There are two pieces of music that never fail to set off the waterworks in me.
I’m sure we all have some signature tune that turns us into maudlin fools crying into our beer.
Lots of music can have that effect, when you’re in the right mood. Mozart is full of such tunes. No one ever wrote about the forgiveness of human foibles like Mozart. It isn’t only in his “forgiveness arias,” but the same tone of music turns up in piano concertos and wind sextets. He had some tap into divine understanding.
When I’m in the right mood, Mozart wells up in my throat. But heck, if I’m really depressed, Stars and Stripes Forever can set me off.
But I’m talking about something that doesn’t require the right mood to work.
Anyone playing Shenandoah, for instance. I don’t care what the arrangement. You can play it on a chorus of kazoos and trombones. You can play it calypso style on steel drums — the moment I’m transported “across the wide Missouri,” I’m reduced to a blubbering mass.
Clearly, I’m responding to some sort of deep seated nostalgia, some trauma of childhood or failed romance. But strike up the tune and I’m like some drunk in a bar yelling “Play Melancholy Baby.”
Actually, I know what it is with Shenandoah: I know the Shenandoah River and the great valley it troughs through in northern Virginia, heading north to join the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry.
It is an especially beautiful river, and only more so on a cool autumn morning when a low fog hangs over the water and the sycamore trees along its banks seem to grow out of white nothing.
The Shenandoah Valley separates the Blue Ridge in the east from the great ridges of iron- and coal-laden mountains to the west. The river rises in twin forks, one on either side of Massanutten Mountain, which rises like a long, low bread loaf in the middle of the valley.
I used to live in the Blue Ridge; I have just moved back. It was the most beautiful place I ever knew. I missed it.
And when the song says, “I long to see your smiling valley,” I knew just what it meant. “Tis seven long years since I last saw thee,” the song continues. It was 25 years since my wife and I lived in the Appalachians.
We lived in Arizona, which has a beauty all its own, but is different from the Blue Ridge. And when the song reaches its climax, “across the wide Missouri,” I knew that I was on the wrong side of the Missouri, too, in a kind of self-imposed Babylonian captivity.
“By the waters of the Rio Salado, there we sat down, yea, we wept.”
The song speaks to me — as it does to so many other people — of that lost Eden we know we can never regain.
And so, I blubber.
But that second tune that sets me off is something different.
It is Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits.
Gluck was a Czech-born composer of the 18th century who rebelled against the ornate and conventional opera of the time. His opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, tells a simple myth in simple music. Almost too simple.
Two set pieces from that opera still are widely known. The Dance of the Furies was used behind the chase scene in almost every Hopalong Cassidy movie ever made. In those “B” Westerns, budgets didn’t allow new music, so they played old classics behind the action. The music was loud and furious.
But Dance of the Blessed Spirits was something else: quiet, almost static, and with the grace only utter simplicity can convey.
Two flutes play the song-like melody over the accompaniment of strings. Chords change slowly and never stray from simple diatonic harmonies.
And when the tune’s first phrase reaches conclusion, it stretches out in a feminine ending, a slow suspension off the beat. Nothing is insistent in the music, but rather, like the Grecian maiden on Keats’ urn, it seems suspended in time, permanently in a state of grace.
I melt when I hear it.
But its power comes from the same kind of emotion that drives Shenandoah: a sense of loss and a sense that somewhere there is an Eden where spirits are blessed.
Yet the tunes are very different, too. My reaction to Shenandoah is personal, very personal. Its power — for me — comes from my biography. I don’t expect everyone will react the same way.
The Gluck, though, has a more ritualized, formal power. It comes from its stylization.
For Gluck was aiming not for biography, but for the universal.
Art’s emotional wallop often comes not from its literal portrayal of raw feelings, but from the Apollonian distancing and formalization of those feelings. By understatement, it draws up a skeleton that we flesh out with our own experience.
The so-called Romantic artist often fails to exactly the extent he overplays his hand. Such an artist wants us to feel his feelings.
The Classic speaks not of his personal emotion, but of human emotion. Hence, they are our emotions.
In other words, when I hear Shenandoah, I feel the turns my life has taken; when I hear the Gluck I weep for the inescapable lot of humankind. The one traps me in my ego, the other frees me from it.
This is the power one feels in Homer, in Joyce, in Flaubert. It is the reason Haydn is still played along with the more personal Berlioz.
And it is the power at the end of Beethoven’s immense Diabelli Variations, those 32 monumental changes on the “cobbler’s patch” waltz sent to Beethoven by music publisher Anton Diabelli, who asked the great composer for a variation he might publish.
Through those variations, Beethoven dives deep into some of the most personal music he ever wrote, with adagios of desolation and pathos, culminating in a clattering, raging fugue that is as hard to listen to as to play.
But he winds up in Arcadia, just like Gluck: His final overwhelming variation is a dignified minuet, which takes all the terror and anger, all the humor and misery of the previous 31 variations and sublimates all that personal angst into an Olympian, stylized dance.
It is this ritualization of the overwhelming emotions that make those emotions important: The personal is mere autobiography. The ritual dispenses grace: the freedom from ego.
It is why our most important thoughts and feelings are turned into meter and rhyme, why our bodies move to the numbers of choreography, why the novel is the “bright book of life.”
And why art matters.