Reflections in Counterpoint
By Janis Hutchinson
The rigid legs of the wooden chair screeched against the bare classroom floor as Mrs. Waterbury, my high school piano teacher, shoved it out from behind her desk. She stood and stepped around in front, adjusting the coiled knot of smoky-gray hair that rested at the nape of her neck.
"Play middle C," she said.
It was my turn at the piano that day, and I dutifully plunked the key down. The harsh, twangy tone sounded from beneath the mahogany instrument’s half-opened lid.
"No," she said. "Play it, not murder it!" She rushed over, and slid onto the oblong bench beside me. I ducked my head, hiding my stricken look.
She raised her finger, poising it dramatically above the keyboard. Slowly, it floated downward, until the ball of her finger pressed into the ivory key. The heel of her hand dipped down to the left, circled, and came up in an arc to the right. The warm, vibrant "C" resonated throughout the room, as her finger slowly pivoted up and away from the key with a graceful flourish.
"Few," she said, sliding off the bench, "know how to play C."
The knot in my stomach tightened. My hope of becoming a concert pianist was dashed. Nevertheless, what she said next changed my life.
"Remember, class," she added, stepping back behind her desk, "C" means, see. When combined with other notes, and enhanced by instruments, you will see something you never saw before.
At age fourteen, she rather lost me on that; but my interest piqued. As Mrs. Waterbury reached for her collection of musical tapes, I recalled my grandmother telling me that the great composers were inspired by God. If so, would it be evident in their compositions? Could their music make me "see" that God was in my life too?
First, she had us listen to Prokoviev’s "Peter and the Wolf." My dull, gray existence expanded into brilliancy, as I found myself delightfully skipping along with Peter into the grassy meadow, cringing when French horns warned of the wolf’s presence, and lamenting when the dirge-like oboe portrayed the sad end of the duck. When Peter lowered the lasso around the wolf’s tail I cheered, and jubilantly marched off with the cast of characters in the finale’s triumphant procession.
Next, we listened to Smetana’s "Moldau." I found myself buoyantly swept up into the rolling boil of the river’s current. Whirling atop the swells and surges, I glided in glittering gurgles of pure joy, hugging slopes and hillsides, and passing village festivals along green-wooded, Bohemian banks.
"Now," Mrs. Waterbury concluded, "you have seen what these composers intended you to see. But, the real magic of music comes when you see beyond that – when it touches an emotional chord deep inside you, and causes you to see your own life.
I listened to Sousa’s bold, metronomic marches, wishing that my life could be punctuated with that kind of strength. Debussy’s "Clair de Lune" made me long for a peaceful, serene life – away from the despair of abusive parents, and my miserable sense of worthlessness.
Try as I did, I could see nothing about my life in any of the music, let alone God. While "Peter and the Wolf" was enjoyable, Sousa’s and Debussy’s music only made me long for something that I didn’t have. To find a musical composition that truly reflected the distressing realities of my life would require finding one that was more dissonant than Khatchaturian’s clashing "Sabre Dance!" Who would want to listen to something like that?
My attitude changed, however, when I heard one of Bach’s fugues! Chaotic counterpoints violently fought against one another. Tangles of kaleidoscopic notes viciously slammed into the helpless melody. It exactly matched my life!
But, as much as I identified with all that cacophony, there was one drawback. What was the point of all that perpetual struggling? Or was Bach, like myself, powerless to control his own music? Why, if he was inspired?
Unfortunately, the school bell rang before the piece ended.
"See you on Monday," Mrs. Waterbury called, pushing the stop button on the recorder.
I walked out of the classroom, intrigued. I felt some enigmatic bond to Bach, and knew that I had to hear the end. Maybe at the conclusion of the composition something would predict who would win – the counterpoints, or the helpless melody. More importantly, it would prove whether God directed his composition. I dashed to the school library, checked out the recording, and rushed home.
Alone in my bedroom I shoved it into the tape deck, and flipped the switch. The singular notes lilted through the silence of my room. Then, furious counterpoints charged in with window-rattling intensity. I grabbed a ruler for a baton. Waving it around in mighty sweeps and flourishes, I kept pace with the quarrelsome notes that rushed in to overwhelm the poor, struggling melody –
a melody that simply wanted to sing its own song.
I continued my frenzied conducting, hoping that by the end the fugue-like mess would somehow unscramble into a meaningful structure. If it did, then, as Mrs. Waterbury promised, I would see something about my life – perhaps some definitive design that would reveal the why of everything, prove that I could survive despite the opposition, and confirm that God was in control.
I followed the helter-skelter race of turbulent notes that swirled about me, as the crescendos and dynamics of my life rose and plunged, and the persistent counterpoints hurled my hopeless existence out of control.
Then, much to my surprise, all the counterpoints gradually began to slow, sidle alongside the original melody, and yield to the same rhythmic pace. They were no longer fighting or struggling against each other, but mingling and merging into an ingenious synthesis!
I quivered with anticipation as the final, impassioned chords came together in synchronic, thunderous tones, like the doxology of a heavenly choir. Then, in one majestic amen, they burst open the door to my soul, flooding my heart with a resonating assurance. Then, all was still.
I sank onto the edge of my bed.
"Wow," I whispered, "I can survive the counterpoints in my life, and God will orchestrate the whole, wondrous composition of my life to a harmonizing end!" I instinctively leaped to my feet.
"Bravo!" I shouted.
Janis Hutchinson is author of Out of the Cults and Into the Church, The Mormon Missionaries, and numerous articles on cult recovery. She holds an M.A. in Theology and presently serves as mentor for the Institute of Religious Research in its "Mormon Mentoring Program." You can write to Janis care of the Letters page of this magazine.
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