Ye Shall Have Comfort
September 11, a date that has become infamous, brought even more extensive expressions of national sympathy this year than at any time since the first anniversary. On that day, at Bowling Green State University where I was at the time, the choral conductor of the moment gathered a group and at the precise hour of the first tower attack, we began to sing Mozart’s Requiem. My colleagues in music called me and I joined the chorus.
Many have written massed to the dead in Roman Catholic history, and I’ve sung a lot of them. But Mozart’s Requiem is extraordinary because he didn’t live long enough to complete it.
Et lux perpetua luceat eis –
Let their light shine in perpetuity.
This year, the 20th anniversary, was especially poignant because the Nation is trying to wind down some of the steps it took in retribution after 9-11. Two things are certain – both Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are dead. But so are thousands of American soldiers. The extrication from Afghanistan became a mess for which the president is taking the blame. But the decision was to get out as difficult as that might be, and that is what was done. The entire middle east has been shaken. One only needs to look at the reasonably peaceful, beautiful Lebanon to see the damage our policies have wrought. Two former Ph. D. students of mine are teaching at American universities in Beirut where the economy is in shambles and the value of their currency so low that they wonder if they will have enough to eat – and these are professionals. Little good came out of our response to September 11, 2001. Now, all we can do is regret it, and, as we did in Afghanistan, get out.
I am also still reeling from Suzanne’s passing. So as I drove home from spending a few days with my daughter - she lives in Columbus – I did as I always do. Turn my car radio to Sirius symphony and head north.
In a few minutes, Martin Goldsmith introduced the second of three Requiems being presented in honor of the dead on September 11, 2021; Johannes Brahms German Requiem. Brahms wrote this from 1865—68 in memory of his mother. It was first performed in Bremen, Germany at the cathedral there on Good Friday, 1868. The Bremen cathedral was totally destroyed by World War II bombs, and I’ve never been in it. But the counterpoint, the new Coventry Cathedral – the old one was destroyed by German bombs in 1940 – is the picture on my facebook page. I was sitting in Coventry in 1996 when my mother, Doris van Lente Neckers, passed away.
So these places – the great places of worship of our existence – mean choirs of honor to me. As it was, the Brahms Goldsmith chose was the original version, in German with Robert Shaw, soprano Dawn Upshaw, and the Cleveland Symphony and chorus. I’d sung this once; so I knew the German version.
My afternoon drive thus collapsed in tears as I listened again. I remembered the first time I heard ‘How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place’ Part 4, at old main hall on the Fredonia College campus at one of those spring music fests. The Olean High School chorus sang it and I had never heard anything so beautiful. I was probably 13 or 14.
But as the work continued it dawned on me, for the first time, that Brahms was really talking to me.
Behold all flesh is like the grass; the grass withers and dies
How lovely is thy dwelling place oh Lord of hosts
The redeemed of the lord shall rejoice in joy everlasting
Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted.
I hope the comfort comes. The loneliness of losing a spouse after many, many years is so hard to describe. But through the words of the psalmist, and the music of Brahms and many others, perhaps we can manage through it.
Photo by Iago Godoy on Unsplash