“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here!” — Albus Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Composer Frank Ticheli has said that his hope for “An American Elegy” is that it might serve as “one reminder of how fragile and precious life is and how intimately connected we all are as human beings.” Ticheli was commissioned to write the orchestral piece to remember those who died in the shooting at Columbine High School in April of 1999, and to honor the lives of those who survived.
One of my dearest friends, about whom I’ve written often, heard the music played by her son’s school orchestra and was moved beyond words by the power of it, the poetic strength coupled with such vulnerable emotional resonance. She tucked away the title just like she tucked away other other things that moved and inspired her, quotes from Emerson and St. Augustine among them. After she died from metastatic breast cancer, Ticheli’s piece was played at the beginning of her memorial service, an instruction she had left behind for her family. Whenever I hear the opening bars, the music never fails to take my breath for a moment, in goosebumps and tears, just like it did the first time I heard it at her service.
Even after listening to the piece so many times now that I have lost track of the number, I remain in awe of Ticheli’s ability to simultaneously hold not just sadness in the notes but hope and inspiration, as well. I wonder at how it can bring me to tears and yet leave me feeling uplifted at the same time, a kind of magic, as Dumbeldore said, beyond all else.
Ticheli’s own description of creating the work tells its story best:
“I was moved and honored by this commission invitation, and deeply inspired by the circumstances surrounding it. Rarely has a work revealed itself to me with such powerful speed and clarity. The first eight bars of the main melody came to me fully formed in a dream. Virtually every element of the work was discovered within the span of about two weeks. The remainder of my time was spent refining, developing, and orchestrating.
The work begins at the bottom of the ensemble’s register, and ascends gradually to a heartfelt cry of hope. The main theme that follows, stated by the horns, reveals a more lyrical, serene side of the piece. A second theme, based on a simple repeated harmonic pattern, suggests yet another, more poignant mood. These three moods – hope, serenity, and sadness – become intertwined throughout the work, defining its complex expressive character. A four-part canon builds to a climactic quotation of the Columbine Alma Mater. The music recedes, and an offstage trumpeter is heard, suggesting a celestial voice – a heavenly message. The full ensemble returns with a final, exalted statement of the main theme.”
The grandeur of Ticheli’s piece reminded me of the photography of my friend J. Marion Brown, so with both her permission and Ticheli’s, I combined the two, feeling that the sweeping landscapes and lyrical moments captured in Brown’s images would underscore the inspiration and emotion of the music. At ten minutes playing time, the video requires a kind of patience and stillness we often lose touch with, particularly in the busyness of year end, so I offer it especially now, echoing Ticheli’s hope that it might be a reminder of how we are all connected to one another, to this planet, and to this one, wild precious life* we have.
“An American Elegy” was published by Manhattan Beach Music, on whose website a full discussion of the piece by Ticheli can be found. Header photograph above is copyright of J. Marion Brown, used with permission. For more of Brown’s work, visit her tumblr site, where she posts a daily photograph paired with a quote: julesofnature.tumblr.com.
*credit to Mary Oliver whose poem, “The Summer Day” poses the question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”