A Reflection on Music’s Connection to Our Past

One of the August concerts at the Round Lake Auditorium is about to begin.  I am always amazed at the historical significance of this place.  Today’s performance is an organ concert, one of at least four presented this month.

The Tracker organ has aged well.  Built in l847 and brought to Round Lake, New York, in 1888, it is the oldest and largest of its kind in the United States.  Equipped with 1900 pipes, it is enormous, filling the wooden building from the platform to the ceiling, dwarfing the young organist at the keyboard.  Today’s organist is twenty-year-old John Walthausen, talented and personable, instructing the audience in the pieces he is playing, a mixture of Bach and newer composers, relaxed and smiling on this day before he leaves for further study in Paris.

The audience is also aged.  The first three rows are filled with senior citizens from one of the retirement villages in the area, their white hair cropped short, talking softly to each other, enjoying another outing to break up their days.  They are an appreciative audience, acknowledging this young talent with their applause and smiles.  I admire these women for their strength and independence.

I am sitting several rows behind them next to my about-to-be eighty-nine-year-old mother.  She does not have a walker or cane, like many of the women in front of us.  She is healthy and mobile, walking slowly but steadily now, and she loves the organ, playing herself even at her age to pass the time each day.  I am surrounded by widows, with only a handful of men in the audience.  I think that in twenty years I could be a widow myself, knowing how women outlive men, a tradition in our family especially.  I could be living in a home for senior citizens, brought to various venues in a bus, looking for ways to add interest to my routine days.

I don’t entirely enjoy the concert.  I appreciate the young man’s talent, but the music is heavy and sluggish at times.  I keep checking my watch.  I begin to count the stripes on the shirt of the woman in front of me.  I check out the patterns in the stained glass windows at the top of the auditorium and I watch how the breeze from the open doors causes the black stage curtains to move from time to time, ghost-like and unpredictable.

In the 1800’s the auditorium was the focus of a Methodist church camp that took up summer residence in the village, at one time a resort with hotels, museums, and lecture halls.  Tiny Victorian cottages replaced the original tents set up for the summer, and they still dot the village with their porches, window boxes, gingerbread trim, and colorful paint.  I wonder as the curtains move gently if it is perhaps not the wind at all, but the spirit of a previous resident, maybe one of the preachers who gave dynamic sermons or one of the women who came from the city with her husband and children to enjoy the cooler air by the lake.  The music is a mere backdrop for the stories unfolding in my head.

The concert ends with an energetic symphony by Louis Vierne, written, explains the young organist, as an emotional outlet after he was rejected for a position he coveted and during an explosive divorce from his wife.  Music, I note, is like words used to express one’s emotions, sad or happy, reflective or angry.  The final symphony is full of energy and volume, a good ending to help us depart from the traditions of the past and enter again the predictability of our days.  Whether we are young or old, alone or not, healthy or not, energetic or not, we are always connected to those days that have preceded us, just as we are unaware of what may be ahead.

My mother and I leave the auditorium, walking carefully across the lawn to the parking lot, our footsteps on the same ground where families walked over a hundred years ago, families who also were entertained by the Tracker organ, standing now silent in the aged building, waiting for music to begin again.

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