Music in My Life: A Memoriam and Audio Recording
On Sundays and too many special occasions to count, my aunt Marian Partner Cornish was for many years–decades–the principal alto soloist at the First Presbyterian Church in Oakland, California. It is a vast and grand venue with a great pipe organ at its front, conceived and built for the performance of great and aspirational music. On Friday evenings and Saturdays, she sang in the same capacity for the Congregation Sherith Israel, a Jewish synagogue in nearby San Francisco. She was a consummate vocalist. (A recording of her singing Mendelssohn’s For the Mountains Shall Depart, is attached below.)
Most often when I think of Marian Gloria Partner Cornish, it is accompanied by a surprisingly vivid image. It is of Marian and her six sisters and one brother growing up in an impossibly small house set alongside an irrigation ditch in far-away Aberdeen, Idaho. It is with Marian and her sister Gayle Partner Hungerford in mind (whom I dearly loved as well), her sister Margaret Lacy, my own mother Florence and my Uncle Bob. I don’t have much memory of sisters Ethel and Josephine and Louise, but still I see them, all eight of them together in a parlor of sorts, each of them with a musical instrument in hand, and all of them in full, happy voice. Their parents, Alvin and Nettie, stand in a doorway and encourage them on, nodding and smiling both in appreciation and in wonderment of this magic they have somehow wrought.
Recently another image has joined this one: The music they make finds a path into the outdoors and becomes the sky.
I think we’d agree that music is one of the greatest endowments given humankind, and one of the most welcome gifts some of us can share with others.
For this boy, this young man, then this husband and father, this, what, seasoned adult, Aunt Marian was music. Music embodied. It was not only in her singing that we heard that wisp of the breath of God, not only in the timbre of her voice and her phrasing and range. It was in the richness of her speaking voice as well. And her eyes. And her smile. The generosity of her spirit, the way she had of making someone else (very often me) feel like the most important person in the world for that moment in time—and for long, lingering moments thereafter. Music was in, and of, Marian’s love.
I can remember the excitement I felt as a boy on those rare occasions when Marian and Amasa, John and Tommy would pull up to our house in Potlatch from that exotic place known as Berkeley, California. I seem to remember a sedan, a light blue Ford four-door.
And on the coming Sunday she would grace us in church, and I mean ‘grace’ in the fullest, most spacious sense of the word. She would grace our little lumber-town/farm-town congregation, fill our sanctuary with her music. So far as I know, she never once declined.
Her music was in her physical embrace as well. And in the melodies of her laughter, which was frequent. And so it was in her letters, sometimes with little runs of musical notes tossed into the text like bits of rosemary, or of savory nutmeg or the exuberance of cinnamon. Sometimes with a bit of lyric attached. Here’s one, from a Sunday, a June 9th. It starts: “Stephen, my Love! How are you this fine day?” Then there’s a little spray of music drawn in—quarter notes and half notes—and some lyrics just floating by: “‘How are things in Glocca Morra?’” And then it goes on: This is a fine day. The sun has been full of warmth and breezy clouds. And how is that sweet family of yours?”
(How are things in Glocca Morra? It took me a Google search to find the reference. It’s a song from Finian’s Rainbow, 1947. In it, a young woman yearns for the town she has left, a place in Ireland now far away and across the sea. It was sung wonderfully by a soprano named Ella Logan, and I can see why Marian liked it. No doubt somewhere along the way she sang it as well.)
A few paragraphs later in the same note, she rues not being able to attend Pat Hungerford’s ninetieth birthday party. Then she writes, “All is well for me. I am slower than a turtle’s crawl, but keep working on improvement. I have finished with several months of leg therapy. I have had cataract surgery and six-month cleanings with the dentist—so all is well, and up to this old gal to get up and get going!!” There was no pity party for her. Next page: Our music club will have its final spring concert next week. We will hear a Brahms trio with horn, violin, piano; Two present day composers with clarinet, viola, piano; Octet in E flat major, Beethoven—oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons. Sounds like fun. Come and join us. Gotta stop! Love you so much! My love and hugs to you all.” It was signed as always: Marian, John, Sandy and Tom.
On a Tuesday, a recent April 2nd, she wrote: “Dearest Stephen, my love, How are you faring this gorgeous sunny day? You have been on my mind and heart—figured I had better get busy and let you know about it!! (ha! Hmm.) It was so good to hear from you and to know that you are so happy and relaxed in mind and body! Bless you!! I hope you are picking up your writing…you are so good at it.” The emphases are hers.
This is not about my skill as a writer, if any. It was the kind of love, of affirmation she had given me all my life. She continued: “I have slowed down—walking is a nuisance. The hip and legs act as though they are privileged characters. FIE on them!!” Love and hugs to you, my dear! And to your loved ones!”
FIE on them? Truth be known, I hear my mother’s voice in that phrase as much as Marian’s.
Marian had read my first novel, and I had sent her an early draft of the second. In a later note, after asking about my family, each of them by name—Liz, Marian, James and Kai, Steph and Brokk, Dane, Marianne and John and Becky—she inquired after some of the characters in my book. “How are Jeremiah and St. Peter of Verona moving along? All the best to them and your remembrance of them. I can hardly wait to hear.” Yet another time, in another note, it was, “May your days be blessed with a fine acumen in the composition of your stories.” Wow! What better benediction could an author want than this? Music to my ears, for sure.
But then, she always wished…us…happiness.
Marian Gloria, indeed. Marian Gloria in Excelsis.
March 11, 2016 was not the day the music died. Marian Gloria Partner Cornish, we miss you indeed, but things are well enough among us here in Glocca Morra.
You have made it so, for the music that is you remains with us.
Click below to open the recording of Marian. Though made some thirty-five years ago, very likely with a hand-held device, it gives insight into the power, fullness and richness of her voice.