This post continues my theme of drawing wisdom from Ursula Le Guin’s Orsinian Tales. You can check out some of my previous posts for a more detailed summary of the book or the Wikipedia page.
The story I have come to as the subject of this posts is one of my favorite in the book. It is one that I felt bolstered up with joy and exhilaration after reading. It is one I completely remembered though I first read it a while ago now, and yet I still reread it to write this post.
I wanted to experience it again.
The story is called An die Muzik, I just want to attempt to summarize it here and perhaps I’ll write another post later in order to dive into the details.
We enter the story through the eyes of a man named Otto.
Otto’s wife is a successful singer and Otto has some influence in the world of music in Eastern Europe, it is 1938. Otto does important things and sees important people. Otto arranges success in the field of music for his wife, and sometimes for others. Otto can hardly be bothered to give attention to all the little people who think they have talent and want him to help them. We are introduced to a man named Mr. Gaye. We see Gaye through Otto’s eyes. Le Guin describes Gaye as “shabby” three times in the story. Gaye has come to show Otto his music.
What unfolds in Otto’s office is masterfully depicted by Le Guin. Reading it, even remembering it to write this, feels like experiencing music and dance; it feels like experiencing a swirl of magic.
Otto begins to read Mr. Gaye’s work, a Mass, and is struck by it. Initially he resists an urge to ask questions. Initially he resists the urge to play parts of it on his office piano. But Otto is a man familiar with music, and he cannot help but hear it in his mind as he reads it. He hears the trombones and the chorus and the piano. Even as he assesses Gaye’s economic status based on the worn out condition of his shoes, he hears a tenor singing over the instruments. He finds himself tapping his finger to the music he hears. He erupts with questions and praise. He attempts to play it then has Gaye play it. They play it several times. Otto is staggered by the sheer creative genius.
Then the cold truth of Mr. Gaye’s circumstances enters into the story. He has a sick, bedridden mother. He has a wife. He has three children. He works as a clerk in a factory. He has spends evenings teaching piano in exchange for time in the practice rooms at the school to do his own work. He has spent almost ten years putting together the five unfinished pieces he presented to Otto.
Otto suggests that Mr. Gay shirk his responsibilities so that he might write music more regularly.
Gaye says he could not do that.
Otto attempts to reason with him to write shorter songs to make money.
Gaye said he must write what is inside him.
Gaye is trapped by his social status, by his economic status, by the political climate, and even his family obligations.
And yet, he has his talent. He has his music.
He is a man who, at his core, is a talented artist, a creator. He is a man who, by his practical circumstances, is a poor clerk.
When Gaye leaves, Otto leaves him with practical remarks.
The world is heading into another Great War, what good is music?
Music won’t save people and people don’t seem to want it anymore.
Music does no harm, but it doesn’t do enough good.
We leave the story through the eyes of Gaye, Le Guin takes the reader home with him. He speaks to his children and helps his wife in the house and tries to write music, just as he normally would every evening.
But in his soul he is strong and free because another man recognized and affirmed his genius.
Another man acknowledged that he is a musician.
As he attempts to make progress on his music he reflects on the practical remarks Otto had given him. Here is the closing of the story:
Music will not save us, Otto Egorin had said. Not you, or me, or her, the big golden-voiced woman who had no children and wanted none; not Lehmann who sang the song; not Schubert who had written it and was a hundred years dead. What good is music? None, Gaye thought, and that is the point. To the world and its states and armies and factories and leaders, music says, “You are irrelevant”; and, arrogant and gentle as a god, to the suffering man it says only, “Listen.” For being saved is not the point. Music saves nothing. Merciful, uncaring, it denies and breaks down all the shelters, the houses men build for themselves, that they may see the sky.
A theme in Le Guin’s writing is the idea that something rises above the dreariness and gives hope, gives freedom.
In Earthsea the dragons are neither good nor bad, they simply are. They are above the dealings of man.
In the first Orsinian Tale freedom is found by observing fountains in a park.
Here Gaye finds freedom in music, music is what allows men to see the sky through the drudgery of their lives.
What makes the pain and monotony and annoyances and structures and heartaches of your life irrelevant?
What lets you see the sky?