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December 9, 2008
This house was made for large parties. The sixty or so people who came the other night fit most comfortably into the three public rooms, with their coats and hats on a clothing rack borrowed from the thrift shop on the landing, halfway up to the second floor. Young people of the parish either cooked in the huge kitchen or served cocktail tidbits from trays: crostini fegatini, crostini alla salsiccia e stracchino, pumpkin soup served hot in little cups, just a sip or two, creamed mushrooms in puff pastry. We never even sliced the expensive prosciutto we bought. This usually happens when I entertain: after everyone has gone home, I find a dish I forgot to serve.

From time to time, I walked through the rooms with a tray of something myself. As always, when I am in a crowd of Italians, I see their ancestors: their animated faces, their strong noses and definite eyebrows, their elegant posture. Dress half the guests in doublet and hose or layered gowns that swept the floor and you'd be back there in the blink of an eye, spirited across centuries to this city at a younger age. For the most part, I think, they are the same people they were then -- enjoyers of art, of music, of good food, of talk, of news. Enjoyers of enjoying.

These were music lovers, some from the parish and some not. They had come to support our newest bright idea, Music at St. James, so that we can offer a season of opera and concerts on our new organ-to-be, and other classical music as well. At least, that's what we hope they will do -- this was a "cultivation event," a party to foster good will from people you hope will help you do something wonderful later on. The first show for Music at St. James will be on Valentine's day: love songs from American composers in la Chiesa Americana, naturally: Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and and Stephen Sondheim. And then La Traviata. Il Barbieri de Seviglia. Two more operas. And I haven't even mentioned the organ yet.

If possible, a good party should have a gimmick. We had a great one: the square piano that has been sitting in the corner of the living room of St. James's rectory for the past century. It is a beautiful thing, gleaming from years and years of careful polishing. Its sound is a sound no one hears today, small and antique -- there was a reason the modern pianoforte supplanted this instrument, with its ability to thunder and then to whisper, its larger keyboard, its sheer musical heft. It can do things this one never could.

But to me, the square piano, modest older cousin of the larger and more expensive fortepiano, represents the democratization of music for the keyboard. Now a rising middle class could hear and play composed keyboard music in its smaller rooms: as it did not require so great an outlay of money, so the square piano also required little in the way of square footage. Ours takes up the space a side table would occupy.

Our maestro sat down at the little keyboard. Dark ebony and real ivory, a tawny yellow with age. He played Mozart's Sonata in C Major first -- I had stumbled tragically through that myself, a few nights before, breaking off in defeat when I realized that the keys themselves were smaller than the ones on my piano at home. And then the Beethoven Appassionata -- written for just such an instrument, he told us, am astonishing thing to hear: how many enormous renditions of this have I heard in my life, on how many superbly engineered CDs, in how many sumptuously-appointed concert halls? Quite a few. This little piano sounded almost like a toy as the music poured out of it. But that's what they heard, those ancestors of ours.

This was the piano Jane Austen played. The one the Duke of Wellington heard, and Abraham Lincoln. This is the one beside which the young girls of the house stood nervously and sang leider in their flutelike voices. Its sound makes me happy and sad at the same time. Where does time go? And music? Into the room, filled with guests, and then out in to the world. Out into the sky, now, thin and smaller, smaller, smaller until nobody can hear it any more. But still it hangs in the air. It never vanishes.

The ancestors are the same, They whisper to us, still, their words hang in the air, still. What has been said will always have been said; we can't take any of it back. But neither can any of it be lost to us.
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