a delivery truck arrived, carrying a stunning ebony Yahama professional studio piano, a love gift from the man who always encourages my dreams.

The Yamaha moved with us to North Carolina, where it was ensconced in the glassed-in room we called the Snow Porch — so named because it was the best place around for watching as a winter snowfall turned the mountains white. The Black Moriah, our fond nickname for the Yamaha piano, is in storage now along with the rest of our North Carolina furniture, awaiting the call to join us here when the Longleaf expansion is complete.

Meanwhile, I am not without a piano to play. Buck’s father, Earl, bought a Baldwin Acrosonic spinet for Buck’s mother, Lois, back in the early 1940’s. It has suffered a bit from a sojourn in the home of some of Lois’ great-grandchildren, especially when one youngster carved her name into it with a pocket knife. It has come back to us now for safe keeping.

We moved it to a place along the living room wall in the lodge yesterday where the light is good and there is sufficient space around it to invite others to sing or play along with guitar or flute. This space has perfect chemistry, and the old Baldwin sounds better than I have ever heard it.

Into the night, I played Clementi Sonatinas, Rachmaninoff Ballades, and Mendelssohn’s heartrendingly lovely Songs Without Words.

An old piece of sheet music in the piano bench caught my eye and I played it — the last song before bedtime. It is called “My God and I” and the text and music were written by I. B. Sergei, copyright 1935. A notice on the back says, “Music Directors. . . . performing this number are invited to visit the composer at his home. For appointment write to the publisher. The KAMA CO, P.O. Box 1929, Chicago, Ill.” The music was described as “from the repertoire of the LATVIAN SINGERS.” Its words, rather wonderful, are to be sung “in a very slow and dreamy manner.”

“My God and I, go in the field together, we walk and talk as good friends should and do, we clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter, my God and I, walk through the meadow’s hue.

He tells me of the years that went before me, when heav’nly plans were made for me to be, when all was but a dream of dim conception, to come to life, earth’s verdant glory see.

My God and I, will go for aye together, we’ll walk and talk and jest as good friends do. This earth will pass and with it common trifles, but God and I will go unendingly.”

Turning out the light, well satisfied, I went into our bedroom where Maggie was snoring and Buck was holding a book, but not reading, his eye fixed on a distant point of memory. I told him about the lyrics. He smiled, nostalgia evident in his expression. “I know it well. Mother would play it by the hour.”

I slipped into bed, wedging myself between Buck and Maggie.

“Will the circle be unbroken,
By and by, Lord, by and by?”

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