Perceiving the Soul

Sagging Skin and the C Minor Mass of Mozart

It started with a day off. Despite being a pensionär, I usually have a full-enough schedule every day. I had not had a day off from my various travels, meetings, readings and writings in too long, so I set out last Wednesday morning equipped only with my writing pad and pen. I had no book, no camera, and no plan, other than to deposit the recyclables at the recycle station between home and the subway station.

My state of mind upon leaving the house on a day off is to have no destination in mind and with no expectations. I must admit that it has been so  often that a serendipitous something happens to me on such days that I knew I would not be surprised if such happened again—but I didn’t allow myself to expect.

And so it came to pass that, among other places visited in Stockholm, I found myself in the audio-visual section of the Stockholm City Library in Kulturhuset, the large House of Culture in the center of new Stockholm (as distinct from the Old Town around a kilometer away).

I have borrowed many CDs from this branch of the library but I didn’t want to focus my energies on searching the bins. I thought of my friend Vasil who loves opera and looked for the first time through the collection of DVDs devoted to musical presentations, including ballet. I chose four albums, including this one:

As I went to the self-service station check out the DVDs I found that my library card was missing. I went to the librarian with my problem and she quickly found that I had left it at this branch on my last visit. It was quickly retrieved for me. There was my unexpected something, I thought.

I listened to and watched the Mozart DVD later in the day, before Eva came home from her job, and found that of the two pieces I was most moved by the performance of the Mass. I was often in tears.

The two sopranos and the conductor, John Eliot Gardiner, are the stars of this performance, in my opinion, but all performers are of the highest quality. I had not heard of the lyric soprano Barbara Bonney and was entranced by her presentation, as I was by that of mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter about whom I have heard and seen in advertisements of her local performances.

Eva’s son Leo visited us two days later for a small family gathering on the Easter holiday. While Eva prepared a meal, I put the DVD on again to show Leo the Mass. He was quite willing, telling me part way through that he used to play this piece every Sunday morning. We both wept, each in our own way, at the sublimity of the music and its presentation. I was struck, additionally, by the resemblance of Anne Sofie von Otter to a woman I loved around 40 years ago. So, here were two more synchronicities.

But this was the most important to me: these artists, the four soloists, the singers in the chorus, the musicians at their period instruments, all of them seemed in thrall to something Mozart had captured (or which had been revealed to him) in the notes he had written. Their persons seemed subordinated, yet elevated. The most thrilling moments were during the duets of the sopranos; no, it was when Barbara Bonney and the woodwinds played against and with each other; no, it was when Gardiner embraced the entire assembly of musicians in his conductor’s virtual grasp; no, it was when the chorus soared and swooped…

Ah, Mozart!

Two days later as Eva and I were traveling on the subway to buy garden supplies, I mentioned to her that the skin at my throat and under my upper arms was getting that crepey old-age look. She smiled gently and said nothing. I went further to say that it didn’t seem like my skin; or, rather, that the message the sight my skin might possibly send to others didn’t seem to be a message about me. We discussed a bit about the body being the carrier for our soul. It seemed obvious to us and there wasn’t much more to say.

Pondering this conversation and observation, I thought again about the performers in the Mass. They, individually and in the whole, were using their bodies but were beyond their bodies. How serenely magical it is that the notes revealed to Mozart which he recorded on manuscript, centuries later coursed through the bodies of these performers and subsequently through Leo and me.

Perhaps, the soul…