Tuesday, September 27, 2011


In the organ loft at St. Ignatius Loyola this evening, at an informal talk about and a first performance (by the wonderful Renée Louprette) of composer David Briggs' Diptyque — Mannahatta 1611–2011, Mr. Briggs, responding to a question I had about what had "entranced" him so much about Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City that he was sufficiently inspired to compose a 20-minute organ piece commissioned by Ms. Louprette, referred to a line from John Donne, saying, "Change is the nursery of music."

Mr. Briggs is inspired, he said, by the very fact of change, and, apparently, by the way (the book) Mannahatta presented it.

He also said the book's authors know nothing of his composition, including its grand premiere on Wednesday night.

I was drawn to the book, which I don't even possess, because one of my favorite subways games when I lived in Brooklyn many years ago and took the Q train was to imagine the island as an island. A million New Yorkers must do this. Every now and then I do it when I'm biking back over the George Washington Bridge, look downstream and think of the Hudson with no bridge spanning it and no buildings along its banks.

Who knows what originally led Mr. Briggs to the book. He is a transplanted Brit who (among other things) directed music at Gloucester Cathedral for eight years before moving to New York City, which he left for Massachusetts.

His poetry citation sent me to Google Books, which had the line, and then to my old Norton Anthology, which didn't have it. The line, from the elegy "Change," is "change is the nursery/Of music, joy, life, and eternity."

Above the line, however, is this funny appearance of the Danube:

Though Danuby into the sea must flow,
The sea receives the Rhine, Volga, and Po

No doubt there's a good reason why Donne did this.

Meanwhile there's no Donne in Mr. Briggs' composition—but there is a line from West Side Story. It comes out of the soundscape (with its fog horns and skyscraping file cabinets and parades and honking) in all its Leonard Bernstein-ness.

I had no idea what I'd hear in the organ loft tonight but it's safe to say that "I Have a Love" was nowhere in orbit.

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