The Power of One
Each life is a candle lit in a great darkness.
In 2021, we celebrate musicians and all others who have walked a courageous personal path in the face of all obstacles, never agreeing to be less than they can be, never settling for less than full justice. We applaud the courage of all who have transformed their time and place by acting out of faith or personal conviction, lifting others along the way.
Musically, we identify those who have transformed culture and changed the course of history by their bold actions in Antiquity, in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Age of Revolution, and in our own time, the Age of Information.
In Antiquity, most heroic bards and poets remain unnamed, but in 6th Century sub-Roman Britain, the work of Taliesin, a heroic Welsh bard, is still celebrated. According to legend, — greatly embellished through the millennium since his probable lifetime and since, — Taliesin, a semi-supernatural being, surprised his mother with his birth, so she cast him floating upon the ocean in a large leather bag. He was rescued and adopted by Elffin, son of the Lord of the Lost Land, who was fishing for salmon, but found instead a baby boy. Though newborn, Taliesin supposedly spoke brilliant poetry to Elffin on the way home. He became famous in childhood through his numerous displays of clairvoyance, his miracles, and for his poetic and musical talents. Taliesin sang in at the courts of at least 3 Kings, and up to 11 odes and other works attributed to him have survived. Some stories rather fancifully claim an association with the Court of King Arthur. We owe a similar debt of gratitude to each anonymous bard whose power transformed ancient cultures with a work of memorable beauty that speak to us today (Concert V)
Consider Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), born to a simple German family who gifted her as a tithe to the church at age 8, as then customary for a 10th child. Despite crippling pain from severe migraines, once she was accepted at the convent, she became the nun-servant of a remarkable walled-in cloistered nun (Jutta von Spanheim) who taught her to read and write. Later, after the death of her tutor, having become the most educated and devout in the convent, she was elected Prioress. Her headaches caused life-long mystic visions with optical effects that were accepted as God-given, and the Pope personally requested that she record them in words and illuminations. She did so while capably leading her order, composing numerous exquisitely melodious songs and collecting the complete herbal healing lore known in her time. Hildegard is credited with identifying Viriditas, her original theory of the divine force of nature. While virtually forgotten for some 900 years, Hildegard is now canonized and considered one of the greatest of Christian visionaries (Concert I).
Consider also Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), poor but promising son of an Irish blacksmith, given some poetic education after he turned 14 by the family for whom his father worked. But then, tragically, when most young men would be ready to leave home, he was blinded by smallpox at 18, canceling whatever plans he had. The lady of the manor house must have seen music talent in him, for she kindly paid to apprentice him for four years to a talented harper, bought him a fine harp, and when his apprenticeship ended, a good horse. Carolan, harp and horse were set on the road to the other great houses, that he might find patronage for his harping. Carolan exceeded all expectations brilliantly and kept Ireland so thoroughly amused as he wandered and composed his 241 extant tunes that he is now considered Ireland’s national composer (Concert IV).
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) likewise lived always with great courage as he moved toward a unique personal fusion of the various national styles existing in Europe when he entered the compositional scene. Willing to do whatever it took to feed his curiosity about compositional style, he copied foreign scores by moonlight behind his elder brother’s back, he walked hundreds of miles to hear the greatest talent perform; and to stay in that exalted orbit, he overstayed his leave by a shocking 400%. At heart, Bach was a headstrong dynamo who risked all to acquire the technique and ingredients to uplift humanity through the power of his art. And listening to his 1,128 remarkable pieces, it is everywhere evident that Bach believed that his capacity to astonish and move simply by composing was transformative and faith-building not only to his congregation but also a gift to the Almighty (Concerts II and III).
The life of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is often cited as an example of great personal courage because his works, written in the Age of Revolution, are deliberately ‘Revolutionary’ in that they deliberately break every convention. All his life, Beethoven celebrated the heroic ideals of the Enlightenment and the rights of humanity to struggle against the decaying ancien régime. Beethoven demands of his performers the courage to go to the edge of the precipice with him, often by expressing personal courage by strength of dynamics, with an intense crescendo suddenly juxtaposed with sudden extreme softness (‘subito piano’) to express the metaphysical message. As Leonard Bernstein has said about Beethoven:
No composer has ever lived who speaks so directly to so many people, young and old, educated and ignorant, amateur and professional, sophisticated and naïve. To all these people, of all classes, nationalities, and racial backgrounds, this music speaks a universality of thought, of human brotherhood, freedom, and love.
Even as we pass his 250th birthday, we see Beethoven’s music retains its full power to revive, to transform, to offer freedom. Surprisingly, he was already going deaf before he became 30, and astonishingly, many of his most revered masterworks were composed while stone deaf during the last decade of his life, — hearing nothing but the incredible world-shaking music within. This courage surpasses the personal, a ‘power of one’ in service to the Universal (Beethoven’s Birthday Fundraiser, Nov. 14).