Composers confronting mortality

The pain started as a dull ache in my abdomen around New Rochelle; by Stamford I was doubled over in agony. On December 12th I had boarded Amtrak Northeast Regional #86 in Philadelphia on route to Boston for the 2019 NCMF winter baroque concert. Over the last few years I’d experienced this same pain before but only once had it been this bad. Each time it vanished as mysteriously as it appeared: food poisoning strikes again - the joy of travel.

There is a tradition of musicians expressing illness in music. The greatest example is the colossal slow movement from Beethoven’s late masterpiece, the string quartet in A Minor, Opus 132. Beethoven was at the brink of death in 1824 but recovered to write this movement, giving it the title “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity” (Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit). It switches between three prayer-like sections, each more intense than the next, sandwiching two fast sections which he titles “feeling new strength” (Neue Kraftfühlend).

The pain subsided by South Station and I didn’t give it another thought until it returned in force the next day, Friday, the day before rehearsals were set to begin. I was in no shape to play a concert let alone rehearse for six hours so I asked my old friend and co-founder of NCMF, Jane Niebling, to drive me to the ER at Anna Jaques. The doctors, nurses, and hospital staff in the Emergency Department and Gerrish Family Fast Track Service wing were exceptionally kind to me. After a few hours and a barrage of tests the doctor informed me I had a kidney stone. She then looked at me and said “we also found something else…”

Smetana Hall in Prague, Czech Republic

Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s (1824 – 1884) String Quartet No. 1, “From My Life,” (Z mého života) is an autobiographical portrait chronicling youthful excess, falling in love, coming of age as a national treasure, and the tragic onset of hearing loss:

"The fourth movement describes my discovery that I could incorporate national elements in my music, and my joy in following this path until it was terminated by the onset of my deafness, the outlook into a sad future, the tiny rays of hope of recovery; but remembering the promise of my early career, a feeling of painful regret….The long persistent note in the finale owes its origin to this. It is the fateful ringing of the high-pitched tones in my ears, which, in 1874, announced the beginning of my deafness. I allow myself this small joke, though [my loss of hearing] was ultimately disastrous."

                                                                                     The piercing note representing Smetana’s hearing loss, a high E,
                                                                                               comes at 3:22 like the plunge of a dagger to the heart

In my family, Yangs and Gureaskos get cancer; that’s not being morbid, it’s just what happens to fathers, mothers, grandparents, cousins. Despite taking all reasonable precautions in terms of food, quality of ingredients, exercise, meditation, I still assumed it would catch up to me at some point; it wasn’t totally unexpected when they found a “mass” in my kidney. I played the concert that night but rushed back to Philly immediately afterwards, arriving at one o-clock in the morning. My dear friends and hosts in Newburyport, Marc, a urologist, and Jennifer, a marvelous painter, had pulled strings and set me up with a doctor who is more an artist than a surgeon at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.  Six months post-surgery I have the all-clear; except for some battle scars, I’m back to doing intervals on my bike, practicing hours a day, vacuuming the house obsessively - all the normal stuff one does during a pandemic.

St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, Germany
Bach worked here as Kapellmeister (music director)
from 1723 until his death in 1750

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), no stranger to tragedy and illness, wrote his Cantata BWV 25 in 1723 after the last great outbreak of plague in Western Europe killed over 100,000 people in and around Marseilles. The cantata begins “There is nothing healthy in my body” (Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe) and continues with “The entire world is just a hospital where humanity…has been laid low with sickness.” But the work ends with the uplifting chorale “All my days I will praise Your strong hand with which my plague and laments You have so tenderly brushed aside.”

                                                                                                          J.S.Bach, Cantata 25 – music of our time?

In the middle of this summer’s “quartet caroling” amid the streets of Newburyport and surrounding towns, we will pause for a live-streamed concert in an empty St. Paul’s on Saturday night, August 15th at 7:30 PM. The concert is a fundraiser for the good doctors, nurses, and staff, at Anna Jaques who give so much and, these days, put themselves on the line every time they suit up for work. Details of the program and how to donate will follow in a later post.

Out rowing with my father, John Yang

I was really lucky; an eagle-eyed radiologist noticed something he/she wasn’t looking for. And while I assumed I’d get cancer someday, you never know how you’ll react when the news arrives. I sustained great strength from how my father, John, handled the disease that took him down in 2009.  Obviously, he wasn’t happy with the situation but he came to terms with his illness, with not being able to work, and with saying goodbye. It turns out he saved up one last lesson for his son. Instead of being paralyzed with fear, confronting my own mortality became an opportunity to be grateful for a rich life filled with love and art and beauty.

This time, at least, I reacted the way I hoped I would.

David Yang, Artistic Director

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