A River Runs through Music Straight to the Heart and Soul

by Mark Miles

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably realized I love both rivers and music. This goes back to my childhood, as do most things that are deeply felt and persistently cherished through life. My dad was the one who introduced me to my love for rivers, which was the logical result of our fishing trips on the weekend and during summer vacation. My mom was the one who introduced me to my love for music, which she cultivated by encouraging me to sing in my church choir and listen to classical music whenever possible. Because my parents divorced when I was seven years old, the two passions to which they exposed me were stunted and never fully developed. So it was left to me to remedy the situation, which I only began to do a few years ago, in my early thirties, when I rediscovered my love of classical music through composing and my love of rivers through hiking.

Since that time, I’ve been enamored with the idea of composing music that embodies the spirit of the river. I’m not the first person to have this idea though. Many classical composers have had the same idea, though they’ve adopted different approaches to fulfill it. I won’t be tackling the entire history of classical music regarding rivers in this article, but I will nonetheless be covering four of my favorite works which embody rivers with beauty and majesty, composed by four men of different nationalities and disparate backgrounds who found common ground in their love for the rivers they knew best.

Richard Wagner is one of the most famous operatic composers of all time, renowned especially for his Ring Cycle, a tetralogy of music-dramas about power, corruption, virtue, destruction, and redemption. It follows the story of the Ring of the Nibelungs, a powerful artifact, crafted from gold stolen from the Rhine River, that confers world domination on anyone who possesses it. In the process it gives the synopsis of a heavily mythologized German history and paints an unforgettable tone-picture of the land surrounding the Rhine River. The Ring Cycle is easily the most ambitious and successful work of Wagner’s career, taking fifteen hours over four days to be performed in total and being the product of extravagant funding by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who nearly bankrupted his country in the process. In short the Ring Cycle is a mammoth in every sense.

Original prints from this blog are now available for purchase on a limited basis for collectors and enthusiasts.

My first serious introduction to the Ring Cycle was through a “Best of Wagner” disc which I bought when I was ten years old. I had a passing familiarity with “The Ride of the Valkyries” from numerous movies and televisions series, but otherwise the Ring Cycle was a foreign country to me. Nevertheless this snippet, “Dawn and Siegfred’s Rhine Journey,” absolutely enraptured me. In it, the hero Siegfried bids farewell to his beloved Brünnhilde and sets sail down the Rhine River to make a name for himself in the wider world, thereby forgetting his beloved and assuring his own destruction. It’s intoxicating stuff, and though I didn’t know the story behind it when I heard it for the first time, I nonetheless knew in that moment that I loved classical music.

“The Moldau” is easily one of the most iconic works of classical music dealing with the tone-painting of a river. It comes from a larger body of work, My Fatherland, by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, and it paints a sonic picture of the Moldau River over its course from the Black Mountain in the Bohemian Forest to its confluence with the Elbe River in Melnik, Czech Republic. The music is thoroughly evocative, conjuring the play of water, land, wildlife, and humanity through its length. From this work I learned that pride in one’s country can enrich the sense of devotion to the land when effectively applied.

Franz Schubert was renowned in his own time for his composition of chamber works that frequently found their way into pubs and drinking halls. This was no different with his song “The Trout,” which he later incorporated into a string quintet by the same name. The work sparkles with the freshness of a clear mountain stream — which may have inspired the setting for the piece — even two centuries after its inception, and it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see in your mind’s eye both the trout and the river of which the trout is a part. The mellifluous vivacity at the heart of this piece confirms that — while many tone-paintings regarding rivers can be melancholy — there’s also plenty of room for sunshine.

“The Swan of Tuonela,” on the other hand, is the song of melancholy incarnate. Telling the story of a mythical swan who patrols the Tuonela River surrounding the Finnish Isle of the Dead, it evokes the longing, sadness, and tenderness of a being who’s seen it all, being witness to every soul that passes from the Land of the Living to the Isle of the Dead. Though the piece is ostensibly about a swan, the river is palpable in the supple string textures that provide the background to the voice of the swan. The composer Jean Sibelius is more widely known for his work, “Finlandia,” which was used as a rallying cry for Finnish independence from the Russian Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, but “The Swan of Tuonela” is the gem in the crown that cements the surpassing excellence of Sibelius’s musical legacy.

At the end of the day, however, all of this music is just music unless we, as listeners and creators, take the next step by allowing the music to move us to get to know the rivers where we live. In my case, the river that I’ve been drawn to get to know is the Eno River, which flows through the town of Hillsborough, North Carolina, very near where I live. The Eno has a spirit and a voice too, just like the Moldau, the Rhine, and the Tuonela, and in my composition I aspire to one day be able to capture it and share it with you.

If you love the land where you live, I urge you as well to find some way to honor the river (or lake or watershed) that flows through your town and gives life to you and many others, whether through photography, painting, sculpture, composition, writing, or some other creative outlet. While it may not seem to be much, it will deepen your own appreciation for the true essentials in life and will give others a model of how to establish a relationship with the river that flows through their own backyard. After all, every river gives us so much; it’s time for us to give back.

Image Credits:

1. The River of Life (William Blake, circa 1805)

2. The Eno Shines in May (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

Der Ring Des Nibelungen,” Wikipedia, accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Farrington, Iain, “Richard Wagner: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Ferrebee, Wayne, “The Swan of Tuonela,” Ferrebeekeeper, accessed June 3rd, 2017.

Götterdämmerung,” Wikipedia, accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Vltava,” Wikipedia, accessed June 3rd, 2017.

Online Love and Betrayal at Valentine’s Day

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by Mark Miles

A year ago around Valentine’s Day I had the worst breakup of my life. There was a period of time in the months following when I wasn’t sure if I would survive. I’ve encountered depression after traumatic occurrences in my life, but this was something else. It felt as if a piece of my soul had been stolen, as if someone had taken from me the ability to breathe, as if I had lost the one person in my life who understood and cared for me better than anyone else. The feeling is best captured by the song above, which I recorded not long ago.

When Bobby Rolando and I started dating, I never imagined in a million years what lay in store. We became acquainted through Instagram in January of 2015, and I was tentative about getting involved with him on that basis. As much as I use social media, I fully recognize that there are very concrete limits to the fulfillment it can provide and the opportunities it can offer. I’ve seen firsthand how friends of mine have been lured into online relationships with people who claim to be one thing and turn out to be another, and I wasn’t keen on the idea of the same thing happening to me. So I kept him in the friend-zone for several months.

Despite our distance from one another — Bobby lives in northern New Jersey and and I live in central North Carolina — we nonetheless had many common interests on which to base our virtual friendship. I love photography, and so does he. I love hiking, and so does he. I love classical music, and so does he. I love animals, and so does he. I love running, and so does he. I love baking, and so does he. We had so much in common that I secretly began to wonder if Bobby wasn’t simply agreeing with everything I liked in order to ingratiate himself to me and make his way out of the friend-zone. To this day I’m not entirely sure how much of what he said was true and how much was a lie.

In any case, he had the pictures on his Instagram account to prove that he was indeed interested in photography and hiking, and I became acquainted with some of the places he enjoyed hiking through his photography. I began to feel as if the forests, hills, and mountains of northern New Jersey were in my own backyard. And with that sense of shared landscape, it was much easier for me to think of Bobby as a kindred spirit, as someone who cared about the same things I did and would respect me because of that. Little did I know at the time.

So we continued to get to know each other through an entirely virtual forum, never meeting in person, never establishing the physical existence of the other person, never getting to look each other in the eye without a screen coming between us. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea, but slowly I was starting to consider Bobby a good friend, perhaps even a better friend than people I’ve known in real life for much longer. It was a curious and irrational phenomenon, but it was inescapable at the time.

After we’d known each other for six months on Instagram, Bobby finally started to make his move. I’d previously gotten the impression that he wasn’t entirely heterosexual, but it was only a feeling. There was no way I could substantiate it. Then, out of the blue one day for no apparent reason, he asked me if I was “into guys.” I explained that I was, and that was when he really started to turn up the heat.

For a few months after that, we dated. It was never official: he never asked me to date and I never agreed to it. But there was an unspoken understanding between us. We started to talk on another app called Kik — which is primarily text-based and allows for better conversation — and before long we were spilling the beans about everything. I told him about the guy who’d cheated on me in my previous relationship; he told me about the girl who’d cheated on him. I told him about the time I was assaulted in a parking lot; he told me about the time he was assaulted by a roomful of frat guys. I told him that I wanted to be in a loving and committed relationship; he told me that he wanted to be with me “longer than either of us would live.” I still remember those words to this day, if only because no one other than Bobby Rolando has ever said them to me in my entire life. He was the first person to say them, and I have a feeling he’ll also be the last.

So we kept getting closer and closer without ever meeting. I can’t say definitively when we went from dating to a relationship, because once again nothing between us was ever official. Bobby never asked me to be “the one,” and I never agreed to be “the one.” But at some point around September or October of 2015, we became monogamous. He stopped talking to other guys, and I started incorporating him into my fantasy life. We started talking almost every day, and frequently we had conversations that would extend for an hour or more. It felt like something out of a fairy tale, but that was only because I didn’t yet know the ending.

In December I finally blurted out the big question: “When are we going to finally meet?” There was no definite answer from Bobby, and I probably should’ve taken this for a warning sign, but I didn’t because I believed his lies with the naive innocence of a child. As ridiculous as it sounds, I was beginning to think he was the love of my life. I’m not prone to flights of fancy, and I’ve only felt similarly for a handful of people in my three decades on this planet. But I felt it for him, and I felt it was time for us to make the big step from an online relationship to a real-world relationship. By this point we’d known each other for a full year, and it only seemed natural.

Then, in January of 2016, out of the blue and for no apparent reason, Bobby disappeared. He stopped responding to my texts; he stopped responding to my snaps; he stopped responding to my comments on Instagram. This was utterly shocking to me because there’d been nothing to precipitate such a radical shift. We’d been getting along just fine; we’d still been having great conversations; we’d still been planning to meet. I was paralyzed and heartbroken for weeks. I didn’t know what to do. Then, over a period of weeks, a plan materialized.

On Valentine’s Day of of 2016, I put up a post on my Instagram account telling the story of how we fell in love. I tagged Bobby in the photo and mentioned him by name to ensure that he would know I meant it for him. I thought he’d be happy about my display of affection, that he’d come back to me with open arms, that he’d tell me that all he’d wanted from me was a definite sign of my love, and that now we could be in a real relationship. It’s embarrassing to admit in hindsight how deluded I was at the time, but I believed him when he told me he wanted to be with me “longer than either of us would live.” And if he’d been telling the truth, how could that have changed after a mere month? I couldn’t accept the possibility that he was a lying and deceitful scumbag, and so I acted on my gut.

The answer I got left me dumbstruck. Bobby’s words were, “You’re hurting me more than you know. If you love me, let me go.” It was as if he’d stolen prepackaged lyrics from a Katy Perry song and then dumbed them down for a preteen audience. Not only were the words insulting to the English language; they simply didn’t make any sense at all. How could I be hurting him when all I was trying to do was reciprocate the feelings he’d expressed for me on more occasions than I could count? And beyond that, how did my honest and gentle words come to deserve a warning from Instagram that my post had “endangered” another user and that it had to be removed as a result? None of it made any sense, and I was getting desperate.

So I took an unplanned step. I sent a group message on Instagram to a number of Bobby’s friends and family members explaining to them everything that had happened and asking for an explanation for his increasingly erratic and nonsensical behavior. In response to my honest and gentle words, I received numerous allegations that I was a “fake,” a “stalker,” and “spam.” I didn’t know what to do. I’d given these friends and family of Bobby mere words to prove our relationship, but that obviously wasn’t enough. I had to give more. So I gave what I had: a picture of Bobby in a position of partial nudity, in which he told me how much he wanted me and how perfect I was in every way. It was a sudden decision and one that I didn’t have time to think out. All I knew at that moment was that I had one chance to prove my case and that I had to do it fast. If the group decided informally that I was a fake, they would’ve ignored me and destroyed my one chance to get an answer from Bobby.

Finally Bobby started to talk. He was seriously angry now, and he called me (for the very first time coincidentally) to give me a piece of his mind. I was more terrified and relieved than words could say. I was terrified that he would say he never loved me, but I was relieved he was at least talking to me. We spoke on the phone for fifteen minutes, and in that time he broke down in tears and explained what he was dealing with. He explained that he lived in an extremely religious family who would never accept the prospect of his being in a relationship with a man. He explained that he’d seen his cousin Henry effectively kept under house-arrest by his own family after it became known that Henry had been in a sexual relationship with a man. He explained that he was terrified of what would happen. And most importantly he told me that he loved me.

Whether or not Bobby was telling the truth about any of this is anyone’s guess. After this brief conversation, he and I got back together briefly on the condition that I delete the message that I sent to his friends and family. This I did without delay. For three days, I was happy. Then all hell broke loose again. It turned out that his sister Jess had seen the message that I sent, and she confronted Bobby about it. He decided at that point to tell his family about our relationship, revealing for the first time to his extremely homophobic relatives that he was not in fact perfectly heterosexual.

A day or two later, he texted me to tell me that we couldn’t be together. I asked for some explanation, some rationale for his erratic behavior, but all I got from Bobby was a static monophonic line: “This is my choice, nobody forced me to make it.” It was like he was a robot repeating a mechanically predetermined dictum. There was no thought, no feeling, no conviction in it whatsoever. And so I asked him to call me the following day.

The following day arrived, and Bobby called. I asked once again why he was breaking it off with me, and he finally spilled the beans. His family had been considering legal action against me, for what reason I had no clue. I was utterly shocked and flabbergasted. How could the act of explaining a relationship — which did include sexual elements but was not in any way pornographic on my part — constitute grounds for legal action? How could love be a prosecutable offense? I had no answer, and he gave none that made any sense. The conversation ended, and that was the last time we spoke on the phone to each other.

Over the following days, a series of threats and counterthreats passed between us that I still can’t explain or make sense of. We both became incredibly angry with each other, and it reached a point where I began to fear for my safety. Ironically, though, I wasn’t the one to tell Bobby never to speak to me again. No, on the contrary, Bobby was the one. He told me never to speak to him again, and I was crushed. After the conversation, I broke down in sobs. I was utterly heartbroken, and to be honest I still am.

Since that day at the end of February, 2016, I haven’t heard a word from Bobby Rolando, though he does still maintain his Facebook profile. He hasn’t asked me how I’m doing or if I’m okay or if we can be friends or if there’s anything he can do to make it up to me for all the needless pain and suffering he caused. He’s taken the easy way out; he’s done what his family wanted; he’s destroyed the love we shared, the equivalent of which he’ll probably never find for the remainder of his life.

In the aftermath of this experience, I’ve found consolation in some unlikely places. One of these was the song which I played at the very beginning of this article. It’s from the pen of a thirteenth-century female troubadour whose title was the Comtessa de Dia, or the Countess of Dia. She wrote her song about the man she loved, a man who abandoned and betrayed her after she had been true and loyal. Even though she died nearly a millennium before I was born and lived thousands of miles from my home, I still feel a resonance in her music that validates my own experience of love and betrayal.

Another source of consolation has been the relationship I’ve developed with the land around Occoneechee Mountain, where I frequently hike. I often think of Bobby when I go there because of our shared interest in hiking and because I wanted to take him hiking there for our first date. Something about the steep and craggy surfaces that predominate throughout the park reminds of the steep and craggy trajectory of the love that unfolded between us.

The final source of consolation that I found was less unlikely but still noteworthy. It was William Shakespeare. When I saw and heard the following sonnet in the Ang Lee movie “Sense and Sensibility,” I knew immediately that I had to adopt it for my personal anthem regarding love.

Sonnet 116:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no! It is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken.

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error, and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

Image Credits:

1. Stream Along the McAvoy Trail in Ramapo Mountain State Forest (Famartin via Wikiwand, Date N/A)

2. A Tentative Proposition (Mark Miles, 2016)

3. Cracks Emerge Between Us (Mark Miles, 2016)

4. Forest of Memories (Mark Miles, 2016)

References:

Cheyette, Fredric L. Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours. Ithaca, NY, USA: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Lee, Ang. Sense and Sensibility. Based on the novel by Jane Austen. Culver City, CA, USA: Columbia Pictures, 1995.

Shakespeare, William. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York, NY, USA: MetroBooks (an imprint of Friedman/Fairfax Publishers), 1994.