Essay

Musical Bewonderment

Listen To Article

Last night I couldn’t help thinking of an old story told to me long, long ago by an organist–the organist, the very one who’d been asked to do a concert on a brand new pipe organ a country church had just proudly installed. They needed someone professional, someone who knew how to handle the instrument, they told her. It would be the new organ’s inauguration, so they needed a real organist, a professor of music.

She drew up a program that must have passed muster because no one said a thing when she submitted it. I don’t know what was in that recital, but real musicians love to test themselves and each other and even their instruments with stiff challenges. I’m sure what was printed on those inaugural programs was fairly standard pipe organ fare,standard, that is, for the professor.

The whole program was a wonder and a success. I might say “she pulled out all the stops,” if it weren’t a third-rate pun. That brand new organ astounded the parishioners with its immense range, its power, and even its delicacy. The folks in that church heard music they’d never, ever heard before, and it left them speechless.

Almost.

At the very end, when she was taking her bows and, as if that brand new organ was the star, giving that instrument a reverent sweep of the arm, some guy in the audience just couldn’t help himself.

“Hey, play ‘Stars and Stripes Forever,'” he yelled because, dang it, it’s something he was dying to hear.

Later she could laugh about it, but when she told the story you could still note that right then-and-there she took that line like a slap in the face.

I thought of that story last night when listening to my granddaughter’s high school choir concert, her last. Every selection mounted a challenge for those kids, intricate, expressive pieces that simply to describe require more musical knowledge than I have or can fake. Before each piece, choir members stood and talked about what they were about to sing, did so in a fashion that made those rare pieces far more accessible. “Listen for the the alto solo,” some young woman would advise, creating a road map.

Pardon my blue-collar musicianship, but I also found myself hoping they’d break into something I knew–“Beautiful Savior” maybe. It would have been nice, I told myself, my grandpa’s favorite hymn. He’s been gone for three-quarters of a century, but he manages to return every time we sing that one, no matter where we are, at least to me. “Beautiful Savior” would have been nice, I whispered to myself. I didn’t yell. Didn’t say a word.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved the music and the concert. It’s a joy, a thrill, to watch and listen to kids perform at their highest level–and that’s what was happening through the whole concert: pure musical blessing.

But then the director, who’s leaving, stepped up to the mike and announced that her choir was going to finish the concert with one last piece, a great favorite of hers, she said, because when she was in her own high school choir her director ended every last concert with “He Is Wonderful.” She said she wanted to end with that piece because her director, someone she’d admired, even loved–had died. The choir wasn’t going to sing it for him, nor even for her, but for Him.

And then they did, a throbbing round of seemingly unconnected musical lines that interweave and harmonize beautifully beneath a rhythm that made every knee in the place bounce bountifully. 

What that guy in that country church with the new pipe organ wanted wasn’t really John Phillip Sousa. He wanted something alive in himself, some old magical harmony capable of bringing back a moment, a place, a person, a memory. What he wanted was a momentary stay against confusion, a honest to goodness return a something he’d once felt in a piece of music.

Last night we didn’t sing “Beautiful Savior,” and I have no historical moments with “He Is Wonderful.” But what was perfectly clear was that my granddaughter’s talented director certainly did.

I didn’t know her high school choir director, the one who’s gone; but I don’t doubt for a moment that all during that anthem’s gorgeous frolic, his former student, the one who directed all night long so effectively, felt that man blessedly right there beside her.

And that too was wonderful. It was a terrific concert, a night full of wonder.

You can listen to that anthem of praise if you go to YouTube. I did, and I checked: there are no ghosts. No spirits wandered in, no holograms shimmered on stage.

But I’d like to say that doesn’t mean an old choral director and a cloud of others weren’t right up there on stage.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

5 Comments

  • mstair says:

    ” … that doesn’t mean an old choral director and a cloud of others weren’t right up there on stage.”

    good stuff, Jim

    ” … since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, … “

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Moved me. Especially because of “Beautiful Saviour,” which my wife and I sing in the canoe on the lake. My dad’s was Blessed Assurance, and every time we sing it I’m channeling him.

  • ROGER BOYD says:

    Thank you for this piece. While I appreciate most of the blogs and their stimulation and stirring up on social justice, etc. issues, your essay touched my heart and soul in a different way. I was moved to tears with beautiful memories of people connections through music–simple, beautiful harmonies with powerful, deep and meaningful words.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    This is wonderful. The power of music is almost unlimited. I can never sing, “His Eye is on the Sparrow” without my grandma standing and singing right beside me, though she has joined the choir of angels. It’s almost sacramental with the Spirit drawing me up into her presence while simultaneously drawing her down to me. I can’t sing, “It is well” without being transported to my grandpa’s funeral, and I cry every time I sing it.
    Thank you, Jim … my heart and soul are singing today.

  • Michael Hardeman says:

    Thank you, Jim, for putting words to the contextual contours of artistic expression. This piece resonated deeply.

Leave a Reply