Gretchaninoff in New Jersey

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 26 April 2011, under the title In search of a forgotten composer; edited for this post.]

GretchaninoffGravesite

This is not the Pines. Not Central, that’s, what, New Brunswick. But it can’t be South Jersey this far up. No: it must be Central, has to be Central Jersey.

This is not the suburbs, although floating among the horse farms and tree farms are housing tracts that used to be farms. Every once in a while there’s a lake that’s quiet and pretty, but so are most lakes; these aren’t picturesque so much as alone. There are stores in a clump. Outlets, they’re called on a sign. Premium Outlets. The parking lot asphalt is new: dark and bright.

Great Adventure is here, around here, anyway; you don’t see it, signs you see. Also “School / Bus Stop / Ahead” signs, so there must be people around, somewhere, with children enough, among the few houses that were here before the tracts. One or two, maybe three houses at a time bob within the waves of eastern white pine and white oak and pitch pine and thin, wild rhododendron that lap against the shoulders of the roads running through.

No, to me—who grew up well below here, near the widening Delaware, near where Petty’s Island bellies into Philadelphia’s Port Richmond, nestled in Coolidge-era housing separated by small, reckless highways laid for slower cars motoring past industrial parks producing ink resins and truck parts—to me this is that large swath between Fort Dix and, oh, Freehold, say—between Lakehurst and the waist of New Jersey just below Trenton—where a road connects two towns and the name of the road is the name of the two towns, so that you know where it begins and where it ends, that is, if it doesn’t change names at a bend or if they don’t just call it by its three-digit county number—pushing an hour by car toward a place not mysterious but not known, not really; not on the way to anything—not the Shore, not the Pines, not New York; even for the northern Shore towns (Spring Lake, Long Branch, Sea Bright) you’d take 70 or even 195 if you started from farther up—no, you wouldn’t go here or anywhere near here unless you knew somebody here, and I never did.

I rode my bike this way once, to see how far I could go. I didn’t know where I was heading, but I knew it was in this direction. It was that long, desperate Saturday that finds us when we realize we won’t be in high school much longer, when we know that something needs to happen.

I wanted to write music but didn’t know how, didn’t know anything. I pedaled my one-speed all the way to Moorestown’s leafy Main Street—already far—and just kept going, onto sun-baked Marne Highway skirting the freight tracks, and farther, pushing, where, in the direction of… okay, of Newfoundland, of Providence, for all I knew. Wherever did I think I was going? Reaching the Rancocas, exhausted, I lay on my back on the grass under silver maples by the creek. I couldn’t think. I didn’t know anything. The sun sparkled through the leaves. That was 40 years ago.

And now I write music and now I’ve come back to find the grave of Alexander Gretchaninoff. In front of a church on a hill, I am standing at it, looking at an egg sitting on the bottom ledge of a six-foot-high gravestone, the egg left here a few weeks earlier, probably, after Russian Orthodox Easter, to symbolize the life of the Resurrection. It symbolizes the Resurrection but it also tells you that somebody else was here, just like you, and that’s a good symbol, too.

It could be why Jews leave stones on graves. I’ve never asked, but I know it’s why they piled up stones at Gilgal, after crossing the Jordan on dry ground into Canaan; they said so. It might be called an altar, a cairn, but it’s just stones piled up, piled up so that when, years later, a boy would ask his dad, Why are there stones piled up like that?, his dad would tell him, It’s because that’s where we crossed the river, son, on dry ground, after 40 years in the wilderness. A boy knows, everybody knows, that stones don’t pile up like that by themselves, and stones don’t sit on graves, and eggs don’t sit on graves. Somebody has to be there. And now you’re there, and here and now just like that you have been attached to someone else. The someone who was buried here and the someone who was standing here.

Where you are standing.

The accent is on the third, not the second syllable: Gretcha-ni-noff. Two Russians have told me this. Nicolas Slonimsky also states this, in his translator’s foreword to Gretchaninoff’s autobiography My Life. Where I work we spell it Aleksandr Grechaninov. I know the reasons behind the spelling, behind the transliteration from the Cyrillic, but to be honest, we spell it that way because the Library of Congress spells it that way and to communicate you must have standards; I understand that. But here, where this Russian Orthodox church buried him and carved this stone, I’m thinking that’s a good standard, too, and they spell it Alexander Gretchaninoff.

Photo by Sandra Dackow

Photo by Sandra Dackow

In front of this church that sits on a hill in New Jersey is his grave. His name’s in Cyrillic on the front, but they also inscribed the English or Roman letters on the side. It was kind of them to do that. They put his name and his dates and his bas-relief profile on the front, and they put the word Composer there. They are proud of him. He wrote music.

The Czar gave him a salary because of the religious music he wrote, but the Revolution took the Czar away and then the Revolution took the Composer’s salary away. He left in 1925, moved to Paris, moved to New York City. The Philadelphia Orchestra played his Fifth Symphony, his last symphony, in 1939. He became an American citizen.

He was never in style. Fashions came and went—Scriabin, Prokofiev, Stravinsky early, middle, late—but he was a 19th-century Romantic and avoided every other trend. Maybe because of that, or maybe because he wrote religious music as if it meant so much it hurt, or maybe because of a hundred other reasons, waves of reasons floating him west, he had no money. Friends gave concerts of his music to support him, talked famous people into performing his music, gave him envelopes with cash so that he wouldn’t starve. Then his wife died, the woman he left Russia with, and then he died, and the church buried him here, 91 years after he was born. Died the year I was born.

There are so many things I should know. I should know Alexander Gretchaninoff. He’s buried here. I should know where South Jersey ends. So many things.

My brother, who knows more about these roads than anyone I might ask, told me, in the way older brothers tell younger brothers things, “make a right at the first intersection and keep your eyes open,” and I have done so. I have found the grave of Alexander Gretchaninoff. I am looking at the egg sitting on his gravestone.

I walk back to the parking lot, over that spiky, dry, hard grass that grows in the sandy New Jersey coastal plain, to my car under trees where it is cool. Driving back to Philadelphia I keep to the three-digit county roads, not too soon crossing over the river. This is not my home, not anymore, but I’m in no hurry. A state, a grave, eggs and stones and wildernesses and bright Canaan are all my home.

And somewhere approaching New Egypt I feel that this is not the Pines, and that I am not driving, but that the car is running, like the way they say a ship runs, running along a channel, parting the waves. And through the pines and rhododendron I trail a silver Maxima that slowly pulls away, and I am running, floating west over the macadam that sparkles (there is a kind of macadam that sparkles, perhaps you’ve seen it).

Leave a Reply