Last Saturday, I was in Maryland celebrating my grandfather’s 90th birthday, while Alejandro, my Doktorvater, was on the other side of the country lying in a hospital bed. It was one of those days where you become hyperaware of LIFE and how it seems to be in charge, despite our best efforts and possibly, our worst ills. The party for my grandfather had dwindled down, and it was dusk, which is often a wonderful time to see deer, so I stepped outside and took a short walk in the retirement community. I had only gone about 100 feet or so, and I saw this.
I’ve never seen a fox before (in the “wild”), and while I was very excited to check something off on my “wildlife sighting” bucket list, something also tugged at my heart.
Alejandro had many, many stories, and while it should be hard to pick a favorite, for me, it is not. I must have heard the story of Pepita the fox at least fifty or sixty times. Pepita was, as many people know, a fox that came to Alejandro’s mother in need of help, and she looked after it. Alejandro counted it among two pets that he had in his life. What I loved about this story is that it wasn’t just about Pepita—it was about Alejandro’s mother. It was about a little boy learning that his mother was giving and loving. But the best part of the story was when Alejandro would relate how Pepita used to curl up, wrapping her luxurious tail around herself so that all you could see would be her eyes. To explain this, he always demonstrated, raising his forearm in front of his face, fluttering his eyes, masking some of his face, but not his smile.
I remember my very first day of my very first graduate seminar. I was the only musicology student admitted that year, so I was the “newbie.” It was Alejandro’s seminar on motets (largely centered upon origins of and relationships to Flos filius eius—the “flower children” as Alejandro referred to it). I sat there feeling rather overwhelmed and entirely out of my league. And then this.
“Eh….Rebecca…..You speak Latin. Translate this for us.”
He pushed some source across the seminar table at me.
I panicked. I spoke Latin? That was the first I had heard of it. My friend Ben came to the rescue:
“Oh, Alejandro! She doesn’t speak Latin!!”
Alejandro kept looking at me. “Try,” he said. “Try to read it.”
So, I did. I sat there at the mercy/patience of my colleagues, as I worked my way through the passage, counting on every etymological skill I had ever possessed. I don’t think it would be fair to call it a “translation”—but when I got to the end, and tentatively pushed the source back toward Alejandro, he smiled and said “Very good.”
And that was my initiation. That was twenty years ago, and I could write a book about all that transpired between that moment and this past Sunday, when I heard that Alejandro was going to take his last breath. There were the classes—including the seminar in choral music that he developed as a gift to me, he said, to ensure that I had the chance to dig into things other than just “cream puffs.” There were the countless dinners and conversations over a cup of “caffeine”—pronounced with three syllables: ca-fay-EEN. And then there was Cappella Cordina (alongside Musica Antiqua and Polyhymnia).
Alejandro and I fought about Cappella quite a lot—so I was all the more surprised when he made me assistant director. I think he figured it would give me an outlet for my frustration with the singers who were underprepared, talked through rehearsal, etc. I suppose it did, in some way, but it also helped refocus my attention to where it needed to be. Just as a small sample: chant (of various types), Praetorius, Marenzio, Monteverdi, Michael Haydn, Corteccia, Schütz, Ciconia, Ockeghem, Du Fay, Cristobal de Morales…and eventually the title role in a concertized version of Cesti’s Orontea.
Alejandro was the first person to tell me I was musical. Don’t get me wrong—I had a wonderfully nurturing undergrad experience and was supported in every way, but no one had ever stopped a rehearsal (conducted with a pencil, of course), to say, “You know, you are so @$%@# musical!” It had never occurred to me that I was, if I’m honest. I saw music-making as something I could do reasonably well and that I worked hard at. But Alejandro saw in me what some might describe as a “gift”. That moment changed my relationship to music and musicology. I started investing in it for myself. That carried me through the rest of my tumultuous degree program, as well as my unorthodox paths in academia. I think it still does. For Alejandro, it was always about the music—it didn’t matter if it was Machaut or Brahms or Stephen Hartke. Whenever I feel that I am aimless and lost, as I have this week upon learning of Alejandro’s death, I anchor myself in the music, and in learning.
In shared grief, it has been comforting to remember Alejandro, assisted by the wonderful Facebook community set up by Bob Eschbach in his memory. I’ve smiled to see the same stories passed down from generation to generation. We’ve learned of several iterations of the same nicknames across these generations (I was “Porcupine”—see above note regarding Cappella). Alejandro’s legacy is so immense and multidimensional—we are a family of musicians, of scholars, of friends. Maestro, I can only hope that you are among all the musicians and composers you loved so well (and maybe even those you didn’t—I can imagine the conversations!). I move forward, as you would expect me to, remembering that I am indeed “@$%@# musical” and knowing that you, more than almost anyone, showed me what that meant.