Physical Therapy

When I was younger, as some of you readers are aware, I broke my leg (I leave the story of how that happened for another day). I remember the day the blue fiberglass cast finally came off, as I sat on the orthopedist’s table. I saw my leg for the first time in several weeks: it had shriveled. My left foot and calf were noticeably thinner than my healthier right foot. Looking at the contrast caused by muscle atrophy, at this leg I didn’t even recognize as my own anymore, I began to cry. When the orthopedist re-entered the room, he told me in a commanding voice that my leg was completely healed and to go run down the hall to the waiting room. Well, I didn’t run. I hobbled.

And I kept limping for a while. Until I grew accustomed to limping, favoring my left leg. I borrowed a cane that had once belonged to my granddad, and used this to support me for a while. The orthopedist had promised that since I was young I would probably bounce back from the injury without a need for physical therapy. Well, I remember my mom seeing me limp out from my room one day and, in exasperation, declaring that I was going to see a therapist.

So I did. The therapists put electrodes on my foot to warm up the muscles for about 15 minutes, and then I began doing exercises. Some of it was painful, and I know I cried at least once. As visits continued, I got to know several of the people at the center. There was Reneaux, the stocky therapist whose real name was Renard but insisted it was important to have a cool nickname. He recommended “Captain Jack” for me. Then there was Rebecca, another therapist who had always wanted to play the violin and actually started learning after she found out where I took lessons.

The other patients there also had their own stories. An older lady came regularly for therapy on her wrist, which she had broken after tripping on some sort of pet leash. She had an odd notch in one of her calves, and one day she explained what had happened: she had had a growth there, so she had gone to the doctor, who looked at it and then informed her that he was 99% sure it was cancerous and that he’d have to amputate her leg to keep it from spreading. “I cried the whole way home,” she said. But when she woke up from surgery, she still had both legs—apparently the cancer hadn’t metastasized, so all the surgeon’s had to remove was a big chunk out of her calf.

One patient, an exuberant woman in her late twenties, sat next to me a couple times. Like me, she was receiving leg therapy. She loved getting to know people and talking about her church, and she asked one day what had happened to me. After I told her, she shook her head, “Ahh, you’ll be all right, though. You’re young, and you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. When you get to be older, they fix you by putting nuts and bolts and rods in you.” She laughed and demonstrated by extending her leg until her reconstructed knee stuck in a rigid, mechanical sort of way.

People like this encouraged me, but looking back I still cringe thinking about how much I milked my injury. Of course, I didn’t think I was at the time, but I most certainly did.

Since then, I have had a more general realization: there comes a point where I can begin milking pain or sadness in my life the same way I milked my leg injury. Using it as a subconscious excuse to be lazy, or reckless, or rude. In reading Nathaniel Hawthorne last quarter, a quote struck me, one from The Dolliver Romance, which describes a widow (and possibly refers to Hawthorne’s own mother) “whose grief outlasted even its vitality, and grew to be merely a torpid habit” (Hawthorne).

When grief becomes habit, be careful. It might be time to say, “Yes, I was hurt, and maybe nobody expects much of me, and maybe I’m not completely healed yet, but it’s time for me to stop using this as an excuse. It’s time to move on.”

The Poet of Music

Last week, I discussed Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Die Schöne Müllerin, D. 795 (Op. 25).”  Today, Caroline Bennett introduces us to Schubert’s life and many of his works, including his haunting lieder “Der Erlkönig.”

franz-schubert-portrait

“Truly this Schubert has the divine fire.”Ludwig van Beethoven

Throughout his life, Franz Schubert’s contemporaries reasoned that he was so adept at playing instruments, learning pieces, and writing music because “he has learned it from God.” They had good reason to wonder at Schubert’s talent, for without a doubt he was an amazing musician, and his expressive compositions for voice, orchestra, and piano were some of the finest pieces written during the Romantic era.

Born in 1797 in Vienna to a schoolmaster and his wife, Franz Peter Schubert began studying music at an early age, first under his father and older brother, and later under the parish church’s choirmaster. By the time he was thirteen, Schubert was composing original works of music, and he quickly realized that this was his calling. Despite his lifelong dedication to his art and his hard work, Schubert was often so poor that he could not buy paper to write his music on, much less own a piano. Yet Schubert’s music was his life, and he never considered a more lucrative job.

johann-goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, author of “Der Erlkönig”

Schubert’s friendly and modest disposition gained him many friends, some of whom were poets. Through their influence, he became very interested in poetry and its association with music. Schubert set many poems to music, and these pieces—classified as lieder, or “art songs”—are his most prominent works. Indeed, many critics say that the greatest art song ever written is Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig,” with words by the German poet Johann Goethe. Schubert wrote “Der Erlkönig” in less than an hour, and its driving piano accompaniment and the frantic, but sometimes soothing, vocal part perfectly suits the story of a father galloping home with his frightened son, while the young boy is assailed by the evil Elf King. Schubert also wrote the famous accompaniment for Sir Walter Scott’s “Ave Maria.”

Even when Schubert’s pieces are not settings of poems, his music has a poetic quality to it, for he studied so many different instruments that he was able to write melodies that make instruments “sing.” In his Symphony No. 8 in B Minor—often known as the Unfinished Symphony, despite its completeness—Schubert used a lilting theme that is repeated throughout by different instruments and perfectly suits each one. The piece is very dramatic, much like works written by Schubert’s contemporary Ludwig van Beethoven, and the deeper tones of the basses and cellos are often featured beneath the peaceful melodies of the violins and woodwinds.

pianoThough Schubert was adept at writing for many different instruments, he wrote the most for piano, and through this instrument proved how good a “poet” he was with music. His piano impromptus are especially moving, with tender melodies flowing throughout. But no two impromptus have the same sound; some are rather playful, some romantic, some grand.

Despite Schubert’s entrancing melodies and moving lieder, he never enjoyed great popularity in Europe during his lifetime. He died of typhoid fever at the young age of thirty-one, and remained relatively unknown until the composer Robert Schumann began promoting his works a few decades after his death. During his life, Schubert was applauded and encouraged only by his friends; now the poet of the piano is appreciated by music-lovers around the world, and remembered as a leading force in Romantic music.

 

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

♪ Fischer-Dieskau, Dietrich. Schubert: Goethe-Lieder. Deutsche Grammophon, June 15, 1999.

♪ Karajan, Herbert Von. Schubert Symphonien 8 and 9. EMI Classics, 1978.

♪ Perahia, Murray. Schubert Impromptus D 899 & D 935. Sony Classical, 1992.

Schubert’s Song Cycle

Franz Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin, D. 795 (Op. 25)” is a song cycle based on poetry by Wilhelm Müller.  The work contains 20 songs which tell the story of a journeyman who falls in love with a miller’s daughter.  Schubert wrote this piece for piano and solo tenor, and each song reflects the part of the story being told.  When the journeyman is traveling, the music is jolly and energetic.  When the hunter becomes a rival for the miller’s daughter’s affections, the music is stormy, fast, and aggressive.  The song cycle ends with a tender lullaby that the brook by the mill sings after the journeyman has drowned himself.

schubert-and-muller
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827)

Throughout the song cycle, Schubert showcases the potential of piano and tenor voice, and each of his songs is creative and beautiful.  The songs evoke a range of emotions from happiness to melancholy to anger to jealousy to delight.  Sometimes the piano is a rippling, bubbling brook; other times it is a tender pulse of sadness.  The piano and tenor voice complement each other, and Schubert uses them like a duet instead of as a soloist and accompaniment.  One of my favorite parts is when Schubert’s songs sound like the predecessors of Scott Joplin’s music.

“Die Schöne Müllerin” by Franz Schubert tells its story beautifully through its unique and lovely cycle of songs, and Schubert’s melodies in this piece reveal he was a master of his art.

♪ Note: To learn more about Schubert and his works, come back in a week and read Caroline Bennett’s next article, which will be about the Austrian composer’s life and music.

A New Sound for the Day

Whenever I discover a new album or group they tend to take up hours worth of listening time over the first weeks after discovery. Following are a few of the groups who have recently made it onto my repeat playlist:

  1. Lish Starshine and the Spirit Animals. Based out of Shreveport, Louisiana, they blend a beautiful classic rock sound with great vocals. Their music is energetic, upbeat, and is enjoyable to listen too while performing a variety of activities.

2. A Hill to Die Upon. Based out of Illinois, this black/death metal band creates songs that are dark, intriguing, and hauntingly beautiful. Given their genre, the style will not appeal to all audiences (harsh vocals), but the style is befitting of the subject matter (e.g. two of my favorite songs of theirs are “Oh Death” and “Satan Speaks”).

3. Lumsk. Hearkening from Norway, this folk metal band features clean Scandinavian vocals, interesting instruments (including pipe organ), and mythically inspired lyrics. The group has produced three albums with the newest one being more rock/pop than metal; however, all three albums feature strong folk elements that create beautiful and fascinating soundscapes.

 

 

A Book About Magic

I was browsing Netflix one fine autumn evening, when there appeared, “recommended for you,” a miniseries by the name of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.  I read the synopsis, and while I was skeptjonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverical of the screen cap, I decided to give the miniseries a shot upon discovering it was created by the BBC, which produces content of some quality more often than not.  I finished all seven episodes within the week, and I thoroughly recommend them.  However, this article will concern Susanna Clarke’s novel of the same name upon which the series was based, a 2004 New York Times bestseller and 2005 Hugo Award winner for Best Novel.  Both the book and its adaption are nearly identical in overall plot, with a few minor alterations.  Of course, the novel has a depth of content and a winning style that cannot quite be captured on screen, although the series makes a valiant and very nearly successful effort.

Beginning her first chapter in 1806, Clarke presents what may be considered an alternate history of England.  In her world, England was once renowned for its magic, magic that has all but vanished from the land following the departure, nearly 300 years ago, of the mythical Raven King, who once held court in the North.  Enter Mr. Norrell, an extremely reclusive, pedantic gentleman of Yorkshire, who, as it turns out, is neither a “theoretical magician” nor a charlatan, but is actually capable of producing the magic he studies.

Mr. Norrell takes it upon himself to reestablish England as a beacon of magic –  using it to aid his country in the Napoleonic wars, among other services – but of a particular sort of magic: modern, respectable stuff, as admirable a field of study as the law or the Church, magic that is certainly not the wild sort employed by the Raven King and his kind.  Enter Jonathan Strange, a young man whose temperament is nearly the opposite of Mr. Norrell’s, but whose talent for magic is quite equal.  Mr. Strange is not as adverse to that ancient, uncivilized magic as Mr. Norrell would like him to be, and it is the relationship between these two magicians that forms the heart of the novel.

Yet, for all Mr. Norrell’s obsession with reinventing English magic as “respectable,” and the great trouble and turmoil this causes throughout the novel, it is a lapse in Mr. Norrell’s prized judgement that is ultimately revealed to have set the plot in motion.  For, early in the story, whilst still establishing his reputation as a practical magician, Mr. Norrell swallows his scruples and performs a bit of magic that requires aid from a fairy.  And, as those of you who are familiar with the old tales know, fairies are not to be trusted.

Spanning a thousand pages or more (depending on which edition you’re reading), Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a rather complex novel, to put it mildly.  But however thick a tome it may be and however many footnotes it may contain,1 I would not describe it as a “dense” read.  This is due, I believe, to Clarke’s superb sense of literary style.

How best to describe the tone of the writing?  I believe I read somewhere a parallel to the style of Jane Austen, herself of the Regency era, and I agree with this comparison.  The novel, though a serious work, has a quite a bit of Austen’s sardonic wit, revealed in such quotes as:  “It was an old fashioned house – the sort of house in fact, as Strange expressed it, which a lady in a novel might like to be persecuted in.”  Or, “How quickly was every bad thing discovered to be the fault of the previous administration (an evil set of men who wedded general stupidity to wickedness of purpose).”

It really is rather like reading a Jane Austen fantasy novel.  And yet, as wry as the telling is, the novel is also at once fanciful and melancholy: “Woods were ringed with a colour so soft, so subtle that it could scarcely be said to be a colour at all. It was more the idea of a colour – as if the trees were dreaming green dreams or thinking green thoughts.”  Indeed, many spectacles are twinged with horror, such as is spoken by the enigmatic gentleman with the thistle-down hair, who nonchalantly relates how “I cleverly contrived to capture the little children of my enemy and we pushed them out of the belfry to their deaths.  Tonight we re-enact this great triumph…Of course, it was a great deal more striking when we used real children.”

Clarke likewise does an excellent job of immersing her complex characters within their worlds; nothing feels anachronistic. In fact, the characters espouse the backwards opinions of their time (Mr. Norrell, as well as being against street-magicians and vagabond-magicians, is also very much against “lady-magicians.”)  At the same time, Clarke is able to make use of her current perspective, exploring for example, the subject of slavery, a topic that authors such as Austen just barely mention; the son of an African slave observes: “…skin can mean a great deal. Mine means that any man may strike me in a public place and never fear the consequences. It means that my friends do not always like to be seen with me in the street. It means that no matter how many books I read, or languages I master, I will never be anything but a curiosity – like a talking pig or a mathematical horse.”

Altogether, while picking up Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell may be a lengthy endeavor, I consider it quite worth the while for those looking to invest their minds in an elaborate, well-thought out novel, and for those who perhaps may have a great deal in common with the titular characters: “Books and magic are all either of them really care about.”

  1. Some readers complain of these notes, which generally provide “historical” context – often an account of magic – but I, as a fan of British fairytales and legends, found them enthralling.

A note about the title of this article: the title is derived from the layman’s rule of thumb concerning magical books: “…books written before magic ended in England are books of magic, books written later are books about magic.”  Of course, magicians find plenty of ways to quarrel over this maxim.