from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


I am by training a musician. I have always loved music, and know few things more magnificent than participating in the performance of a great piece of music. For me the experience is intensified when the performance is by a group, a string quartet, accompanying a soloist, an orchestra, a chorus. Combine that experience with a dedication that carries great meaning for some or all of the performers, the audience, or both and is an experience to be treasured.

The brief offering I offer today will share with you one such experience. It is mine, of last night. You are welcomed to continue reading.

I have written about William Heartt Reese before. Almost a year ago Haverfordians and Bryn Mawrtyrs from several generations gathered to sing under his direction one more time. he was 95 years old, yet his musical command was astonishing. For some it brought back memories as far back as the 1940s. Bill directed the glee club and orchestra for 28 years, retiring from Haverford in 1975.. As I have previously recounted, I actually met him the spring before I began my first term at Haverford, and he was to remain a major part of my life for many years. Although I entered as a history major, I finished 10 years later as a music major, with Bill supervising my senior honor thesis on the songs of the American composer Charles Ives. I sang under him in the various glee clubs, played cello in the Orchestra. i was never a good enough singer for his elite group, the Heinrich Schutz Singers, named after one his favorite composers, a man born in Germany in 1585, 100 years before the triple magic birth year of Handel, Domenico Scarlatti. and Johann Sebastian Bach. Schutz went to Italy to study under Giovanni Gabrieli, and brought the ideas of the Italian Renaissance back to Germany. Bill, who as much as anyone was responsible for raising the awareness of Schutz in the U.S., used to tell us there many great composers, but only two who never wrote a false note, Mozart and Schutz. He helped people to learn about other works they did not know - The Saint John Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach was an especial favorite. One year we performed a magnificent bu t almost unknown work of Handel with the Wheaton (MA) College Choir --- L’Allegro i Il Penseroso, based on the words of John Milton. Bill knew his modern music as well, which is why he supervised my Ives paper. He actually led the world premier of a setting of the C. S. Lewis work Perelandra by Donald Swann. And in my own work with amateur singers, whether directing church choirs or doing musical theater work, Bill was one of the two great influences on what I do, the other being the late and great Margaret Hillis of Northwestern University, under whom I was fortunate to sing several while I was in high school, once at All-County, and at Festival Choir at National Music Camp in Interlochen Michigan in 1962.

Bill passed just about month ago. The Spring choral concert was already scheduled for last night - a performance of Giuseppi Verdi’s magnificent Manzoni Requiem. Tom Lloyd, the director of choruses at Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges, decided to dedicate the performance to the memory of William Heartt Reese, and invited alumni to participate if they could make at least one rehearsal. I was one of 6 Haverford alums who do not regularly sing with the chorus, and two Bryn Mawrtyrs who also sang in joint performances under Bill, who availed themselves of the invitation. In my own case, I had not sung the Verdi since a summer sing through with the New York Choral Society in the very early 1970s. I pulled out my old score, its age clearly indicated by the printed price of $1.50! I listened through a recording, then began the process of singing along with the recording, stopping periodically to remind myself of the parts I had forgotten, some of which are quite musically demanding. I learned it well enough that I only made one (fortunately not too obvious) mistake in performance last night.

Verdi was an Italian patriot, who participated in the first all-Italian legislature. One of his fellow patriots in that assembly was the greatest Italian novelist of the 19th Century, Allesandro Manzoni, whose magnificent I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) is work which if you do not know, you should. Verdi’s own religious outlook was, tom put it charitably, not precisely Orthodox. He had a great deal of hostility towards the Catholic Church of his day. And yet he poured his vision, his skill, his soul into this work.

Sometimes the work is performed in an overly operative fashion, not surprising given the bulk of Verdi’s musical writing. And yet it is clear his attitude about this work is different. First, it was written at a point when he said that he was finished with opera, although his two great late Shakespearean masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff were yet to be written. Second, he insisted that the first performance take place not in a concert hall, but in a church.

Verdi strayed from the traditional structure of the Requiem Mass, introducing the text Libera Me which is part of the burial service, a pattern we subsequently see in the work of composers such as Gabriel Faure. He has a very rich instrumentation - four off-stage trumpets added to those in the choir, multiple parts for bassoons, flutes and horns, three trombones. The forces of this instrumentation comes through at various points -- in the “Tuba Mirum” one hears the off-stage trumpets, which we had placed on both sides of the balcony, or the full force of the orchestra in places such as the repetitions of “Dies Irae” or during the “Sanctus.” And yet the real nature of the work is perceived most completely elsewhere -- there are magnificent moments of absolute silence, sometimes striking. There are crescendos to subito pianississimos. And there are extended passages with nothing but apparently human voices, whether of the four soloists, or the chorus. You will note the adjective that I used, because at those moments something transcending is occurring. You may not fully experience if your only knowledge of the piece is from a recording. You will have a major appreciation when you sit in the hall and the voices resounding the audience. And when you are a part of that collection of voices, even if only one now fading 60 year old voice that can no longer hit all of the low notes, somehow you are transported beyond yourself -- there is something wrung out of you by the passion, the intensity, then poured back into you as the sound envelopes you and then penetrates to every fiber of your being.

For those of us who knew Bill Reese, even though none of us had ever sung this work under his direction, it was especially poignant. Truman Ballard ‘60, who has served for 40 years as the director of choirs as Dickinson College in Carlisle PA, came out and made some very touching remarks about Bill before we started. But it was touching for the rest of the choir as well, albeit for a more bittersweet moment. Members of the community are invited to participate as members of the choir. One such is dying of cancer, knowing the end is close. She is trying to hang on for another month to see her two children graduate on opposite coasts. She came and sat in a very visible place in the balcony so she could face her beloved fellow altos. In a sense this requiem was also an offering to her.

The only rehearsal I could make was Thursday evening. But I could not in fairness take Friday off from school, as my 3 AP classes face their AP exam on May 9th. I taught on Thursday, drove up for a 2.5 hour rehearsal ending at 10 PM, drove home to Virginia, a trip with construction taking almost 3 hours, got 4 hours sleep, taught, and drove back up yesterday I am still in the area because today we have another memorial, the dedication of our new integrated athletic facility, named in principal after one former athlete who died on 9-11, with parts of the building dedicated to two other athletes who also died that day. As a result of the commitments I had already made to Haverford for this weekend, I will not later today be at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington DC where there will by an ecumenical and community commemoration of the late Tom Fox, the Christian Peacemakers Team member killed in Iraq. Part of my own participation was in his memory, for Tom was himself a musician. I know he would understand the choice I made to be here.

I should have been exhausted. I was not not. I was elevated, inspired. I did not want to leave after the performance. The work ends in a somewhat unconventional way. After an exceedingly soft repetition of the words of the Requiem by the voices of the choir, there is one final burst of the Libera Me, starting with full orchestra and full throated singing by the choir and the soprano soloist, whose voice soars above all. As the energy from this final impassioned plea begins to fade, the music gets softer, and softer, and with two almost inaudible repetitions of the words “Libera Me” the work ends in absolute silence. We stood immobile for perhaps 20 seconds. The enthusiastic applause which then occurred seemed to me superfluous, but I acknowledge that it was a way for the audience to further participate in our performance.

We sing requiems in memory of those who have passed. It is an acknowledgment of what we have lost, of what they have given us. But there is a greater acknowledgment we can offer, which is to dedicate ourselves to that which they shared with us, to that to which they dedicated their own efforts. In Bill Reese’s case, it was music, but it was more, so much more. William Heartt Reese worked with professional musicians as well as amateurs. He loved inspiring the amateur, helping them to realize how much more they could do musically than they ever would have thought. I remarked to man next to me that the performance was so much more than we had any right to believe we could accomplish, which made it like just about ever performance I ever sang under the direction of William Heartt Reese. He agreed with that perception. I would note that this was one of the most important lessons I learned as a teacher. Bill was usually quite demanding. He expected the highest quality, and would not settle for less. And yet he did it in a way that had his singers and instrumentalists coming to believe that they could rise to his expectations, and thus we usually did. He looked for the best in us, and insisted we do so as well. As I return for the final weeks of this school year, with the sounds of the Verdi echoing in my soul and my mind, I will I hope remember that part of the legacy of Bill Reese.

And as at times face the possibilities of frustration and despair as I survey what has become of the nation and society I love, I will remember that Bill Reese came to a Quaker College and inspired generations of men to love and appreciate music, to want to participate in it. I will remember Tom Fox, who decided that there were more than enough ready to die for war, that someone had to be ready to die for peace, and yet did not consider what he was doing to be other than the work of an ordinary man. And I will remember that frail woman in the balcony, listening to the music al her own acceptance of her forthcoming death, and the inspiration her mere presence gave the rest of us.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
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