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Frederic Chopin died at the tender age of 39

Making the Most of the Time   

    Frederic Chopin died at the tender age of 39.

    He was the featured composer at midday concerts we attended on April Tuesdays.  The cascades of gorgeous and sometimes forbidding sound prompted me to offer a silent prayer of thanksgiving for the genius of the premier Polish composer.

    George Gershwin also died at the tender age of 39. 

    At yet another concert (we attend 55 annually, mostly classical, sacred and secular, instrumental and vocal) a piano duet at the Bushnell (named, I remind you, after a 19th century Congregational clergyman) got the house standing with "Rhapsody in Blue."

    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died at the tenderer age of 35.

    Two hundred plus years later he continues to inspire composers, playwrights, and beginning pianists with his contagious playfulness and unmatched imagination. My theological mentor (from a great distance of time and space), Karl Barth, is reported to have opined that in heaven the angels play Bach before the throne of God, but when they are by themselves they favor Mozart.

    Felix Mendelssohn died at the tender age of 38.

    Would bridal couples ever be able to find their way down the aisle to the front door of the church without Mendelssohn's "The Wedding March"?

    What is it with great composers? Does melodic creativity use up creative juices, including the life force, faster than other human endeavors?  Clergy live notoriously long lives. Are we, by reason of explanation, absent the strong flow of the juices which musicians exhaust?

    It's a puzzlement I must ponder someday.  But not now and here.

    I come not to bury Chopin but to praise him... and the others.  And to consider the poverty of a world without their genius.  For starters, Barbara and I would have nowhere to spend winter evenings.  That they lived and composed and shared their genius with any who would listen is no small gift in a world where sound too often is the blast of bombs and the death rattles of the wounded. Those whom I have cited knew plenty of that, blast and rattles, but, to borrow a musical cliché, they marched to a different tune and heard in their imaginations the songs of angels.  Yes, let me put in a good word for my profession, that the world sorely needs those who can tell the blessed truth for God's sake.  Occasionally an "Amen" will issue from the congregation.  I've heard applause there too, though not when I was preaching. But if you really want to move people on an Easter morning, you have the congregation sing the "Halleluiah" Chorus.  Or should you want them to shed a tear of gratitude, put the choir to singing Randall Thompson's "Alleluia."  Music reaches places in the heart closed to spoken words. 

    When the football coach told us before a game that "it's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog that wins," we kind of knew we were in for a rough Saturday afternoon and likely to get our derrieres handed to us.  So I've been loathe to repeat the similar wisdom about the length of our lives, that it's not how long they are but what one does with the years one is given, plentiful or scarce though those years may be. Yet I am invoking that thought here for my pantheon of short-lived composers. To do one thing well, and not just well, but magnificently, that's the crowning achievement for the life God gives us.  I pronounce that benediction on gardeners no less than astrophysicists and composers. And to do it so that your neighbors miss you when you take an early leave of these mortal scenes, well, that's the best reward for Chopin and the rest, whose creations continue to provide joy and beauty to generations they never dreamed of.

    And, not as an afterthought, but the real forethought: Jesus died at the tender age of 33.  No composer he, but provider of beauty and joy? I bet my life on it.




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