In a city like Boston, peace and quiet comes at a premium. Aside from the occasional day trip to the Cape or afternoon spent picnicking at the Arnold Arboretum, I spend most of my time in a microscopic studio apartment nestled between Fenway Park and the Mass Pike. My home life is accompanied by a lovely soundtrack of Red Sox fans and the honking of car horns (that’s “how-do-ya-do” in the Masshole vernacular). Recently, all of this background noise has been replaced by an acute silence, more piercing than any ambulance siren but somehow quieter than the total absence of sound. It is a literal and figurative vacuum - figurative in that it seems to suck up any traces of previous life and literal in that it rips through a space. Any attempt to communicate over the constant roar is unintelligible and, frankly, irritating. These 300 square feet have hosted some of my most treasured memories. Despite being my home for one chapter of my life, this physical and emotional space must be repurposed to host new visitors and make new memories. There’s no way of predicting what the next chapter will bring.
This brand of spiritual void is a tough one to soothe. You could do what I did: walk the entirety of the city until your feet scream so loudly it’s impossible to think about anything but Moleskin and Neosporin. You could try rearranging your furniture five times hoping that your kitchen table will stop recounting stories of all the meals prepared together, that your couch will stop reminding you of the night you both lost track of time, sitting three feet away from each other, sharing words and silence (it’s easy to lose eight hours when you’ve met the person who makes you feel like you make sense in the world). You could try these coping strategies. Or, you could listen to some Schubert. Your blisters and downstairs neighbors may thank you!
“Einsamkeit” (Lonliness) is the twelfth song of Schubert’s Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey), a cycle on a set of poems by Wilhelm Müller. Müller’s protagonist is an outcast alienated from all human connection with only the harsh winter elements to reflect his misery. We don’t know the circumstances of his trauma. We only know that he has embarked on a journey “from which no man has ever returned”. The music of “Einsamkeit” is quieter than death. How does Schubert do it? Music is, after all, the art of sound in time. To me, it’s like how Gustav Klimt can paint the whitest dress you’ve ever seen using every color but white. Using color to create the absence of color. Using music to create the absence of sound. In “Einsamkeit”, the piano tolls fate while the protagonist sings a story of human suffering as old as time itself. He sings reluctantly and involuntarily, as if in a trance - as if to say, “It is my turn to sing now. This is now my song.”
I once thought that enduring an unexpected loss may put smaller traumas in life into perspective, though my experience with grief has only forced me to grapple head-on with life’s ellipses, periods, semicolons, and question marks. Life’s finalities, big and small, are palpable.
Sure, this particular story of mine isn’t quite as dramatic as that of our Schubertian anti-hero. My token of love isn’t a lock of hair that you gave me before the tuberculosis overcame you. It’s the pizza in my freezer that I’m definitely never going to eat. But I just checked and it’s good until 2020. You’ll definitely be back here before then.
Performers: Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake
Song: “Einsamkeit” (Lonliness)
Composer: Franz Schubert
Poet: Wilhelm Müller
Translation: Richard Wigmore
Cover art: Portrait of Sonja Knips by Gustav Klimt
Stay tuned for more seasonally appropriate blog entries! Actually, I shouldn’t make any promises...