Monday, September 26, 1972. . . . Stanley was the name of my grandmother’s husband (my grandfather) who died in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. My grandmother had emigrated in 1910 from Poland to the United States at age eighteen and had no contact with her family again. She had no relatives in the United States. She spoke broken English when I knew her in old age and my father used to ask rhetorically, “how can a person live in a country for fifty years and never learn the language?” My grandmother’s husband, a coal miner, who brought her to West Virginia, died when she was twenty-six, leaving her in poverty with two young children in the years before social welfare programs. Stanley, though originally from Poland, had lived for a time in the States. He had returned to Poland, perhaps to find a wife. Did my grandmother become a willing victim of Stanley’s possible romanticization of America due to loneliness, inexperience, idealistic naiveté, or perhaps resentment of a strict upbringing? All my grandmother’s tribulations in the U.S. appeared to begin with Stanley’s death, upon whom she had apparently been dependent. What must the sleepless nights of such a person be like? What occupied her thoughts? Did she have nostalgic feelings for her homeland? Did she ever wish to return? Did she ever think, “How am I going to get back home?”
Wednesday, July 13, 1977. I was 23 years old. In later years I carried with me the memory that on this evening PBS-TV broadcast a performance of Franz Liszt’s A Faust Symphony (with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony), based on a well-known story about an alchemist, a medieval chemist who seeks to achieve the transmutation of base metals into gold: in Goethe’s version that inspired Liszt, really an allegory of the various transformational processes working in the human soul. I was enthralled by the 75-minute piece, which I had never heard before. Days later I purchased a recording of the symphony.
In Goethe’s reworking of the story, Faust becomes a dissatisfied intellectual who yearns for “more than earthly meat and drink” in his life. The first movement of Liszt’s symphonic work is a character study of Faust, while the second movement is a character study of Gretchen: a simple, innocent, and pious maiden who becomes a willing victim of Faust’s seduction due to loneliness, inexperience, resentment of her mother’s strictness, and an idealistic naiveté that leads her to assume that Faust’s love will be as permanent and unselfish as her own.
I remembered the date because it was the evening of the 1977 New York City blackout. All of New York City went dark that night and the rest of the next day. I recently Googled a query and came up with a television listing in a San Antonio newspaper that confirmed my recollection.
In late September 1982 I attended a Philadelphia Orchestra concert that featured A Faust Symphony, conducted by Ricardo Muti. I was so taken in with the piece that I went to see a second performance days later.