January 27, 2023
I’ve often heard that New Yorkers, living cheek to jowl with their neighbors, tend to keep to themselves. But that certainly wasn’t our experience when my wife Dorothea and I moved into apartment 11A of a building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in late 1972. We quickly got to know several of the building’s residents, and eventually met Petra and John Shattuck four floors directly below us in 7A.
Dorothea and I were immediately drawn to the Shattucks, a most warm hearted and high spirited couple. John was an attorney heading the legislative branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Petra, on her way to being a lawyer herself, taught politics and civil liberties at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. Through the years our friendship deepened, and I took great comfort and pleasure in witnessing John and Petra’s thriving and meaningful professional work, and their closely knit family, now with three lovely children, Jessica, Rebecca, and Peter.
But, without warning, the Shattuck’s lives suddenly and irrevocably changed when Petra was only forty-six years old. After a morning jog in March 1988, Petra arrived at the law office where she worked with a severe headache. The unimaginable happened not long after, when Petra died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
John asked me to play at Petra’s memorial service that took place several months later, and I chose Johann Sebastian Bach’s towering Chaconne, the fifth and final movement of his Solo Violin Partita in D Minor. In 1720, Bach returned home after extended travel with his employer Prince Leopold, to find Maria Barbara, his wife and the mother of his seven children, dead and already buried.
Bach rarely used the chaconne dance form, and there is a theory, unsubstantiated but credible, that he composed this particular Chaconne as an expression of grief over his beloved wife’s sudden and unexpected passing. I can hear Bach’s anguish, even anger, in the opening notes, and feel them gradually evolve into ruminative prayer. And I sense a melancholy that begins to lift as the work surges forward to its end, bursting with hope and optimism.
Although separated by some 250 years, Johann Sebastian Bach and John Shattuck’s stories are strikingly similar—both men were happily married with children, and both suffered the tragic loss of their wives. If only Bach could reach across the centuries and console John: I’ve been there, friend, I know what you’re going through. You will survive and ultimately rise up through your grief to thrive once again. But wasn’t that deeply felt message already imbedded in Bach’s Chaconne that I had just performed for John, his children, and the rest of us at Petra’s memorial service?
Petra Tölle Shattuck was born in Saarbrücken, Germany, during World War II. As a child she witnessed the horrors of the war firsthand and grew up with a heightened awareness of how the Nazi Party had offered false hope of order and pride to her country, but had instead sowed destruction and murdered millions in the name of racial purity. Perhaps because of Petra Shattuck’s impassioned involvement with issues of human rights and the need for laws enabling the disenfranchised to better control their own destiny, John found an inspired way to harness his grief.
With the help of family, friends, and colleagues, John created the Petra Foundation in 1989. Its goal was to recognize and support people closest to Petra Shattuck’s heart—the unsung heroes who, often with scant resources, fight for social justice in their communities. In it’s twenty-five year existence, the Petra Award provided money, and use of the Foundation’s resources to one-hundred fellows to help further their work involving such wide-ranging issues as poverty, homelessness, workers rights, native-American rights, and racism. Permeating the yearly awards ceremony was the comforting feeling that Petra’s death had set into motion something truly meaningful.
A wonderful fringe benefit was the opportunity to meet and get to know the Foundation Fellows. Dorothea and I became friends with Fellow Murphy Davis and her husband, Eduard Loring. Murphy was an advocate for death-row inmates and homeless people. Murphy and Ed were Presbyterian ministers who ran the Open Door Community, a homeless shelter in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. When I performed in Atlanta, I would often stay with them in guest quarters attached to the shelter. For the first time in my life I witnessed up close the brutal, precarious, and heartbreaking life of the homeless.
On one such visit, I arrived just as lunch for the homeless was finishing, and Murphy and Ed spontaneously asked me to play for the group. Afterwards, a forty-five year old African-American man who had spent years in jail and who had been seriously involved with drugs, told Ed he had never been that close to a violin before. He said he was very surprised and unprepared by how deeply moved he was by the music. Call it a compliment, or merely a comment, but it’s one I shall never forget.
Despite dealing constantly with the darkest of issues in her work, Murphy also had to cope with various cancers that plagued her for much of her adult life. Nonetheless, Murphy was one of the most joyful people I’ve ever known. Somehow she managed to live with equanimity, grace, and an irresistibly playful sense of humor.
At one point, my pianist brother Victor and I played a benefit concert for the Open Door Community. The day before our performance, a local Atlanta newspaper, advertising events of the week, mixed up the names under featured photos of me and an African-American harmonica player. I was listed as Snooky Williams, and from that day on, Murphy never called me anything but Snooky.
At the beginning of October 2020, I got a call from Murphy. “Snooky, would you be willing to do me a favor and play for my funeral?” she asked. I had already heard the sad news that there was no remedy for this latest variant of Murphy’s ongoing cancer. Still, I was somewhat unnerved by her request. I, like so many musicians, have often been asked to play at funerals; it’s usually the living survivors, however, who ask for music honoring their departed loved ones. ”But Murphy,” I blurted out, “you’re still alive. Of course I’ll play for your funeral, but can’t I also play for you now?”
Shortly after, via Zoom, I greeted Murphy, who lay looking pale but still smiling in her hospital bed, surrounded by Ed, their daughter Hannah, and an attending nurse. I played the Meditation, a long, sinuous, and emotion-laden violin solo originally from the opera Thaïs by Jules Massenet. The Meditation was my way of telling Murphy just how much she meant to me. “Thank you, Snooky,” she said softly when I finished.
Murphy passed away only a week or two later, and, as promised, I played for her funeral service—once again, music served to express how much I (Snooky) loved her. This time it was the first movement of Bach’s Solo Violin Partita in D Minor, a bookend of sorts with the work’s last movement, the Chaconne, which I had played for Petra Shattuck’s service those many years ago.
And, speaking of Petra, you might want to know that both Johannes Sebastian Bach and John Shattuck went on to have very happy second marriages. Bach had another thirteen children with Anna Magdalena. John and Ellen Hume had only one child together, Susannah—but who’s counting?
We live, we die, but the miracle of music is always there for crying, laughing, joyful dancing, mourning, and for ushering us from this world into the next.
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