Where Did the Music Go?
A while back, I had the privilege to enjoy a double musical treat, which turned out to be much more. First, an incredible concert with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra as a guest of my friends at the Eldorado Casino and Resort Hotel (thank you). Then, at home alone as I watched a performance of Celtic Woman on local public television.
The two performances were very different, and yet had striking similarities. The first was in their composition. There was no overt, artificial effort at diversity, much as is seen in most entertainment. Both groups were composed of almost entirely white, Anglo-Saxon men and women; the women were classically feminine, and the men were classically masculine.
Then I began to observe, among the incredible sound and lights and fury, a metaphor in how and what they played; it was present in both performances; and it reminded me of an America I used to know.
There were drums, tambourines, horns, pianos and strings. Both orchestras had violin virtuosos; both blond haired pixies of tiny stature, but who played as if they were 10’ tall. They didn’t timidly course the strings; they tormented them as if with swords, not bows. They didn’t stand confined to a space; they flew across the stage, and even across the hall. The same was true of the pianists, whose fingers pounded keys with a war-like fury, to produce sounds a more timid approach could never achieve. What and how they played made me think of an America of old, and of the virtues of that America.
I was reminded of America’s pioneer spirit. A spirit that was as unbounded as the talent of these musicians. That spirit gave rise to shelter, where there were elements; planting or hunting where there was hunger; and socialization, where there was a need for companionship or protection. I suspect these talented people could make music from a rock and a stick if that was all they had. Alas, that spirit has given way to subsidized housing, food stamps, and social bureaucracies.
I was reminded of America’s ethic of hard work; that ethic created opportunity from all stations in life, from the craftsman to the academic. Neither path was superior; both were open as a matter of choice. Achievement reflected work – not entitlement. Today, many won’t be educated unless someone else pays for their education; and many look to government to provide jobs, as the Easter bunny provides baskets of goodies.
I was reminded of a classically American self-directed nature, and the self-esteem that accompanies it; of taking charge of one’s life and of one’s destiny. I admired the small but dynamic women as they assaulted their instruments, producing exquisite sounds that were not asked for, but demanded of them. Then I thought of so many modern women who, when intimidated by mere words, hid in the corner shrieking their only defense: sexual harassment! Which of these was the truly liberated?
I was reminded of American leadership in the world: bold, strong, and unapologetic. There was no hesitation in the power of this music; there was no dithering. The notes and chords that filled the air were fit for a king, but would bow to none. Would Washington have bowed to a foreign king? His commentary on his countrymen is revealing: “Americans are a people who would rather die on their feet, than live on their knees.”
I was reminded of the power and force in unity. America became a great nation based on principles, philosophy, values, history, and origins held in common. It did not do so because of some contrived sense of diversity. America was as diverse as these orchestras were in their brass, strings and percussions, but with a comparable unifying purpose. Celtic Woman made no apology for its celebration of God or Christian traditions. Let those who would be offended leave. The TSO refused to be constrained by some other interpretation of music; it’s own brand roared in defiance of conformity. Today, America cowers in fear of those who might feel lessened because it is great; it skirts celebration of its own traditions, in deference to those to which it has no connection.
I was reminded of the proud history of accomplishment, with excellence the only goal. I had a sense that for these accomplished artists, one missed note or one missed step was a failure; that nothing short of perfection was acceptable, for the individual or the whole. And in setting that goal, they achieved it. America today has its bright spots and brilliance, but increasingly it is willing to accept “good enough.” America’s own Constitution exemplifies near perfection in law in perhaps four pages, yet today’s legislators can’t frame one facet of society – health care – in less than 2,000 pages of mindless drivel.
I was reminded of the things that America was and Americans were: farmers, builders, engineers, scientists, and manufacturers. Today, America is content to provide knowledge and information. Can one imagine an orchestra that produced only the theory of sound?
I was reminded over and over of the strength and power that used to be America. This was a country and a people that fought and won wars that threatened the world twice, and then had the confidence of its might to help rebuild its vanquished enemies. This was a country and a people that was unafraid to proclaim its own God and belief in Providence to a world worshipping at different altars, or at none at all. This was a country and a people that found strength in the ability of a man to defend liberty, or to bend to help a child. This was a country and a people that valued the strength of a woman to bear a newborn, as much as to rivet a steel beam. As piano keys flew, and drums were beaten, and violin strings wailed with beauty, the strength and power of music that mimicked a nation filled the air. Tears of longing accompanied those of a glorious musical present; I enjoyed the moment, but I remembered sadly the past. Where did the music go?
Celtic Woman performed one song that especially struck home: Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears. The song is about a 15-year-old Irish girl arriving at Ellis Island in 1892. The words are beautiful yet haunting.
“On the first day on January, eighteen ninety-two, they opened Ellis Island and they let the people through. And the first to cross the threshold of that isle of hope and tears, was Annie Moore from Ireland who was all of fifteen years. … in a little bag she carried all her past and history, and her dreams for the future in the land of liberty. And courage is the passport when your old world disappears but there's no future in the past when you're fifteen years.
Isle of hope, isle of tears, isle of freedom, isle of fears, but it's not the isle you left behind. That isle of hunger, isle of pain, isle you'll never see again but the isle of home is always on your mind.
When they closed down Ellis Island in nineteen forty-three, seventeen million people had come there for sanctuary. And in Springtime when I came here, and I stepped onto its piers, I thought of how it must have been when you're fifteen years.”
As I listened to the words, amidst the fury and the tears, I was left with that burning question: Where did the music go?
America's spirit, captured in powerful music... but where did the music go?