Toward the Unknown Region
There was a mountain of post that could wait: it would be all bills and junk mail. We just needed to get the girls to bed, and hopefully their room would be clear. But one envelope caught my eye. Hand-delivered with just my name on the front. Bad news. I knew it was going to be the one thing that remained in the back of my mind throughout the two weeks holiday. Ian hadn’t made it. I opened the envelope and read. And there it was, the inevitable and most shocking.
“It’s from Steve,” I said. “They operated on Ian last week and he never recovered.” He did put his arm round me “I’m sorry,” he said. A rare moment of tenderness. “The funeral’s in Southampton on Wednesday. I’d like to go. ” And then the moment vanished, not even any traces of it left in the dust. I managed to find a spot to sit down among the dust-covered, piled-up furniture and downed a large gin.
Then four days later the funeral. Richard drove the car, Steve sat quietly in the front, Carol, Sally & I in the back. Sally wore the hat that made Ian laugh. It was one of those gloriously sunny days that add to the sense of disorientation at times of extreme sorrow. And somehow the random play on the CD player, guided by forces unknown, kept returning to James Taylor singing the line “And the sun shines on this funeral, the same as on a birth”. We sang along instinctively, Sally and Carol holding hands, heads close together.
At the church Ian’s father, remarkable and smiling, greeted everyone and made sure they found a seat, arranged that Jane was welcomed within the family and was mentioned in the prayers as “Ian’s special friend”. We cried on the front row and tried to sing and couldn’t imagine he was really there in that shiny box with the flowers on top. And somehow I managed to find my voice because Ian loved music and I wanted to sing well for him. George was distraught, said he felt worse than at his mother’s funeral, and Sue remarked “wasn’t that a jolly good sing!” Then we went to the pub and drank to Ian, and talked about him and laughed, and all tried on Sally’s hat, and had our photos taken with it on. And still it didn’t seem real.
And so here we are, three months later, to perform the concert he had planned. The challenges he set for himself and us have bravely been taken on by someone else. All difficult pieces in many ways, but the most challenging to me is this one. Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Beautifully written, technically difficult, and so emotionally demanding. I haven’t been able to listen to a recording of it without crying. The poignancy of Ian having chosen this for us to sing and for him not to live to conduct us in it has just added to the heartfelt force of the music.
The tower room door opens and our new conductor and the orchestra leader walk down the aisle towards us. We lead the applause, they acknowledge the audience and take their positions. Now the orchestra begins, softly. Someone coughs. I start to count the bars, feel the apprehension described by the piano and strings, take a breath (two bars to go), hold it, hear the first note in my head, feel the consonant ahead of the beat, now we are there. Darest thou now O soul in hushed tones swells out into the next phrase. Walk out with me toward the unknown region. We all know the first few lines by heart, so I can look clearly out into the audience and only need a glance at my music. I remember the instructions: “you know it all – you don’t need your books, make eye-contact with the audience, communicate with them”. They are silent out there, watching us, the orchestra and Mark conducting. Ian’s father is seated at the back, on his own, eyes closed, concentrating on the music. Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow. Still the orchestra arouses sensations of unease. I am now immersed in the music, all sense of myself fading into the atmosphere. Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand. Ian’s father is now leaning forward, his face resting in his hands. Is he overcome by emotions uncovered by the music, or is he just concentrating on listening?
And as my eyes scan the back of the church I see him. There, beneath the gallery, by the tower room doors is Ian. He is walking across the back of the church. Can he hear us? It is definitely him, his dark tousled hair, the way he’s walking, the concentration on his face. He’s wearing his suit & bow tie, under his parka as if he has arrived ready to conduct. I know it not O soul. Am I imagining this? It must be the intensity of the music, and yet I feel no surprise: he should be here, he was supposed to be here.
Till when the ties loosen, all but the ties eternal. He would usually have been guiding us through this, there would have been eye contact with him. We would have known instinctively what he wanted; we would have felt his passion for the music. Yet he has no communication with us any more. He is just here, part of the music, doesn’t seem to see us, and may not even be listening. The music intensifies, and still he calmly wanders around at the back of the church.
Then we burst forth, we float, in time and space O soul. And the music takes over, building towards its climax. I can feel the sound in my head now, everyone around me, we are all part of the crescendo, the intensity. The strings playing faster and louder, until the resolution. Them to fulfil, Them to fulfil, O soul like a hymn tune. Them to fulfil, O soul! The last high note, at the peak of volume rings round the church. The piano and strings reach the conclusion. Silence. Applause. And he has gone.
Darest thou now 0 soul,
Walk out with me toward the unknown region,
Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?
No map there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.
I know it not 0 soul,
Nor dost thou, all is a blank before us,
All waits undreamed of in that region, that inaccessible land.
Till when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, time and space,
Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bounding us.
Then we burst forth, we float,
In time and space 0 soul, prepared for them,
Equal, equipt at last, (0 joy! 0 fruit of all!) them to fulfil 0 soul.
(From ‘Whispers of Heavenly Death’)