The Day The Music Stopped: 9/11, A Decade Passed in Remembrance of Tragedy, Bravery, and the Hope for Peace

It was a typically beautiful fall day here in Niagara, 10 years ago on September 11th, 2011. That morning I got ready for the 40 minute commute from Niagara to the State University of New York at Buffalo, where I had just begun my masters studies.  The course that morning was my favourite, a specialized course on Mahler’s Symphonies with the incomparable professor, Christopher Gibbs (who now teaches at Bard College). Over the couple of weeks since the course began, I had fallen in love with Mahler and everything his style exuded.  It was rich, passionate, tortured, tragic, peaceful, and ethereal, with a full orchestral palette that I adored.  So, that fateful morning I put my newly acquired CD set of the symphonies next to me on the seat and listened to our assignment for the day, the Symphony No. 2, the “Resurrection.” Every other morning on my way over the Canadian/U.S. border I  usually listened to CBC Radio or WNED (our local classical station in Buffalo), but not that morning.  I realized in the aftermath that had I turned on the news instead of listen to Mahler I probably would not have driven into the United States at all.  It was around 8:30am and a beautiful sunny day.

When I arrived on campus, excited for the morning class, Prof. Gibbs was late in arriving, which was very unlike him.  I will never forget him coming into class and sitting down and not saying a thing.  He  barely looked at us, was pale and visibly shaken.  Since the class was an upper level class there were only a few students in the course and we all sat staring at him until he said, “We’re under attack.”  Those words rang like lasers in my ears and I had no idea what he meant…none of us did.  He proceeded to tell us about the plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center, not knowing yet about the Pentagon or that another plane was striking as we were sitting there ready to listen to Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.  We immediately got up and he dismissed class, saying that he could not reach his wife Helena.  The two of them lived in New York City and of course, all circuits were busy.

Feeling for him, I asked for her number so that I could also try to reach her and then left class.  I went downstairs to tell my other professor what had happened.  He was happily immersed in his teaching Medieval History and also had no idea of the horrible events that were occurring as we spoke. It wasn’t my place but I felt that there was no need to discuss music or anything, for that matter, at that particular moment.  Failing to truly comprehend what I had heard moments ago,  I ran to the library to see if I could get on the internet but I  could not, so I ran upstairs to my office and turned on the radio. When I heard what was happening, I fell to my knees right then and there.

And…everything stopped.  The music stopped, everything stopped.

The sound of news anchors in fear, with trembling voice, and the horrible sounds of crashing and screaming coming from the streets of a city that holds my heart became the only audible sound.  No Mahler, no music, just explosions and horror followed by a great silence.  Only silence can quench the horrible sounds of tragedy–silence and prayer.  I suddenly realized that I needed to get my things and get in my car and try and drive back home to Canada before the international border to Canada would be closed.  I was only 20 minutes into the U.S from Canada, and so I gathered my things as quickly as I could and left Baird Hall.  I had tried to phone my parents from my cell phone to no avail.  Even the pay phones were not working and so I knew they’d be worried.  The campus was already filled with police and fire trucks.  It appeared that the U.S. was under attack and the most populated places, like Universities, might be targets so the campus was quickly being evacuated.

I turned the keys in my car and suddenly Mahler’s Resurrection symphony that had remained in my CD player began ringing out.  I wanted to live in that moment, in the safety of Mahler’s beautiful expressions but I turned it off and listened to the radio instead.  As I drove off, I heard that the international border to Canada had now been closed, and I needed to get back home.  When I approached the border the officials, who had by that time seen me every day for the last 5 years, asked me to get out of my vehicle.  It was the first time I allowed myself to cry.  I cried as I stood there watching them rip the carpeting from my trunk and open the panels in my doors while people were dying in New York and I began to grow hatred and anger toward the person or persons who had done this to innocent people.  I pleaded with the officials to let me pass and finally, after an hour and a half, they allowed me to go home.

I drove home in silence.

When I walked through the door, the television was on and it was the first time I had seen the images of horror that I had only listened to all morning and into the early afternoon.  I fell on my knees again in front of the television and prayed .  I prayed for those souls…the poor innocents who had not known that their lives would end that day.  That evening, I was able to get a hold of Prof. Gibbs, whose wife was safe in Manhattan, and my other colleagues and friends who lived there. I did not sleep that night and did not return to campus for several days after the events.  In those days, I remained silent.  I didn’t listen to music.  It seemed there was no place for music in that moment when lives had been lost and families could hardly claim their loved ones to give them a proper burial.

When I did return to music, it was Barber’s Adagio for Strings that I played first, then the Gloria from Palestrina’s Missa Papa Marcelli, and then after much contemplation, I went in my car and turned on the radio to the moment that the music of Mahler’s Resurrection had stopped.

Almost ironically, the Urlicht…the beautiful movement sung by an alto, illustrating the longing for a release from earthly woes, rang like a necessary hymn.

Primeval Light

O red rose!Man lies in greatest need!

Man lies in greatest pain! How I would rather be in heaven.

There came I upon a broad path when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.

Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!

I am from God and shall return to God!

The loving God will grant me a little light,

Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!

Ground Zero 9/11 Memorial Pool

On this, the 10th anniversary of that tragic day, I will listen to Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony again, but before the Urlicht, I will stop the recording and pray for those who lost their lives and those they left behind who have suffered 10 years without their loved ones.  The United States has sought justice and received it, and those lives were not lost in vain.  To a country that has given me so much, to New York City…city of freedom, artistry, excellence, and the hand that holds my dearest of friends, my heart and the hearts of many millions will be in remembrance with you on Sunday.  May God protect the land of the free and the home of the brave, forever.

©Mary-Lou Vetere, 2011

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