Of Grand Masses and big messes.

By the end, I am always smitten.

It never seems to start like that, though. Instead, I’m like a sceptical Midwestern farmer: ‘Haven’t heard you, haven’t heard of you, don’t know you, don’t know if I like you.’

Berlioz, Grande Messe de Morts. At first glance, the title suggests a big mess. And, as with so many of these massive orchestral pieces I have been fortunate to play, at the very beginning I am in a state of confusion and uncertainty.

What? Four brass bands? Two hundred voices? What? Violas trading chords with the wind section? What? Coupling flutes and trombones? How many timpani? How many bassoons? Are you sure that’s not a misprint?

Nevertheless, we show up to rehearsals and learn the notes. ‘What is this?’ players in my section ask one another after the first read through.  Week on week, the music emerges. It is not a big mess, but a grand mass, a requiem, a tribute to fallen soldiers in the French Revolution of 1830.

I not only learn the notes, but learn to listen to the music’s story, finding meaning in the melody. The constantly changing key signature of the Dies Irae stops being a nuisance and becomes a musical metaphor. Yes, on the day of reckoning, it would be hard to know just what ground you stand on. Of course the keys are constantly shifting underfoot. Following directly on from the Dies Irae is the Tuba Mirium, where the four brass bands make their entries like the four winds, each playing from a different section of the cathedral, the calls combining and colliding in the middle like a fountain of sound.

After an ethereal, acapella Quarens Me from the chorus, the strings come staggering in to the Lachrymosa with lopsided grace. Is there any other kind for those of us with feet of clay?

Of the Offertorium, our conductor says: ‘Imagine this as a three members of a string quartet, knowing they will never play with the fourth again.’ This idea takes my breath away. What is the complex narrative of such sadness?

‘I don’t care what backstory you make up for this music,’ he says at the end of our final rehearsal, ‘but don’t play a single bar without imagining it as part of something staged, some story to tell.’

The backstory. This reminds me of my piano teacher, who would ask, ‘what’s the story in the music?’ for each piece I learned by heart for a recital. I would make a story to hold the beginning, middle, and end together. Knowing the story made it impossible to forget the music because I always knew what happened next.

One of my traditions with the concert in Ely Cathedral is that during the long break between the final rehearsal and the performance, I go to Topping Books and choose a book.   I spend as long as I like looking at all 3 floors of books, nosing through philosophy, fiction, travel, poetry. My bounty in years past has included The Elegance of the Hedgehog, The Sorrows of an American, and Let the Great World Spin. One year, I bought the Life in UK Test – Official Study Guide. It was a necessary evil (the book, the test). The next year, I got a copy of A Moveable Feast. That took away any bad taste lingering from the previous year’s choice.

This year, I found The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. I was delighted to learn the title is taken from Georgia O’Keefe. ‘From the faraway nearby’ is how she would sign her letters written from New Mexico. Yes, New Mexico is my faraway nearby.

I opened the book and the first sentence asks me:

What’s your story?

Exactly the question I have been asking myself for the past month or so. She continues:

It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.

I had found my book for the year.

One of the themes of the book is story as a conduit for empathy, for connection.   Another theme is story as coming home to one’s own place in the world. These themes resonate deeply with me.

Which brings me back to the concert. Although the music somehow always assembles itself into a story by the time we perform, the beginning of learning is inevitably a mystery and a struggle. How are we going to pull this one off? This one, I think, this will be the one that undoes me.

But I’m proved wrong again. It doesn’t undo me. With practice and faith in the alchemy of process, the Requiem steps out of the fog and into its own majesty. It ends with an echo of the beginning, an older version of itself revisiting a once familiar place. It closes as the strings pass arpeggios from section to section like a giant harp, the entire orchestra a single instrument. Requiem. Peace.

As I said, I am smitten.

You might think that after eight seasons with the Philharmonic, I’d get used to this transformation. But no, not really.   Like the coming of spring, it astounds me each time. I hope it always will.

What does this have to do with story as a conduit for empathy, story as coming home?

The experience of playing these monumental works, of journeying from unfamiliar black marks on white pages to heart-rending music is what inspires me to write stories which seem beyond me at the beginning. In early drafts, I often don’t know what a story is about.  That’s why I’m writing it: to find out. I’m not sure what it’s all leading up to, but I keep turning up anyway. And slowly and surely, just like the Requiem, the whole becomes clearer and I see a way. A way to understanding another, a path to finding my way home.

In that spirit, I’m starting something that feels big for this autumn; I’m starting some Writing Circles, where we begin from the blank page and work our way to telling a tale that matters to us.  We will write together towards stories that will teach us empathy, stories that will lead us home. The Grand Masses and big messes of music have taught me that with faith and practice, we can create something bigger than what we think we know. Want to join me?

Registration for Writing Circles now open. Visit here for details.

Click here for photos from our concert in Ely.

This entry was posted in Music and art, teaching and learning, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Of Grand Masses and big messes.

  1. rebeccashankland says:

    Never heard (of) the Berlioz Requiem, must add to must-listen. But I’d really like to hear it at Ely Cathedral….

    Never saw such fabulous writing about music, either. And the story of how it morphed from grand mess to Grande Messe.

    So, I knew that O’Keeffe painted something she called “From the Faraway Nearby,” but I had no idea that was her letter sign-off. Now I need to find that book AND that painting AND that mass.


    • Melissa says:

      Thanks Becky. I’ll have to look up that painting, too! I love Rebecca Solnit’s writing. I often forget to look for her books, but then they seem to fall in my path at serendipitous times. The other two I enjoyed are Wanderlust, a History of Walking and A Field Guide to Getting Lost.


  2. Pingback: What are you waiting for? | one tree bohemia

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