So why did a self-professed lover of music, amateurish though he may be, abandon this particular commitment? Initially, I looked forward to the chance to learn another classical masterpiece, and even before rehearsals began, I purchased a CD of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus production, eager to get a jump on the music. But sitting down and listening to the CD the first time left me underwhelmed. Yes, there were moments of music at its finest, particularly with the arias, but something about some of the choral portions sounded too triumphalist, bombastic or pounding for my tastes. So, now I must struggle with the guilt of being a quitter. (Not to worry, I’m old enough to get over it.)
My initial Orff “turn-off” persisted, and subsequent reflection has provided some possible clues as to why. An immediate cause was my incapacity with the lyrics. Rather than Latin and German typically sung in major musical works, these 25 songs from a collection of 250 poems, written around the 11th or 12th century, are set in Medieval Latin and Low German, and sometimes both languages are intermingled along with some French words thrown in for good measure.[i] Getting all of the syllables pronounced and right where they belong in the complex rhythms of the music proved overwhelming for this 72-year-old. It felt as if the music meant to impose impossible tongue-twisters of nonsense syllables with no point. And that may have been the point.
The lyrics, according to on-line sources, were penned by defrocked monks and minstrels known for rioting, gambling and excessive self-indulgence.[ii] One might conjecture that these formerly religious turned rebels traded their monastic and celibate habits for lives of reveling and carousing. Having received exceptional academic learning, they possessed ample skill to express their more profligate proclivities in the literature of satire and sacrilege. If their radical departure from religion to irreverence is what happened, it wouldn’t be the first time, nor will it be the last, that stringent, repressed indoctrination has erupted into contemptuous excesses.
Did Orff succeed in his musical setting of capturing “over-the-top” reverberations of wildly excessive self-indulgence, and is that what jarred my sensibilities? Possibly, but if so, then it’s no wonder that Carmina is experiencing a revival. It accurately depicts our own time and may be a more apt description now than it was then, and for that reason a valid musical reflection. Even so, something is nudging me away.
So again, why? One insight emerged from the deep mystery of repressed memories during a telephone conversation with a friend, a trained and gifted tenor and fellow music aficionado, who listened as I talked about my Carmina dilemma. Suddenly memories of my Dad surfaced. He was profoundly deaf since the age of three from Scarlet Fever. (My Mom also was deaf, but hers was from birth due to genetic causation.) Unlike persons born deaf who usually do not develop a comprehension of what hearing is, since they have never sensed it, my father was acutely aware of what he had lost, and his method for coping involved accommodating behavior in which he often pretended to “hear” what people said to him, and would even respond using guttural nonsense syllables he imagined were intelligible. His hearing co-workers and friends mostly joined in the pretense, rarely questioning assumptions of what was being communicated. Given the dynamics of such a situation, one can easily imagine how confusion could result in misunderstanding and anger. Dad was usually in a foul mood at home, and the least provocation could unleash a rage-filled torrent of thunderous gibberish that emanated from the apartment where we lived and rattled the walls and windows of neighboring units. Often the mindless bellowing, mingled with sign language, was directed at me. My sister had the good sense to run and hide in her room at the first sign of an eruption. But I usually was not permitted that luxury.
The resurfacing of a memory about my father during a telephone conversation about my frustration with Carmina carries a significant connection. Somehow at an unconscious level, I was associating the wild, seemingly nonsensical exuberance of Orff’s music with the wild, out-of-control howling of my father. Obviously, the two are not the same thing, but the emotional brain cannot distinguish between differences (in this case) of seemingly boisterous blather, but rather, lumps them together as if they are the same. And if the original source of the emotion is experienced negatively, that same sensation will transfer to all phenomena that inadvertently hooks it. That may be a clue as to my less than excited reception of Carmina. Unfortunately, further on-line research revealed that Orff’s only child, a daughter (born to the first of his four wives), was rejected by Orff and that her harsh estimation of her father was, “He had his life and that was that.”[iii] (Sound self-absorbed?)
There is another connection that emerged. As a three-year-old, speech was “developmentally delayed.” Why should I talk? Communication was achieved through hand gestures. A neighboring family realized I could hear, and through their efforts, I entered kindergarten a year early (there were no preschool programs back then), and received speech therapy before there ever was such a thing. My sister was born about the same time, and her introduction into the hearing world was aided by my growing language skills.
I was lucky that a neighboring family took an interest in me, right? Well, partially. They were very devout Christians, the husband and father a baker by trade but also credentialed as an Assembly of God Pentecostal Pastor. They were a very loving family, and often I was with them when they went to their church several times a week. Their services were very “lively” in a kind of crushing way. That’s where I witnessed “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon where uncontrolled nonsense syllables spew out of mouths in every conceivable pitch the human ear can hear while undulating bodies and flinging arms fill the space in a gigantic, unrelenting, shrieking ecstasy. (Subliminal orgiastic carousing?)
One memory from that time stands out. I was six or seven. We were returning in their maroon Kaiser- Frazer car one dark night, from another of their church services, and the conversation turned to my parents and their deafness. The well-meaning Pentecostal Pastor and his wife communicated their message in words any child could understand: if my parents would get saved, get right with God, they could be healed and hear like normal people. Not aware then, but only much later after years of psychotherapy, did I realize the damage that conversation (and probably others like it) did in terms of my perception of my parents. The doorway that opened my entrance into the hearing world brought with it confusion not unlike the raving gobbledygook of my neighboring family’s religion. It may be that my initial hearing of Carmina hooked the emotional repulsion I feel toward a religion gone wild with senseless, unintelligible craziness.
It is never possible to ferret out all the reasons for emotional blocks and/or resistance to things happening in the present. But recalling some of the memories may help to make partial sense of what is essentially determinative nonsense. That first hearing of Carmina triggered hidden emotional concomitants that spawned an “ugh” response, and subsequent inquiry did little to keep that response in check. Life is an endless web of convergences, some of which we realize, most of which we don’t. To the extent that we know, however little, we are empowered to choose what to do. For me, right now, out of deference for both positive and negative gleanings from the past, I choose to opt out and not sing in tongues.