Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/23/2009

Blanche Thebom, Mahler, My Overwrought Brain, Eddy, and God

(Note: this isn’t feverish or—for the uninitiated—bizarre enough to record the “heightened religious experience” of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy or the mystical hallucinations of Bipolar Disorder. It’s much too ordinary. Stick around. We’ll get to the weird stuff later.)  

Everyone remembers mysteries that have helped shape their lives, I’m sure. Some of us probably dwell on those mysterious moments more than others do. Of course, I don’t know that. What I do know is that a few experiences (some momentary, some lasting over time) are imprinted in my consciousness as more than memory. Again, I assume everyone has such memories.  

My organ teacher when I was in high school was, as my mother said, “strait-laced.” (strait being archaic for “narrow” [as the Bering Straits], or “tightly bound” [as in a corset], so the phrase means, literally, “tightly bound and laced up.”) He was definitely “strait-laced.” His wife wore no make up, and he was totally (I thought) without humor. He played the organ, she directed the choir, fine and well educated musicians both, but “strait-laced” even for the big Baptist church where they worked.  

When he gave me a ticket to hear Blanche Thebom sing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder with the Omaha Symphony, I assumed I was going to hear a program of religious music. My first indication that would not be was her astonishing beauty and presence on the stage. I, a terrified gay boy in Omaha noticing a woman’s beauty. Remarkable.  

Religious music it was not, of course (if you believe that, you should stop reading now). I read the text translations in the program: five poems on the death children by Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866). *** And I remember wondering what on earth Mr. W~~ had gotten me into. I don’t remember mundane physical details of the evening.  

Voice. Melodies (many of which I could, had I a voice, sing right now). Lush, heart-breaking harmonies and orchestrations. OK, I know how plebian and ordinary my description is. But why try to match that moment of mystery. (You can hear Kirsten Flagstad sing the first of the songs if you don’t understand what they might have done to an 18-year-old gay epileptic organist: )

My heart broke, not for those dead children, but for that music, for what it wrought that my poor seizured brain had never felt before before. OK. I’ll be corny. I was never the same after. I had played music (Bach, Beethoven, and all those guys); I had sung music (the usual folk music and such that kids sang in the dark ages of the ‘50s and ‘60s—and hundreds of hymns, too many of which I can still sing and/or play). But I had never heard MUSIC like this, and heard it in time and space.

I wish I had some mysterious way to write about this, words that would sound as holy, as ineffable, as numinous as that experience was (and still is—I have now wept listening to Flagstad, and it’s not even live in time and space). Is my experience unusual? No. I’ve heard (because people think that musicians—even second-rate musicians like me—want to hear about them) stories of that time, that one time, when they heard a work that moved them into a state of altered consciousness—or at least to tears.

Soon after I heard Blanche Thebom, I went to Baptist Summer Camp (this time in the Pine Ridge region of Western Nebraska, not at Moses Merrill—still dreaming of Merrill Moses, except I didn’t know his name yet). One night I was lying on a hillside with fellow-campers (one who was standing in for Merrill Moses until I could find him—who died in Viet Nam; I accompanied him in a drag version of “I Feel Pretty” in the camp talent show). The Milky Way on a clear night, lying on a hillside in far Western Nebraska with no artificial lighting visible anywhere. Always present in my mind the memory of Blanche Thebom and Mahler. Eddy—that was his name—lying beside me in the grass. And the vastness of the universe. Billions of stars. I thought, “Where does it end? It has to end somewhere. And what’s beyond where it ends?” And Eddy and Blanche and the Milky Way fused into one reality that somehow transcended my horror when we were inside in the dining hall or the chapel or any of those other awful buildings with the fluorescent lights and too much noise and my mind separated from my body and holding on for dear life—my mind grasping Eddy and Blanche and even the terrifying question “where does it end,” because those things were more real, more about “grace” and “belief” and “eternal life” than any of the stilted, stiff, unbelievable language of the preachers (even when my dad was one of them) who wanted us to find Jesus. And what I found instead of Jesus was the question, the eternal question, the horrifying necessary question, “Where does it end.”

So long as the Mind Keeps Silent

So long as the Mind Keeps Silent

And years later, after many more such moments, I was once again alone, this time on the organ bench at the University of Iowa playing a graduate recital, and in the middle of the Fantasy Number One by Ross Lee Finney, “So long as the mind keeps silence…” I knew that was the answer.

The music took the place of thought, my body and mind together in the presence—in place of—the horrifying question, my own performance, clumsy and imperfect, became the companion piece to Blanche Thebom and Mahler—my mind keeping silent while the music touched the ineffable, the numinous, God.




*** I.
Now the sun will rise as brightly
as if no misfortune had occurred in the night.
The misfortune has fallen on me alone.
The sun – it shines for everyone.

You must not keep the night inside you;
you must immerse it in eternal light.
A little light has been extinguished in my household;
Light of joy in the world, be welcome . . .

In this weather, in this cruel storm,
I would never have sent the children out;
They were carried outside –
I could say nothing about it!

In this weather, in this roaring, cruel storm,
they rest as they did in their mother’s house:
they are frightened by no storm,
and are covered by the hand of God.M31-RobertGendler


  1. Hey everyone just wanna say hello and introduce myself!


    • You’re my first contact through blogcatalog. As you can see this is my personal blog, often dealing with my TLE and bipolar disorder—but mainly just writing because I can’t stop–about all kinds of things.


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