Everybody secretly yearns to be the next “original.” Nobody wants to remind anyone of somebody else they know. In spite of the billions upon billions of us and, though likely manifest more strongly in some than in others, we each carry within us the desire to break the mold.
Among the vast and nearly endless array of musical masterworks created for orchestra from across virtually every country in Europe (and, more recently, the rest of the world), many have enjoyed a wide audience for decades, crossing the generations. From Beethoven’s symphonies through the Russian masters to Americans like Copland and Gershwin, these comprise a virtual museum for the listening ear – the “classics.” And, each is a singular original.
Others are lesser known.
In the hands of mere mortals, just such unfamiliar pieces are nonetheless a real challenge to pull off; in short, they’ve garnered less air time because they represent, in the hands of all but the best, a greater risk to the reputation of the musicians.
A certain serenade fits that bill.
Miklos Rozsa, best known as composer of film scores for such epics as “Ben Hur” and “The Thief of Baghdad”, wasn’t only servant to the cinematic medium; he also composed legitimate, stand alone orchestral pieces. One of his most sensuous he called “Hungarian Serenade” because, well, he was Hungarian.
Like most Hungarians and probably few Serenades, the piece is both passionate and flamboyantly effusive, yet irresistibly persuasive; it bespeaks at once the soul of a man who yearns, whose feelings are deep, and of a nation’s people wearing their hearts on its sleeve.
Now, this Hungarian composer loved the cello. He loved it so much that he featured the instrument prominently in the music he wrote. His Serenade has five movements, but the second is devoted almost exclusively to the cello’s voice.
And, no shrinking violet, Rozsa gives the cello one royal entrance: an octave shift, right out of the gate.
From the day of my own emergence, and many years before I knew what a cello was, I was destined – if my father had anything to say about it – to be one of a kind. He would raise me on the sound of his bari-tenor, crooning the hymns and gaslight love songs of his generation. A singular talent, himself, he would continually remind me that I was a “born artist.” Eventually, I became one – first, through visual media, and then, via the musical profession. And, I did so boldly, from the deep conviction of my father’s endowment.
But, my mother was raised on fear. Her father was an English street preacher. He regularly beat his eldest daughter. And, he took his family, every Sunday morning, to the small, exclusive, sectarian Fundamentalist meeting hall of the Plymouth Brethren, where they could be reminded – all day long, and again on Tuesday and Friday night – of their inheritance: total, and original, sin.
It would take the whole of life thus far for me to realize how un-reconcilable such branding would be; conceived to be a creative, to express the ineffable, yet saturated by a sense of sinfulness. Instead of finding an otherwise inevitable place among the “free spirits”, self-loathing became my middle name.
This past Saturday, as section leader among the cellists of the Erie Chamber Orchestra, and the ” Hungarian Serenade” having been an included feature, I was called upon to present Rozsa’s cello solo in all its magnificence. I meditated; I set my inner narrative on the positive affirmations of my musical lineage; I prepared, diligently, the entire body of that singular voice; I took my beta blocker. I was, by all accounts, ready to meet the task.
But, this time, the devil would be in one, pesky mathematical detail: statistical probability.
Delicately balancing delusional grandeur and innate fatalism, I had faced that formidable octave each time with the measured mix of physical distribution of weight, point of arrival, and trajectory. Between practice at home, and the three opportunities our orchestral budget would allow with my colleagues, I had managed to nail that shift at every rehearsal. And, I mean, down to the precisely required vibrational frequency.
Come the concert, and its moment of truth, however, one inner battle with cognitive dissonance could not be surmounted by either mental conditioning or earnest commitment to the music; statistically, my odds for missing that octave had steadily increased!
Like all good Hungarians, I heaved a melodramatic sigh, smiled at my section mates, gave my conductor a sure nod, and went for it.
There was much to celebrate at the close of that performance. Our featured violinist, Michael Ludwig, stepping in at the last minute to cover the most difficult concerto in the repertoire, was an absolutely flawless and mesmerizing sensation. Our ensemble had never been tighter. Each family of the orchestra was more than worthy of thunderous acknowledgement. And, I would immerse myself in the joyful relief of having expressed my creative soul more fully than ever before.
Yet, if I truly bore the aforementioned stain, the devil would have his jollies. He would indulge them in that microtone living just beneath the point of arrival of the octave B, and it would not matter one iota if anybody else admitted to the hearing.
Original sin is so engraved in the psyche that, even when one proves to oneself a capacity for the truly amazing, one can spend a lifetime yearning to give oneself its permission. In the meantime, opting to be carried by the exultant triumph of the human spirit, seeking the rewards of the total spectrum of artistic experience, can rival even the exacting order of the universe. We may all be self-generating expressions of the same, original DNA, after all. Original sin, be damned.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo 11/23/15 All rights those of the author; sharing permitted only by written request. Thank you!