Symphony #1 in a Minor Key: A Meditation on Time and Place

Symphony #1 in a Minor Key: A Meditation on Time and Place

by Alan A. Block


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When instruments are harmoniously joined together, beautiful music ensues. Just as in a classic symphony, life often occurs in phases, or movements. In his creative comparison Symphony #1 in a Minor Key, literary exegete Alan Block shares his philosophies on four movements reflected in his own life, each loosely modeled on a different musical form linked to the emotions of a life both fully lived and joyously celebrated.

In the first movement, "Sonata Allegro," Block juxtaposes biblical stories with personal experiences as he explores the contradictory nature of what it means to leave home in search of another home. In the second movement, representing a slow march to and from the grave, he focuses his examination on the funerals of three very different people from a Jewish perspective. In strong contrast, Block presents a glimpse into his absurd daily world in the third movement, punctuated by jokes and commentary. Finally, he shares a celebration of life and hope inspired by the final movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, encouraging others to be open to the sublime and realize that none of our worlds is perfect.

Symphony #1 in a Minor Key shares one man's reflections as he offers a fascinating meditation on life, death, and everything in between.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781475907797
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/16/2012
Pages: 180
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.41(d)

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iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Alan A. Block
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4759-0779-7

Chapter One


|agitato| Late at night and during the early summer months out here in the Midwest, roiling thunderstorms draw us from our sleep, and we—the family—shudder in our beds in astonishment and dread. Vague rumblings move into our dreams, the drum tuning at the rear of the concert stage. Within our sleep, we anticipate the violent assault we have learned from experience that the muted rolls portend. Though the storm remains miles away, the increasingly insistent thunder takes on the irregular beat of an orchestra comprised of deep tympani drums tuned to diminished fifths. This primeval symphony of percussion beats into the most intimate body recesses. We know what it portends and lie tremblingly awake in our beds, hopelessly hoping the storm will keep its distance. In this first movement of the storm, through the curtainless windows we see the lightning flicker in the near distance, as a bulb flashing down, though we cannot yet hear the lightning's sharp, cracking sound. Inevitably, as the storm moves closer, razor-sharp bolts will slice cleanly through the skies toward our rooftops. The awakened and now-frightened children climb into my bed, and we all slip further under the light cotton blanket in vain hope of falling back to sleep. Like a cry in the night, the storm calls us awake.

As the storm nears, the thunder intensifies in shattering, shuddering decibels and reaches into the house walls, shaking us who already quake in our beds. Lightning cracks the sky with the sound of new wood torn and splintered. We lie in our beds certain that one of the thunderclaps will rip in two our flimsy, solitary home atop the hill and expose us naked to the brutal physical assault of the violent storm. Our beds feel no longer safe, and we rise from them to stand wide-eyed at the window as if as witnesses we can tame the assault. The dark shapes of standing tall trees whipped by the violent winds snap back and forth, and I expect to see one of them go flying, uprooted and groundless past our window, like Miss Gulch pedaling steadily on her bicycle in the midst of the twister. Thunder rolls incessantly and now fills the air with the sound of a thousand tympani drums. The lightning, in strobe-like bursts, flashes in split-second intervals. Rain lashes the ground and the roof and our windows in unsteady but persistent rhythms. It is demanding attention and even entrance. The rain's rhythmic drumming is in counterpoint to the thunder and lightning, and altogether it makes an unholy sound out of which I expect monsters to rise. I think of Mussorgsky's "A Night on Bald Mountain," but it is late June and not All Hallow's Eve, and this isn't recorded music but real nature threatening. Wrapped in the storm, we have become the storm. Home is not where we want to be, but it is where we are; home does not feel safe, and yet it is all the safety we have.

* * *

|eroico| Sometimes the storm insists that I come out my front door and confront it, even if I experience its threat in the physical safety of my living room sitting upright before the fire place in my favorite cushioned wing chair. Such is the storm that rages throughout Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. "Thus, fate knocks at the door," and this storm, fate's emissary, demands that I acknowledge its presence and face it. In my listening I am emotionally pulled out of the safety of my home by the summons of its call. Why I follow baffles me; perhaps I mean to confront the fierce tempest, to accept its challenge and challenge myself. Perhaps I am drawn by the insistence of the taunt. Perhaps I am too afraid to refuse its dare. The tensions implicit in the demand of the summons—ta-ta-ta-TA—the short bursts of eighth notes followed by a lowered, half-note held by a fermata, threaten my calm and security. Its persistent assertion disturbs my rest, and my home is no refuge. During this first movement, the storm steals away my breath; I find no safety from it, know no place to hide, and yet I am irresistibly drawn outside by its insistence and power and violence. I stand vulnerable outside of the door.

I am offered some respite from the onslaught by the symphony's second movement, to be played, Beethoven insists, andante con moto (slowly with motion). It is a somewhat long and even untroubled respite from the storm, though in this calm I remain anxiously aware of the storm's return, and I take deep breaths. The melodies here are lyrical, almost triumphant, and I feel almost safe; I hope the struggle is over, but I sense it is not. Indeed, the storm has not at all dissipated, and this illusory calm does not resolve into any praise to God as at the end of the 'storm' in Beethoven's 6th Symphony. Rather, what might have been a peaceful resolution is transformed into a defiant stance by the insistent tensions of the cellos and basses. The night here is now dark, and though at home I am not at home. I may be bloodied, but I insist unbowed.

And with the opening bars of the Third Movement, with the threatening rumbling of the basses and a reprise of the opening insistent and portentous four-note summons voiced first in the horns and then the strings, the storm returns in full fury, and I am now out too far to find shelter to protect me from the onslaught. I am on my own and the only resource at my disposal; I am not at ease. The storm beats at me, and in the final moments of the Third Movement that begin with the ominous sound of the tympani drums, a furious assault by the menacing storm begins. The violins enter and churn portentously in tension with the tonic key; they rise slowly in pitch and intensity and volume, as if waiting an order for the final attack, and move anxiously, even tauntingly about in uncertain and irregular melodies. The music fights with itself, gathering forces, its power bent on destruction. The violins continue to struggle upwards, but then shift slowly yet steadily away from conflict and discordance until in the final swirlings the strings reach the tonic key of C major, and there, joined by the entire orchestra, the threatening storm is transformed into a moment of triumph, and in a glorious resolution, the entire orchestra propels me seamlessly into the exultant opening chords of the magnificent fourth movement.

The storm menaces still in this final movement, but I know I have prevailed. Whenever now it threatens, its tensions resolve into triumph. I have become stronger than the storm which continues to rage. I am no longer cowed. I have been battered and scathed, but this storm for now has been overcome. The last measures of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony are filled with triumph: twenty-nine out of the final forty-one measures are tonic C major chords; I recall that I began this struggle in the key of C minor and have now come through into the major. And the final moments in this symphony speak ebulliently. In the symphony's final measure, the entire orchestra plays the plain and simple C notes; no tension or dissonant element remains anywhere. I have not only withstood the storm, but transformed it into my triumph. I am stronger now, and I am home.

* * *

|animato| Sometimes we are already outside when the storm arrives, and though we seek shelter from it, we are not able to avoid its assault. Though this particular storm threatens, there is more sturm than drang in its rage. It leaves us soaked but fundamentally unchallenged. This is the storm that blows Dorothy right out of Kansas and into Oz. "It's a twister, it's a twister," the farm hand calls, and on the horizon, the dark swirling funnel cloud reaches from earth to heaven blowing away everything in its path and sending it hurtling uncontrollably through the air. The tornado passes dangerously close to Dorothy as she seeks shelter from the storm, and the wind's force violently blows the windows out where she stands calling for Auntie Em and Uncle Henry who already cower in the shelter under the home. One of those window frames knocks Dorothy unconscious and sends her dreaming. In that dream, she and her house land somewhere over the rainbow in the Technicolor Oz. "I have a feeling," Dorothy says, "we're not in Kansas anymore." The storm has blown her far from home.

But in fact, I think, Dorothy remains stolidly in black and white Kansas. Everyone from her home still exists in Oz, albeit in slightly altered form, and though to the viewer each is recognizable, they do not seem to be familiar to Dorothy. She must learn that home is the ultimate goal. Later, it will seem that she had, indeed, recognized in Oz the people she knew back in Kansas. Seemingly blown away by the storm, Dorothy learns that her dream of a better life over the rainbow, a childish dream heard once in a lullaby, is an illusion. The delight for which she wished over the rainbow she learns can really only be realized here at home. Perfection exists only here, at home. Indeed, it is only the nasty Miss Gulch, the prototype for the wicked witch, who is missing at the film's end. The witch has been melted. Dorothy's storm illusorily blew all the evils of her home away but in fact, touched nothing at all and left everything exactly as it had been before the tornado struck. Dorothy accepts unqualifiedly the version of home offered by the man behind the curtain and by Glinda, the Witch of the East. "There's no place like home," Dorothy continues to intone. I am not certain what she means by that, but I suspect that it is a greater illusion than her fantasy of a place "over the rainbow."

* * *

|patetico| Finally, there is the storm Walter Benjamin describes in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History." He says, "A Klee painting named 'Angelus Novus' shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."

This storm is what we call progress, but it is a delusion. The face of Benjamin's Angel is turned toward the past. The angel, looking back, sees not a series of events, but one huge catastrophe that keeps piling "wreckage upon wreckage" at his feet. To the angel, history is not some forward progress, effected in fits and starts and in botched beginnings and failed means; rather, history is one disastrous and calamitous blunder piled atop another. The angel would love to stay and to make whole what has been broken, but "a storm blows from Paradise," and that storm irresistibly propels the angel, head turned toward the past, into a future the angel cannot see. This storm, says Benjamin, is called progress, but it is some violent and uncontrollable force blowing us blindly into an unseen future, even while we stare uncomprehendingly at the shards of a broken past that we would, but cannot, repair. We are blown forward by the storm into a future we cannot know or even control, as we are compelled (is it by the storm, I wonder?) to look back on a past we cannot understand. Our blind and will-less entry into that future blown by the storm called progress is hardly a sign of advancement, however, though our movement appears to us as forward. This storm, unlike that which blows Dorothy out of Kansas and into the parallel Oz, blows us willy-nilly into a future that we cannot see. Rather it is the past on which our eyes are fixed, though that past remains incomprehensible to us. Benjamin's angel can neither repair the past nor control the future. Home is the catastrophe to which the idea of return offers illusory hope. But the storm of progress prevents that return. This storm of progress that cannot be controlled or paused blows the angel—and us—forward into some unknown future though our eyes remain fixed on the catastrophe that is the past. Here, the home to which we go is forever unseen, but the home from which we go is forever in view as disaster.

* * *

|grazioso| I've been thinking about home-leavings and homecomings. For some years now, I have regularly experienced what I have come to call 'homecoming dreams.' In each of them, I am out in the world somewhere, doing something, trying to get home, but in the dream I find it frustratingly impossible to get there. I am kept from home sometimes by circumstances out in the world, and sometimes, I am obstructed by my own physical failures. In the dream, I cannot find my way home, or for some reason, I am incapable of moving towards it. I become agitated and alarmed, and despite all of my efforts and longing, I realize no progress and remain, alas, frustratingly in a form of exile. Though I long to arrive home, I have no facility or power to get there. When I thankfully awaken, my heart beats furiously and I am out of breath. I feel distressed yet relieved to discover myself safe and in my own bed. Though I awaken from the dream always at 'home,' I am troubled by the recurrence of this dream in which I cannot get home even when I am already there.

In my life, I have never been homeless. Awake now, in moments of reflective tranquility, I wonder where and what is the dream home to which I have such desire, yet no capacity, to return. This home is not distinguished by specific place or location. In my dreams, I think, home is an amalgam of the places I have called home. Nor is this home identified consistently with any precise constellation of people from a specific period in my life. When did I live in the home from which I am kept now away. And I wonder whether this home to which in the dream I want to return is actually that home toward which I head never to arrive while I am yet awake.

There are many ways to leave home, and perhaps only one way to remain there.

* * *

I come out here to my office cabin—Walden—in the now-cold early mornings from a very warm bed in an environmentally inefficient house. It is an older residence, and the structure leaks in so many places that the children complain we might as well live out of doors. In the winters, the often harsh elements enter through many cracks, and the children defiantly refuse to remove their outer coats when they enter. One year, we installed a gas fireplace that produces not a little heat in the downstairs, and each early morning before I leave by the back door, I ignite the fire to warm the room by pushing a button on a remote control device. During one particularly cold morning that first winter, one daughter sat too close to the fire and while eating her breakfast, melted the back of her costly coat. Of course, she blamed me for the mishap, and that week, she purchased a much warmer, less flammable, and far more expensive North Face full-length jacket. Over the years, we've learned a greater sense of caution, and in our homes, breakfast from December through April is almost traditionally eaten seated—now coatless—before the fire. Nevertheless, despite the blustery weather in here, I am always a bit loathe to leave this windy place, especially in the early morning darkness.

At 5:30 a.m., the air is crisply frigid, and lately, the cloudless black sky has been sharply clear. The stars do not any longer twinkle, but they do rest steadily in the skies, setting limits to how far into the universe I can see. I do not see very far at all, in fact. The astrophysicists tell me that the universe is expanding and may do so forever, though they do not seem to know into what it expands. Perhaps into what the universe expands accords with my concept of God, or even my hope for immortality. I am not comforted by the former or confident in the latter. As long as the stars are visible, however, I feel securely cloaked against the voids. A cloudy night can often disrupt my ease. Philip Roth writes in Everyman that the stars remind him of imminent death, but it is a very unhappy book, and although I must be included in the 'everyman' category, I am not yet that sorrowful. Perhaps it is the stars' twinkling that leads Roth to liken them to death, but my steady stars merely set limits within which I think I can live. The fault is never in the stars, anyway, but in myself, methinks.


Excerpted from SYMPHONY #1 IN A MINOR KEY by ALAN A. BLOCK Copyright © 2012 by Alan A. Block. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


PROGRAM NOTES....................11
FIRST MOVEMENT Sonata Allegro....................19
SECOND MOVEMENT Marche Funebra....................61
THIRD MOVEMENT Scherzo....................100
FOURTH MOVEMENT Theme and Variations....................141

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