Saturday was my 24th birthday - and I began it in one of the strangest ways I've ever begun a birthday: by singing with my church's choir at the memorial service of James Patrick Adams, a college student who died in a car accident on Feb. 28.
I use the term "strange" instead of "depressing" because that's how I felt during the service: strange. Strange because I was surrounded by grieving and sniffling churchgoers, but was unable to feel a thing because I didn't even know the guy. Strange because he was a student at Carleton College, the "rival" college of my alma mater (St. Olaf College). Strange because the accident happened on a road my St. Olaf friends drive on often. Strange because Adams was a few months younger than my brother, and was about to turn 21 on March 17. Strange because he sounded like a guy I honestly would have liked, full of joy and passion for everything in life, from the colors of a sunset to the comraderie of an ultimate frisbee tournament (which was where he and 4 others were driving to when the accident occurred). The combination of these factors wracked my mind with such a whirlwind of thoughts that I had no room for sadness.
While all those things were strange in a general sense, the strangest musical part of the service was when my choir sang "Going Home", a religious adaptation of Dvořák's New World Symphony. My question is, why the New World Symphony?
Nevertheless, I can't help but notice an ostensible connection between the New World Symphony and Death. "Going Home" surely must have been played at countless other memorial services and/or funerals. And it isn't just the church hymn that bothers me; the New World Symphony seems to have funereal significance elsewhere in the media. Case in point: Gisaburō Sugii's 1985 Japanese animated film, Night on the Galactic Railroad. [CAUTION: Spoilers in the next paragraph.]
When my choir was singing "Going Home" on Saturday, I couldn't help but recall that scene from near the end of Night on the Galactic Railroad, in which the train stops at a station and the characters hear Dvořák's New World Symphony playing (see Youtube clip below). Of course, if you've seen the movie, you know that almost everyone on the train is dead, and the train is heading toward Heaven/the Afterlife/Some Equivalent Thereof. If the New World Symphony's presence in the movie isn't in some way connected with Death, I'd like to hear any arguments to the contrary.
But, despite its heavy association with Death, the New World Symphony doesn't always mean Death. After all, that's not what Dvořák had in mind when he wrote it. According to the wikipedia article, Dvořák actually composed his symphony to reflect the spirit of African-American spirituals and Native American music, as well as capture the feelings he experienced when seeing America's "wide open spaces."
Furthermore, my first memories of the New World Symphony aren't associated with Death; they're associated with my dad's university history classes. Having sat in on more than one of his classes when I was living at home, I know that he always starts them with a piece of iconic music (related to the lecture, that is). One of his regular favorites to use when beginning and ending his "History of the U.S." course is the New World Symphony. For him, the symphony isn't about Death at all - it symbolizes a new introduction; adventure; exploration; discovery. It is emotionally stimulating and (if you're an enterprising young academic) intellectually invigorating, a call to journey across more of our world rather than a call to leave it behind.
So you see, Dvořák's New World Symphony can be just as joyous and fulfilling as it can be sad and gloomy. While it was a perfectly good farewell tribute for James Adams, it is also a good incentive for people to learn about America's history and music (or the wide world in general). Make no mistake: it has equal value on both accounts. Personally, I'm going to keep enjoying it as a symphony of exploration rather than a symphony that makes you sad. But if I'm ever called upon to sing "Going Home" for another memorial, I won't forget that the symphony's mournfulness is just as important as its brightness.
Till next time,
P.S. If you're interested in watching the complete Night on the Galactic Railroad, you can check out the subtitled version here. (I strongly urge you to do so; it is a beautifully animated film, albeit a bit slow-paced.)