Where Do We Go When We Die
July 14, 2022
In a talk entitled “Where Do We Go When We Die,” the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh drew an image of a burning candle and then asked whether it goes somewhere when it dies. Through the heat and light the candle gives off, he answered, it continues to rest in us, in the cosmos. The candle lives on in that sense. And Hanh went on to say that as humans we are also continuing to expend ourselves after we die, not unlike that candle, through the love, compassion, intelligence, and understanding that we have expressed during our lifetime.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s talk led me to think of music and musicians. When a violinist performs a work by Mozart or Beethoven, the music lives on, but doesn’t the performer as well? Instead of light and heat, the violinist is giving off sound and meaning that is openly received by the audience. You might describe the violinist’s performance as an act of generosity (or call it love), in that the work is served up as a gift to each and every member of the audience. And no performance can be remotely successful without compassion, intelligence, and understanding. If the violinist’s rendition is particularly moving, some listeners may remember and cherish it for the rest of their lives.
I am one of those listeners who will remember certain performances for the rest of my life.
When I was five years old, my father brought home a record of Jascha Heifetz playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I will never forget the feeling that the music held some mysterious wisdom about life. But it was the sound of the violin’s touching human voice that moved me to tears as the first movement ended.
When I was ten or eleven, my parents took me to hear a recital by the violinist Mischa Elman. At one point the piano was moved to the side, and Elman emerged alone on stage to play Johann Sebastian Bach’s imposing Chaconne. Out of his violin came sounds that almost frightened me in their powerful emotional impact. The audience gave Elman a standing ovation, and I went to bed that night in awe of what music, and a violin and bow, could create in the hands of an artist.
And then, as a student at the Curtis Institute 0f Music, two string quartet experiences were to ultimately alter the course of my musical life. Four of us at the school decided to study and then perform Beethoven’s Opus 130 String Quartet that ends with the Great Fugue. In the months that we rehearsed, the Quartet’s depth of feeling and at times almost outrageous originality were beyond anything I could have imagined. It seemed as if Beethoven was undertaking two epic journeys at the same time, one to the innermost depths of his soul, the other to another planet or some unknown and unimaginable place in time and space.
Soon afterwards, I discovered the Budapest String Quartet. Their playing not only approached sheer perfection as an ensemble, but the group also possessed great warmth, elegance, and a profound understanding of the music. They were my introduction to the string quartet literature. Their playing opened my ears to the power of the simplest of musical building blocks, a mere four voices that could create a world of unimaginable beauty. Or, as Albert Einstein once said: Things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.
Through the years, indelible performances of all kinds have blessed my life: violinist Josef Szigeti’s hauntingly beautiful performance of the First Violin Concerto of Sergei Prokofiev; Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” with shattering effect; cellist Pablo Casals’ performance for the ages of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suites; the oh-so-mellow and comforting Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable,” unforgettably; pianist Rudolf Serkin’s rendition of the epic, late A Major Piano Sonata of Franz Schubert, in which the unexpected middle of the second movement sounds like a wild act of nature in Serkin’s hands rather than mere music; guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli in a boisterous “Sweet Georgia Brown” that makes me want to get up and dance with joy; the spell cast by Maria Callas singing “Casta Diva,” a prayer to the goddess of peace from Vincenzo Bellini’s opera, Norma; oboist Marc Lifschey’s indescribably beautiful solos in Franz Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony; Alberta Hunter playfully singing the naughty “My Handy Man;” and the achingly poignant Dichterliebe song cycle of Robert Schumann, performed so movingly by pianist Bruno Walter and singer Lotte Lehmann.
These singular artists have all left our Earth long ago, but are they truly gone? Whenever I hear the Beethoven Violin Concerto, the memory of five-year-old me listening to Jascha Heifetz with tears in my eyes lingers on. That magical moment some eighty years ago will undoubtedly reside in me until my very last breath.
Thich Nhat Hanh believes that Heifetz and all other musicians who give freely of themselves in performance have not died. They live on through their music making.
It seems that the Vietnamese monk Is offering musicians the possibility of immortality.
I’d say, let’s accept.
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As a member of the Denver Symphony’s 1st violin section, just returned for the ’55-’56 season from my time in the 7the Army Symphony in Europe, I remember accompanying Heifetz two nights in a row as he played the Beethoven Cto. during what would be his last season of touring and regularly appearing with orchestras. We could have easily accompanied him without a conductor since his performance of the concerto was so ingrained in our psyches.
Dear Arnold. I have been reading in the key of strawberry diligently for years. This essay is possibly the most poignant and touching. Thank you for publishing it . with love and admiration , Sheila Fiekowsky
A beautiful article, writing something we all think about, and hope is true…your description of your first hearing of the Beethoven concerto, etc. and subsequent “awakenings” to the greatness of music and its lasting impact — we played the orchestral version of the “Grosse Fugue” during my first year with the New York Philharmonic, and the sense of Beethoven trying to break the bounds of earthly music and the impossibility of playing EVERYTHING this music demands… was just overwhelming for me… my mother took me to three concerts of the complete Beethoven quartets, played by the Budapest when I was 13 yrs. old, in Los Angeles. I was so stunned by those performances — never forgotten. And I am sure that you are right: music goes on in the minds and hearts of listeners and performers, long after the actual performance.
Thanks for this!
Orin (I also remember our Dvorak Quintet!)
Lovely thoughts. I too believe what we do lives on. Good deeds, good music, good thoughts might make this a better world for those who live on after us. Let’s hope it is true and there are more of those who do good than there are those who do bad.
SO BEAUTIFUL! Thank you,Arnold. You will definitely live forever—-your children, your students, your audiences, your music——-your light shines. Yes, accept. Thank you for sharing. Frances
This is so true! Thank you for reminding us!
Thanks so much for this beautiful piece. It’s a subject one contemplates, particularly having reached a certain age. I’ve always thought that if there were a “place” to go, I would want it to be wherever “music comes from.”
THANK YOU. I am deeply moved and will keep this one in my inbox for hours of listening to the pieces and performers you mention.
I’d agree. Thanks for this engaging essay, as well as for the list of recommended performances. Some I know and will enjoy revisiting; others, new to me, will be welcome additions to my collection.
Thank you Arnold for this lovely reflection and insight. I recently had a personal epiphany: that we’re all too focussed on ambition where we could focus rather on vocation. The longevity of what we do as you highlight here, affirms this even more. I hope you are wonderfully well thanks for happy times at UMD two decades ago now (!) and hi from Australia ?
Thank you for sharing your touching thoughts with us. Take good care of you. Warm regards, PF
Arnold, so fucking beautiful!It brings back a lot of (listening) memories. To hear Marc Lifschey’s name & recall hearing him years ago is an added memory. And, of course, to hear ALL the names you listed. If you have a moment, I recommed listening to Gregory Porter’s “Nat King Cole and Me.” Sharon and I have heard him a few times live in San Francisco. Warm hugs to Dorethea and you.
Another beautifully written essay. Thank you for sharing your talent and creativity. Immortality – yes.
Dearest Arnold….a blessing, and the beauty and blessings of your music are eternal….see you at Marlboro I trust. Thank
Thank you so much, Arnold. When I read your words, I feel so much warmth, love, beauty, goodness, vitality, striving, hope, becoming and possibility in what you described; I feel that I as a listener have been graced with the offer, the reminder of the possibility of immortality. I felt honored and privileged to meet and spend time with you last July, and what you share here is a happy re-enlivening. Best wishes always!
Your music- making makes you immortal to me and I am forever grateful.
Your former neighbor from 10B. I wish you well!
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