The Gifts of the Present
In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien famously wrote that God made men and women to be “sub-creators,” able to discover, build, and create works of art in faint but sure echo of their Creator. The man who gave the world The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings had mythmaking and storytelling specifically in mind, but his words really apply to all crafts and arts, any of which may provide the beholder with “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.”
So it is with the best of painting and music. To awaken the inconsolable wound with which all men and women are born, to see, and to begin the catch a glimmer of the meaning, purpose, and man’s place in life, these are the artist’s calling. And such is the calling envisaged by Webster Young, America’s most accomplished neoclassical composer of music.
For those unfamiliar with his work, it may be helpful to note that Young is a prolific composer for orchestra, ballet, opera, piano, strings, and guitar. Born and reared on the East Coast, he studied music in Northern California, Paris, and New York, rising to prominence during the 1980s and ’90s. In writing Berkeley-Paris Express (the first of two planned memoirs), Young looks back on his formative years and ruminates upon the meaning and nature of his youth during the late 1960s and 1970s, the years in which he developed his art, and in which his Christian faith developed. As he notes: “I have in this book returned to my teens and twenties to look at the values and events that formed me, to remember Berkeley and the Bay Area with all its vitality in the late sixties, and to recall the values given me by a great mentor.”
This mentor, his uncle Kenneth Miller Frantz, a painter, is spoken of with much respect and affection throughout the volume. A free spirit who lived for many years in California and now lives in Oregon, Frantz has never had a showing though he has painted steadily for over a half century. His influence upon Young was significant, for there is a parallel between a humanistic vision of man, the visual arts, and music that was intuited by Young and is shared in his memoir. He writes:
One some of my visits, he would show me something about the compositional analysis of paintings and his perceptions of the work of the great masters. Going through an anthology of great paintings in a heavy tome, he would point out his favorites and their salient points of interest. He showed me how to analyze the lines of force and composition in paintings; how to take note of the working of space; how to see the resonance between areas of color and much more.
Further, Frantz’s house “was steeped in a spiritual atmosphere. Here was a depth of religion, a love of literature and music, a keen interest in young people, and a genuine search for healing—in the confused world of the late sixties.”
From his uncle, Young learned much, including the beginning of an appreciation of artwork by the likes of Nicolas Poussin (who “explores every space of the canvas in a harmonious geometry of composition”), Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (with his detailed handling of space in which not one speck is trivialized), and especially Georges Roualt and Russian-born Marc Chagall, with his stained-glass Cubist sensibility and use of “wonderfully vibrating color.” Beholding the artwork of his uncle and these masters, Young writes, “It seemed to me that somewhere in the realm of music it was possible to achieve this same depth of meaning and transformation; yet there seemed to be no worldly guidepost to help me in this direction.”
Young notes that as a talented musician growing up among intelligent friends during a turbulent era in American history, he found himself drawn to music with structure and especially meaning, eschewing the atonality and discord that were all the rage in composition classes on American college campuses at the time. To compose great works with these qualities made Young something of an oddity among his peers within university music programs and post-graduate classes, to his wonder. For musicians who have played atonal works in a concert setting may share with Young that there is something about the experience that brings to mind Robert Frost’s famous quip about free verse: it is “like playing tennis without a net.” There is a sense of cheating, of doing something too easily, of fobbing off a finger exercise as an invaluable artifact and then dismissing the uncomprehending audience for being out of touch. Young saw this response firsthand when avant-garde works were performed by aspiring composers at the University of California, Davis: audience members would visibly lose interest early in the performance, while others would shake their heads and mutter “That’s not music” at the conclusion.
Over time, through his studies and the influence of his artistic passions, Young discovered his own path. He found that he believed “in melody—undistorted by wide leaps, jumps to remote keys, intense chromaticism, or atonal passages. In effect, this meant that I was a classicist. Long melodies that were beautiful, integrated, and balanced in form became something I strove to create.” Building upon this realization, he has succeeded.
As it is with the very best of memoirs, Berkeley-Paris Express periodically records what the poet Eliot has called timeless moments: those brief experiences in which time and the timeless intersect. A single such instance in Young’s life occurred one night during his hardscrabble days in New York, while he was studying at Juilliard:
My brother Scott came to visit me in New York that cold and snowy winter. He slept on my floor at the hotel. One night as we were crossing Broadway, we ran into a friend of mine on the little arcade at 70th Street. He was a clarinetist friend from Juilliard and I introduced him to my brother. A heavy snow was falling and the wind was blowing, driving the chill through our coats. I was wearing a long, formal, blue wool overcoat that didn’t fit me well—a hand-me-down that had belonged to our grandfather Frederick Purdy. The night was dark and the snowfall thick, but we stood talking on the street corner, chatting briefly in the harsh environment.
Sometimes when a relative comes to visit, it shows us our own life in a mirror, and that was the case on this night. My brother was temporarily sharing in the bohemian life I had undertaken, and that made the short encounter on Broadway acquire a mysterious quality. The difficulty and the inspiration of my student life became clear in that brief moment of New York weather at its harshest, shared with my brother and a friend from the great conservatory down the street.
Young says nothing further about this event. Not an extraordinary moment, but nonetheless a moment of immense meaning in the life and spirit of the author. Here as elsewhere in this volume, the pieces of Young’s life and artistic development come together in seemingly unrelated pieces: truths borne in upon the receptive mind and “falling into place most intricately,” as Russell Kirk once phrased it.
Berkeley-Paris Express is a celebration of a well-spent youth, specifically “the joy of working with what was already ours at the time—those gifts that we were freely given. Youth, then, has more to do with the gifts of the present than the promise of the future. It is the privilege of using tools without the consciousness of privilege and with joy.” And then looking back upon those times and those gifts with gratitude.
James E. Person Jr. is a Senior Fellow at the Kirk Center, a longtime book reviewer, and the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Madison Books, 1999).
Posted: November 4, 2012