Songs that Find Us


You’re walking past a coffee shop or into a bookstore, perhaps up a dusty stairwell to a friend’s apartment, or you’re driving home from the grocery store, thinking of nothing, carrying out errands, when music stops you. You might pull over, sit down. Listen with all of your attention. Wait, absorb all that arrives. It is something you recall vividly from your youth or young adulthood, perhaps when meeting your first love at a dance or were packing up all your belongings for a move to a far off city. Maybe you had just come in from your back yard laden with flowers and you were arranging a bouquet of daisies and peonies.

But the song spoke to you, even for you. It touched, enlivened you in ways you could not have explained if someone asked. That music entered your blood and settle din your mind. Now it lingers in recesses of memory, sometimes coming to the fore: that moment you heard it, that feeling, the place you stood or sat or lay. It summed up your life in the split second it began; it augured what was to come.  You were sure of it. But whatever it was or meant, it will always evoke the original magic. You will hear it again and be stilled.

I heard one of those songs a few days ago. Well-known to me, I once attempted to play it on my cello, sing it. The gradations of feeling, its complexity of melody and instrumentalization…it still brings me to my self in a way that few songs can. It remains a rich elixir of hope and longing, tenderness and passion. And its melancholic pulse and key pulls me deep and deeper.

It is a big song about surprisingly delicate emotions. It spills from every space it is performed. I first heard it at fourteen or fifteen in my parents’ dining room where the stereo was set up by our long dining table. An LP pulled from tightly packed groupings in the wood record cabinet, it was played along with all the other classical composers my father collected and studied. We knew them well. It was his habit to put on an LP and quiz all five children over dinner–the composer, name of the composition, the movement, symphony or soloist. I was wrong as often as I was correct. I was far more interested in daydreaming my way through mashed potato, green beans and chicken breast, enthralled by what I heard.

But this particular song caught and held fast longer than many. Suspended in time and place, it was a wondrous bridge that transported me to Latin America. I felt it in my sinew and soul. I was a romantic child and youth, on my way to becoming a tougher woman before I understood the meaning of either. This composer gave living sound a shape and beauty I recognized. It provided an aural vision of the bittersweet nuances of love and life, expressed via nature’s wiles.

I played it often when everyone else was gone because I wanted to be entirely mesmerized. To feel its intention and know its every note and pause. And I, a young musician and singer, wanted to sing it despite knowing I would never do it the justice it required. So the album played and in the empty house I sang along with eight cellos and a vocalist whose voice lifted me out of time. Later I would practice the composition for both cello and voice lessons, laboring over fingering positions or breath control. I sought the musicality it demanded because it had easily won my dedication.

Those days I often looked for temporary exit from exposure on various literal and figurative stages of life. But brought up in a public family known for being achievment-oriented, for performing and musical competition was like living in a fish bowl. Although I loved singing, acting, dancing or playing cello–the luxurious, exciting swish of heavy velvet curtains across a stage—I also craved solitude. It was alone that I could best sort ideas and feelings, put them into some semblance of order that might be better managed. I failed often at that but at least I had them to myself. Playing to applause was one thing, often pleasant. Creating or performing alone in a room with no expectations, sharp criticism or approval was another. There was a greater freedom in the latter, even if less praise.

I adored classical music, not only because it was a powerful way of communicating, even our identity. It sometimes seeemed life itself, having been born into it. But I also needed folk and jazz, rhythm and blues and sought them in secret. It was a time when Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson educated me, but so did e.e. cummings, Anne Sexton and Hermann Hesse, Soren Kierkegaard. The Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society were beating their drums and I heard them through a delirious fog. Kennedy had been assassinated and that changed everything. I teetered on the precipice of an intellectual precocity that lacked the crucial maturity of hindsight or foresight. I took risks of many kinds during those teen-age years. We all battled demons both personal and societal, imagined and real. Music was a safety net I counted on. It was the same for everyone, no matter the genre.

Growing up is a long train ride through tunnels that can blind the traveller, often inhospitable terrain that demands new skills and scenarios of shocking loveliness that leave one weak-kneed. What does a youth do with so much? Today things are confounding in different ways, complicated by virtual amusements and mind-boggling scientific advances. It makes me long for moments that are direct, true, clear of confusing distractions. Songs can do that. I cling to music that moves me. Sometimes it echoes over and over; I hear it, sing it, savor it. I am made better by it.

Why would a classically composed song rather than something from the sixties or seventies (the Beatles, Moody Blues or Blood, Sweat and Tears) rivet my attention after all these years? We might argue longevity or quality of music but that is a matter of personal preference. I require all manner of music to fortify my life. No, it was just who I was and those times–being swept up rapid historical and cultural changes while trying to tend my dreams and survive my own losses. This song seemed both a lament and a beautiful beckoning. It was obe song that claimed me, found a home with me.

Heitor Villa-Lobos was a Brazilian composer who was born in 1887, died in 1959. He was considered that continent’s preeminent twentieth century composer up until that time. Influenced mightily by folk as well as European classical music, his compositions were wide-ranging and remain popular with both audiences and musicians. The song I heard and for which I feel such kinship is from his Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5, “Aria: Cantilena.” The soprano on this recording is Barbara Hendricks. (Though this singer is excellent, I would rather hear Renee Fleming–I love her warm tone–but couldn’t find a recording of her singing the arrangement with the preferred eight cellos.)

Listen. Prepare to be carried away. And if not, pay homage to your own song and tell me what it is.

English translation: (words by Ruth Valadares Correa)

Evening, a rosy, translucent cloud, slowly crosses the drowsy, beautiful firmament!

The moon gently rises into infinity, adorning the evening, like a sweet maiden dreamily getting ready, making herself beautiful, desiring her soul to be beautiful.

She calls to the heavens, the earth, to all of Nature.

She silences the birds’ melancholy laments, and the sea reflects all her treasures…

Softly the moon awakens, a cruel yearning which laughs and weeps!

Evening, a rosy, translucent cloud, slowly crosses the drowsy, beautiful firmament!


4 thoughts on “Songs that Find Us

  1. I enjoyed this post-you have a great way of writing. I can’t fully appreciate Bachianas Brasiliaras no.5, since I’m hearing it for the first time with one ear of hearing. My song? It would have to be Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (2000 remastered version), which is also the namesake for my blog.

    1. Thanks for the good words! It’s a piece that affords a lot of listening after it pulls you. But I get your love for Joni’s “Both Sides Now”…she is one of my singer-songwriter idols of all time. Recently watched a You Tube video of her performing at 70–phenomenal! Stop by again and i will check our your blog, as well! Regards.

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