Robert Steward Walden

2 responses to Robert Steward Walden

  1. Who’ll Take Him To ‘the Other Side’?
    By Anthony Tommasini; Anthony Tommasini is the chief music critic for The New York Times.
    Published: February 8, 1988

    In the last month of his life, my friend Bob Walden finally learned to love Mozart.

    To me, Bob’s lack of understanding – ”Mozart’s above me,” he used to say – was inexplicable and exasperating. Bob had a Mercedes-Benz brain. When we were freshmen at Yale during the late 1960’s, he was pursuing a tough double major in philosophy and physics. And his musicality, as I used to assure him, was considerable. He had a pleasant chorus-sized baritone that he had put to use as a member of his prep school choir at Phillips Academy and, later at Yale, as a member of the Spizzwinks, one of the school’s half dozen all-male singing groups. He was even a respectable sight reader.

    Yet Bob was defensive about his lack of musical sophistication. He liked certain classical pieces he found less intimidating, like Vivaldi’s ”Gloria,” a work that happily gives away all its secrets. He liked some rock and certain shows. At the time, he was a ”Fantasticks” freak.

    But Bob loved best the music whose secrets he had uncovered for himself, like ”The Crucifixion” by the Victorian era Englishman Sir John Stainer, a piece he had sung in his parish choir back home. Bob conceded it was a trifle corny: ”The role of Jesus, of course, is given to a trio of soloists,” he said.

    But Mozart’s music, Bob suspected, just couldn’t be as accessible as it sounded. An undertow of complexity in it puzzled him and put him off. I used to argue that with Mozart what you hear is what you get. Of course, there are astonishing subtleties. But Mozart never hits you over the head with them, never shows them off. They’re there for those who care to pay attention to such things; everyone else can just relax.

    But Bob was puzzled by his own undertow of complexities – his insecurities, his identity crisis. I guess he didn’t want his music, which gave him such a lift, mixed up with his metaphysical sometimes painful self-inquiry. He liked his music clear and straight.

    In retrospect, Bob realized that, back then, he was running away from his problems, his secrets. For reasons he couldn’t explain completely (to prove something to himself, or to his conservative Republican parents?), he enlisted for a two-year stint in the Marines, this at the height of the Vietnam War. The corps soon realized he was far too smart for cannon fodder. He wound up manning an office in Hawaii. Eventually, he took a job at a bank and started drinking too much. Much too much. Bob was never to have occupational success. He spent most his life doing ”temp” work.

    Mozart came up again the last time I saw him alive. We were having lunch in his cluttered studio apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. Bob was in the last stage of his struggle with AIDS. The disease had reduced his husky, handsome body to less than 100 pounds.

    Along with the chicken salad I’d brought – he tried to eat a little -mementoes of his life, the quietly triumphant parts of it, were spread out before us on the kitchen table.

    There was the Gay American Veterans armband that he’d worn during the Veterans Day parade. The organizers had never let a gay vets group participate, but they couldn’t fight off Bob’s persistent (and compelling) agitation. There was the years-old picture of Bob with his buddies from the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, celebrating the first anniversary of Bob’s sobriety – ”my real birthday,” he used to say. There was a prayer book from his local church, St. Michael’s, where he had organized a group called ”Sundays at 4” for those in the congregation trying to deal with gayness – their own or their brethren’s – and for those trying to deal in any way at all with AIDS. Within all these communities, Bob was a learned, charismatic and beloved leader.

    While we talked over lunch, a tape he’d made of various pieces, all mixed up, was playing quietly. When Mozart’s consoling choral motet ”Ave, verum corpus” started, Bob grabbed my hand tightly and stared with blank-eyed intensity into space. It seemed as if he were glimpsing ”the other side.” That’s the phrase he’d learned from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross during two of her counseling retreats for the terminally ill. With a mix of childlike excitement and anxiety, Bob used to wonder exactly who would be meeting him ”to take me to the other side.”

    The Mozart – with its plain step-by-step tune and its harmonies progressing so slowly that each gentle shift seems eventful – was barely audible. But as he listened, disoriented (or so it seemed from my side), he said in an intense whisper, as if he were chastising himself, ”It’s so damn simple.” He started humming alone.

    Weeks before he died on New Year’s Day, Bob had selected the music for his memorial service: three selections from his all-time favorite tune collection, ”The Protestant Episcopal Hymnal of 1940.” He’d left explicit instructions through his sister Ginny that ”the hymns should not be dragged!”

    The service, on a snowy, wet evening, was very moving, even though the hymns, it turned out, were pretty draggy. But Bob had also asked the organist to play as a recessional the ”Ave, verum corpus.” That performance on the reedy organ at St. Michael’s Church may have been shaky, but it made the point.

    Sometimes, as Bob wound up teaching me, things really are as simple as they seem.


  2. Extraordinary. The other side. Hmmm…I was there for the service Tommasini writes about–along with our friend, Peter Evans, who was also cut down by AIDS the next year. It is almost 30 years since; the music and service were beautiful, though I had forgotten about the snow. I’m sure Walden somehow both connected and blamed himself for drinking and for contracting AIDS. This far on the other side, it seems simply that he was caught in a maelstrom. Dear God….

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