Memento homo, quod cinis es, et in cinerem reverteris

One of my year-end tasks recently has been to compile a list for Polyphonic of those in our field who have gone on to that great orchestra in the sky where waltzes are banned, violinists never use too much bow, brass players don’t blast, and the music director doesn’t think it’s all about her.

This year the task seemed a little more melancholy than usual. Of the 45 on the list, four were people I knew and liked and another was someone in our chorus who no doubt I passed many times backstage. About half of the list were people over the age of 65, which seemed like a low proportion, given what I know of mortality tables. But only 5 deaths were of people under the age of 50. Sadly, three of those were suicides and one was a homicide. Three seems like a high figure to me, given the US suicide rate of roughly 1 per every 1,000 population. But it’s likely more a statistical artifact than a trend. Having two homicides amongst the 45 is truly shocking, but given that the US homicide rate is a fraction of the suicide rate, has to be an anomaly.

On the other hand, many on the list had led long and productive lives and had outlived the mortality tables by making it into their 80s and 90s (and, in 2 cases, 100s). And, as a vivid example to me of what a small world this is, there was only one people on the list who I could be sure didn’t know someone I also knew. Two degrees of separation from so many people of different ages and locations is a remarkable testimonial of how intimate our field really is.

Here’s a link to a William Byrd motet on the text of the title, which is better known in its English translation. Likely because of not having written anything for orchestra (as there really weren’t any orchestras in the 16th century) Byrd is outside of many orchestra musicians’ experience, which is unfortunate. For me he’s one of the Top Five. This motet is a good illustration of what makes his music so special.


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