Message from the Director

June 3rd, 2016

Music, as you all know, can embody the whole range of human moods — joy, sorrow, awe, gratitude, solemnity, light-heartedness, etc. Sometimes we generate those feelings from the stage, but on rare occasions we simply reflect the mood of those gathered to listen. That was certainly the case for two events which bookended this year: the inauguration of President Elizabeth Garrett on September 18th, and her unexpected memorial service just six months later, on March 17th. At the first ceremony, on a bright sunny day outside on the Arts Quad, the Chorus conveyed the hope and joy of the assembled crowds watching Cornell’s first woman president step up to the podium — a moment felt with particular pride by the Chorus, the exemplar of women and women’s leadership here for so many years. The lyrics echoed across the quad:

I was born down in the valley
Where the sun refused to shine
But I’m climbin’ up to the highland,
Gonna make that mountain mine!

And then, heartbreakingly soon, on a gray day in late winter, we found ourselves on another set of risers, facing a full and silent Bailey Hall.  Before any speeches — before any words at all were spoken — the Chorus stood and sang:

After wind, after rain, when the dark is done,
As I wake from a dream in the gold of day,
Through the air there’s a calling from far away,
There’s a voice I can hear that will lead me home.

On each occasion, the words seemed apt, and of course that’s why I chose those pieces. But if words alone were necessary, why have singing at all? Why not just read the poem?

I think it’s because music has a way of elevating text — it slows down listening, to the point at which we perceive both the surface meaning and the deeper intent of the words, and even those feelings which cannot be put into language. When sung, a poem can fill our minds and our hearts at the same time. That is why the 55 members of the Chorus, of all 20,000 Cornell students, were needed on the risers that day in September, and again in March. It won’t surprise you to know that they sang with courage, sincerity, and grace, providing inspiration and comfort to me and to many other listeners.  

Music has tremendous power to channel emotions, and those who make music will sometimes be called upon for the harder task of healing their communities. This is not a lesson I would ever have chosen to teach, but it’s one I suspect the members of this year’s Chorus will never forget.


- Robert Isaacs