My Circle Begins …
I received my first LP record when I was eight years old: Weber’s “Invitation to the Waltz.” Ever since then, classical music has run through my life, a unifying thread: piano lessons, attending concerts, saving for more LPs, discovering other composers with my husband, and finding out what we really like.
We have the honor and privilege of classical music twenty-four hours a day from our local radio station. Our radio is on constantly, at times calming, inspirational, stirring, or thought-provoking, an integral part of our daily lives. We work to the sounds of Schumann, Mozart, and Wagner; we study to Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn; we eat dinner accompanied by Rossini, Weber, or Dvorak, and I even exercise to some of them.
We also travel a lot, mainly for my husband’s work. Paris is one of my favorite places. That’s not an unusual sentiment, as many people love Paris. But Paris has a special place in my heart as it’s also intertwined with my thoughts about life and death.
Legacy in Music and Stone
From our first visit, Paris revealed her magic. I learned about Monet, Renoir, Rodin, Napoleon, and Louis XIV. I visited museums, palaces, and street markets. I marveled at the modern Pompidou Center, climbed the hill to Montmartre and Sacre Coeur, and heard Offenbach, Bizet, and Edith Piaf. What drew me the most were the Gothic churches, those amazing testaments to the durability of people’s dreams and aspirations. I marveled again at how, at that time, the builders were able to achieve these architectural gems.
One night we attended a chamber music concert in Sainte Chapelle—Vivaldi, Bach, and Schubert played in a most fitting venue. At night the stained-glass windows incandescent motion was still, but the beauty and gorgeous proportions of the chapel were still obvious. What a truly magical experience, to experience glorious music in a divine setting, the one enhancing the other. We sensed that these musicians live on through their music, as architects live on through the buildings.
Near-death Threatens Break in Circle
Then came terrible personal disaster. On a warm sunny day, my husband collapsed on the racquetball court. My fit and healthy husband. This was a proverbial bolt out of the blue: he had a ruptured brain aneurysm. Chances of surviving such a catastrophic event are small, and the chances of surviving and living a normal and unimpaired life afterwards, due to the risk of brain damage, are close to zero.
Through surgeries and waiting in intensive care units, our children and I embarked on another kind of journey. A journey to a surreal world, because the rest of the world wasn’t there. It was outside, receding into a kind of insignificance. Our world, our reality, was focused on this one thing. We tried to focus on, and remember, all the good times with our husband and father, and celebrate his stubborn fighting spirit. This was bitter sweet, as we realized even more what we might lose. We all remembered times we traveled together as a family to various countries. I have happy memories of our times in Paris together as a couple. Like, walking along the Seine one evening, we listened to musicians practicing violins on the quais, and were awed together by the beauty of the music wafting across the river.
My husband’s a fighter. Not only did he survive, he recovered. Although the road to recovery was long and hard, the continuous classical music on our radio station helped on this phase of the journey. The supportive, soothing musical thread helped us maintain our sanity and hold onto hope. The music of those long-dead composers nurtured life in the here-and-now, especially the romantic era composers and especially those out of Vienna. Our favorites are probably Chopin, Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, and Haydn. The music is a link from the dead to the living, as those Gothic churches are. Maybe more importantly, the music is a gift from the dead to the living.
Life Links in Cemeteries
Ten months later we returned Paris. I wandered again, revisiting favorite places and realizing how lucky we were to be here again together. I also visited Père Lachaise Cemetery, to find the graves of some favorite composers, the permanent resting places of those who created beauty and gave us hope while my husband was recovering. I knew that some graves are in Vienna, which we would visit later.
I expected to find the cemetery interesting, but I didn’t expect to be so moved, so stimulated.
In Père Lachaise, visitors were intent on finding the graves of certain people, tracking them down like one would a difficult address. Well, I believe this is the final address of people who breathed and dreamed just as we do. I listened to snippets of conversation, showing how the tombs of famous people become attractions in their own right. “We still need to find Bizet,” or “Did you find Wilde?” In one sense it feels as though they are talking about living people, and that actually makes those dead people live on in our minds.
I wandered up and down the streets in the cemetery for hours, finding solace and comfort in my new strange thoughts of how unexpectedly vital I found the cemetery. At Edith Piaf I sat quietly for a while on a bench. While she was alive she suffered terribly and I felt connected, as I was still raw from my recent experience. Later I sat peacefully with Chopin. Many people come here, and candles are burning. New notes flutter in the breeze, and masses of flowers give a colorful note. One part of Chopin lives on. That night I was strangely excited, and tried to explain my feelings to my husband. I don’t think I was very clear or coherent.
Later we went to Vienna. It’s my first visit, but I already know that I want to visit its famous cemetery to look for the spirit of Beethoven and Schubert.
My son and I went to Zentralfriedhof, the Central Cemetery, on the edge of Vienna. It’s a huge place, graves lining paved paths that radiate out from various central points. It’s not as crowded as Père Lachaise in Paris, and doesn’t feel like streets of little stone houses. But, it still reads like a “Who’s Who” in Austrian and Viennese history. A monumental entrance opens onto a short road leading toward a church. The musicians’ corner is on the left, the monument to Mozart in the front, then the graves of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss (father and son), and others. They’re all beautifully tended, with pansies and begonias growing around each one, plus big jars of cut flowers. It’s a special feeling to be standing by the graves of those who were instrumental to history, to realize their mortal remains are there. Somehow that keeps their spirit alive, and I felt good to see that they are resting in a peaceful pretty place.
I stood quietly by Beethoven’s grave, trying to imagine his life here in Vienna, to picture him composing some of his magnificent music, and there in that place he seemed very real to me. Not some abstract name, but a real person, who was, and is still, here. I could almost hear some of his melodies whispering in the cool wind.
Schubert had a hard life and died so young. Beethoven was older at death, but also endured an enormous hardship: becoming deaf. In spite of that, he achieved unimaginable heights in his music, music that lives on.
If this is all true, then our lives are not in vain, and for me, for my family, it means that whatever happens to my husband, his legacy will also live forever. I can imagine the next generations of scientists doing something similar to the cemetery tourists. If not in a cemetery, then maybe at a conference, one young scientist will be asking, “Have you found RM yet?” or another will be saying, “You need to read that old paper by RM. His techniques are still good.” Once again, the gift from the past will bring life and hope to those in this world now.