It's Saturday night - soon to be Sunday - and it's snowing.
So many have written about the Glee Club and the wonderful times we had with Fenno, singing classics, Yale Songs, spirituals, and his big settings of "Death Be Not Proud" and "Fern Hill," but not many have written about his work at Battell.
I was lucky enough to sing in the Battell Choir under Fenno for my four years at Yale as well, and through it, acquired a taste for picking up a piece, learning it quickly, rehearsing it during the week with typical Fennovian elan, singing it on Sunday, and moving on. He had a fairly reliable cycle of anthems that he would use throughout the year - the first section of Brahms' "Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz" ["Create in me, o God, a clean heart"] for the first Sunday of the year; Schutz' "Erhore mich", a plea for Reformation Sunday; "For unto us a child is born" for the last Sunday before Christmas break, etc. Like Glee Club, it was extremely satisfying but in a totally different way from the fun of Glee Club, and I miss the challenge of that experience as much as I miss the fun of Glee Club.
As winter came on, I recall Fenno would often give us his setting of a poem by a friend of his, Alexander Winston, "A Winter Prayer":
The Lord Came down on a snowy day.
White, O, white He lay.
The trees knelt down
In the fold of his gown
To silently, silently pray.
In spring, the Lord walked all around.
Stirred seed, spread sod o'er leaf and ground.
Fell with the rain and rose again.
Green root, green shoot, oh green he strode.
So kneel I by thy branches in the snow.
Let all my branches down and pray to know
That from each bough so barren now
A shoot of grace, a sprig of faith will grow.
This piece was nowhere near the size of "Fern Hill" or "Death Be Not Proud," but it had many of Fenno's hallmarks - his deeply lyrical atonality, with snowflakes falling seemingly randomly but coming to rest logically at the start in the organ accompaniment, a breathless setting of "white" I can't begin to reconstruct, vibrant fifths on "green he strode", and at the end another deep open fifth in the accompaniment to express hope and faith. It always got to me because it was not big, but it did everything it needed to, a small perfect Fenno watercolor vs. the sweeping impastoed oils the Glee Club sang.
Part of what makes it hard for me to accept that he is gone is the fact we knew Fenno as a man in his prime, who strode green and vibrant (NOT dying as in "Fern Hill") like those fifths, at the heart of our musical experience of Yale. It is hard to think of him as someone Time has finally taken from us - I can't let go of the absurd notion that he should somehow be the open fifth at the heart of Yale, a banked fire eternally ready for us to come back and sing again for him at the next Reunion. I think about the idea of both snow and music as forms of grace (reminded of grace again by "Es ist das Heil" on the 125th tape), and that the chance to make music and attain some kind of grace was always possible with Fenno on the podium. [I'm not much of a believer in a benevolent deity or organized religion - but I always believed in God when I sang.]
I have a young family, and it is difficult to find time for choral music, but now that Fenno is gone, and with it the chance ever again to breathe in and then exhale a little grace under his direction, I feel a new urgency - because of what he showed me is possible, and what my time with Fenno reminds me of - I must find a chorus - soon. And I find that the years of memories - which everyone who has posted has helped to bring back - are now a humming fifth inside me, expressive of the hope that through music, those shoots of grace will grow again.
[If you miss Fenno and don't now have a chorus or choir - find one - I'll bet Fenno would want you to.]
F F Heath Jr. 12-30-1926 to 12-05-2008
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Thank you. Your letters bring us joy.
~Carol, Sarah, Lucy, Peggy, and Terry Heath