Over on the University of Chicago Class of 1991 Facebook page, one of my classmates asked if any of us could remember what essay questions the College asked of us when we were applying (there were several and you got to choose). As it happens, not only do I remember the essay question, I also — perhaps not surprisingly for me — still have the essay that I wrote about it.
The question was, paraphrasing, “Name a piece of art that profoundly affected you and explain why it did.” Below is the essay I wrote. Note: to best provide you an accurate glimpse of my 17-year-old brain, I have resisted copyediting the piece, so it contains all the tense mismatches and other copy/grammar errors present at the time. Also, I’ve appended at performance of the piece of art in question so you can have that as context. Please be aware it is not my high school choral class singing it.
My College Essay:
It is not very difficult for me to pinpoint the one work of art that I feel has affected me the most. It is a composition by Felix Mendelssohn, the title of which I am not entirely sure. The opening lines were “Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt” and I believe that is also the title. While it is easy for me to say which work of art has affected me, it is a little harder for me to explain exactly why.
I have never been conventionally religious. Although I was baptized Lutheran, I have never to my knowledge attended a Lutheran service. As it is, I have not been voluntarily inside of church for the purpose of worship since I have been able to make decisions for myself. This is not to say that I think religion is not a good thing. It is just that because I was never registered in a religious atmosphere at home. I did not feel the need for it in other parts of my life. Actually, I feel this lack of bonding to a religion has been a helpful thing for me. I like to thank that it has allowed me to be more objective in my own personal pursuit of what I feel is the truth. It has also allowed me to enjoy what I’m doing with whomever I’m with, without worrying about repercussions in another world. This may or may not be a good thing.
So when I was presented in my singing class last year with this medicine piece, I really thought nothing of it besides noting that it was in German that it was a piece praising God. And to me it was just another piece of music to sing.
It didn’t remain that way for long.
Why? Two reasons. First singing in German is no small feat. I am presently taking German as a class, and one of the things that has been noted about me in the class is the way I can take an innocent German word, and twist it through my hideous pronunciation into a seething mess of verbal slag. My attempt at singing German was for a time an exercise in language mutilation.
Second, I was, along with the rest of my vocal section, having a bit of trouble hitting some of the high notes in the piece. One of the reasons I found out later was the fact that I was singing tenor when I am actually a bass. I did not know this at the time and was therefore at a loss to explain my inability to hit those notes. It got to a point where my choral director had decided that she would just have a certain few members sing the section that contained all the inaccessible high notes and I was certain I wasn’t going to be one of them.
This annoyed me. Not only because I didn’t like the fact that here was something I couldn’t immediately do, but because that part I that I would be excised from was my favorite part in the whole piece.
I sat down to work. I stretched my voice until I thought my vocal cords would snap. I worked on my pronunciation until I could recognize words intelligently. I sang loudly and even if I couldn’t comprehend the words I was singing or the meanings behind them, the least I could do was make it look like I was having a swell time anyway. I did all of this and it worked. I was allowed to sing the whole piece when we performed our choral concert.
Now, being able to sing this piece at this point meant simply that I had overcome the obstacles that had stopped me before. It wasn’t that I wanted to sing the song because of the song itself, other than I like the tune and I thought it sounded good when the whole choral group sang it together. We had had the words explained to us at one point by our German teacher. I wasn’t terribly impressed. There was one line in the song that translates into “we are sheep in his pasture.” I didn’t usually compare myself with a sheep and when I do I usually come out favorably.
So as a piece of religious and personal expression, I wasn’t interested in it. I must truthfully say, then, that I was surprised when as we sang this piece during our coil program the most wonderful feeling came over me. And I must say it wasn’t just me; when I looked at one point at the rest of the choal group. I remember the thinking that I had never seen a happier group of people. And it wasn’t just happy. It was joyful.
This feeling continued through the piece, climaxing for me at this section with all the high notes. Usually, I worried about hitting those notes, but when I sang them, they were right there, right where they should be, and I didn’t have to strain, or worry or anything. They were there, and I sang them, and everyone sang them with me, and I can honestly say I don’t remember a time when I have felt more content.
In the movie Chariots of Fire there is this scene in which Olympic runner Eric Liddell is talking to his sister in the Scottish Highlands. Eric’s sister is worried about her brother’s ambitions in the Olympics interfering with his plan to go to China and become a missionary.
Eric soothes his sister by telling her that God had made him for a purpose: China. “But He also made me fast,” he says, “and when I run I can feel his pleasure in me. Not to run would be to dishonor him.”
I think that when I sang that song, I felt His or Her or Its pleasure in me. Not in me personally, although I like to think that has something to do with it, but His pleasure going to me, through me, and out of me. The hard part about this is explaining just what that feeling is like, but I have felt it before then, and I realized that I feel it when I am doing those things which are important to me: singing, acting, playing my drums, or writing, and most definitely when I am with my friends and we are laughing and having a good time.
I feel that when I’m doing these things, and I think it is because this is what God, for lack of a better term, wants me to do. The ultimate aim of my life is eventually to make the world better place than it was when I came in, and when I do those things through which I intend to do that, I can feel His pleasure just as I can feel my own.
I’m still not conventionally religious. I do not go to church and I do not pray or ask for guidance. I do worship, however in my own way. The important thing about the Mendelssohn song was that it showed me how.