Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Air

On hearing a marvelous pianist, my friend, Helge Antoni play Edvard Grieg’s “Holberg Suite Opus no. 40” this week, I found myself stopping and thinking. I thought generally of music’s transformational qualities, its capacity to transport you from one state of mind to another, almost from one place to another. But when he played the fourth movement of that suite, “Air,” that is when I thought of something else: time.

Edvard Grieg

I say time not because I found myself thinking of the work’s title in Norwegian (Frå Holbergs tid) or even a language that I actually can speak like German (Aus Holbergs Zeit)—Little did I know until later that “time” (tid) was even in the original title. Nor was it the fact that the piece was written in 1884 to celebrate something that had occurred a bicentenary before, the commemoration of Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg’s birth; that detail I found out at the concert, though I think I had read it somewhere previously. But I had forgotten that when I was thinking about time, even as I listened intently to Mr. Antoni playing the piece so movingly, so timelessly.

If you recall the movements of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, you perhaps already know that they are based on eighteenth-century dance forms that were themselves connected with Baroque music, the music and the style of dance that came from when Holberg himself was living. [1] The Holberg Suite, then, was written to do precisely what it did for me, to transport someone through time to a previous epoch.

But the epoch in which I found myself was not two hundred years before. It was just a few years ago when Elaine Jakes died. For it was not the style of a Norwegian dance form from the seventeenth century that created an image in my mind, but it was the transcendent quality of the suite’s fourth movement, “Air,” that seeped into my soul and took me back, specifically to my mother’s death. Not in sadness or despair, but in an idea, an image. And that image originally occurred to me when I first encountered Death. For when I first encountered Death I had, as all of us perhaps at some point in our lives, never known him. He had been a distant reality to me, something that happened to other people, like a terrible disease or a horrendous accident or natural disaster.

Hercules Fighting Death to Save Alcestis by Frederic Lord Leighton, 1869–71

I was twenty when my grandfather, Harry Jakes, died. And hitherto I hadn’t entered into the holy land by way of reading. The notion of someone who could defeat death, like Heracles come to bring Admetus’ dear Alcestis back from the grave, was not an image, even in Dionysian theatrical terms, that had jelled in my mind or occurred to my spirit. Rather, Death entered Harry’s hospital room with a strong upper hand as I and my cousin Eric had, moments before, looked upon him, wired with tubes and grasping at his last few moments of life. We stepped out, hungry and in need of something to eat, when we were called back from the hospital’s canteen to the room, too late. He was gone. His soul had flitted away, on air, not even the Air of the Holberg Suite, but just air. Death had won, for now. But Air is written to be played in andante.

Andante religioso, to be precise. And thus it was that Death’s victory was but short-lived, for in just a few months I found myself, for the first time, entering into that holy land of which I spoke, encountering a literary force much stronger than the Euripidean Heracles. But that force was something greater than even a literary force, or even one made popular at the time (and incredibly still so) by a movie and, later, series of films. Indeed I was not on Miltonian ground, I knew before I heard Air what andante religious really meant. And that is why when I attended my grandmother’s funeral and when I came down the stairs the morning of my mother’s death to find her cold body lying in her bed, I knew that her spirit had risen on the air, the air of Greig’s fourth movement of the Holberg Suite. That Air leads to the joyous opening of the fifth, Rigaudon, a piece that is written to be “alive with energy,” allegro con brio. How fitting, for Grieg’s Air doesn’t just dissolve. It wafts, it wafts somewhere.

And so had Harry, though I knew it not. And Blanche. And, thirty years or so after them, Elaine. Their spirits had not just passed away, but had climbed, not simply “up” to a sky deity but to the Master’s home, a home beyond the sky. They had all gone, by faith, allegro con brio. And before they left they had given me a gift—not a cheese plate or a serving tray or even a teapot with a most interesting brown, undulating pattern. No, they had given me the faith to envision, or perhaps the vision to believe that the air on which our souls shall one day climb, leads somewhere, until we shall, about the supreme throne, of Him t’ whose happy-making sight alone, forever sit, attired with stars, in triumph over Death, and Chance, and even Time. But not Air. For when that day comes, that is precisely what we shall breathe, con molto brio.

Helge Antoni
Helge Antoni

[1] Further, cf.


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