Often we encounter glimpses of things which might ordinarily escape our notice. In the 1960's I frequently traveled via the Jersey Central Railroad to Newark from the station at Dunellen on my way to New York City. As you approach the more densely populated areas, one notices a more commercial, urbanized landscape and fewer pockets of picturesque trees. Yet I distinctly remember gazing dreamily northwards from the windows of the eastward-bound train as I prepared for a day in the City.
To Gauge the Map of Tracks, Trees & Hills
As you approach Plainfield, there is a point somewhere in the vicinity of Leland Avenue which affords an expansive view to the north. On one eventful train trip many years ago, I just happened to casually glance in this direction and noticed a spectacular sight which I had never seen before. Just overhead from the dense pocket of trees to the north, in the distance I could discern a beautiful building shining in the early morning sun. It was on the southern side of one of the Watchung Hills, looking like a magnificent palace, a stone castle or royal chateau. As the train crosses Terrill Road, you can still see this building quite clearly, but the image fades as you edge toward Martine Avenue, eventually dropping from sight as you approach Westfield Road. This view lasts only a brief moment on the moving train, then vanishes altogether, not to be seen again until the long homeward-bound journey.
A Vision Upon the Watchung Hills
The beautiful building within sight of the train is known as Mount Saint Mary Academy, an independent school which offers a college preparatory program for young women, 9th through 12th grade. Situated in Watchung, just north of Plainfield along Route 22, the Academy is under the direction of the Sisters of Mercy of the Mid-Atlantic. The first building to house the Academy was erected in 1908, unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1911. The new building (the present structure) was rebuilt in 1912, featuring a prominent bell tower with the inscription "Gratias Agamus Domino Deo Nostro," (We give thanks to God). Whenever I had occasion to travel via the Jersey Central, I would earnestly look northwards to see if I could spot the bell tower and the imposing facade of this magnificent building. On certain days, if the weather was overcast and grey with slight rain or fog, you might totally miss the vision upon the hill and the grounds adjacent to the Academy. If the trees seemed to grow somewhat taller, the view could be completely cut off and suspended from sight. Sometimes you really had to search the horizon or you might miss the occasion in a matter of moments.
Andante pastorale from Symphony No. 3 by Composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)
There is a passage in this remarkable symphony (FS 60, Op. 27 "Sinfonia espansiva," composed in 1910-11) where two soloists enter the second movement and sing wordlessly in the "Ah" vowel, echoing one another and sounding profoundly beautiful together amidst the splendor of the orchestra. These two voices seemingly appear out of nowhere and rise to glorious heights of harmonious expression, drawing the listener in toward one of the most transcendent moments in all of Classical music. I find this music to be thrilling and resplendent in an all-encompassing manner, especially in the version offered by Dacapo with Michael Schonwandt conducting the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. In this performance, Inger Dam-Jensen sings the soprano part and Poul Elming the tenor part, recorded in cooperation with Danmarks Radio. (This recording is also available on Naxos.)
A Brief But Glorious View
The second movement of Nielsen's 3rd Symphony illustrates how a moment of divine music may inspire us in an extraordinary and long-lived manner. It is just a brief interlude in the overall structure of the Symphony, a passage which Nielsen refers to as "the purest idyll." Yet this passage reflects a visionary summit peak, a moment where voices soar wordlessly over the enchantment of the symphony orchestra. It is a reminder of the art of perspective, a vital reflection of looking upward and outward and noticing something we might have previously missed. From the train to a brief vision of the mountainside Academy, from a momentary passage in music, or from the written notes of Carl Nielsen regarding his Symphony, we may each engage "...a certain expansive happiness about being able to participate in the work of life and the day and to see activity and ability manifested on all sides around us."