On Monday Mrs. T and I decided to take the long way from Sarasota to Winter Park. Shunning the interstate highways, we drove down two-lane roads that passed by countless orange groves and through tiny towns with names like Ona, Zolfo Springs, Avon Park, and–my favorite–Frostproof. Even the landmarks along the way bore picturesque names (first Troublesome Creek, then Peace River). Alas, we were only passing through, for I would have liked to spend a night at the Hotel Jacaranda, whose website recalls the long-ago days when Clark Gable and Babe Ruth graced its spacious rooms. But we had to return to Winter Park in time to meet a dinner guest, so we kept on driving.
As Mrs. T napped, I turned on the car radio and listened to Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto, whose brisk, jazz-flavored outer movements flank a seraphically tranquil evocation of the Larghetto of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. It flows with such seemingly uncomplicated grace that one marvels at Ravel’s confession that he found it all but impossible to write. “Flows so easily! Flows so easily!” he sputtered to a colleague who praised its apparent effortlessness. “I put it together bar by bar and I nearly died over it.” Midway through the movement, Mrs. T awoke, looked out the window at the orange trees, and said, “They look like treasure.” Then she fell asleep again.
I can never hear the slow movement of the Ravel Concerto in G without feeling that I’m being offered a momentary glimpse of a world beyond that which we see around us, one that is simple and serene and devoid of pain or sorrow or doubt. The glimpse comes toward the end of the movement, when the music modulates without warning into a new key. It sounds like a shaft of sunlight breaking through a slate-gray sky. My eyes always fill with tears when I hear that passage, and they did so yet again on Monday, right on cue.
What gives music such inexplicable power? I’ve spent the whole of my life immersed in that mysterious art, yet I haven’t a clue as to what it is that makes me weep when I hear such things. All I know is that no other art makes me more intensely aware of life’s cruel brevity, or of the brief moments of piercing beauty that make such knowledge supportable.
Samuel Beckett said it: “We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener. At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.” To drive past an orange grove while listening to the Adagio assai of the Concerto in G is to be awakened, if only for a moment or two, to the beauty at the heart of things, to be fully alive for as long as we have it in us. Sooner or later habit will always lull us back into the terrible sleep of everyday life–but then a great work of art sounds reveille, and we sit bolt upright, see treasure, and weep.
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Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Sergiu Celibidache, and the London Symphony perform the slow movement of Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall on April 8, 1982: