Friday, March 12, 2010

A Wittenberg Moment: Looking Back and Moving Ahead

Every few years the Wittenberg University Choir passes through town as part of a tour through the northeastern United States. Andrea and I saw them perform this past Saturday night at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. For those who have never seen or heard the Wittenberg Choir, they are world class, as good as any university choir you are likely to see, on a par with St. Olaf and Concordia and many of the other great college choirs.

I have seen the Wittenberg Choir perform several times over the years, and every time I leave feeling blessed, spiritually uplifted and culturally enriched. The collective sounds of these young people’s voices are beautiful, a mosaic of harmony and acoustic perfection. And while they always sound glorious, on Saturday they were really quite spectacular.

The music on this night was mostly religious and traditional, with classical and spiritual overtones. They performed three songs – Ubi Caritas, O magnum Mysterium, and Sanctus – in Latin, singing Still wie die Nacht in German, and Bogoroditse Devo in Russian. During their performance of When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (arranged by Gilbert Martin), I turned and noticed Andrea overcome with emotion, struck by the beauty and power of the moment. At the end of the concert, the choir enclosed the audience in a large circle and sang The Benediction by Knut Nystedt. Although each choir member stood alone, together they formed an elaborate sound of quadraphonic wholeness. Earlier that evening, in Calling My Children Home (arranged by Joseph Jennings), they sang the words with such deep feeling it could not help but penetrate one's heart:
Those lives were mine to love and cherish, To guard and guide along life’s way./O God, forbid that one should perish, That one alas should go astray./Back in the years with all together, Around the place we’d romp and play./So lonely now, I often wonder, O will they come back home some day?/I’m lonesome for my precious children, They live so far away./O may they hear my calling And come back home someday./I gave my all for my dear children, Their problems still with love I share./I’d brave life’s storms, defy the tempest To bring them home from anywhere./I lived my life, my love I gave them, To guide them through this world of strife./I hope and pray we’ll live together In that great glad hereafter life./I’m lonesome for my precious children, They live so far away./O may they hear my calling And come back home someday.
For someone like me, who grew up listening mostly to folk, pop, and rock music, the sounds emanating from this modest amalgam of young voices was impressively diverse and expansive. The night was in part a tribute to Dr. Donald Busarow, who is completing a journey enveloping 28 years as choir director and 35 years as a professor of music theory and composition, and who is stepping down as only the fourth director in the choir’s 80-year history.

I left Wittenberg nearly 30 years ago, though in many ways it never left me and continues to occupy a warm place in my heart. Founded in 1845 by German immigrants, Wittenberg sits on a stunningly beautiful campus in southern Ohio, spreading its wings over 120 acres of lush grounds. The biggest negative to Wittenberg’s draw is its location in the city of Springfield, a once proud industrial town of the old rust belt, formerly home to a major International Harvester plant, but now host to unemployed factory workers and a stagnant service industry. Surrounded by farmland, the area is a mixture of northern Kentucky and central New Jersey. There is very little to do in Springfield, but that never mattered much during the four years that I was there. Wittenberg was everything to me then, its grand brick buildings and majestic trees overlooking its rolling hills of green grass, brick walkways, and well tended flowerbeds.

Perhaps I so appreciated the Wittenberg Choir on Saturday night because I have often considered my time there as among the best four years of my life. As I think back on it, I have difficulty remembering a single bad day. Life was fun and fulfilling, the days vivid and fresh, friendships came easy, and I never felt alone. On the night of graduation, while others celebrated, I quietly cried, anguished by the thought that life would never be as free and easy again. I loved Wittenberg and knew even then that it was an experience never to be replicated in life’s subsequent stages. Yet as I sat in the pews of St. Paul’s church, I could not remember once having seen the choir perform during my years at Wittenberg. Sometimes we appreciate only later in life the things we so often overlooked in the past.

In reality, there has been so much more to life since I left college. I headed to Washington, D.C., and later to Philadelphia, places full of history and culture and excitement. I became an accomplished lawyer and prosecutor. I have met sons and daughters of important people, worked alongside men and women who hailed from the best schools, and involved myself in interesting and fulfilling work. I have been introduced to the worlds of politics and law, art and theater, differing cultures and religions, things I had overlooked or not been exposed to in humble Springfield. I embraced a larger world, which in its splendor sometimes fails to acknowledge the simple and gentle confines of places like Wittenberg.

I have few regrets over the paths I have chosen and choices I have made, and I realize that, in some respects, I may have outgrown Wittenberg – when I graduated in 1981, I was ready to move on – but part of me never left. When I spotted the Wittenberg banner upon entering the church narthex on Saturday night, and set my eyes on the bright red and white gowns of the Wittenberg Choir, I felt a rush of pride about where my Wittenberg journey has led me in life and my connection to this grand place. I felt at home.

To this day, when I think of Wittenberg, I feel an occasional twinge of sadness, a longing for the days of my youth, when my whole life stood before me, my dreams unlimited, and my ideals untainted. I know now that constantly looking back serves no useful purpose. If I had the chance to live life over again, I would certainly do some things differently. I would, for one, not take time and relationships for granted, and I would be more open to new experiences, to travel, and to taking risks in life. But there is very little I would change about Wittenberg and my experiences there. Living in the present is healthier and more productive, the only way truly to live. I know that I am blessed – with my health, my family, my children, with Andrea, my career, and my faith, however tenuous and imperfect it may be.

It is due in no small part to my days at Wittenberg, the things I learned, the growth I experienced, the confidence I gained, that today I am so blessed. If my children can experience in their college years even half of the joy, the fun, the learning, and the sense of fulfillment that I found during my four years at Wittenberg, I will sleep soundly knowing they are on the right path, journeying forward to a life complete.


  1. I am always so grateful when Mark shares the Wittenburg experience with me. Last weekend, I almost talked him out of attending the performance of this remarkable choir -- I was too tired, it was too far, all the usual reasons for missing unexpectedly great life experiences. But, once there, I knew that I would never have forgiven myself, if I had known what I missed, had I succeeded in our staying at home.

    I have been involved in musical performances most of my life - first in orchestras and string quartets as a violist, now as a singer in the choruses of community theater musicals and in an a cappella group. But I have never been so blown away by the majesty and soul of music as I was last Saturday. Religiously- themed pieces are not typically my favorite. Although I am Jewish (largely non-observant), I like to participate in Messiah sing-ins and Christmas caroling, but anything more liturgical sometimes makes me feel vaguely disloyal if I enjoy it too much. And, despite my classical training, I get my greatest satisfaction from the music of Broadway. But listening to these impeccably consonant, richly blended, magnificent voices, filling every space in the church, I lost any doubt that there was a heaven -- in fact, I felt that I was getting a glimpse of it.


  2. P.S. And my apologies for misspelling Wittenberg! I always make at least one spelling error.