Sometimes people can be funny without meaning it; or at least you and I can derive humor from their serious efforts (shame on us). That can be said even of the Bible, specifically parts of Genesis and other places strewn about the OT in which genealogical lists are (slightly) amplified by a short description of a person's accomplishments (usually slaying a lot of enemy combatants) followed quickly by the phrase "...and then he died." If you are reading the list at even a normal speed, after the eighth or ninth repetition, that ultimate phrase can start to seem pretty amusing. It seems to indicate that the author didn't feel like saying any more (see also 1 and 2 Kings: "As for all the other interesting stuff king X did, is it not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel? Then don't bother me about it!") and it also puts into tragicomic perspective the brevity of our lives. Grim realities pile on until, by sheer repetition, you can't help laughing about it.
That phrase strikes a little closer to home this week, though, because, as a church organist, I couldn't help noticing a strange phenomenon a few years ago. It may be nothing, but the way it happened seemed to give it importance.
I happened to notice, a while ago, when reading about the great organist Marcel Dupre, that he died on Pentecost. In the afternoon. Played the service, came home, took a nap, and went to Divine Mass up close.
It wasn't more than a few weeks later that I purchased a recording by another french organist, Pierre Coucherou, who was known for his improvisations, and collaborated with his priest during Lent one year to improvise pieces to accompany scripture readings for the entire book of Matthew. His final improvisation was on Easter Sunday. On Monday night, he died.
Hmmm, I thought. Dupre died on Pentecost in the afternoon. Coucherou died the day after Easter. Is this part of a trend? After all, major church holidays can leave me feeling pretty drained. Maybe if you are old and tired to begin with, or in ill health, that last push can take what you have left. And then a voice whispers, "Christmas is over. You can go now." or "Easter is over. Take a rest. Permanently."
These are only two instances, whether or not I happened to hear about them within weeks of each other. So I thought I'd ask the interwebs if anyone else of note in the organist world had passed within days of a major church holiday. The first thing I found out is that (astonishingly) the internet isn't at all interested. I had to look up the date of Pentecost in 1971 to even confirm that I remembered Dupre's death correctly. All the articles would say was it happened on May 30.
I'd assumed that some ghoulish soul would have compiled such a list already, but I couldn't find it. So I looked up a few famous organists and checked their deaths against the calendar. Widor and Vierne both died in 1937 but not right after a big holiday. (Widor passed during Lent and Vierne waited until summer.) Both revolutionized the idea of composing for the organ. Widor was the first to call pieces for the instrument "symphonies" because of the sheer sound and scope of their conception. Sounds like quite the pioneer, right? But if Widor's death were in the Bible (no time for dallying here), it might read thusly:
"Widor was an organist. He wrote 10 symphonies, one of which is nearly an hour long! He lived to a ripe old age and had many pupils. And then he died."
Or, if you prefer the alternate ending..."as for all the other things Widor did and the compositions he wrote, are they not listed in the organist's guild magazine?" (or Wikipedia)
Charles Tournemire, on the other hand, passed on November 3rd or 4th (we aren't sure for some reason). That happens to be right around All Saints Sunday, so I checked it out. Sunday was on the 5th. Although, being Catholic, he may have already played services for All Saints Day itself (which is always on November 1st) and possibly All Souls Day the following day. I don't know--I don't know the customs in Catholic French Cathedrals well enough, and I haven't done the research. But it does make you wonder a little.
Eugene Gigout was organist at St. Augustine in Paris for 62 years. He died during Advent (how inconsiderate!). He was 81.
Everyone mentioned in this blog was advanced in years except Coucherou, who died of a brain hemorrhage at 59. And, you know, people die when they die. There isn't necessarily any logic to it.
Anyhow, I'm only just past 40. And it's Friday already. Easter was six days ago and I'm still here. So I'm not making celestial reservations. I was pretty tired on Monday but I'm feeling better now. I'm pretty sure I'll pull through. The grim reaper is going to have to wait.
No looking over my shoulder till Pentecost.