PSYCHIC SHOCK. That's what it was. Sudden, unexpected-but intensely welcome. There I was, sitting in the Chicago Civic Opera House, listening to the first performance of Krzysztof Penderecki's new opera, "Paradise Lost." And, without warning, right in the midst of the only scene in the entire opera that could be called light or enchantingly humorous, the 45-year-old composer produced, in me-and perhaps in me alone in that capacity audience of 3,500-a strong, electric shock.
It was the scene in the Garden of Eden in which Adam names the birds and beasts as they pass in front of him in pairs. Little children were carrying the pairs onto the stage.
Adam, looking at the creatures with delight mingled with reflection, called out their names: "Thou lion," and the children, in chorus, echoed him, "Thou Lion, roar, roar."
"Thou Lamb," said Adam, and the children's voices sang out again, "Thou Lamb. Baaa, baaa."
And then it happened.
"Thou Swan," sang Adam, as a pair of swans was carried in. And suddenly I was no longer hearing Penderecki. The orchestra was playing the opening chords of the prelude to "Lohengrin." Penderecki had said, the previous dday at a press conference, that he had been unable to resist this play on music, and had deliberately introduced the Wagnerian swam theme.
But for me it was a moment out of the distant past. For it was in that same Civic Opera House, on the night of a day that was later decribed as "having seen one of the heaviest blizzards in many years," that I had first heard an opera, and that opera was "Lohengrin." Talk about deja vu ! That bitter cold night was in December 1929, 49 years earlier, and I had just turned 14. But the power of music is one of the strongest sensory stimuli when it comes to creating total recall. Penderecki quoted exactly two measures of that "lohengrin" prelude, but they were more than enough to take me back to that first opera performance of my life.
And with that return to 1929 there flooded in other associations with that opera theater in those long-ago years. My father had died the year before, and my mother was being fairly heroic in taking me through feet of snow, after a train ride into the city, to hear an opera. And to an opera house Lotte Lehmann (the Elsa in those days) once described: "I have never found any place where it is so draughy as at the entrances of this opera house . . . wherever you open a door, you set up a wild wind that ruffles your hair, tears at your clothes and hurls you right back if it catches you unawares." But my mother knew it was the thing I wanted more than anything else in the world.
I remember being confused, during the intermission before the last act, to see the man who had been the undertaker for my father's funeral coming up to us. He was simply being friendly, I am sure, but I hated the sight of him, even though he announced that what was still to come in the opera was even better than anything we had heard so far.
That was not all that Penderecki evoked in my memory with that brief quotation. As suddenly as that whole "Lohengrin" evening passed through my mind, there came the remembrance that five nights after my first opera, I very unexpectedly went to my second.
My favorite cousin, Jean, was given two tickets for the opera by someone foolish enough to think that there was something better to do on Christmas Eve than to go to hear Claudia Muzio sing in Verdi's "La Forza del Destino!" My cousin had never been to an opera, but I was by then a veteran and knew all about the most exotic sphere in the whole world of music. My mother took a very dim view of my leaving the house of Christmas Eve. "After all," she argued, with what seemed to me at the time, and has seemed so ever since, totally to lack any logic whatsoever, "You just heard an opera!"
That made no difference to me. So Jean and I went to "Forza," and heard one of the immortal greats of opera at her greatest. Do you think I cared that I had to wear a light tan suit that had been given me by some family friends whose son had outgrown it?
Light tan and all, it was the only suit I owned, and it turned out that our free seats were right smack in the fancy Dress circle immediately behind the boxes in the gaudy new house, where everyone else was in black tie, tuxedos and elegant gowns. Jean and I did not even see them.
Music is not the only power that can, in this mysterous way, recall a moment, a person, an emotion. Proust's Baron de Charlus made a daily ritual of spraying invisible perfumed pictures in the air with an atomizer as a means of evoking sensuous memories. Wagner had an unquenchable passion for ever-stronger perfumes which he told his final mistree, Judith Gautier, "made him do silly things." It was she who shipped Wagner vast quantities of amber, Milk of Iris, Rose de Bengale and highly scented powders to sprinkle over the lush fabrics with which he surrounded himself.
It was only when his study in Bayreuth was inundated with these overwhelming fragrances that Wagner was able to continue with the composition of "Parsifal," and it was these same odors that Cosima Wagner, after her husband's dealth, could no longer tolerate because they so painfully recalled his memory.
As, to some, one brief breath of air in a church where incense has long been burned will summon up clear, explicit visions of cathedrals and churches visited in distant countries in past years, of a single drop of Tapestry perfume will bring back the sound of a voice first heard decades ago, so does a single measure of music, or even one areesting chord, pull back the curtain of memory and restore, for a moment, an earlier era, a person, a place.
For others, this intangible recollector may be not more than some pedestrian flavor. To his day, if I put a wintergreen-flavored lifesaver into my mouth, I am immediately back next to the console where I took my first organ lesson because my teacher was a man who never moved an inch from his apartment without a day's supply of them in his pocket. At the first hint of the sweet taste I can see, as if they were the keys on this typewriter, the white stops lettered "Unda Maris, Clarabella, Cor Glorieux."
Shakespeare was no stranger to this psychic realm. Hardly has he begun the opening speech in "Twelfth Night" before his Duke Orsino speaks just such a remembrance:
"That strain again! It had a dying fall; O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound That breathes upon a bank of violets, Stealing and giving odour! Enough, no more!"
All this and more did Penderecki effect with his two measures of "Lohengrin."