Tag Archives: Helge Antoni

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. http://www.favorite-classical-composers.com/holberg-suite.html.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Unlikely Things

“People say believe half of what you see
Some and none of what you hear
But I can’t help but be confused;
If it’s true please tell me dear”

Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield

Helge Antoni, pianist
Helge Antoni, pianist

It is highly unlikely for anyone to meet a renowned concert pianist at a cocktail reception on the mystical and stunningly beautiful island of Capri. It is preposterous that you should become his friend. It is even more unbelievable to have had dinner with him and his lovely wife, Marissa, several times in Europe. Even more improbable yet for him to visit Texas. Even more unlikely for him to be performing publicly at 7:00 PM on 19 January in a concert that is free and open to the public in Baylor University’s Roxy Grove Hall. (Yes, I am encouraging you to come to that remarkable concert). I will certainly be there to see my close friend, Helge Antoni, selections of the works of Grieg and Chopin.helge piano recitalAs unlikely as that wonderful turn of events on Capri was, I would like to now turn to something even more unlikely that happened this week. It came to public attention, owing to a paper given with Jacobian eloquence at a recent evening session of the American Astronomical Society’s 229th meeting in Grapevine, Texas, that a new planet, called Planet Nine—undoubtedly to the chagrin of the Keep-Pluto-a-Planet society[1]—swam into a young astronomer’s ken—rather not his ken, per se, as the planet is only inferred from gravitation effects in the Kuiper belt.[2] It has since been reported in various news outlets, not merely floated along on a billow of rumors, whispered down the lane, or heard on any particular viticultural climber.[3]

planet-nineMore interesting is the fact that his planet actually did swim in, for James Vesper hypothesizes that this is a so-called “rogue” planet, one that was wandering across the universe and then just latched onto our solar system. It is strange that we can’t see it, for it is believed by its theorized gravitational pull to be ten times the size of our own planet. Ten times! That’s a lot of real estate.

And that’s really unexpected. It is stuff you can’t make up, and what’s strange about it is that there is something there, something quite large there with a strong gravitational pull, that you simply can’t see. You can only infer it. You can see a galaxy X Y and Z light years away, you can miss a planet ten times the size of the earth. You can miss what is so very close to your own world, miss it entirely, and only figure out that it is there because someone unlikely—in this case an undergraduate student from New Mexico State University—suggests to you that it is there. It was there all our life and we missed it. We knew Pluto was there, and we decided Pluto wasn’t really the ninth planet so we discarded it. But now we find that there might just be something much bigger than Pluto, thanks to the unlikely discovery of an unlikely scholar. A ninth planet just might be there, one much bigger, one much more influential than we had hitherto expected.

It was there all along and we missed it? Maybe we missed because we were looking for something too small. Can we learn anything from this? Well, it’s the season of the epiphany, so perhaps we can. Maybe we can learn, like the wise men of the east, when we follow a wandering star, that we should expect something amazing, something quite unexpected. If we do learn that, if we do infer as much from Vesper’s ninth planet—I hope they name it after him, “Vesper IX”—then maybe we should be getting our camels ready. Maybe we should prepare ourselves to look for something surprising—yes, actually go out there looking for it. We might not meet a famous musician on Capri and become his friend. But we might, just might, find something extraordinary in the day-to-day movement of our ordinary lives—lives that can become extraordinary when we learn to expect the unexpected.

[1] I am not kidding. Such a society exists: http://www.plutoisaplanet.org/

[2] https://www.yahoo.com/tech/solar-system-might-ninth-planet-researchers-idea-where-001424998.html

[3] Where better than space.com? http://www.space.com/35277-planet-nine-captured-rogue-exoplanet.html

Full of the unexpected

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Workshops and Sanctuaries

“Buona sera, good evening,” he said what seemed to me a trace of a Swedish accent, “My name is Helge. It’s a manly name, a Viking name.” In fact, it is a holy name, related as it is to the German heilige, as in Heilige Geist (“Holy Ghost”). Thus, while the Vikings no doubt used this word as a perfectly “manly” name, it has connotatiVilla of San Micheleons, as does many a name, well beyond even the immediate context of a Viking village, let alone the cocktail reception for a musical recital at the Villa San Michele on Capri, where I first met Helge Antoni.
There he was with his lovely wife, Marisa, and the three of us along with a number of other interlocutors who dropped in and out of our conversation chatted in multiple languages—German, English, French, mostly Italian—about music, art, literature and the intoxication that Anacapri provided through its breathtaking vistas and villas, soul-charming alleys and ambulatories witape-on-the-roadh various twists and turns. Indeed, virtually no one drives in Anacapri, unless one has a very small vehicle such as a scooter or a “bee” (in Italian, ape, entirely unrelated, of course, to its false English cognate “ape”).

As I walked home from that evening’s lovely concert it dawned on me that I had met a world-class and quite famous musician, and in Marisa, his athletic wife, quite a fine Pilates expert. Little did I know, however, that I would enjoy much more than a mere conversation, that our friendship would blossom, that Helge would become like a brother to me. That such a circumstance could possibly arise was soon enough apparent to me from his and Marisa’s warm invitation to join them for drinks the following evening at the nearby mountain villa where they were staying.

And so it came to pass, in our evolving friendship, Helge, en route to a concert a year later, would come to visit me in the States, on which occasion I was reminded afresh of something I already knew but had, I suppose, forgotten or had at least not brought to the front of my mind for quite some time. Yet I had known it well, as I had so many other important things, already when I was a child.

That thing that I had known was the idea of a sanctuary. I am thinking in this case of the small workshop of my grandfather, Harry Jakes. It was anything but fancy, more or less just a workbench in the basement of my grandparents’ home on Rutter Avenue in Kingston, Pennsylvania. My mother, Elaine Jakes, lived with her parents for three years or so after her divorce and during those years my grandparents in many ways played the role of Wilkes Uparents for me while my mother finished her college education at Wilkes College (now Wilkes University). There Elaine, having enrolled for a second time after a scandalous dismissal which you may already know from The Curious Autobiography, studied English literature and history and was a makeup artist for the Cue ‘n’ Curtain theater troupe. Had she not had a young child, she might have been an actor in that troupe, but that, I think, is the stuff of another blog.

Photo by Brian Smithson.
Photo by Brian Smithson.

To return to my grandfather’s workshop: it was a magical place, truly glorious, where the sound of his old electric drill provided Scipionic music of the spheres. There it was a privilege to enter and to spend time simply listening to and watching the master craftsman at work. Of course, he was not a real “master.” He was merely a man then nigh unto his retirement years who was handy around the house. If it were broken, chances are Harry could have fixed it. If something needed a slight adjustment, he would use his creative powers to adjust it. If a unique dohicky had to be designed for a specific purpose, Harry would invent it. He was one of those rare people who could look at something broken and envision it in a fully repaired state—a mystical healer of humdrum objects. Owing to that particular trait, I, my cousins, and anyone who might enter that house on Rutter Avenue, which had once been the house of the family’s childless matriarch Aunt Jemima, all marveled at him.

Harry found in his workshop, it seemed to me, a kind of sanctuary, for it provided him with a respite from, almost a kind of therapy for, the worries of this world for him to work with his hands repairing things. Perhaps it was the metaphor of healing, after all, that offered him a powerful solace. But I also think that there was something about the attitude that was required to enter the place, that workshop that provided sanctuary a word that implies both that the place is a safe place and holy. The word itself, though it means “holy” comes to mean a place of refuge, a place of asylum, just as Helge means holy but becomes, to use Helge’s words, “a manly name, a Viking name.”

As I grew up and especially after my grandfather’s death I had to find other workshops, other sanctuaries. One of these I had stumbled upon before his passing, for as a teenager in New Hope I would often frequent the office of a local writer, John Pfeiffer, who wrote anthropological treatises for the popular market. He did a good deal of research for each of his books, and allowed me to visit him to pick his brain about writing and about the possibility of having a career as a writer.

Photo by Wally Gobetz.
Logan Inn. Photo by Wally Gobetz.

Carl Lutz’ workshop was the kitchen of the Logan Inn, the original inn of New Hope (the borough once called Wells Ferry) which, in the early eighteenth century, the town’s founder John Wells owned and operated even before New Hope was called Coryell’s Ferry, which it was after it was called Wells Ferry; all this is the stuff of another, in fact a previous blog. For Carl, who would later become the mayor of New Hope, the busy kitchen of the Logan Inn provided him with a kind of refuge from the business of running the Inn and, eventually, the whole town.

I should mention two other places that served as (and three other mentors who ensured) workshops and sanctuaries for me. One of these was Professor Phil Lockhart of Dickinson College, another Tom Corey, pastor of one of Philadelphia’s truly urban churches; the third, Mrs. Zinaida Sprowles, self-described peripatetic pedagogue, who bore workshop and sanctuary within, demonstrating that such a place need neither longitude nor latitude. Each of these provided refuge away from the stresses of life, and with them one did not merely learn what it meant to be an apprentice in an art, such as writing or cooking, but in life. With them I found myself often puzzling about bigger questions regarding meaning and significance, about what words meant, not merely how to craft them. Each of them showed how to read and, based on what was read, offered insights about what to write. In their sanctuaries where I pondered how to function as a human being, how to walk, indeed to see, in this dark world and wide, and how not to allow that one talent, which is death hide, to stay lodged, useless. But I wax poetic. Suffice it to say that in those sanctuaries I pondered the questions that would give me pause, that would compel me to understand that to be a proper human being requires participating in humanity’s pain and, eventually, would place a pen in my hand for that very purpose.

Helge Antoni, pianist
Helge Antoni, pianist

“Have them sit down,” Helge said, as he bestrode the piano in the college chapel, spacious enough for the master class that he offered to the assortment of musically trained college students assembled there. I watched and listened as they played in this makeshift workshop, a sanctuary in more than one sense, for Helge had lived up to his name, creating a sanctuary, whose walls were forged from notes and whose roof was made of wafting chords, supported by occasional applause and masterful instructions to a true master’s students in a master class. There I experienced sanctuary again, in a workshop that was no workshop, for it normally was a place of faith—not works, lest anyone should boast. And I realized again, as I sat there watching the love he had for those students and their warm responses to his gentle admonitions and corrections, that here learning could happen afresh, in a sanctuary. I remembered the teachers of my sanctuaries, from Harry to John to Carl to Zinaida to Phil to Tom, and back again to Capri, where I had met Helge.

“Heavenly,” the appropriately named master thundered after one of the students had played her piece, “just heavenly …” adding, after a decorous pause, “Wasn’t that glorious?”

“Indeed,” I thought, “it was.” But I was thinking of something much larger than the fine piece that the student had played. I was thinking of sanctuary and the sound of an old electric drill when I replied, “Truly, Helge, it was.”