May 4, 2010
I left the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University last year after having taught a graduate violin class there for over two decades. Among other things, I miss the lively conversations I often had with colleagues at student recitals, oral exams, juries, or over a pizza at the local Italian restaurant. Topic number one, of course, was music. But there was nothing more enlivening and enjoyable than chatting with Joe Vita in the halls of the Mason Gross music building where Joe and I occasionally bumped into one another. We would talk about individual composers, their music, interpretation, and the latest concert or record Joe had heard. Joe spoke about music with a degree of intensity, of purposefulness that made me think his life almost depended on it. Joe also took an active interest in student performances and accomplishments, and he often asked about the whereabouts and musical activities of my former students whose playing had particularly affected him. Some had graduated as much as ten or fifteen years earlier. Joe’s boyish exuberance belied the fact that he is old enough to think about retirement in the next few years.
The last time I saw Joe, he said something that set me back on my heels. Joe told me that he is leaving in his will his entire estate to the Music Department to be used for scholarships in classical music performance. Then, clearly not willing to dwell on the subject of his magnanimous gift, Joe changed subjects. He told me about two experiences he recently had while listening to music. In both cases they occurred while listening to Beethoven string quartets. The first experience was during the slow movement of Opus 59, #1. Joe said: “There is a passage for violin around the middle of the movement, just after what I guess would be called the development section. After the instruments are playing pizzicato, the first violin plays a simple, hymn-like tune of great serenity. For a few moments I saw something. I would say that I saw Beauty itself—not just beautiful music, but something deeper, more mysterious. I can only describe it as Beauty in and of itself.”
The second experience was during the Heiliger Dankgesang of Opus 132. Joe said: “At the climax of the movement, the three upper strings play sustained notes while the cello plays four notes underneath them. A simple passage, perhaps, but it had a strange effect on me. I seemed to see all of human life as one—all the good and bad, the joy and pain; all the things that seemed opposite and in conflict. And for a few moments I accepted everything. I saw that life is a whole and it was good and I accepted it all. I was on the mountaintop! I wish I could have stayed there! Well, my name DOES mean life!”
Joe Vita is the janitor at the Mason Gross School of the Arts music building.
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