Snow: Partaking of music that soothes savage breasts

December 7, 2013 

Playwright William Congreve wrote the familiar lines “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast. To soften rocks or bend a knotted oak.” I thought of those lines recently while attending a performance of the N.C. Symphony.

It was not that my breast was in a savage mood, although I admit that symphonic music has a soothing effect not found in rock ’n’ roll or country and western.

As a farm lad growing up in the foothills, mine was primarily a musical diet of the latter.

I was attuned to the music of Roy Acuff, the Monroe Boys, Loretta Lynn. Their music dealt primarily with broken love affairs, cheating hearts and other somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs. Bach and Beethoven seldom made it into rural Appalachia.

After World War II, at Mars Hill College, I was befriended by Miss Martha Biggers, head of the music department, who sought to instill in me an appreciation of the great composers.

She signed me up for music appreciation classes and insisted I study the stories of the operas.

I even found myself taking piano lessons. But because my young teacher and I spent much of my class time drinking sodas and listening to the jukebox at the student hangout across the street, I never became a concert pianist.

Nevertheless, my brush with classical music cast me as a music critic during my first job at the Burlington Times-News.

In addition to regular duties as City Hall reporter and columnist, I was assigned to cover the Civic Music series at nearby Elon College. I wisely confined my remarks to the size of the audience, its favorite selections and the like.

One doesn’t have to be a music major to enjoy good music any more than one has to know that the bird on your feeder is a male rufous-sided red-eyed towhee to appreciate its beauty.

Nevertheless, reading Roy C. Dicks’ rave review two days after the concert enriched the experience for me.

Roy noted the music’s “intimacy and grandeur, elegance and abandon,” “Conductor Grant Lewellyn’s springy pace that kept things bubbling” and “the appropriate serenity of the quiet meanderings.”

In every audience, there are those who’d rather be somewhere else.

Years ago, while attending a concert at Reynolds Coliseum, the stranger seated beside me snored softly though the first half of the performance.

“I guess you’ve figured out by now that my being here is my wife’s idea,” he said during intermission. “It’s the price I’m paying to go deep-sea fishing with my buddies next weekend.”

As I sat through Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E Major, I felt the power and the beauty of the full orchestra’s massed talent sweeping over me. I remembered Willa Cather’s great short story, “A Wagner Matinee.”

In it, the narrator, Clark, describes how his Aunt Georgiana, a Boston musician and piano teacher, married a young farmer and moved to the dreary outback of a Nebraska farm. For 33 years, she was cut off almost entirely from music.

Late in life, she took a train east. Her husband had written Clark, asking him to look after her during her brief visit. One day, he took her to the opera. After the cascade of soaring sound from Siegfried’s funeral march had faded, Aunt Georgiana sat in her seat, weeping. Even after the hall emptied and the musicians had left the stage, she still sat there.

“I don’t want to go, Clark, I don’t want to go,” she sobbed.

The nephew understood. “For her, just outside the door of the concert hall lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house with weather-curled boards, naked as a tower; the crook-backed ash seedlings where the dish-cloths hung to dry; the gaunt, molting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door.”

Whatever its form, great music steals us away from the wastelands of life. It cracks the door to the soul, letting in the light that enables us to return to the ordinary, convinced that it’s not really ordinary.

Snow: 919-836-5636 or

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