Brahms and Death and what to say

Our local music community is tight knit. We may all excel in different genres of music, we may all play or sing different instruments, but the common thread of music runs strong in all of us. Indy performers, backstage technicians, classroom teachers, and more; we appreciate each other for the diverse talents and thrive on the knowledge that builds enjoyment.

When a musician dies – oh, whenever someone special and amazing passes on – I think of Brahms. In my teens I was a pretty good pianist. I loved to play Debussy, Chopin, Bach, and works by other composers. I couldn’t quite get the hang of playing Brahms. I could play the notes and handle the technique, but I couldn’t master the emotion and the expression that really gave the piece the richness that was Brahms. 

My teacher stopped me mid-phrase and began to talk. “When I was young, I didn’t know what to say at funerals. And when I was young, I couldn’t play Brahms well, either.” 

I took my hands off the keyboard and listened. 

“And then my husband died.” She was young, in her twenties, with a toddler daughter, when her husband died from a massive heart attack. “And I learned that there is nothing you can say at a funeral. All you can do is be there.” She paused. “And then, I could play Brahms.” 

This conversation happened about forty years ago. I was a teenager at the time. Despite the years, I remember it clearly. I can see the room, the other person in the conversation, and I can hear the words in her voice. I remember my initial reaction was to balk at Brahms and his connection with death. As I grew older and experienced more life, I learned to understand and enjoy the exceptional depth of Johannes Brahms’ compositions.

This conversation happened about forty years ago. I was a teenager at the time. Despite the years, I remember it clearly. I can see the room, the other person in the conversation, and I can hear the words in her voice. And that catch in my throat? Maybe it’s Brahms; maybe it’s knowing that music soothes as it allows us to grieve. Maybe it’s the bittersweet nature of musicians, the sensitivity that leads us to enrich lives of others as we enrich our own. 

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