Yesterday (1/31/2016) was Franz Schubert’s 219th birthday. We celebrated by joining fifty, or so, fellow travelers for a six hour festival of Schubert’s art songs. Yes, that’s right. Six hours. The time just flew by. If you think we’re nuts for indulging in our little Schubert Mania, consider that we did decide not to attend the after party, with another four hours of Schubert singing.
We do this once a year on his birthday. The voices of the young singers, so talented and trained, bring the poetry of the music to life in ways that recordings (and I have all the great recordings) do not. And it was musical poetry that Schubert was writing, not songs in the sense of the Beatles or Beyonce. His great song cycle, Winterreise, is one of the towering works of 19th century European music.
He was an early nineteenth century romantic, which means that his poetical tastes ran to the melancholic. He was not depressed; he was convinced. He was certan that, as Rabbi Alvin Fine’s prayer puts it, “Birth is a beginning and death a destination; But life is a journey.” And he was sure that that life was destined to be filled with the denial of love’s fulfillment. He accepted that no one would ever fully and completely love him, be completely present in his life, and that the unrequited life was still worth living, writing songs about it all, at least until you die. This sounds awful to our 21st century ears, but to the young people of the early 19th century it made perfect sense. Theirs was a world of disappointment. One may as well find beauty in that.
After listening to six hours of his fellow poets (24 of them were represented) and the music he created to give emotional traction to their words, my head was filled with thoughts of my own mortality, my own unrequited loves ( people, places, things, ideas, political parties, etc.), and my own longing for release to a world that will make more sense (perhaps?), I happened to open an email attachment from an old friend who runs a Yahoo Group for alumni of a summer camp we all went to in Maine in the late 1950s and early 60s. The attachment was the list of deceased alums. It hadn’t been updated in awhile and I expected to find nothing new in the list. When I got to the bottom, I was surprised to find one name, Debbie. Of course that was not how she was listed. It gave her married name and her full first names, her maiden name and the date of her death: 5/31/2014. I immediately googled the obituary. It was only a short death notice that gave the town she lived in outside Washington D.C., her husband, her two children, her surviving brothers, one on the West Coast, one on the East. There followed that all to common notice that friends should consider a donation to the American Cancer Society in lieu of flowers.
Debbie was my first love. We met at that camp as children, and danced every dance at every Saturday night social with each other in 1962. We were twelve years old then. In the very last dance of that summer, the counselors turned off the lights in the recreation hall, the PA system played “Sealed with a Kiss” and so we did. It was the first kiss for both of us. I was determined that it would not be our last, and invited her to my Bar Mitzvah the following December as my date. Her parents and my parents arranged it, and she arrived, replete with a mouth full of braces and a blue velvet dress, her eyes sparkling with the wonder of love postponed. My parents had to keep reminding me to talk to all the guests, but I only wanted to hold her hand and talk to her of the future. Schubert would really have gotten a kick out of that!
That was the last time I saw her. We lived just far enough away from each other that visiting required parental commitment, and neither pair was interested in fostering the pre-adolescent crushes of their children. We wrote letters, but less and less frequently. She did not come to camp the following summer. I had slipped from her life and she from mine. We both went on to more mature loves. The news of her death from cancer at the age of 64, then, coming as it did on the cusp of Schubert’s birthday, showed me the up side of sorrow that he saw so well. I knew Debbie for only one brief moment of her life. Yet the promise of love that she awoke has stayed with me all my days.
Dear Debbie, this Lied is for you. . .
Mignon III (So lässt mich scheinen) (music by F. Schubert, words by W. Goethe, translated by Brian von Rueden)
So let me appear, until I actually become so.
Do not take the white dress from me!
I hurry from this lovely earth
Down to that other home below
There I will briefly lie in silent repose
Until a new vision shall appear
I will leave these pure trappings
The belt and the wreath, behind.
And the heavenly figures
Know neither male nor female
And no garments, no folded robes
Will cover my transfigured body
Though I lived without care or worry
I felt my share of deep pain
Sorrow aged me far too early;
Make me forever young.