A MOVING EXPERIENCE by Francis Schwartz
I have never been totally comfortable with the idea of Death. The demises of my parents (father, in 1976; mother 1998) were perhaps the most direct contacts with mortality that I have had during my lifetime. Certainly, as Dean of Humanities of the University of Puerto Rico there were many occasions when I would offer a spoken farewell to several colleagues within the parameters of a formal academic ritual, but there was always some element of distance that I was able to maintain on those occasions. It was a bit of Brechtian “distancing” which provided the possibility of less emotional erosion.
I was totally unprepared for the experience that I am about to describe. It was at once very moving and yet terrifying. I am not sure why I have reacted so viscerally; I am trying very hard to understand it. Hopefully, with the passage of time, I will comprehend the reasons for my confusion.
THE BIRTH OF “Songs of Loneliness”
In 1991, the prestigious New Music ensemble, CONTINUUM of New York, commissioned me to write a new work for their upcoming European tour. I decided to use a format of piano, violin, clarinet and mezzo-soprano (Borges, Ginsberg, De Ferdinandy and Josemilio González) plus an extraordinary Russian female poet, Anna Akhmatova, whose works and person I had admired for many years in spite of the geographic separation.
“Songs of Loneliness” was officially scheduled to be premiered at the Budapest International Music Festival housed in the Franz Liszt Conservatory. However, the musicians of CONTINUUM wanted to try the piece in front of the public before the important Hungarian premiere. So they played the work a few days earlier “unofficially” in a concert in Prague’s Janacek Hall, where they adjusted a few tempi and other elements. The performance went extremely well and everything was ready for Budapest.
One never knows what to expect from an audience. Most members of the general public are quite well behaved and appreciative of the musicians’ efforts. On this occasion, however, 3 young men did their best to sabotage the performance, yelling and whistling during many sections of my composition. The musicians were stunned, to say the least, but in the finest of performance tradition they continued, not allowing the hoodlums to destroy their interpretation.
I, having utilized active audience participation in my works in many countries around the world, was rather philosophical about the unplanned noise, and simply included the manifestation as another version of my piece. (Thank you, John Cage.) The performance ended well with the audience regaling the performers for such heroic professionalism in the face of barbaric behavior.
THE MYSTERIOUS E-MAILS
On Sunday, July 13, 2008 my e-mail account began filling up with messages from Austin, Texas; New York City; Sarasota, Florida; and finally London. My correspondents (friends of mine including the distinguished co-directors of CONTINUUM, Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs/; the video-artist Carol King; and a syndicated wine critic Art Levin) informed me that a gentleman in England, a sound engineer who had worked with composers such as Ligeti, Messiaën, Berio, was trying to find a score by the composer Francis Schwartz entitled “Songs of Loneliness”. He emphasized the urgency of finding the score and, hopefully, contacting the composer. . . ME!
I immediately contacted him, and he told me a truly sad and moving story. Some very dear friends of his had a terrible situation at hand. The lady was dying of muscular dystrophy and was near death. Her husband had been searching everywhere to find a score and/or recording of “Songs of Loneliness” that they had heard at the Warsaw Music Festival in 1996, interpreted by CONTINUUM. Apparently the work had been so important to them that the wife wanted “Songs of Loneliness” performed at her funeral.
I was truly stunned by the news. I had always considered my music as a dynamic representation of the Life Force and even though I have over the past 4 decades explored in different compositions terrible themes such as Auschwitz, political executions and various types of intolerance and persecution, I never thought that anybody would want to have my music as part of a funeral ceremony.
Another particularly powerful element was the fact that this couple heard the Warsaw performance which I attended. I was sitting in the front row with Madame Elzbieta Penderecki who had graciously accompanied me to the concert where my “Songs” were to be given their first Polish performance; it is possible that I was sitting very close to the British couple! It amazes me that the performance would have such impact upon them that it would put the Continuum artists and myself in contact with them again so many years later...
Last week I received an e-mail from the husband expressing his relief and gratitude for my mailing of both a recording and performance score which was duly received. The power of his words and their meanings truly moved me.
Minutes ago, I received another e-mail from him, informing me that his beloved wife had passed away yesterday. He said he would always be grateful for the expressions of friendship and solidarity that he and his wife received from all of us. He was now preparing the funeral for his beloved and the playing of the music that she had selected for this existential farewell.
Requiescat in Pace.
Francis Schwartz [July 2008]
SONGS of LONELINESS CANCIONES dE SOLEDAD by FRANCIS SCHWARTZ (Premiered 1991 in Prague) The texts by the poets Allen Ginsberg, Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel de Ferdinandy Josemilio Gonzalez and Anna Akhmatova emphasize existential loneliness, a theme that has permeated his works since 1963. The performers execute a series of activities of both sonic and histrionic natures. Again, following Schwartz's decades-old strategy, the public is actively incorporated into the artwork and is asked to spontaneously contribute vocal sounds as well as certain corporeal gestures. The five songs contrast dynamically and require a great flexibility on the part of the interpreters since they are actors/actresses, vocalists and instrumentalists at the same time.
Enquiries about the private recording - mailto: Martfran90@aol.com
Photo of Francis Schwartz from http://www.crosssound.com/CS08/composers/composers.html