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Karen Allendoerfer

Reformation

October 26, 2008 at 11:11 AM

Mendelssohn. The subway. Sometimes the incongruity of the music on the iPod juxtaposed with what's going on in day-to-day life can be a little jarring, or surreal. Like an out-of-sync soundtrack. I'll be walking through a sort of dingy, dimly-lit passage surrounded by a stream of commuters and in my little audio bubble, I carry the Reformation Symphony.

This past week has been difficult at work. The economy is deeply affecting everyone. Biomedical research, like the arts, is somewhat dependent on private philanthropy. The lab I work in does Parkinson's Disease research and we were recently awarded a big collaborative grant from a private foundation. Then some time went by without our receiving an award letter from this foundation, and at first we joked, "better check the stock market" and see how the business is doing.

Alas, that was not actually funny, or a joke. The foundation suspended the grant indefinitely, ironically on the very day we had gotten many of the collaborators together to talk about and kick off the research project. We had people visiting from New York, from Alabama, even from Germany. Now the future of the research is in doubt.

There are other projects for me to manage at work; the lab itself is still relatively well-funded. But I had had a special place in my heart for this project, having written a large part of the grant along with my boss and caring a lot about having the research succeed. This is not a reflection on the quality of the work. My boss still believes in it and we will keep it going in a limited way; hopefully the market will recover sooner rather than later.

In a coincidence of timing last week, I got off the T and went up to my office, arriving just as the 4th movement of the Mendelssohn Symphony No. 5 was finishing in my ears.

A few weeks ago, looking for a good recording to listen to, I googled the piece and found a wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reformation_Symphony. This one is unusually detailed for a wikipedia entry about a symphony, I think. The following sentence in particular has stayed with me: "Mendelssohn had considered the Reformation Symphony as one of his failed works, and did not allow for it to be published.[citation needed] However, the piece was published posthumously in 1868 and is now performed by many orchestras worldwide."

Several theories are offered for why this piece was not performed at the celebration for which it was written. One particularly tragic reason could have been anti-Semitism, despite the fact that Mendelssohn was a devout Lutheran in practice, he had Jewish heritage. Caught in forces of history too big for any one individual to overcome, this great symphony has washed up again here on my little beach.

I took off the headphones and announced to my office mate, "I just love Mendelssohn. Sometimes it just helps." He smiled and nodded. My office-mate's brother has terminal brain cancer, nearing the end-stage. Sometimes music is really just what gets you through the day.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on October 27, 2008 at 6:05 AM
What a moving story! I agree that sometimes music is what allows us to make it through the day.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 28, 2008 at 5:26 PM
Oh, Karen! : (

I just kept reading and going, "oh no," about the lost grant, about the story behind Mendelssohn's work, about the co-worker's brother. You're so right. Music, sometimes is the only antidote to the yuck all around us and in society, both past and present. I am actually writing up a blog on this subject as well - maybe that's why what you wrote here affected me so deeply.

Well put, all of it!

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