THE SUBLIME: Rhapsody in Blue
I have suggested in a previous post (June 19, 2014) that George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue may reach that pinnacle of human accomplishment which is incomparable, transcendent, even sublime; that it is a composition—a musical invention—beyond the possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation. That it is an accomplishment of the human spirit which moves us to a place of great visceral, intellectual, emotional or spiritual wonderment.
Following is how Brother Alphaios (Al-fay-us) hears this amazing piece. He’s a cloistered monk and the protagonist in BOOK OF HOURS: The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios, a novel written by this author and available to you at the click of a link.
Today, Alphaios was especially happy to escape the confines of the monastery. The morning had been spent in a dull chapter meeting that Brother Richard, possessed of a good heart but small mind, had stretched out interminably. And lunch had been uninspired even by monastery standards.
It was a false spring day. More rain and cold would come before winter released its grip on the city, but today he would enjoy the contrast of warm sun and chilled air. The sun was brilliant, and he could nearly finish the page that had been absorbing him for days.
He decided to take a parallel route to the scriptorium and crossed Broad, then went right for two blocks before turning again. Not far from the library, he entered a tree-lined street of well-kept brownstones which seemed to be private residences. Beside each stoop was a tiny yard surrounded by a short, ornate iron fence. The little patches of plant life were all well-tended, and in a few yards, the presence of gloves and trowels showed eagerness for an end to winter.
The street was mostly quiet until Alphaios heard a long, curved tusk of a musical note. It was the unique, unmistakable soar of the clarinet opening to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. It was coming from a townhouse with all its doors and windows thrown open to the air. The music overfilled the house and spilled into the street. The occupant was no doubt feeling particularly sentient on this rare day and wanted to absorb both the freshening air and the music. He admired the occupant’s openness to sensation, and found a perch on a step and sat down to share the experience.
Through eight changes in key, through multiple tempos and rhythms, he listened. He listened through long rolling waves of piano runs that seemed to fill the keyboard three times over, and through boisterous horns, sailing trombones and blue notes. He listened through the low muttering of the bassoon, the wah-wah-wah of muted trumpets and brassy notes finished raucously. Through elegant strings swaying like summer maples in a strong breeze.
The music nearly tumbled over itself in its run to conclusion.
He could think of no music more vibrant, more suited to a day like this. And surely the clarinet had been invented with just this rhapsody in mind.
When quiet replaced the music, he became aware he was not alone. Three others had also paused to listen, among them a well-dressed but bedizened man who noted, “Cool,” as he strode away.
Alphaios sat a little while longer. He’d heard Rhapsody in Blue just once before, many years ago in Rome. The music was very different from that of his Grecian countryside and from European classical music, and so much more cerebral than the shards of pop music he had heard in the streets of Rome. It was a whole new idiom. For Alphaios the artist, it was like seeing a whole new spray of colors for the very first time. He remembered hoping one day he could visit the place where this brash, compelling music originated. And now, in his excursions almost every day through the city, he could see its very source.
But Rhapsody in Blue was somehow not complete. Even as he heard it, Alphaios hungered for just a bit more; his was a taste not quite sated, a sensation not quite completed. This must be some of the genius of the piece—a still-whetted appetite, a search for something just out of reach. That was why the music so well characterized this American city he was coming to know. He found himself wishing for more time living the city and less time shut away.
So, tha’s Alphaios’s take.
Please submit a nomination of your own, some some human achievement you regard as sublime. If it’s appropriate (and I have no reason to believe it won’t be)I’ll post it and offer my own comment.
Note: See elsewhere on this page for ways to purchase BOOK OF HOURS: The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios.
Photo by J. S. Anderson: Detail, Electronic Sign in Times Square, NYC