The Commonplace Uncloaked
SOME days ago, a friend confided that her adult son, who knew everything about music from Monteverdi to Mahler and back again, had only recently ``discovered'' Handel's Messiah. For years he had been working with and through the musical classics of Western civilization, but unaccountably, Handel's masterpiece had remained - for him - a treasure to be discovered. Recently, I had the same experience with a stage adaptation of Jane Austen's literary classic ``Pride and Prejudice.'' Long ago when I was approaching the moment of truth before my final honors history examinations at university, an old professor kindly advised me to give up revising and to spend the last few days relaxing with Jane Austen's ``Pride and Prejudice.'' Such advice, though well meant, seemed incredible to me. Having read little enough of my history course, due to the considerable challenges of learning to ``grow up'' at the university, there was no time or inclination or understanding on my part to accept such wise counsel.
Some 25 years later, I know what he meant. A student who had worked hard on a long course ought to have been able to relax with the obvious delights of Jane Austen, a few days before one of the biggest intellectual challenges of his life. But I also had to experience the essence of ``Pride and Prejudice,'' as a stage play, before I really understood what my professor had meant.
For all of us, life is - or should be - a continuous journey of discovery of the obvious (or more often hidden) beauties and truths that are so often cloaked by the commonplace labels of literature, music, and art, or even travel.
Sometimes such discovery is painfully slow. Though I owe much to a wonderful English teacher who gave me the confidence to aspire to becoming a writer, the forced ``crammings'' of Shakespeare in English class had all but obscured such a genius from my youthful mind. It was only when I lived through Laurence Olivier's ``Othello,'' or marveled at the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' that I began to glimpse much later the foothills of Shakespeare's towering talents. A nd it was only a few days ago, when the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre's production of ``Pride and Prejudice'' totally captivated me, that I at last ``discovered'' Jane Austen.
Sometimes such ``discovery'' can be instantaneous. The world of music is my personal treasure, even though I cannot play a note. Incidentally, a conductor friend tells me that this can be an advantage, because my technical lack of knowledge does not hinder my emotional, indeed spiritual, appreciation of the music. Interestingly enough, my own ``layman's'' interpretation of a performance nearly always matches that of a professional music critic, so there may indeed be an ``inner truth'' in music which th e layman and the professional can approach in their different ways.
However, I can remember clearly the moment when I fell in love with ``classical'' music. It was when the conductor Vic Oliver took the stage with a British Concert Orchestra on a Sunday night in Eastbourne, England, and they began to play Ponchielli's ``Dance of the Hours.'' The combination of a comparatively unknown conductor and orchestra, and a somewhat better known composer, hardly represented a shattering introduction to the classical world of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and all the oth er giants of music. But there it was - my journey of discovery had begun.
Now I can prepare, with little difficulty, a list of momentous musical ``premieres'' - Tchaikovsky's Fifth at an open-air concert in Athens, Elgar's ``Dream of Gerontius'' in Belfast, the Berlioz ``Grande Messe des Morts'' in Boston, and - stunningly - Mahler's Fifth Symphony, played in London by the majestic Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. It has been a long and exciting journey from the pleasurable plains of Ponchielli to the mountain peaks of Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius, Beethoven, Brahms, and so many o thers, with Mozart such a genius at every level.
Even on an ``aware'' journey of discovery, most of us display huge gaps in areas where one might assume that every educated person would have at least a working knowledge. Take opera and ballet as examples. For years I avoided both these art forms, partly because seats are expensive and therefore less accessible to the ordinary patron, and partly because I suspected a kind of ``artistic conspiracy'' between intellectuals and performers who were creating a ``magic circle'' for their mutual benefit. It wa s only after sitting through Mozart's opera ``The Magic Flute'' and Tchaikovsky's ``Sleeping Beauty'' that I began to realize what everyone had been going on about for so many years. Truth and beauty are there for the person who has ears and eyes open to new possibilities and experiences.
Sometimes, of course, the ``voyage of discovery'' can lead, temporarily, to disenchantment. In the world of travel, I was disappointingly soaked at a desolate Niagara Falls, and ``taken for a ride'' by overweight, street-wise Indians at the Grand Canyon. But, at the other extreme, I was overpowered by the architectural grandeur and historical presence of the Coliseum in Rome, and by the vista of Manhattan from the top of the World Trade Center in New York. Khartoum by moonlight and the coral coast at Mo mbasa had their moments as well.
THE beauty about a journey of discovery is that it can continue for a lifetime. You are never too old to ``try'' an opera, or a new composer, or a long ``dead'' author who is as alive as the book in your hand. And the ``discovery'' of a Mahler or a Jane Austen will enrich you for the rest of your life.
As a postscript, I was sharing such thoughts with our son Matthew who, at 13, has a mind as sharp as a needle. I told him the story of the boy who said, ``At 13 I thought that my father was a bit of an idiot. By the time I was 21, I thought that he had learned a lot!'' Matthew paused and said, ``Do you really expect me to say that about you in only eight years time?'' Clearly, he and I have still a great deal of ``discovering'' to do....