A senior concert of the High School of Music and Art - Paul Goodman

Paul Goodman recounts observing a school concert.

I always come ahead of time, to see what goes on.

It's a big orchestra of empty chairs, with their stands and lights and music-sheets, must be eighty or eighty-five. So far only the drummer, a slight bespectacled boy with colourless hair — when he bends his ear close to the kettle-drums, he is lost in the equipment. He has stage-fright and is nervously banging away bang! bong! dominant and tonic. Now others players are appearing at their stands, trying to look business-like. A young miss, quite a young lady with a turquoise blouse and a skirt of flaring orange, is screwing together with quick twists the three pieces of her silver flute.

The kids have collected too early, to warm up their instruments. They have stage-fright and each is private. Each kid is practicing his own phrase forte or fortissimo, the din is fierce. Each kid heedless of the others and of the audience that has begun straggling in, the parents.

You expect them to start pacing up and down on the field, to burst into a sprint down the field, to heave a lead shot erratically in a thoughtless direction and almost knock somebody's head off, while the sun floods down his unstinting light from the royal-blue sky.

Now thirty or forty of them have gathered and are busy practicing; but if you look at the programme — the phrases they are loudly playing have nothing to do with the concert to come. In private, heedless of one another and of the audience and also of the concert to come, each kid is seeking safety in his "own" music, the way musical adolescents — and these adolescents are very musical — hear with fanatical rapture the harmony that was invented specially for oneself, no one else in all the generations ever understood it, "really" understood it. Also, now without any stage-fright, in isolated day-dreams each is performing brilliantly on a bright stage to a vast audience, with universal admiration, triumphant over envious enemies who are magnanimously forgiven (that's the best part of it).

So one lad with a brass trumpet is exclaiming Freedom! Freedom! from Fidelio. And another with an ear-splitting horn is boasting that he is Siegfried.

It is not embarrassing because they are not embarrassed; but one is abashed for them, they are so young and exposed, but they are not abashed.

A slide-trombone has acquired a hat over his bell and is taking with an arrogant posture the chorus of a Dixie blues, but when he ends with a flourish and gives it to his buddy — alas! the clarinet is brooding with the aged Brahms who has been reading Sophocles. Unconscious of everything, the young lady with the silver flute is discoursing earnestly with the Blessed Spirits. And the little drummer is banging away at the march from the Symphonie Pathetique, streamed round by the flapping banners of the United Nations and bawling out the melody. But you cannot hear anything in the din.

Next moment, silence. The house is full, the kids are poised, their conductor has stepped onto the podium and raps. The stage-curtain parts revealing the choir (there are the rest of the seniors!) and they have begun Wachet auf.

The orchestra has begun to play and I am blind with tears.

But what's to weep about any of this? Naturally they play well, they are very musical kids. Naturally they play well together, they are well rehearsed, and they know one another. The conducting is simple and sensible, firm on the broad lines and on the obvious dynamics. There is plenty of spirit, it is animal spirit. The nobility — there is nobility — comes from the pride and aspiration of many poor cultured homes. All this is natural and to be expected; why then should tears be streaming down my cheeks and I cannot see anything but a wet bright sheet of light?

Because it is our orchestra.

Always it is absence and loss that we weep for; when we seem to be weeping for joy, we are weeping for paradise lost. And the case is — as I look about in our community and remember the longing of our lives and the frustration of our longing — the case is that we do not have any orchestra. This is a truth too bitter to live with and we usually dismiss it and keep our faces set as best we can.

But here is our orchestra. It is playing Wachet auf! Our choir is taking it up. With the opening of this new possibility, at once the old tears well and roll down our cheeks. Our mouths are open with breathing in and out.

This orchestra is proud of its orchestra. The adolescents take it for granted that on the occasion they can rely on one another.

I sympathise with the conductor who is a man of my own age. He is smirking and continually breaking into smiles and broad grins. Each time they have traversed a hard passage, he breaks into a broad grin as if to say, "Listen hey? The way they got through that! I told you they could! I promised you they would!" But the young people are playing right on. They are neither smirking nor nervous nor grimly determined, they are matter-of-factly playing the music which they think is just beautiful, and indeed it is very grand and beautiful. They are attentive to the music, but they are also damned proud of their orchestra.

The girls' voices ring out loud and bright. The young tenors and basses do not have an equal weight; you would say that the young men are not confident, they are afraid their voices will break. No, no! Risk it! Give forth! (the conductor is pleading with his shaking left hand) — what is the use of young male voices if they do not shout out loud and clear? There, that's better. It doesn't matter if a few break down when there are so many brothers supporting.

We are towards the end of May. The school concert is part of the commencement exercises, a demonstration of the work of the year, of the years. Wachet auf! wachet auf! This is not the "own" music of any of those kids, I suppose, but it is our music; they have chosen it for us, and do they not take it well upon themselves! They are reconciled to us (us at our best, to be sure); they agree to continue. It is their commencement. I wish that they were in fact beginning into such a community as they seem so well able to take upon themselves.

My eyes are washed and the scene is clear and sharp. "Thou art That! " What does it mean? The immortal humanity. Each one stands as a witness.

As sometimes happens when you have been surprisingly moved and are thereby in the scene, some object spontaneously brightens and stands out from the background; or first one, then another, then another. A spotlight falling across one face, another face shining out of a unique shadow. Like those group photographs in the biographies of famous men, where the face of the hero as a boy seems to shine out from the group, destined for his terrible career, although when the picture was taken all the faces were equal.

Before, they were all isolated in their jarring soliloquies, pathetic, violent, promissory adolescents. But then well enough they took upon themselves to be our orchestra (they are still playing our music, as I solemnly watch them). And now one, two, and three heads loom alone-doomed to it-as witnesses of immortal humanity.

The red-headed boy in the shaft of light has been doomed to sing in a new way; you can see the guilt and suffering of his absolute break with the generations on his stubborn and imploring face: imploring for us to listen to him, but stubborn to persist in his way whether we will or not. And why should we pay regard to him when he has broken with us? But also both he and we know that there is no break at all; we are laughing about it underneath, at the same time as we are set on making one another very unhappy.

Notice too, the face of that serious little girl in the shadow. She is cursed with an eerie and unerring intuition that she frightens her teachers and makes her fellows freeze. In self-protection and protection of the others, she hides her truth behind clever words, she is a smart- aleck. No one likes her, but everyone is going to need her. She weeps a good deal because the boys do not make love to her and the girls don't invite her to their parties. She would like to be like the others, but she cannot, by willing it, be stupider than she is.

The dark lad in the choir whose voice, among so many, rings pure and clear right to my ears: why is he frowning? He is a forlorn angel. He is not one of the fallen angels, for he has a ready entry into paradise; but he seems to be lost in a wood, his wings bedraggled. His trouble is that he persists in wanting to drag us home with him, and we will not go along. He invites us, we start to go with him, and he is elated; then he finds we have deserted him, and he frowns. But he has courage.

Creator spirit, prosper us. Wachet auf! They are thundering the chorale. Let us join in.

Posted By

Jun 26 2016 17:45


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