...And it was good
The first time I heard Joseph Haydn's 18th Century oratorio, The Creation, I was two things: a Catholic on the fringes of faith and an aspiring composer caught between rock and rubber soul. By the time Haydn finished with me--unleashing his symphonic vision of "The Book of Genesis" through a musical nexus of onomatopoeic flourishes, trills, outbursts of strings, voices, winds and percussions--I was neither. With replenished spirit, the hand that had become more accustomed to gripping a stemmed glass than a pencil now flowed like magic along those elusive five horizontal lines. I was making music, real music, and thanking God for every sharp and flat.
The oratorio is one of the most sacred forms of music, a choral dramatization developed some 600 years ago as a heavenly vessel to stir earth-bound priests and monks clear of secular temptation. But, The Creation was more than that to me. It was an assault, a spiritual mugging, with each note becoming a dagger. And there were so many notes: arpeggios, staccatos, legatos, notes between notes, notes on top of notes, notes under notes, notes wedged in sideways, nuances of notes, lyrical silences replete with sprays of notes gone by and air pregnant in anticipation of notes to come. Whispers, echoes, bellows--all weaving through an avalanche of haunting recitatives, arias, solos, duets, trios and a 150-member chorus whose single voice, often undistinguishable from instruments, would at once ooze as thick as molasses and float lightly like gossamer wisps of angel's hair.
Surely, there was a God. Otherwise, how did Hadyn happen? And why was I here? The answers had become roiled in the majestic mosaic of the composition, a musical feast of the senses that left me tapping my feet, thumping my thumbs, humming and singing along. It was a less than serene response to a score that probably served as elevator music in heaven but, hey, I was a 20th Century woman. Inspired and glutted with confidence, I took this serendipitous meeting with Hadyn as a sign. It also began a series of events that turned out to be a relatively inexpensive lesson in growing up.
You see, there was this contest.
The city fathers called for original compositions in a $5.00-an-entry competition to select an official anthem. After all, the city that had survived the Great Chicago Fire and the 1968 Democratic Convention needed its own song. But "Chicago" was the operative word and it was 1982, when an honest politician was as rare as a discordant note in Haydn's Creation and I was as green as the flora the Maestro painted with eighth notes that careened throughout the first movement.
I was a member of the north side jeunesse dorée, a gaggle of would-be artists and writers, malcontents who held the city in affectionate contempt, settling for second seat to a much too expensive (and competitive) New York. But we would simulate the world-class literati, frequenting sidewalk cafés that piped classical music to the outside as patrons sipped red wine and nibbled cheese on Rush Street. It was at such a place we first read, with haughty skepticism, the contest rules.
Then it happened. Between the clinking glasses and light chatter, The Creation began almost imperceptibly through the café's sound system as a beautiful and mysterious blend of contrasting horns and strings: Enter, a distant timpani; then voices--soprano, alto, tenor, bass and chorus. The harmonics converged into an explosive crescendo that came crashing to resolve with a clamorous jolt of the full orchestra sustaining a single note in C Major.
Startled, the heavenly blast silenced our table. All affectation emptied out of me and I was left with just about the worst thing a 'no-connections', 'no-prospects' little girl living in a big city could have: hope that the hunger for fame and fortune could be quenched. Emboldened and convinced I had been sprinkled with left over residue from Haydn's muse, I was determined to enter that contest and take on the city with big shoulders.
And, why not? If one man could recreate the wonder and thunderous beauty of the seven most glorious days the world had ever known, I could pen an anthem with brio and grazioso enough to extol the virtues of our shining city by the lake: a little string animato here to paint Lake Michigan, augmented chromatics there, with maestoso cellos coloring a soaring skyline, sixteenth note sostenuto riffs evoking a clamorous subway and espressivo flourishes rendered by a line of highly polished French horns that announced eradication of the ghetto. My anthem, "Chicago! Chicago!" would serve as background music for the toddling masses just as The Creation had graced the courts of European royalty.
Besides, Chicago had begun to civilize into a post political machine era. We had buried our voting dead; no longer could anyone born in Haydn's century swing an election. A new breed of unshackled politics had swept the city...and it was good. 'Empowerment' was the song sung by everyone who had been previously marginalized: women, children, blacks, yellows, browns, reds, others. I envisioned a windy city reborn in the stanzas of Haydn's Creation where the waters were parted and teamed with life, the land bore passion fruit and the heavens filled the void with everlasting glory and light.
But, old habits die hard, especially in a town whose unofficial slogan was "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The mayor, who had come up with the grand scheme, could not scheme her way back into office. Chicago's first female mayor--rather like Haydn's Eve--had been banished, losing her seat to the city's first black mayor--an Adam, who would be dispatched some four years later to the great ward boss in the sky.
The contest was lost somewhere in the darkness that Haydn's Creation etched with throbbing tubas--perhaps in day eight. Chicago's Great Anthem had become the first casualty of a low-down-and-dirty mayoral race, the incumbent vowing to crown a winner, the challenger charging the contest had been rigged and that his first order of business would be to "scrap the whole damn thing!" It seemed the town was not quite ready for reform, let alone an anthem.
Chicago would be songless; no joyful voices to drown out the den of jackhammers, delivery trucks, car engines, the gut-wrenching screams of random crime. The hog butcher would have to endure without a Haydn-inspired masterpiece that could paint with a musical brush its past successes, future dreams, and a now church-going Catholic like me would replace stemmed glasses with tumblers and leave rock and rubber soul behind forever.