Coda: Music and Solace


Coda Music of Solace sm 1012
Author Hannan and her daughter, Nadia
Courtesy of Judith Hannan

Music has surrounded me since childhood. At an early age, I became intrigued with my mother’s relationship with this essential language. It was so different from mine. My focus was on learning fluency on my flute, but during my practice sessions I paced like a host impatient for the music to arrive. 

My mother searched music for messages. For each year of my childhood, she became more engulfed by sadness. She tried to ease her pain by giving herself the music lessons she never had as a child. But the music never beckoned her to come out to play. Perhaps it is impossible to expand your voice when you feel yourself disappearing.

Still, she never stopped listening to her favorite recordings. Saturday mornings were reserved for Bach’s organ works, which she played at full volume. The imposing instrument insinuated itself into every corner of our home. I couldn’t see what that music did for her. It sat on me like a thundercloud.

I continued my musical studies in college, where I had one moment of experiencing what my mother might have been seeking. It was during a performance of “Buss und Reu,” a musical conversation between two flutes and an alto soloist from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. College had triggered in me a debilitating anxiety disorder. Everything about the experience of performing the Passion was harrowing — the brutal story, which, as a Jew, I found foreign; the gothic gloom of the cathedral where we performed; the dissonance and weeping of the music. I didn’t see how I could speak intimately with the soloist, whom I barely knew. But I wove my melody with the voice as if spinning silk. At the end I was just music, not body or breath.

Eight years later, when I saw my mother turn to music once again, I understood her hunger. She was dying of breast cancer, and the voice in song brought her moments of lost beauty — the beauty she used to find at the ocean, in a garden, from her reflection in the mirror. I sat with her while she listened. I became conjoined with her in grief.

Now, the messages within music became easier to receive. Beethoven spoke to me when I felt powerless, Bach’s Goldberg Variations when I needed clarity, and Barber’s elegiac Adagio for Strings when I needed music that expressed my melancholia.

Grief came again in 2000, when my eight-year-old daughter Nadia was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. There is no harmony in the phrase “Your daughter has cancer.” My ears rang, and the world went silent. With the skin peeled away from my emotions, music — even my beloved Barber — was vinegar on an open wound. My soundtrack became a warped opus composed of the whirr of IV pumps, the beeps of heart monitors, weeping that comes as much from fear as it does from pain. But music is insistent, sidling up to you like a stray dog. It laid itself at my feet, waiting for me to pay attention. If I couldn’t plunge into a symphony or eavesdrop on the dialogue of a quartet, my ear still begged for melody, if only birdsong, which called to me when I had to escape from Nadia’s pain. The most unlikely source of music, however, came from my children — Nadia, her twin brother, Max, and her older sister, Frannie.

Max had been studying cello since age four. Music was our bond. During a reprieve from being at Nadia’s side at the hospital, I couldn’t wait to get home to see Max. He greeted me with his cello and played his entire Suzuki repertoire. The notes were soothing fingers against the tension of my body. I would remember this scene when Yo-Yo Ma played for the nation after 9/11.

A few weeks later, it was the winter holiday concert season at my children’s schools. I made a video of each performance. At Nadia’s concert, I used the camera to keep busy, to resist the pull of those sweet voices. My feelings needed a rest. The video stops abruptly; the voices found me.

I have tapes of holiday concerts, cello recitals, Max and Nadia dancing — she serious, he comedic — to Handel’s Water Music and Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Because cameras were not allowed in the hospital, I don’t have a video of Nadia doing an Irish step-dance to the music of a visiting ensemble. 

In the journal I kept during Nadia’s illness, there is no mention of music. From the videos, it appears we sang and danced and played every day. I needed to write, to be alone with my words. But music brought me to my family. Without it, I might still be isolated between the bindings of my journal with no ability to see beauty — like the beauty of Nadia, now recovered and a twenty-year-old dancer who is so good I forget to cry when I watch her.

When it came time to write the story of that intense period of mothering, I realized how much music had become my essential language. Tone, mood, cadence, modulation, structure, rhythm, dynamics, tempo — seen as a composition, I could see myself. 

I learned to be alone with music again after being transported by the cantorial melodies sung at Frannie’s bat mitzvah, held a month after Nadia’s final treatment. My new favorite piece is Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, but I still treasure Barber — because sorrow always needs an opportunity to speak. spacer 

JUDITH HANNAN is the author of the recently published memoir Motherhood Exaggerated (Laurel Books). She has contributed articles to Woman’s Day and Twins, among others. 

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