Two recent books by very different women whose lives have unfolded in very different circumstances bear witness to the amazing power of music to transcend unimaginable difficulties and to inspire hope in the human spirit.
Zhu Xiao-Mei's memoir "The Secret Piano" (Amazoncrossing 2012) and the forthcoming "Do You Dream in Color?" by Laurie Rubin (Seven Stories Press, 2012) both tell stories of adversity, albeit in tremendously different ways.
Zhu was only three when she saw her first piano. Her talent was immediately apparent and in 1960 she was admitted to the Beijing Conservatory where she made speedy progress under exacting and inspiring teachers. Unfortunately, Mao's Communist regime began to take a more and more negative view of western-style classical music.
One evening, she climbed on the roof of her dormitory to escape the stifling heat and made a joking remark, "What if I jumped?" She was denounced by a classmate of having suicidal tendencies, isolated and forced to write a humiliating statement of self-criticism in which she blamed her bourgeois family and her reading of some of the classics of western civilization like "Anna Karenina" for breeding these anti-social tendencies.
As the Cultural Revolution gathered strength, western classical music was banned and the Conservatory itself fell apart, the students sent to the countryside to work with their hands as peasants. Zhu painfully confesses to being brainwashed together with her peers to the extent of rejecting her own parents. But nobody had any choice in the madness of those times.
Dispatched to a squalid labor camp, Zhu had to withstand unimaginable physical and metal hardships. She suffered from endless bouts of diarrhea until she was hospitalized and close to death. But as conditions began to ease a little, she rediscovered music, first hearing someone playing an accordion and then picking out by herself the notes of a Chopin Etude on the instrument. In an act of amazing daring and enterprise, she managed to smuggle a piano from the capital to the camp in pieces and to put it back together.
She got hold of some music - Beethoven, Liszt, Rachmaninoff - and as sanity slowly reasserted itself in China after Mao's death, she was able to resume her studies, having lost 15 years of her youth and musical development. She eventually managed to find her way to the United States -- and her descriptions of the culture shock she suffered and of the differences between the two countries are both funny and sad. She worked as a housekeeper, a waitress in a dodgy part of Boston and in other menial jobs; she contracts a fake marriage to get a green card and she visited France for which she felt a deep cultural affinity and where she eventually settled.
Zhu says she was saved spiritually, like so many others, by Bach's Goldberg Variations. Her ability to put into words the amazing healing qualities of this celestial music is deeply moving.
She writes: "This music contained everything. It had all one needed to live ... Through the thirty variations the tension mounts. Bach has drawn upon every possible human emotion. Then, suddenly, all that remains is a serene comforting music. Gently the aria sinks into an oblivion, a void that is not an expression of want or death, but rather of well-being and light. As the music subsides, the spirit ascends."
Faced with a monstrous regime which robbed people of their humanity, Zhu fights back with Bach, Beethoven and Schubert -- and she wins.
Laurie Rubin inhabits an entirely different world. Born to intelligent, affluent and loving parents in California, she had all the advantages that such an upbringing would suggest. Except for one thing - Laurie was born blind, unable to see anything except white light. But Laurie, as every page of her entrancing memoir testifies, was also born with an unstoppable optimism - and can-do attitude that refuses to give up on any aspect of life's riches. Backed up by her family, she learned to ski, she has a bat mitzvah and discovers a wonderful singing voice coupled with a rare musical talent.
Laurie attends Oberlin College and Yale University; she also discovers she is a lesbian and plunges into that aspect of her life with the same gusto with which she attacks everything else. She even manages to star in a production of Rossini's opera "La Cenerentola" navigating around the stage by counting steps. Sure, she suffers slights and setbacks - but her success as a blind singer also inspires people to give her a chance. In a way, being blind might be a subtle advantage because it distinguishes Rubin from the mass of other striving artists clamoring to roles and recognition.
This is not what she wants. She writes, "Everyone in the world wants to feel needed and understand her purpose. Mine is to be an artist, an educator, a responsible tax-paying citizen who is paid her worth, and to be a contributing member to society who just so happens to be blind."
Rubin's memoir lacks the emotional impact of Zhu Xiao-Mei's - possibly because she (and few of us) have plumbed the same depths of despair. But she is a fizzy and effervescent presence whose unquenchable lust for life is is utterly charming and persuasive.
These books do share an important attribute - an unshakable belief that Bach, Mozart and Schubert elevate the human spirit and have the power to comfort us, to inspire us and to overcome even the greatest challenges.