The soundtrack to this column is Spiegel im Spiegel by the composer Arvo Pärt. I first heard it in the weeks after 9/11, when it accompanied a silent film of the bewildered faces, the fear and the grief, the craters left by the hulls of the two Titanics that fell to earth on that clear September day. The music, a lone piano and violin, had the introspective simplicity of a Quaker prayer.
I’d always wondered what the music was, and this morning, it was featured on Radio 4’s Soul Music, where people talk about a piece of music that’s affected their lives. A woman told how her daughter had persuaded her to listen to the piece the day before she died in the Omagh bombing. Another mother described her daughter playing the piece in the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, a daughter born with cerebral palsy who could neither walk or speak.
By then, I was almost willing the words to stop and for the music to take over, when a voice said: ‘My name is Mary Husted, and I’m a visual artist.’ She revealed that Spiegel im Spiegel had inspired the art that led to a creation that had reunited her with the son she had given up when he was 10 days old and she was 18, in the era when an illegitimate baby brought shame on a family.
Afterwards, I managed to down-load Tamsin Little’s version from iTunes. I then searched for the composer. I felt foolish when I read that Mr Pärt is one of our most prominent living composers of sacred music. But perhaps it was fitting that I discovered him in a week when I’d been revisiting the writing that has stayed with me throughout the turbulent decade that began on that September day 10 years ago.
Mr Pärt was born in Estonia on September 11, 1935. Five years later, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union. The composer’s early works were banned by Soviet censors and he went through long periods of contemplative silence, years in which he lost the musical faith and will to write a single note, but he survived with his talent and his courage intact. When the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006, the composer dedicated all his works performed in the following year to her, declaring that she ‘staked her entire talent, energy and-in the end-her life on saving people who had become victims of the abuses prevailing in Russia’.
Spiegel im Spiegel is music for contemplation. Last night, I read again Auden’s poem written in New York called September 1, 1939. In the days after 9/11, it was quoted endlessly to express grief over what had happened, foreboding about what was to come. The poet was like a prophet ‘the unmentionable odour of death/Offends the September night’, ‘blind skyscrapers use/Their full height to proclaim/The strength of Collective Man’, our civilisation is ever fragile: ‘Defenceless under the night/Our world in stupor lies.’
I then re-read the last four essays by the late Stephen Jay Gould, in his collection I Have Landed. September 11 was the 100th anniversary of the arrival from Hungary of the scientist’s grandfather, who, aged 13, wrote on the title page of his English grammar: ‘I have landed. Sept. 11th 1901. Property of Joseph Rosenberg, New York.’ Gould, who lived a mile from the Twin Towers, had planned to go to Ellis Island on September 11.
The evolutionary biologist felt it was his duty to add those last essays ‘on the theme of tough hope and steadfast human nature’ to an already completed book. As a scientist, his life’s work had led him to conclude ‘in the overwhelm-ing predominance of simple decency and goodness, a central aspect of our being as a species, yet so easily obscured by the efficacy of rare act of spectacularly destructive evil’. On this anniversary of an epochal tragedy, I’m grateful to Arvo Pärt, Auden and Stephen Jay Gould, grateful for a little patch of human hope and transcendence.
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