Poetry lovers will recognize the first half of this title as the beginning of “East Coker,” the second of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1940). But the tradition from which Eliot draws is far, far older than that, and it looks like this:
This is one of the cleverest pieces in all music history, Ma fin est mon commencement (“In my end is my beginning”). The author of the text and composer of the music are one and the same genius of a human being: Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300 – 1377).
Machaut is unquestionably one of the great composers of all time, if one of the most neglected, and wrote this particular piece of music in a structure that both shows and tells the story of the text with dizzying precision (technically, it’s a canon canzicrans over a palindrome, to be specific).
You can listen to (and watch a brilliant animated score) of this astonishing work here. An equally brilliant explanation of how Machaut makes this happen, which I just know all but none of my theory students are dying to read, can be found here.
What’s the point of all this esoteric scholasticism? It is just more of Custer showing off again, full of arcane pedantry and useless academic pretense?
It’s simply to say with utter clarity a truth that is particularly poignant for me today:
Every ending opens the door to a new beginning,
Every beginning requires that something else must end.
Part of me is remaining behind here in Ireland. Like any traveler, I know where home is, and I want to be there, enjoying all it holds. But I have been forever changed by being and spending time here, in the land from which my mother’s mother’s people came.
I have come to love the gentle accents and sly wit that I hear in the air around me as I walk her rain-swept streets. I have fallen in love with the five thousand shades of red hair and ten thousand thousand shades of green she freely holds up for my eyes to see. More than a bit of a homecoming it’s been for me, and that’s for true.
And now, as if for the very first time, I finally begin to truly understand words that have haunted my life for more than two decades, as some of you well know:
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
But most of all, Ireland has taught me how central storytelling truly is to the choral art. Stories, of course, are as full of beginnings and endings as anything else I know. I’m chastened by the obviousness of this insight–and humiliated by my obliviousness to it until now. For years, I’ve approached choral music making based on text, focusing on how it’s built, and how it works. And now I see that in fact I’ve missed the boat.
The name of that boat is meaning.
Meaning is what carries us from the beginning to the end of the story we tell in song, because meaning is the story itself. It is what it does, and it does what it is, which is the definition of an encounter with the divine, a sacrament. Meaning is like that. So’s music.
Meaning is where all those phonemes and rhyme schemes and shadow vowels have really been heading all along. It is the destination for all of the preparation, analysis, and technique I have tried to put into my conducting, and all the artfulness my choirs create. Without understanding this, it’s just a vain exercise, nothing more than an empty show. But rightly understood, it is incredibly liberating to realize that it is the story that matters, because it is the story that is the container of truth and beauty.
Coming home to that understanding means leaving some of my most cherished and most familiar tricks of the trade behind. Fine, then. Leave them. They were doubtlessly useful then, but I am not the same person that I once was. That time is over and done. On we go, and forward: second star to the right, and straight on till morning.
I came to Ireland not at all sure what I might find.
I found that I am leaving a part of myself behind, here, and that for good.
In my beginning is my end. And in my end, is my beginning.