Musical Masterpiece in Chicago

I was in love with books and music from a very early age. My European-born parents had bookshelves in more than one room which held books in more than one language. I felt their importance before I could even read by myself.

And my parents loved classical music, especially Tchaikovsky. I must have been little when I saw Swan Lake for the first time because I recall asking my parents who everybody was. But more than that I remember being thrilled by the music as it washed over me and carried me away.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, inspired by a poem of Byron’s, was not in their record collection. I once spent a year reading everything I could of Byron’s and Manfred is a special favorite. I’ve quoted these lines from it many times: “in my heart/there is a vigil, and these eyes but close/To look within.”

The Manfred Symphony is apparently not performed that often, which is strange given how beautiful and stirring the music is. I heard a magnificent performance of it recently in Chicago, with Semyon Bychko conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the jewel-like Orchestra Hall.

The music is definitely Byronic: dark, romantic, passionate, melancholy, magnetic. The Chicago Symphony gave the piece the richness and depth it demanded. They deserved the standing cheers from the audience.

The story of how Tchaikovsky came to write this piece is truly bizarre. He was actually lobbied to do it by other Russian composers who felt it matched his emotional reality, and he was even given specific musical outlines. Tchaikovsky resisted vigorously until he read the poem and as a closeted gay man connected to its dark introspection. He thought the first movement was one of the best things he’d ever written.  I found it all compelling.  The symphony is just plain gorgeous, so look for it on CD, or if you happen to see it on some orchestra’s schedule, don’t miss the chance to attend a performance.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir including the Gilded Age novel Rosedale in Love.  He teaches creative writing on line at writewithoutborders.com.

Language Bigots Don’t Understand America

A New York lawyer’s rant about Spanish-speaking workers at a Fresh Kitchen went viral this past week, and rightfully so.

The lawyer was infuriated to hear Spanish, which the counter workers were speaking to each other, and to some customers.  He’s not only intolerant, he’s ignorant.  Since the time when it was still called New Amsterdam,  New York City has welcomed people seeking freedom and opportunity, whether they spoke Portuguese, Dutch, German, Italian, Polish, Yiddish, Vietnamese or any other language.  Hundreds of languages are currently spoken in New York.

Many immigrants might not know English when they get here and perhaps may struggle with it all their lives.  But if they don’t learn it or learn it well, their children do.  It’s a pattern that’s been repeating itself one generation after another and has helped us become ever more diverse.

When my parents came here in 1950 from Eastern Europe via Belgium, my mother spoke English, but my father didn’t and he had to learn it at his place of work.  Between them, they spoke close to a dozen European languages.  While Yiddish was their everyday choice, they often switched to Russian because they wanted privacy from me and my brother.  But they could speak it in public, too, and they did.

I heard several languages in my apartment building and grew up in a neighborhood where you could hear German on the streets, and then later Spanish.  I never felt threatened.  I felt the opposite.  These other languages were siren calls for me to make myself fluent in a second language at the very least.  And something more: they fueled my desire to travel outside of the country and experience other cultures as authentically as I could.

I teach on a campus with several thousand Chinese students.  They don’t frighten or enrage me.  I find the experience fascinating since Mandarin, Cantonese, and other languages spoken in China aren’t like any language I know or have studied.  Hearing spoken Chinese, I feel connected to the world outside my small Michigan college town, even if I don’t know what’s being said.  And I’m reminded how connected we all are, which it makes me want to re-double my efforts in learning Dutch, my latest challenge after having spent two amazing weeks in Flanders.

As for hearing employees speaking to customers in something other than English, my mother spoke Polish with the butcher she frequented, and Russian whenever she realized a store employee was from somewhere in Russia.  I envied her knowledge, flexibility, and fluency.  And if a guy like the lawyer at Fresh Kitchen had gone postal about her not speaking English, I’m sure she would have had a wide range of terms to put him in his place.  But politely, because she was always dignified, and her English had a British tinge to it.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com