Anne Fadiman, editor of The American Scholar, columnist for Civilization (the magazine of the Library of Congress) and author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, is currently in her second year as a lecturer in the English department at Smith. Elizabeth Walters '01 majored in English, was editor of The Sophian and, for three years, concert mistress of the Smith College Orchestra. Last year Walters took Fadiman's course, "Writing About Oneself," during which, over 13 weeks, students read and wrote about such themes as education, angst, childhood, family, loss, travel, adventure and altered states. Walters' piece on love was written for that class.
Loving a Symphony
Through the Eyes (and Ears) of a Writer
By Elizabeth Walters '01
It began with an intellectual attraction.
That was a familiar scenario: all of my great romances, one-sided
or reciprocal, have begun with an intellectual attraction. One
boy could write well, another was an amazing musician and wore
bow ties every day. My most torturous affair, one that seemed
wonderful until I was jilted at the last minute, was with an
institution of higher learning where everyone seemed like someone
I could be friends with. All of the objects of my admiration
over the years have had some outstanding characteristic that
just simply jumped into my head and filled a void in it and then
they usually worked their way into my more emotional sensibilities
within the next minute or so. So it was with Beethoven's Ninth
I think it was in that instant when I effectively promised a year of my life to Beethoven's Ninth that I fell in love with it. I was familiar only with the well-known "Ode to Joy" melody of the fourth movement, and it would be at least a semester before I would begin to feel the themes of the delicately constructed third movement that would become my favorite. And yet, from my decision to play it, my affection for the piece was defined by the deepest levels of loyalty and commitment. My friend Rachel, who spends a good deal of time writing, has a sign taped next to the keyboard of her laptop: "Work is love made visible." I had always considered the slogan to be somewhat idealistic, but when I committed myself to the Ninth, I suddenly knew it to be entirely plausible. In my instance, work became love made audible.
Throughout the next year, my relationship with the Ninth was marked by endless hours of cheerful practicing, extra rehearsals to which I summoned my violin section by phonemail, extra lessons in which I studied only the symphony, and daily listening sessions I imposed on myself. As the months passed, my entire mentality began to center around the Ninth. I did not think of spring as spring; it was simply the season in which I would perform the piece. I dragged my violin section members into my fanaticism, leaving nearly daily phone messages reminding them of what passages they needed to woodshed. Falling in love with the Ninth was not that much different from falling in love with a college or with a boy who wrote a metrically perfect poem in the ninth grade. In fact, it was better, because there was no risk of rejection as long as I worked hard enough.
The most wonderful thing about falling in love with a symphony is that there are no concerns of exclusivity: one person's love for a symphony does not prevent anyone else from falling in love with it; in fact, the love is strengthened by the number of admirers. And yet, the love need not be uniform: everyone in the ensemble must have loved that piece, but it meant different things to each of us.
As the months passed, the whole orchestra saw that our long hours of rehearsal were being rewarded with a higher level of musicality. The resulting excitement was tangible. On the night of the concert, when the time finally came for me to walk onstage and tune, I saw that the hushed concert hall was filled beyond capacity. As I tuned the ensemble, I noticed that the orchestra members listened to one another with a precision I had never before observed.
The playing itself took no time at all.
It never does in a concert. The Ninth is about 75 minutes in length, but we seemed to take no more than five to play it that night. Suddenly we were in the third movement, the violas and woodwinds were trading off on the beautiful melody that the violins never get to play, and then we were in the fourth movement, digging into the strings when the orchestra played alone and leaning back in our chairs when the chorus sang over us. Even though the playing went so quickly, I still had time to be amazed by the sensation among the ensemble members. The musicians were listening so closely to one another, it was as if we were all connected with pieces of string.
We were supposed to keep our instruments up at the end in order for the recording engineer to catch the hall's natural ambience, but someone in the first row knew exactly when the piece had ended, and began applauding. By the time we stood up, the entire audience was on its feet. The ovation lasted four-and-a-half minutes.
The worst thing about falling in love with a symphony is that the affair must end with the performance. There is nowhere to go after the climax of performance; there is no forward direction in which to proceed. The next day, I took my CD of the Cleveland Orchestra playing the Ninth from its place of honor next to my stereo and placed it among the rest of my recordings. We returned our music and ate sundaes at the next rehearsal, discussing pieces for the next year. We settled on From the New World, Dvorák's Ninth Symphony. I was pleased, but not necessarily enthused. New World is a great piece, but not one that requires the attention of a year. In July I received my recording of the Beethoven concert in the mail. I listened to the CD once and put it away. Hearing my own performance of the Ninth brought back acute sensations of ecstasy and loss. As of this writing, I have still listened to the recording on only one occasion.
Amherst's orchestra performed the Ninth during my last semester in college, and they borrowed the new edition that Smith had purchased for our concert.
I worked at the performing arts library, and during a work shift I was assigned the task of cataloguing the parts in preparation for lending to Amherst. I flipped through the folders until I found my old part and read through it. I still remembered every pencil marking as well as every note, and I closed it and placed it back in the folder with a twinge, knowing that whoever would next play from the part would certainly erase my markings to make his or her own.
is published by the Smith College Office of College Relations
for alumnae, staff, students and friends.
Copyright © 2001, Smith College. Portions of this publication may be reproduced with the permission of the Office
of College Relations, Garrison Hall, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts 01063. Last update: 9/9/2001.
Made with Macintosh