Josna Rege

179. And he laughing said to me

In 1960s, 1970s, Education, Music, Stories, United States, writing on March 11, 2013 at 3:33 pm
William Blake, Frontispiece, Songs of Innocence

William Blake, Frontispiece, Songs of Innocence

There has been only one occasion when I have found myself composing a tune, and it was seemed to descend all of a piece, perfect in every way.

It happened one afternoon in my second year at university, when, alone and at a loose end, I shut myself into one of the music practice rooms in Currier House, just me and a piano in a sterile, sound-proof cell.

I wasn’t studying the piano anymore, having abandoned it after fhree years of lessons in India and a fourth in England, ending with a fizzle after an intermediate-level Royal Schools of Music examination. The fact was, I had never taken flight as a pianist, just plodded along, heavy and uninspired, “doing”  scales and the endlessly replayed pieces one had to prepare and perform for the exam. After all those lessons I wasn’t even competent enough to be entrusted with accompanying the hymn-singing in morning chapel at Mount Hermon. But although I would never be a pianist, I was musical. I loved singing, and thanks to Mrs. Murray, the Principal’s wife, so did the whole school. Every morning, schoolchildren from Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, as well as Christian families opened their lungs to the mountain air and raised their collective voices in song, making a joyful noise that echoes in my ears even today, nearly fifty years later. And we didn’t just sing: we harmonized, reedy descants soaring over smooth altoes, sturdy tenors, and youthful baritones; adjusted the dynamics, now full-throated, now hushed; and alternated lines, first the girls, then the boys in reply.

I may have betaken myself to the practice room that day in search of the youthful spirit I feared I was losing at university (see send my roots rain). At Mount Hermon, a precious side-benefit of learning an instrument was that one got to miss a half-hour of morning or afternoon study to practice, completely alone;  perhaps I just wanted to get away and commune with myself. In any case, I sat desultorily picking out little tunes with one hand, no particular place to go.

I had been reading the Romantic poets, and was taken with William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and his idea of organized innocence. My conception of organized innocence is probably highly idiosyncratic, but I remember it as a state one can consciously choose as an adult, having tasted the bitterness of experience.  The innocence of youth is also a state of ignorance, but if one can come through experience without being poisoned, one may return to a new innocence.

Then it came to me, a tune composed expressly for Blake’s Introduction to Songs of Innocence. It came as the child had come to the poet, as the song had sprung to his lips in the poem, and I found myself singing it out loud, utterly unselfconscious in the sound-proof room, then writing it down without any effort whatsoever. It wasn’t even written for me: it had  a portamento in the second repetition of the last line which I did not have the delicacy of touch to execute; and it was always a little high for for my range, as if designed for a boy with an as-yet-unbroken voice. Someday, I tell myself, I will ask such a boy to sing it for me, and make a recording.

A cherub of song visited me that day, as angels had the young Blake; and at a desolate time when I sorely needed it. I had never composed a tune like this before (or rather, one had never offered itself to me in this way) and have never done so since; but now I know that it is possible.

Piping down the valleys wild,

Piping songs of pleasant glee,

On a cloud I saw a child,

And he laughing said to me:

‘Pipe a song about a lamb!’

So I piped with merry cheer.

‘Piper, pipe that song again.’

So I piped: he wept to hear.

‘Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;

Sing thy songs of happy cheer.’

So I sung the same again,

While he wept with joy to hear.

‘Piper, sit thee down and write

In a book, that all may read.’

So he vanished from my sight,

And I plucked a hollow reed,

And I made a rural pen,

And I stained the water clear,

And I wrote my happy songs

Every child may joy to hear (x3).

—William Blake
Introduction, Songs of Innocence

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. This is the most touching piece you have ever written. But it makes me long to hear the lovely tune you composed. You must remember it.
    I know exactly what those music rooms were like and spent what seemed like years practicing my pieces and scales in them, as ordered.
    But my favourite times were those even rarer afternoons when noone was in the big hall and I was alone with the baby grand. I even remember the sun slanting through the partly opened windows all along the left side of the hall. That piano was far more likely to be in tune and had no sticky keys.
    I even remember the warm sound of the cicadas in the bushes outside those windows
    being so loud that I would wonder if my hearing would be permanently damaged!

    I do believe that hall was the heart of Mount Hermon. There we did our best singing, our best acting on the stage, our best efforts on the piano for the examiner who came all the way from England. There we were enthralled by many exciting USIS movies which arrived if we were lucky, on large round reels in the Principals office a few days earlier.
    And up above the stage we had our most exciting midnight feasts, in the loft. We shared Cadbury chocolate and condensed milk on Marie biscuits, and dalmut. Oh, the delicious tingling fear of being caught by the night watchman with his flashlight. But he never found us crouching up there, stifling our giggles with our blankets. He probably never dreamed anyone would be up there!
    Oh, the memories!!

    • Thank you so much for this beautiful response, dear Marianne. I live for comments like this! You evoke the main assembly hall so beautifully that I could just see you there at the piano, all alone, hear the deafening hum of the cicadas outside, and feel the shafts of sunlight coming in through the tall row of windows. It brought back more memories of my own as well; I remember the hall being cold, and having to warm our hands (with a hot water bottle, was it?) before a piano exam. I also found myself remembering our madrigal group practicing in there: “I sing of a maiden who is makeless;” choir practices, with the boys acting up in the back row; morning chapel, when a favorite hymn could start the whole day off right; night after night of rehearsals for plays and musicals (you as Nancy in Oliver!, giving a heartbreaking rendition of “As long as he needs me”); scary movies on Saturday evenings(Bhoot Bangla, Miss Marple mysteries); a talent night with someone singing the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love”; and, alas, several weeks when I had so many infractions of one rule or another that my name was read out in morning chapel and I had to stand up and be shamed.As for the feasts, you’re making me hungry. I’m breaking out the chocolate right now! Love, J
      P.S. I do remember the tune and will sing it to you next time we talk on the phone.:) J
      P.P.S. See my old story, Hidden Places, in which I reminisce about midnight feasts. x J

  2. Sorry, I was transported back to Mount Hermon, while you were in music cells in Currier

    • No sorries, Marianne–I LOVE your comment! And I did mention the music rooms at MH too, in no small part they were a refuge from study hall for me. I remember one particular occasion when I too got to practice on the baby grad–remind me to tell you about it sometime! I’ll respond to your first comment after work, but just wanted to say how much I loved it. x J

  3. “The innocence of youth is also a state of ignorance, but if one can come through experience without being poisoned, one may return to a new innocence.” I love this line of yours Josna. It encapsulates a profound truth.

    I love Blake’s poetry and art. I had the privilege of going to an exhibition of most of his important work at the National Gallery in London. I was deeply moved by it all.

    That poem is absolutely magnificent. I never fail to read it without finishing and feeling enormously happy. His ” Marriage of Heaven and Hell” has had a profound effect on my life and spirituality. Thank you for a wonderful post.

    • Don, now I come to think of it, I credit this run of posts based on a poem learned in youth to some lovely recent posts of yours, with Walter de la Mare’s “The Traveller” and Herrick’s “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May.” I must confess that not much went in my lackadaisical student’s head when I had the opportunity in college to spend a whole semester studying the Romantics; there’s so much of Blake that was difficult and obscure and went right over my head at the time. I must return to him and try reading “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” properly this time. How fortunate that you were able to go to that exhibition and stand in front of his original work. I was just looking at electronic facsimiles of all the etchings for Songs of Innocence and Experience on the Blake Archive website. Thank you very much for your comment. And you’re right about that song—it does make one feel enormously happy. J

      • Thanks Josna. As you say, Blake can be extremely obscure. I got myself a Blake dictionary which helped tremendously.

  4. Like it…

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