I have been thinking a lot about elegance and grace lately. Yes, I really have, and I suppose you might wonder what has taken me to this unlikely place! Let me explain how I arrived at this topic.
We are well into our “musical” season at Burlington High School, and this endeavor consumes a lot of time and effort by many individuals. We rehearse every day after school from 3:30-5:30, and on Sundays from 1:00-4:00. Most of our early Sunday rehearsals are devoted to dance and blocking. I spend most of that time at the piano playing for the choreographer. This year we are doing “Cinderella,” and last Sunday, as I played the waltzes and the gavotte, I was struck by how time-consuming it seemed to be for the students to master these dances. Yes, many of them are going through the motions, but only a few seemed to really understand. And then it occurred to me that most of these kids are not really in touch with the actual quality that might be needed for these dances to come alive; elegance and grace. This is not something that many of our students are familiar with these days. In fact, most of what our students come in contact with has little or nothing to do with this vanishing art form.
Mind you, I am no authority on this subject, but I have had some exposure to it through the years. My mother was a fan of Fred Astaire, and through her I came to love the elegance that Astaire and Ginger Rodgers brought to the screen; and of course the Gene Kelly movies that my mother loved as well. Such beauty of movement… has it passed and is gone? I stand in admiration of the way kids dance today, and I loved watching Michael Jackson or any number of other entertainers that are equally talented at moving their bodies. But in no way do they personify the grace and elegance of a Fred Astaire.
I can think of several other instances where I have come in contact with elegance and grace. I remember the only live ballet I ever attended in Philadelphia at the Academy of Music. At one point the ballerina moved a certain way during a solo, and the entire audience released a quiet “ahhhhhhh.” Now that was grace and elegance of a very high order. I also remember a time in Fenway Park when I observed an absolutely beautiful double play with Mo Vaughn at 1st base. It was truly a well rehearsed, perfectly executed and orchestrated play, and it truly was beautiful; it was graceful and elegant. Anyway, there are many ways in which we can define what is elegant and graceful, but what are musical examples of this, and of what benefit is it to us as musicians, conductors and music educators?
I have seen Sergei Ozawa conduct several times in my life, and of all conductors I have witnessed, he seems to have a certain beauty and elegance in the way he moves his body. His mastery of the art of non-verbal communication seemed to me to be exquisite. Robert Shaw could at times be especially elegant and graceful, but his was not in movement but in the way he could verbalize the underlying meaning of a passage of music and the facial expressions in performance when he was one with the music. I remember Sir David Willcocks one summer at Westminster Choir College, rehearsing the “Et vitam venturi in seculi, Amen” from Haydn’s “Paukenmesse,” and moving in such a way while conducting that he held us all spellbound; yes, it was so very elegant and graceful. I am sure that all of us have those kinds of memories that we not only hold dear, but that we want to somehow impart to our students so that they too can identify with music and its innate elegance.
I have been trying to think of examples of choral music that might somehow mirror a similar sort of elegance and grace. How about Mozart’s “Ave Verum?” There is a certain grace with which those parts unfold in the middle section, and an elegance in the closing moments after the choir finishes singing. I also keep returning to Prokofiev’s cantata “Alexander Nevsky,” in the movement titled “The Field of the Dead,” when the woman is walking among the dead after the Battle on the Ice, looking for her lover; that melodic line, coupled with the harmonic language of Prokofiev, seems to me almost painfully elegant 0Aand graceful. I also think that the chorale “The Blessed Son Of God” from Ralph Vaughan Williams “Hodie” is at times irresistibly elegant. The last two movements of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony break my heart every time I listen to it for the elegance and sheer beauty of the melodic lines. The fact is that if we select masterful music for our singers as part of our offerings in our choral programs, we can somehow bring our students closer to the elegance and grace of a time gone by, and by doing so we may somehow bring elegance and grace to their lives as well.
Several years ago we had hired Ewen Edwards, conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra Chorus, to direct our Champlain Valley District Choral Festival. One of the selections being rehearsed was Randall Thompson’s “The Road Not Taken” from his settings of Frost poetry (Frostiana). Toward the end of rehearsals something magical happened. It was as though the stars instantly became perfectly aligned! It was a most beautiful moment, when diction, intonation, phrasing and tone became totally natural, and conductor, musicians and all present became united in some sort of perfect emotional and intellectual, organic whole. Regardless of whether I am able to describe this adequately, I know that those of you who have experienced something like this know what I mean. When the piece ended (in rehearsal, mind you), everyone was hushed, and I remember that Ewen just closed the music on his stand, unable to speak and knowingly realizing that nothing he could say would make a difference nor could it possibly have any consequence after such a moment of beauty, elegance and grace. That is what I wish we could bring to our students (at least once a year), because it changes lives and shapes human beings in spiritual ways. Maybe it will happen at school, or in a festival, or simply in a concert either as a performer or as an audience member. But when it happens to our students, it serves the cause of music education and the processes that we put our students through. It can be very powerful.
John Weaver is arguably one of the world’s most gifted organ virtuosos. I have been privileged to attend a few of his performances, as I am sure some of you have as well. He has a gift of speaking about the music he loves with the audience before he goes to the console to perform, and when he does are you in for a treat! Yes, his performance is always exciting and beautifully executed, but have you ever watched him as he turns around from his talk and walks to the organ console? Now there is elegance and grace (and even dignity mixed in) in that short trip to the console. When he sits down to play, he exhibits those same attributes not only in his visible movements as he plays, but also to the music he is playing. I just heard Bobby McFerrin singing a Minuet of Boccherini the other day, and it was soooooo beautiful and elegant. It had something to do with the way he interpreted the piece and turned those phrases, and at the end I felt like I had been present at something rather important. These are not “entertainment” moments, but moments of real significance filled with elegance and grace.
Well, for whatever it is worth, elegance and grace is something that is active and at the core of what we as musicians are doing. I now believe that in rehearsing and ultimately performing “Cinderella” at BHS we are doing our students a service of undeniable worth in their growth as individuals and musicians. If one was to look at the greater picture, gracefulness of movement and gesture has as much to do with music as it does with dance. After all, music has something to do with movement as well! I freely admit I have not been able to connect all these thoughts adequately enough to really write about in a truly meaningful way, but at the same time I hope that, in doing so, it might prompt us to think about it and consider the possibility that, in bringing an understanding of these qualities into our music making, it may make a difference in our music making and in some way the development of our student musicians. At the very least we should all watch a Fred Astaire movie this month and re-acquaint ourselves with the grace and elegance of this wonderful dancer and maybe consider ways we might bring these elements into our own teaching.