This heady time of renewal reminds us of life’s cycles, which including beginning/ending, and growing/declining.
There is a curious paradox which no one can explain.
Who understands the secrets of the reaping of the grain?
Who understands why spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain,
Or why we all must die a bit before we grow again?
[from “The Fantasticks,” lyrics by Tom Jones]
Thus did the long sad years glide on, and in seasons and places Divers and distant far was seen the wandering maiden;–Now in the Tents of Grace of the meek Moravian Missions,
Now in the noisy camps and the battle-fields of the army,
Now in secluded hamlets, in towns and populous cities.
Like a phantom she came, and passed away unremembered.
Fair was she and young, when in hope began the long journey;
Faded was she and old, when in disappointment it ended.
Each succeeding year stole something away from her beauty,
Leaving behind it, broader and deeper, the gloom and the shadow.
Then there appeared and spread faint streaks of gray o’er her forehead,
Dawn of another life, that broke o’er her earthy horizon,
As in the eastern sky the first faint streaks of the morning.
Every stage of life confronts us with challenges that are particular to that age. As we age, our perspective on life changes but those changes are particular to the individual. Most people are carefree about time while they are young and become more focused on it as they age. Others are prematurely grey. Some of those people remain so all their lives, while others gain a peace and serenity about time, aging and mortality as they age. Because this is just a way of looking at things, it is unique to each person.
Beginning and ending, growing and declining: these are the changes we cannot control. Still, we can choose how to approach these inevitable changes. We can choose how to look at things and where to concentrate our energy. We can choose to focus our attention wherever it will serve and others best. We can resolve to accept the things we cannot change so that we can change the things we can. A central task for the remainder of the year will be to bring this choice into greater focus and give it, and ourselves, renewed life.
As we move from one chapter to another in our lives, we do well being mindful of the beginnings and endings over which we have no control. We are aware of our mortality and also of the emergence of new life. Awareness and acceptance – better still, embracing – of this cycle is important to our mental and emotional well-being.
- Phoenix rising, a popular design for a Scottish tombstone
- René Magritte, Early Morning (1942)
- Joan Miro, Constellation: The Morning Star (1940)
- Diego Rivera, Maturation (1926)
- Paul Klee, Reconstructing (1926)
- Konstantin Somov, Summer Morning (1920)
- Claude Monet, Morning on the Seine (1893)
- Vincent van Gogh, Enclosed Field with Rising Sun (1889)
- Edgar Degas, The Morning Bath (1883)
- Alfred Sisley, The Farm at Trou d'Enfer, Autumn Morning (1874)
- Joseph Mallord William Turner, Early Morning (1843)
- William Turner, Morning Amongst the Coniston Fells, Cumberland (1798)
- Caspar David Friedrich, Monastery Graveyard in the Snow (ca. 1827)
- Caspar David Friedrich, The Abbey in the Oakwood (1809)
- Igor Grabar, Winter Landscape (1954)
- Salvador Dali, Shades of Night Descending (1931)
- Vincent van Gogh, Evening Landscape with Rising Moon (1889)
- attributed to Caspar David Friedrich, Die Winterreise (1807)
- Francesco de Goya, Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta (1820)
- Francesco de Goya, Les Vielles ou le Temps (Time and the Old Women) (1810-12)
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Jay Ungar, “Ashokan Farewell”
- Iris Dement, “Our Town”
- Paul Simon, “Night Game”
- Franz Schubert (composer), “Das Abendrot” (Sunset), D. 827 (1818) (lyrics)
- B.B. King, “The Thrill Is Gone”
- Third Coast Percussion, “Twilight”
- Franz Schubert (composer), “Abendlied” (Evening Song), D. 276 (1815) (lyrics)
- Franz Schubert (composer), “Schwangesang” (Swan Song), D. 318 (1815) (lyrics)
- Franz Schubert (composer), “An die untergehende Sonne” (To the Setting Sun), D. 457 (1816) (lyrics)
- Franz Schubert (composer), “Abendröte” (Evening Glow), D. 690 (1820) (lyrics)
- Franz Schubert (composer), “Herbst” (Autumn), D. 945 (1828) (lyrics)
- Victor Herbert (composer), “Sunset” (1912)
Film and Stage
- The Last Picture Show: “a two-hour countdown to maturity” in a small, backward Texas town
- Harry and Tonto, about confrontingold age passionately
- Brooklyn: A young Irish woman emigrates to the United States, and struggles to find her place, and herself. She seems to find happiness with a young Italian-American man but then her sister dies, leaving her mother alone in Ireland. A return visit challenges her commitment to a new life.
- Iris: a dramatization of author Iris Murdoch’s losing battle with Alzheimer’s disease
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Three great song cycles by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) develop the themes of decline and new growth that so capture the feel of this time of the year. Winterreise (Winter Journey) (1827) (approx. 65-77’), is a set of twenty-four songs, set to poems by Wilhelm Müller, which explore themes of loss, decline and despair. Schubert described them as “truly terrible, songs which have affected me more than any others . . .” This song cycle is the most often performed and studied of all such works, with scholarly books by Susan Youens; Lauri Suurpää; and Harbison, Youens, et. al.. In the songs, the protagonist “longs for true love, but winter’s sorrow has taken its toll”. “Two recurring themes in the cycle are contrast and the unexpected: on more than one occasion, there appears to be divergence, sometimes so subtle, between the character of the words and the music. Perhaps this was Schubert’s way of portraying irony and fate or even conflict: hope vs. despair and the want for connection vs. the reality of loneliness.” Schubert had been suffering from syphilis for a few years when he composed the cycle, which may have influenced his views on life. The cycle is suited naturally to a baritone voice. Top performances by baritone, with piano are Gerhard Husch & Hans Udo Müller in 1933; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau & Gerald Moore in 1955 ***; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau & Jörg Demus 1966 **; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau & Gerald Moore in 1972; Jorma Hynninen & Ralf Gothóni in 1989; Roman Trekel & Ulrich EIsenlohr in 1998; Matthias Goerne & Christoph Eschenbach in 2014. Equally suited to this dark cycle is the bass voice, masterfully represented on disc by Josef Greindl & Hertha Klust in 1957; Matthew Rose & Gary Matthewman in 2012. Many tenors have recorded the cycle, most notably: Anton Dermota & Hilda Dermota in 1976; Kurt Equiluz & Margit Fussi in 1988; Peter Schreier & Andras Schiff in 1994; Robert Tear & Philip Ledger in 2006 ; Jonas Kaufman & Helmut Deutsch in 2014 ***; Ian Bostridge & Thomas Adès in 2018; Mark Padmore & Kristian Bezuidenhout in 2018. Two mezzo-sopranos have also given excellent performances: Brigitte Fassbaender & Albert Reimann in 1988; and Alice Coote & Julius Drake at Wigmore Hall.
In 1993, Hans Zender reimagined Schubert’s Winterreise, adding instrumentation, and also adding approximately thirty minutes of music. He titled it “Schubert’s Winterreise - Eine komponierte Interpretation for tenor and small orchestra”. Audio-visual recordings feature tenors Sebastian Kohlhepp and Daniel Behle, respectively; Hans Peter Blochwitz is the tenor on the world premier audio recording.
Schubert, Die Schöne Müllerin (The Lovely Milleress), Op. 25, D. 795 (1824) (approx. 56-67’), is also set to Müller’s poems. It too has generated appreciable scholarly writing. It begins with youthful exuberance of a young man enamored of the miller’s daughter. However, he fails to win her over, and commits suicide. “This is the full Romantic life in a song cycle – emotions are on edge, reactions are outsized, and refusal of love can only mean that the lover dies.” Top recorded performances are by Aksel Schiøtz & Gerald Moore in 1945; Fritz Wunderlich & Hubert Giesen in 1965; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau & Gerald Moore in 1972; Ian Bostridge & Mitsuko Uchida in 2005 ; Matthias Goerne & Christoph Eschenbach in 2009; Jonas Kaufman & Helmut Deutsch in 2009.
Schubert, Schwanegesang (Swan Song), D 957 (1828) (approx. 48-55’), expresses Schubert’s thoughts and feelings as an ill man, who whether he knew it or not, was nearing death. “Franz Schubert’s final and horribly painful days in November 1828 included bouts of delirium, requests for novels by James Fennimore Cooper, ceaseless singing and moments of great lucidity when he was working on his compositions. Schubert had been seriously ill for some time, but it’s impossible to tell by the quantity and consistency of his compositions.” He had composed songs in the year or so before he died; after he died, his publisher collected fourteen of them, which were published as Schubert’s “Schwanengesang”. Though Schubert does not appear to have intended these songs to be performed as a cycle, the fact that they are testifies to Schubert’s brilliance. Top recorded performances are by Hotter in 1954, Fischer-Dieskau in 1958, Fischer-Dieskau in 1972, Fischer-Dieskau in 1983, Terfel in 1991, Quasthoff in 2000, Güra in 2007, Prégardien in 2008, Maltman in 2010, and Padmore in 2011.
Benjamin Britten, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31 (1942), consists of six songs about day’s end. “Composed during World War II at the request of the horn player Dennis Brain, it is a setting of a selection of six poems by British poets on the subject of night, including both its calm and its sinister aspects.” Top recorded performances are by: Pears & Brain, conducted by Britten in 1944; Pears & Brain, conducted by Goossens in 1953 ***; Pears & Tuckwell, conducted by Britten in 1963; Hill & Lloyd, conducted by Hickox in 1988; Johnson & Thompson, conducted by Thomson in 1988; Hadley & Halstead, conducted by Boughton in 1989; and Clayton & Watkins, conducted by Däunert in 2013.
Works by Delius:
- Summer Evening (1890) (approx. 6’)
- Songs of Sunset (1907) (approx. 24-30’)
- Summer Night on the River (1912) (approx. 6-7’)
- Fausto Romitelli, An Index of Metals, a video opera (2003) (approx. 50’): “At first it seemed like a false start – a burst of electronic sound and light that suddenly collapsed as though the power had failed. But as the gesture was repeated and enlarged the brief moment of ‘collapse’ established itself as the first of many distinctive gestures. It became, in one sense, a microcosm of the whole work; an 'hour-long crescendo to annihilation' as conductor Jack Symonds puts it.” The work “is saturated, first and foremost with this madrigalism of the Fall: an endless sliding of all melody towards the grave, of all harmony towards its dissolution, of all timbre towards its own outworn noise.” Performances are by Ictus Ensemble in 2009; Ensemble Miroirs Étendus in 2010; Opera Contemporanea in 2015; E-MEX Ensemble in 2021; and Ensemble Miroirs Étendus in 2022.
- Henry Purcell, Dido and Aeneas (1689) (approx. 56-80’) (libretto) is a story about the joys, decline and death of two romantic lovers. Facing Dido’s impending death, Aeneas sings: “Death alas I cannot shun, death must come when he is gone.” Here are links to performances conducted by Barbirolli, Lewis, Christie, Dumestre, Pinnock, Parrott, and Gardiner.
- Robert Fürstenthal, 16 Lieder und Balladen vom Leben und Vergehen (16 Songs and Ballads of Life and Passing) (partial lyrics)
- Ernest Bloch, Poèmes d'automne (Poems of Autumn) for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, B 33 (1906) (approx. 22-23’)
- John Corigliano, Elegy (1965) (approx. 8’)
- Richard Wilson, String Quartet No. 3 (1983) (approx. 21-25’) consists of a prelude, episode and elegy.
- Mieczysław Weinberg (Moishe Vainberg), Symphony No. 19, Op. 142, "Bright May" (1985) (approx. 34’48’) “marks ‘Bright May’ as the month in which the Great Patriotic War came to an end, but expressed with ominous apprehension as well as celebration.” “Its subtitle refers not to the standard May Day celebration, but to the end of World War II in the Soviet Union. Consequently, it doesn't hymn the Soviet ghosts on the official dais but instead meditates on the psychological complexities of the cataclysm's aftermath.”
- Arne Nordheim, Nedstignengen (The Descent), for recitation, mixed chorus, soprano, orchestra & electronic sounds (1996) (approx. 26’)
- Hannah Lash, Frayed (2014) (approx. 9’)
- Lash, Suite: Remembered and Imagined (2008) (approx. 14’)
- Rued Langgaard, Symphony No. 14, “Morgenen” (The Morning), BVN 336 (1947-1948/1951) (approx. 29-34’)
- Langgaard, Symphony No. 4, “Løvfald” (Leaf Fall), BVN 124 (1916, rev. 1920) (approx. 26-28’)
- Fred Frith, “Fell” (2002) (approx. 12’)
- Dmitri Klebanov, Piano Trio No. 2 (1958) (approx. 31’): “The highlight is an expansive Adagio that takes in eloquent solos or duos for all three instruments en route to a coda affective its expressive restraint, countered by a final Allegro whose methodical unfolding ultimately finds resolution in a fatalistic revisiting of the music heard at the outset.”
- Mark Abel, Approaching Autumn (2020) (approx. 15’)
- Pēteris Vasks, Cuckoo’s Voice (Spring Elegy), for piano (2021) (approx. 12’)
- Eugène Ysaÿe, Poème Élégiaque for Violin and Piano, Op. 12 (1893) (approx. 14’)
- Dmitri Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 122 (1966) (approx. 18’): “In retrospect the Eleventh Quartet marks Shostakovich's slow descent to death.”
- Jakob Bro, “December Song” (2013) (47’): “I spent my whole life being influenced by Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano, Lester Young and all the great jazz players and all of a sudden I play whole notes and half notes and chord progressions and I don't know why. It's not folk music, it's not jazz, it's not pop music, it's not funk, you know, it's just balladeering or whatever.”
- Cécile McLorin Salvant, “Ghost Song” (2022) (46’), is a haunting album about lost loves and longing. “The vocalist who dares to take on older music with unsavory history turns inward . . .” “The album opens and closes with mournful, solitary mountaintop expressions . . .”
- Emily Portman & Rob Harbron, “Time Was Away” (2022) (44’): “The passing of time, for good and bad, hangs over these songs like some kind of intangible spectre.”
- Steven Halpern, “Eventide” (1981) (45’)
Marius gradually won Cosette away from Jean Valjean. Cosette allowed it. Moreover that which is called, far too harshly in certain cases, the ingratitude of children, is not always a thing so deserving of reproach as it is supposed. It is the ingratitude of nature. Nature, as we have elsewhere said, "looks before her." Nature divides living beings into those who are arriving and those who are departing. Those who are departing are turned towards the shadows, those who are arriving towards the light. Hence a gulf which is fatal on the part of the old, and involuntary on the part of the young. This breach, at first insensible, increases slowly, like all separations of branches. The boughs, without becoming detached from the trunk, grow away from it. It is no fault of theirs. Youth goes where there is joy, festivals, vivid lights, love. Old age goes towards the end. They do not lose sight of each other, but there is no longer a close connection. Young people feel the cooling off of life; old people, that of the tomb. Let us not blame these poor children. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume V – Jean Valjean; Book Ninth – Supreme Shadow, Supreme Dawn, Chapter I, Pity for the Unhappy, But Indulgence for the Happy.]
And I draw in fresh sustenance,
New blood from the untrammeled world:
How gracious and generous is nature,
Who holds me to her bosom!
The wave sways our boat
To the rhythm of the oars,
And mountains, nebulously reaching for heaven,
Meet our course.
Eye of mine, why are you downcast?
Golden dreams, have you returned?
Away dream, golden though you are:
Here, too, there are love and life.
A thousand hovering stars twinkle on the wave,
Soft mists drink the towering horizon around us,
The morning breeze flutters over the shaded bay,
And the lake reflects the ripening fruit.
[Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “On the Lake”]
- Heinrich Heine, Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam ("A spruce tree stands alone") (1823).
- Robert Frost, “Now Close the Windows”
- Pablo Neruda, “Ode to Broken Things”
- John Keats, Sonnet: “The Day Is Gone”
- James Joyce “The Twilight Turns”
- Edwin Arlington Robinson, “ Flood’s Party”
- Samuel Taylor-Coleridge, “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison Addressed to Charles Lamb, of the India House, London”
- William Butler Yeats, “When You Are Old”
- Robert Frost, “An Old Man’s Winter Night”
- Pablo Neruda, “Finale”
- Kunchan Nambiar, “The Kingdom of Gandharaka the Ruler”
- John Keats, “In Drear-Nighted December”
- Thomas Carew, “Persuasions to Enjoy”
- Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, “Going Into Darkness”
- Faiz Ahmed Faiz, “When Autumn Came”
- Wallace Stevens, “Contrary Theses II”