More evident than in many symphonies, Rachmaninoff’s first has a single theme that weaves together its four movements. That theme is taken from a melody deeply embedded in Rachmaninoff’s soul, a part of the Dies Irae plainchant he heard hundreds of times while attending worship services. That theme also found its way into several other compositions but nowhere else as clearly stated as in the First Symphony.
Here’s the part of the story I love. Toward the end of his life, Rachmaninoff composed his last work, his Symphonic Dances. At the end of the first movement, he wove that Dies Irae theme in as a musical exclamation point. He believed his statement of the theme had been lost for all time, because his score for the First Symphony had been left behind in Russia. He assumed the government had destroyed it and that no one would ever hear the symphony again. But being unable to bear the loss of the theme that had captured his heart, he planted it at the end of the first movement of his last composition. While the statements of the theme in the First Symphony came out loudly and march-like, in his Symphonic Dances, he orchestrated it to flow slowly and luxuriously — almost as a way of wistfully saying good-bye to it. In his own hand, he penned the word alleluia at that point in the manuscript. It was his life’s song, and he didn’t want it silenced.
Am I stretching things too far to imagine that some of us have a life-song to sing or a life-message to proclaim? To be sure, all Christians are called to be a witness to the gospel, “to make the most of every opportunity” (Col. 4:5) to tell others about the Savior. But might there be specific subsets of that core message that have our individual names written on them? I believe some people have God’s call upon their lives to return again and again to a particular message. I know scientists who can’t help but talk about the Creator’s design in the universe. I’ve met artists who attest to the physical beauty of that same creation. I’ve met Christians who regularly return to the topic of community as a reflection of the three-personal God who hard-wired us for connection.
C.S. Lewis couldn’t stop talking about joy and how multiple disappointments no longer let him down. He realized they were only signposts, pointers “to something other and outer.” I love the sentence Lewis tacked on to the very end of his story of his conversion, Surprised by Joy. After saying we no longer need to stop and stare at those signposts that point us to God, he added, “Not that I don’t often catch myself stopping to stare at roadside objects of even less importance.”11
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