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Snow is Falling Here

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What would Christmas be without the hundreds of years of glorious music that bring such joy and nostalgia to us during the season? When I was 15 and starting to compose, I had the idea of writing a Christmas song every year for my friends. I was inspired by the example of the 20th-century American composer Alfred Burt, who did just that for several decades. His most famous of these songs is “Caroling, Caroling, Christmas Bells Are Ringing”, which, though only sixteen bars long, has always been my favorite Christmas song.

However, it wasn’t until I was 52 that I finally got around to writing one. I think the main reason is that I didn’t want to add another unappetizing musical fruitcake to the collection of trite and generic “Ho, ho, ho” and “Kiss-Me-Under-the-Mistletoe” songs that brought out my inner Grinch each Christmas.  I knew I wanted to dig deep into myself to encapsulate a more profound personal experience that would nonetheless be universal.

The background of my Christmas song stems from something simple but profound that my mother said to me when I was a teenager. Florence Hamilton Curry (“Kitty” to her friends) was the most important person in my young life because of her love for me and her insistence that I measure up to my potential. (The first “adult” book she gave me to read was Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.)  At the age of 55, she began working a new job as a social worker at Pittsburgh’s Western Psychiatric Hospital.

As far as I can remember, her main job there was to listen to her patients’ life stories. And my mother was a world-class listener. Many people have great verbal skills, but a truly empathetic listener who is not just hearing, but LISTENING, is a rarity.  She would seemingly open up her soul and every pore of her being when someone talked to her about their feelings. I lost her when I was 19 and have spent the rest of my life wishing I’d been a better listener, to recall all the valuable things she said to me.  Perhaps it’s an inherited trait (not coincidence) that led the grandson she never lived to see, Matthew May-Curry, to become a psychiatrist after graduating from Williams College and doing his residency at Harvard. 

An unforgettable memory from my youth was my mother’s haunting observation that many of her patients became very depressed at Christmastime because of the stark contrast between the traditional seasonal festivities and their own bleak isolation.  Twenty years after her death, I remembered her remark as I was facing a comparable situation. 

It was 1995 and I was living in New Orleans with Michael, the love of my life, and we were both suffering from (shall we say) a severe lack of domestic tranquility. Two weeks before Christmas, he moved to Miami, thus beginning a separation that lasted for three years. Whenever I hear of a person losing their job or a loved one during the holiday season, I can truly identify with their misery.  At that time, I was more alone than I had ever been or have been since, and as Christmas approached, I found myself slipping into a severe depression. I kept thinking of what my mother had said about her patients, and I realized I was feeling a similar sense of despair.

Then, after going to bed on Christmas Eve, I remembered my long-abandoned dream to write a Christmas song. I knew that writing it would help my mood. I woke up the next morning eager to start.  And as I began to compose it at the piano, I felt like a child on Christmas day, opening presents! The music came easily, and by the end of the day, I had finished a good first draft. I suppose no one will understand my saying this, but aside from my 16th Christmas (when I received my first piano), THIS Christmas, spent alone and composing, was the most joyous of my life.  (Ok. Go ahead and judge me, but I’m a musician!)  At this point it was still only an instrumental piece, and I had never written a poem or a lyric before.  So I put the song away for a year, doubting whether I could finish the piece. 

By November 1996, I had been appointed the Resident Conductor of the North Carolina Symphony and was living in Raleigh. I was also guest-conducting a magnificent chamber orchestra comprised of Russian-Jewish immigrants in Israel as we toured several cities including Tel Aviv, Rehovat, and Bethlehem.  While there, I experienced another holiday spent alone: Thanksgiving, which is not celebrated in Israel. That evening I wandered around Tel Aviv looking for a restaurant that would take pity on an American tourist and offer a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.  Yes?  NO!  Such a thing was nowhere to be found.  Instead, I found a fondue restaurant and celebrated the feast of the Pilgrims and Native Americans there.

Oh my gosh…is there anything more pathetic than being in a foreign country on an American holiday and eating a fondue dinner (traditionally for two) by oneself?  I like cheese, but I fear this experience has put me off fondue forever!

Traveling back to Raleigh on December 1, I knew I must finish the Christmas song so that I could send it to my friends in the next few weeks. But how could I, a poetry neophyte, write the lyrics for it?  I was cheered by the advice of a violist I knew from my Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra days. When she wanted to write a book about her family but was hesitant because of her limited experience, her writing instructor said to her, “Just write it from the heart. People can smell authenticity and credibility. Write about your own experiences and others will be able to identify with them.” She used his advice as her credo, and remarkably she published this first-rate book about her childhood—eventually receiving an enormous amount of money for the movie rights!

That all sounded “credible and authentic“ enough for ME!  So, on the 12-hour flight home, I reflected on my Christmas experiences—including my mother’s patients, my separation from Michael, and my success at chasing away the

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