At random moments of the day, going on many years now, my brain will decide to play the principal theme from the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. This symphony has been hugely popular since its premiere in 1893, and I suspect that a great many people today could, if prompted, hum the theme from the second movement. But I don’t need any prompting, as my brain just plays the theme to suit itself, again and again, at random moments of the day.
And, with the music, I hear the words: My brain sings the words to me. What are the words? Well, that’s my problem: it seems that nobody else has ever heard the words that I hear. In 1922, one William Arms Fisher, a former student of Dvorak’s, adopted the theme of the second movement to accommodate some lyrics that he wrote, thereby producing a faux spiritual that bore the title “Goin’ Home.” It has proved to be popular, particularly at funerals, and many people have committed Fisher’s simple lyrics to memory:
Goin’ home, goin’ home,
I’m a goin’ home,
Quiet-like, some still day,
I’m jes goin’ home,
It’s not far, jes close by…etc., etc.
But the words that my brain sings are different, and I remember them—sixty-five years later—from my seventh-grade music class at Alice Deal Junior High School, in Washington, D.C. Mrs. Murray taught us only two pieces of music that whole semester: Smetana’s “The Moldau” and Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” And here are the words to the Dvorak theme that we were taught, as best I can remember them:
Long ago, long ago
When I was a child,
There were eyes like the skies
That looked on me and smiled:
Then I heard many a word
Soothe with gentle art
All the tears and the fears
Of my childish heart.
Years have gone, years go on
Like the tides that flow,
But my mind, keeps enshrined
D a y s…o f…l o n g…a g o…
I have inquired of many of my seventh-grade classmates at reunions and by emails but no one can recall having learned such lyrics to the theme of the second movement. (In fact, only a few recall even having been exposed to the New World Symphony in the seventh grade; ironically, though, many are familiar with the hymn “Goin’ Home.”) A diligent internet search did not avail. I even contacted a well-known musicologist, who was not able to shed any light on the matter. Where, I ask myself, did I learn these lyrics? And why am I so consumed by them?
I don’t know the answer to the first question; I’m certain I could never have written the words myself. But I’m confident of the answer to the second question: These anonymous lyrics, unlike Fisher’s prosaic verses, are the stuff of poetry; and they blend naturally with Dvorak’s haunting melody, evoking a nearly unbearable nostalgia. For me, the music and the words, which I hear every day, again and again, always bring me back to my seventh-grade music class, those days of long ago which are forever enshrined in my mind. And if only I could go back…then, perhaps, Mrs. Murray would tell me who wrote these lyrics.
By now, however—as I approach my eightieth birthday—I am reconciled to the reality that I might never learn the answer to my question about the authorship of the lyrics. There are just so many questions, and so few answers, and so little time. Yet I’m told that everything comes to those who wait—isn’t that what people say? So maybe I ought to be patient a while longer, and I’ll eventually come by the answer. But while I wait I can still indulge in nostalgia, which has actually proved to be bearable, and even sweet. And that is a good thing, even if it’s not everything.
Elliot Wilner is a retired neurologist, living in Bethesda, MD and enjoying an almost excessively contemplative existence. Responsibilities such as bringing the trash and recyclable containers to the curb every Wednesday help to keep him grounded. He has had a few non-fiction stories published in the past year.
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