In kindergarten, our class read the story of the Gingerbread Girl, who comes alive after she is baked and runs away to escape being eaten. We had parents come into class and help us build gingerbread people, and then set them in the oven to bake during recess, only to find them missing when we returned.
Five-year-old me had to reckon with this: surely the gingerbread people didn’t come alive and run away… right? Why would we have gone through all that work of having parents come in and help us bake if we weren’t even going to enjoy eating them? Was the entire school helping us search for the gingerbread people out of their commitment to the bit or was this a serious, real event?
My only logical conclusion? Magic. And until I realized—perhaps later than I should’ve—that the teachers and parents were just having fun, that story was my anecdote of magic, real and tangible as anything else.
Many of us believe the world is too extraordinary to be completely devoid of a sort of magic. Maybe it fits it into our articulations of religion, metaphysics, the universe. Whatever it is, many of us find that personal anecdotes and stories—of lost wedding rings recovered from the bottom of the ocean, or finding yourself next to the random person you had an incredible connection with whose number you lost—validate this enough.
I believe music is one of those extraordinary things, which I realize is no radical original thought. It’s likely the same motivator behind playing classical music for your unborn baby or playing at a nursing home: music has this ability to touch suffering hearts, to inspire, to open people up emotionally to buried meanings in their lives, to elicit peace amidst a season of chaos. I think this “ability” is where the magic lies. This is perhaps easiest to understand when music has lyrics to tell its story. Artists have a message to share with their audience; they take emotions, convert them into words, and reveal meaning. Coupled with the right soundscape, instruments, and production, a song is elevated to drive that message home, whether that be emotional, uplifting, or honest.
But classical music deserves a unique space in this conversation. With classical music, how is the story told? Is it the melody? How does an interval, a chord, share grief or passion, or create its own version of dialogue?
There is classical music I believe I understand, or at least understand how it moves me. Instruments in Tchaikovsky’s Peter and the Wolf dialogue as characters in a story that reads as if from my favorite novels. Mahler’s fourth movement of his first symphony makes every cell in my body palpitate with raw energy, like a bolt of lightning ripping from a cloud, a trembling havoc splitting the sky. Wagner’s Feierliches Stück makes me so emotional that I cried the first time I watched four cellists perform it and kept the program like a movie ticket stub saved from a first date. And in Schoenfield’s second movement, the moment when cello and piano modulate to major over the sustained note on the violin ignites the most intense relief in every nerve of my body, as though thick, viscous honey is being extracted, oozing out of every pore.
But then there is classical music, like Gabriel Fauré’s Violin Sonata in A major, whose music gambles with traditional French music to create his own musical idiom. There is music, like his, whose sonata is abundant with daring harmonies and sudden modulations, still invariably carried out with supreme elegance and a deceptive air of simplicity. Arcane details lie in his compositions, demanding a sort of access that must be discovered and pursued.
I typically reserve technically difficult or time-consuming pieces for the summer, when I know I’ll be spending seven weeks as an isolated monk practicing in a cabin at Meadowmount. These are weeks meant to drill, to experiment with sounds and techniques, to get frustrated with pieces and see them through. My reaction to Faure’s Violin Sonata—or really, the lack thereof—seemed to be an adequate reason to spend the summer of 2019 learning and untangling it.
If I can contextualize: I rely on “the way something makes me feel” in order to figure out and assess how I feel; my emotions are not the byproduct of thoughts but the producer. For better or for worse, I am sensitive to these emotions, and so, when I get that brain notification that I’m feeling “something,” I’ll search in my articulations of feelings, figure out its name, and from there, analyze what such a feeling means. This is how I build and navigate my understanding of myself in the world. And perhaps more than any bad feeling, it is most concerning when I feel nothing at all.
For example, I once spent close to an hour alone in the cereal aisle of a grocery store. I stood there, trying to figure out how I felt about each cereal, figuring out which one would serve me best at that moment. Did I want the sweetness of the Lucky Charms cereal coupled with the crispy and crumbly texture of the marshmallows or did I want the nostalgia of Pops shoved into my mouth? Fighting aggressive ambivalence, I left with no cereal; in the absence of decisive feelings, I was lost.
Confronted with the lack of tugged heartstrings and the emptiness of my mind while trying to extrapolate meaning from Fauré’s sonata, I realized that Meadowmount, with its quirks and cracks, would be the perfect landscape to uncover the answer. At 7:30 each morning, tired musicians slowly shuffled their way to the main house, motioned a spiritless wave to their counselor to confirm consciousness, and relished in the remaining half hour we had before practice hours commenced by engaging in gentle conversation over a remarkably unremarkable breakfast. Minutes before 8, I’d take my violin, music, notebook, and pencil and make my way to my Stradivarius cabin. A violinist and her metronome methodically drilling Prokofiev runs out of one cabin and a cellist hell-bent on Shostakovich double stops out another, the sounds of acoustic strings beginning to braid with the chirping of birds and mooing of cows to fill the space between the trees. My pace would slow and I’d linger by, listening and playing a guessing game of who I thought was playing. Walk a little farther, just around the bend, and there she was: weather-beaten wood clapboard painted a deep forest green and one white door with an almost completely battered mesh screen on the outside. One window, one stand, two chairs on the inside. This was where I practiced.
Day after day, I returned to the cabin. Once I had unveiled my violin from beneath her dark blue velvet blanket with its sleek silver underbelly, I secured the shoulder rest into place. Then, just as I did yesterday and just as I would do tomorrow, I began. Scales and etudes running through my left hand to warm up, followed by my Leviathan: Fauré’s Violin Sonata.
I tell you all this not to precede a detailed outline of how this sonata should be played or to explain how stiff melodies between the violin and piano will together reveal a beautifully woven relationship with just the right amount of nuance and context. If anything, I have realized it is near impossible to do that with a piece of music—that is, to explain how it is to be played. Even all the recordings in the world and all the best teachers, even endless time and patience and perseverance, are not enough to transform notes on a page into music, transformative and meaningful. Perhaps more than anything, it is in the choice to pursue and uncover that music comes alive in the way we imagine.