When I sat in that old church built in the Gothic style surrounded by the music that the organist was playing, I was thankful to be in such a peaceful setting, far away in body and spirit from the violence that holds so many lives hostage in this world of cruelty and tumult.
In a church where people pray for peace, forgiveness and love–all of which seem so lacking in our world–I wonder at times how we manage to reconcile what we wish the world were like and how it actually is. Sitting there in such a calm and safe spot, the lyrics of “Over the Rainbow,” a make-believe place where there are no troubles, came to mind and I wondered what they would sound like if played on the organ.
The great song from The Wizard of Oz speaks of a wonderful fantasy world where troubles melt like lemon drops and when people shake hands and say “How Do You Do?” they’re really saying “I Love You.” Of course, when the movie came out in 1939, many people were indeed looking for a make-believe world since so many were still suffering the privations of the real world and its Great Depression. And things were soon to get a far deal worse as WWII would begin that very year. The song won an Academy Award for E.Y. Harburg, Harold Arlen, and Herbert Stothart, all classy popular song writers and arrangers of the time. Among other songs, Harburg, whose Jewish parents escaped from Russia in the late 19th century, is also credited with the Depression era anthem “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.”
Harburg, son of poor Jewish immigrants who escaped Russian pogroms, was later blacklisted during the 1950s for his socially progressive work such as promoting integration and women’s rights. For his association with the Hollywood Democratic Committee and his refusal to “name names,” he was later blocked from working in Hollywood films, television and radio from 1950 to 1962. Hopefully, he felt somewhat vindicated in 1972 when he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. And had he lived into this century, he would have smiled in 2001 when the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment of the Humanities ranked Judy Garland’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow” as the number one recording of the 20th century.
So as I sat there listening to this beautiful church music, such as Bach’s Wir Glauben all’ in einen Gott (We All Believe in One God), I couldn’t help but wonder how such lofty music could have been written in an earlier Europe beset with so much warfare and pestilence, a setting and time where streets were filled with suffering, anguish, unrelenting pain, overwhelming sadness, and ultimately a remorseless death that engulfed so many desperate wretches and deprived multitudes of even crumbs of hope. When much of this inspiring organ music was being composed in the 17th and 18th centuries, legions of human beings were simultaneously being slaughtered, maimed, deracinated, and cast into hell holes to perish. Where did the composers find the strength to write such sublime music and how could people listen to it and still find shreds of hope and solace for their souls when madness stalked those decades and centuries?
In seeking some answer to these mysteries to help me better understand how our fragile consciousnesses today can continue to function–sometimes amazingly easily, it seems–in a world of both redeeming good and ever threatening and overwhelming evil, I found that the soaring music had somehow blocked out the sight and sound of some of the most heart wrenching and tragic of today’s current news. Or at least it blocked it out for a few moments. Even with my eyes open, I found I did not sense the music coming from the many pipes. It was just there without source. I was listening from a different vantage point.
Being a (very) amateur musician, I marveled at how I was taking in these sounds and what the music meant to me. Of course, I could see the organist, but she seemed to become only peripheral to the music as she played on. The pipes were “high” as Bach wanted them and seemingly disconnected from the organ. This is not how I usually think of where music originates. For me, it “comes out” of the end of a horn. At least mine does. All of a sudden, I appreciated that organ music has its own life source.
As I eventually came out of my spell, I was able to return to an “ordinary” sense of being and marvel at how I was experiencing this music. Meaning was beyond me. As elated as I was, though, I found that I could not ignore the question of how we can put such faith in music in the face of an existence that can be both rapturous in its most inspiring moments, yet most brutal when men are loosed from their moral constraints. The contradictions can be overwhelming. These are some of those unanswerable questions that should haunt most people.
Thinking again of Harburg with these images in mind, I wondered how his poor parents found any hope in a world where marauding Cossack soldiers slaughtered Jews for sport. What did music mean to them? What songs did they sing to comfort themselves in their darkness? When six of their ten children died of violence and sickness, did they have a special lullaby to sing the youngest to sleep? Did they have any inkling that fortune would see fit to let the man who was their last born grow up in a different land and to eventually write the “Rainbow” song? And what lament would they have wailed when fanatic, mean-spirited and lesser men of politics took his livelihood away? Would these visitors from another world have understood as their son wrote:
“Somewhere over the rainbow
Birds fly over the rainbow.
Why then, oh why can’t I?”
In this sci-fi age with crazed flights of fancy, I would only hope it’s a bluebird and not one of those Gothic gargoyles perched high up that has come to life to show me what’s on the other side of the rainbow. Unfortunately, bluebirds are few and far between, while the symbols of the dark side are far too numerous. These creatures of the night are all too capable of swooping down and dropping us over the rainbow into some other hellish scene of fire, a collapsing world such as Syria where no music plays and death is everywhere and there is no rescue. We are here as observers and not there as victims, because we were lucky in where we were born. As another set of lyrics go, “There but for fortune go you and go I.”
Without a doubt, it would be a better world if more people spent their time listening to music and not plotting against the best interests of others. In the face of so much suffering, I suspect some sublime organ music could work wonders to soften hearts grown hard and without respect for our fellow brothers and sisters. Music may have little to no effect on the very angry and the vindictive, the downright mean and malicious, those consumed with contempt and hatred, but you never know how such magic can work. If we are to believe in the possibility of a better world, one even where troubles melt away like lemon drops, then the music must sing loud and clear, day and night, in order to make a piece of the make-believe become real for life on this side of the rainbow.
Personally, I’m all for the Bluebird:
“Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me.”