“You can never escape your God, Glenn Herbert Ray!” she warned, threatened, reminded, and repeated again and again…..the ‘she’ being my Mother, the ‘when’ being any time until I was twelve, and ’frequency’, often, very often……in case I’d ever forget.
She gave up by my age of 13, for that was the age when this demanding woman graduated from the eighth grade and entered her independent life starting as cashier at Friedman’s Super Market, downtown St. Paul, Minnesota in 1919. She entered business life full speed ahead. She had attended Riverview German Lutheran Grade School on the ‘west’ side of the city where countless numbers of her larger German family lived and farmed. Her dad was a contractor. Her mother had died young.
I was impressed by her words. They fit well with the words I heard in Sunday School, although my brand of the Lutheran was thoroughly American as my Mother demanded it be. Church was Church, and for my Mother the Old Testament is what counted. The only religious name ever mentioned was “God” and always in the context of some battle between good versus evil.
My sister was never confronted with such invocations. She was never threatened by a presence of God and the struggle with Evil. She played dolls, quietly, peacefully.
I was afraid of my Mother rather than God. It was she who doled out the immediate punishments. God seemed something in the future. More often than not, I was simply in her way while she did things full speed ahead. God must be more like my Dad, I thought……a perfect gentleman, a good athlete with a big smile.
It was on Sunday afternoons Mother took time out from her industry to listen to music on the radio, that is, 30 minutes of Strauss Waltzes, and a half hour of a program called, Scandinavian Melodies. I had to become quiet. No time for questions. No time for playing with my lead toy soldiers and airplanes on the livingroom floor, firing cannons or bombing Nazi installations.
My sister was in her bedroom playing paper dolls. Although it wasn’t accoustically necessary, the bedroom door was always closed. Without fail, Mother would find my one last bombing of enemy positions ’the last straw’, was certain I wouldn’t be sufficiently quiet for her music hour, and found me punishable……whereupon I would have to stand in the front entryway, face to the wall below a dated framed landscape garden picture until her music hour had passed. It was a routine in my life for years, ages 4 to about 9. Roughly the same music, always the same landscape picture once a week or more. I could see the picture better and ever closer as I grew. It became more beautiful each year.
I could never show any disgust or pose objections or the punishments would become more severe. My anger or frustration, or both, would last only a few minutes…..about when the Strauss Waltzes would begin on the radio. Like my mother I never carried grudges.
The Blue Danube, my favorite waltz, was always the program’s introduction piece. I immediately was swept away by is beautiful rhythm and melody. Later in my life it was centerpiece to the opening and ending to “2001, A Space Odessy, one of my favorite movies.
As the wall punishment became more routine, I actually began to look forward to the exercise, or rather the lack of it. Not only were my ears pleased awaiting the Emperor Waltz or Tales from the Vienna Woods, simultaneously my eyes were forced to stare at the garden picture, …..a painting-print by R. Atkinson Fox.
I thought it was Eden itself. Mom later explained she had bought it in the early 1920s. She loved gardens…..Her garden was the only place where I first and regularly saw her relaxed, calm and content. She claimed she liked dancing better than gardening, especially when she and my Dad competed as a pair in waltz competitions during that Roaring Era.
I have developed my own landscape garden….about a half an acre in size. I live in a paradise. I owned, now co-own a small landscape garden installation business and still design, dig holes for trees and shrubs, and push wheelbarrows. I work in paradise.
When I lose myself within the beauty of my own grounds by working, I must have my favorite angst music playing to send me to the heights of emotional escape, by blending visual with aural beauty.
A beautiful landscape garden is to the eye what Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is to the ear. Both are compositions for the mind and soul.
For the past two weeks during this year’s period of weather perfection, I have been working overtime to correct some artistic mistakes on my grounds and also to prepare for the onslaught of winter, if it arrives.
My favorite opera, in music, mood, and theme, is Gounod’s Faust. I do not know when I discovered the music and theme, but it was before my freshman year at public high school. My friends were also aware of Mephistopheles’ evil. The most evil sound in art is his laugh crowing victory over the condemned. It is a highlight in the opera.
It is unlikely any American under 50 has ever heard the name Faust, much less his classic story succumbing to Evil. In 1971 when I was still teaching high school, I called the University of Minnesota music department asking if some representative could visit our high school and discuss Guonod’s Faust with students. I was lectured angrily being informed that the opera was no longer produced due to its primitive theme regarding women.
I am not an opera buff. I seldom attend top productions for lacking funds. Business isn’t so good, these days. But, I own about six or seven discs, none of them played as often as EMI classics’ Guonod’s Faust, starring Richard Leech as Faust and Jose Van Dam, as Mephistopheles.
I occasionally would discuss classic opera with my senior high school students. “How many of you don’t like opera?” I would ask beginning my theme. While a few would hesitate raising their hands, awaiting the verdict of the masses, most students would thrust a hand high and mighty in a flash.
“How many of you have ever seen an opera?” No one, always no one. I won big time with this introduction. Nothing more needed to be said. The class sheepishly became curious.
I recommended the following:
Since it is a great Western art form, one must know at least the most successful operas…..the ones with great musicality and theme. First, read a brief resume of the basic plot. The themes are usually simple. It is important to know the general gist and direction, but know no more. Let your own imagination glue the music to your memory of the story. Plots usually are not as inspiriting as the music. They are usually depressing. Music, however, can make even death not only heroic, but overwhelmingly beautiful. One can wait hours enduring Wagner until the Gods finally do their thing…. overwhelm and crush you by the power of a composer’s map of musical instruments and the abilities of the human beings who master them.
Pick an opera or two of easy themes and beautiful, powerful music. I usually recommended Gounoud’s Faust and Puccini’s La Boheme…..but eventually Faust is a must.
Listen to Act I of Faust carefully. An old man is alone. He hears the beauty of youth outside his window and yearns to be young again and join them.
How does the composer display the sound of evil? It is never displayed more beautifully as it is in the first sound in Faust. . Why? When does it occur again? Why at those moments? Use your imagination, for the story of the opera is simply a show of a classic battle between good and evil. Once you absorb the music, you will never hear it again in the same way.
I have my punishment picture, the print by R. Atkinson Fox’s landscape garden, hanging on the wall in my bedroom. Its offspring is my own landscape garden product just outside my front and back doors, with every window a beautiful picture, every path through my Eden. I have been very lucky indeed.
Ecstacy is listening to Beethoven, Rodgrigo, or Gounod’s Faust as I work, or try to work, on this, my piece of Earth . (There are no negative after effects to wear off, by the way, so don’t worry about rehabilitation costs.)
Try it sometime.
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