Here is my second essay for Portland Piano International. I thought I would write about something that we can all use, especially these days.
Let’s talk about courage. When I was a child, my mother started taking piano lessons again after several years away. Each week, she drove 18 miles to Hartford, Conn. to study with Mrs. Paranov, wife of Moshe Paranov, a founder of the Hartt School of Music.
Mother often came home with stories from her teacher. A close friend of the Paranov’s was Dame Myra Hess, the English pianist who famously organized concerts during WW II — even during the London Blitz — at the National Gallery during World War II. That was one form of courage.
Another was the courage that Hess, shy and inward, found to perform in public. Mrs. Paranov told my mother that Hess often came to Hartford for her pre-New York concerts and would stay with the Paranovs. On the afternoon of her concerts, Mrs. Paranov would take tea and a poached egg to the pianist, who was resting in bed. Just before walking onstage, Hess sometimes needed a gentle nudge from the wings, but after playing her first piece, she would come off, quietly singing to herself, “Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?”
I love that story.
Courage takes many forms: physical, spiritual, intellectual, emotional. We even have “courageous” music, which we might describe as music that is so strong and uplifting, it inspires us to power through, to take on what needs taking on, whether it be enduring our isolation from one another, mourning a loved one, waiting for a vaccine, hoping for a job to return or watching a new government take shape.
Whatever you are facing right now, these music selections will encourage you, nudge you to move forward, maybe rouse you from your chair to do what must be done, however large or small.
Music has a remarkable ability to inspire, lifting our mood in an instant. Even if you don’t have a drop of Scottish blood, I bet you’ll smile at this field of 1,400 pipers and drummers as they rev up for “Scotland the Brave.” I think even the French in Calais can hear these “Hell bringers in skirts.”
Imagine the guts it takes to sing the famous tenor aria, “Ah! Mes Amis” from Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment.” You know, the one with nine high C’s. Watching Juan Diego Flórez sing this aria is like watching a diver leap off a cliff. This is the aria, by the way, that helped launch Pavarotti in 1972. When Florez sang this at La Scala in 2007, audiences went wild, demanding Flórez sing an encore, the first encore of a solo aria at La Scala since Russian Feodor Chaliapin flouted the tradition in 1933.
Chopin’s Prelude No. 9 is a harmonically dense piece, both noble and grave. It is also the shortest of his 24 preludes, just 12 measures. To me, the music suggests head-down, get-on-with-it, forward motion. Only a few of Chopin’s brilliant preludes are widely known, but all of them are worthy for their beauty and originality. The American pianist here is Eric Lu, who won the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2018.
For a change of pace, spend a few uplifting moments with the Stellenbosch University Choir of South Africa. Their smiling faces say it all — they are enjoying themselves enormously as they sing “Baba Yetu,” the Lord’s Prayer, in Swahili. We could call this courage in the form of inspiration. The song, composed by Christopher Tin, is the theme song for the 2005 video game “Civilization IV” and became the first video game music to win a Grammy Award.
We can’t leave out Beethoven, who, despite illness, deafness, orneriness and rampant unpleasantness, gave us truth and beauty against odds that would humble most of us. I’m recommending his Sonata in E Major, Op. 109, not only because Myra Hess made a recording for the ages, but also because it shows Beethoven’s bravery in breaking traditions. After the mighty roar of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, the first movement of Op. 109 offers quiet courage of poignant intimacy.
Lastly, let’s hear the finale to end all finales — the blazing last moments of Mahler’s Second Symphony, “Resurrection.” I do hope you know this symphony because it offers themes of aspiration and redemption in a roar of hope and optimism.
After almost 90 exhausting minutes, two vocal soloists and a chorus sing, “Oh Believe! You have not lived in vain. What you have striven for will be yours. Prepare yourself to live!”
Mahler (1860-1911) couches the music in religious terms but the message is universal, expressing the deep humanity all people share. In the famous,
final moments — this video is eight minutes long — watch Leonard Bernstein’s face as the enormous orchestra offers a glimpse of paradise.
David Stabler is a teacher, writer, dad and cyclist. He's working on a novel based on his childhood years living in Africa. In 2017, he rode across America with his brother.