Gentle reader, I have something to tell you. It’s about music and the love of song. It’s about traveling on the wings of song. It will start from an apparently prosaic place and end in memories of sublime beauty. Along the way, I will tell you about butterflies, songs of love and tragedy.
This is the first time I write a piece for Lyric Fest to be published on their website, which I first coded by hand back in 2004, when Lyric Fest wasn’t one year old yet and which I have been maintaining ever since. Doing so is among the various tasks I perform to help keep this magnificent organization going, as a member of Lyric Fest’s board.
Why do I do it? Because Lyric Fest offers my community something splendidly beautiful that touches the center of my heart.
As for my day job, I am a professor of economics, specializing in the most mathematically intricate economic theories. It’s part and parcel of my love of beauty. I find beauty in the austere and intricate structures of mathematical proofs. I am glad that this beauty of mathematics is a side effect of the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in understanding the world around us, as put by an eminent physicist. This way, I can “sing” a proof of a theorem and hope it might shed some insight into the complications of the human throng’s truck and barter. (My amateur singing, in which I do indulge occasionally, has less to offer the world.)
Yet songs don’t have to be pragmatically useful like math—such a big part of my day job—to gladden the human throng’s weary hearts. Songs have to be beautiful, to speak truth in inflections new and ear-opening, and have to be tuned to the characteristic frequencies of our hearts.
Two weeks ago I attended Lyric Fest’s Claude Debussy musical biography concert: a dark and stormy night, truly so, but the opposite of a horror story was starting. Debussy’s precocious youth, passionate loves and sad demise during the darkest hours of the Great War unfolded for me and the other fortunate audience souls in songs and readings from texts about Debussy and from his own letters.
We heard delicate songs about love, nature and love in nature. We heard about Debussy’s love for a soprano with a voice that was said to be perfect for singing of butterflies. We heard three songs on poems a French poet wrote himself but tried to pass as translations of ancient Greek poems he happened upon. We heard a ballad that a 15th-century poet wrote at the behest of his mother, to intercede on her behalf with the Mother of God. We were moved in many directions, heard voices suitable to sing about butterflies but also able to sing sensually about moonlight and the nostalgia of two ghosts wandering in frost-covered woods for the Naiads that were no more. We snickered at the list of places whose women just don’t compare with les femmes de Paris. At the end came the heartbreak. We heard about Debussy’s illness, imagined him lying incapacitated in his house in his final days, unable to go to the basement for shelter from the bombs raining down from the sky, and we heard a song that plunged aural daggers in our souls: the Christmas Carol for Homeless Children.
This is the essence of a Lyric Fest concert: You go to hear excellent singing and can’t get out without having traveled in unexpectedly exhilarating musical and emotional paths, and learned something new. And you certainly won’t get out without a newly warmed place in your soul.
This is why I feel privileged to be able to do what I can to keep this organization taking hundreds of my fellow human beings on unexpected, enlightening, heart-warming song trips. If you haven’t been to a Lyric Fest concert and are reading these words, I invite you to come sample the riches at the next concert. After that, seek me out. I would love to shake your hand and share impressions of the musical magic with you.