Do heroes exist, really? I have a knee-jerk suspicion of heroes. Heroes ride desire like a steed hell bent on reaching the barn. Heroes suffer neither doubt nor dissuasion. Heroes persevere through unreasonable levels of risk and do not stop to ask the obvious question: why?
Do we need heroes? Why do we invent heroes when they are in short supply? I have a theory, in my case, at least. I tend to assign heroic status to that quality in a person that allows him or her to personify a value we hold dear.
My intention was to tell you about a Czech champion of democracy, Masaryk, who was given a hero’s send-off upon his death in September 1937. Born the son of a coachman, his rise to four terms in the president’s office in Prague’s castle has been deemed by Peter Demetz in Prague in Black and Gold to be “a modern fairy tale.” That’s why he’s celebrated, but the value that made him seem heroic to me was exhibited already in the decade before WWI, when he was chosen to be leader of the new Czech Peoples Party (aka Realists) and elected in 1907 to represent Moravia in the Viennese parliament. While in this tenuous position, with much to gain and lose (he was the only Czech to retain a position representing his country in the Viennese parliament), he stood up against the “European disease” as Demetz calls the ubiquitous anti-Semitism. Swimming upstream against the popular current, Masaryk championed the cause of a young Jewish man accused and convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a murder someone else eventually confessed to having committed. Why take on the risk of losing everything he’d worked to achieve? Because, according to Demetz, Masaryk wanted the Czech nation to be free of these “intellectual perversions.” His willingness to take on considerable risk to defend this value makes him a hero, at least in this regard, as far as I am concerned.
The pressure cooker of 20th century history created ample opportunities for heroism and cowardice alike. Okay, but what about the generation of adults whose parents lived through and were usually harmed by mid-twentieth century events and the failed social experiments that followed? What about us? Where do our heroes come from?
I submit the case of Imants Mežaraups. Tuesday, June 25th, 2013, I learned that Imants, my brother-in-law, fifty-four years old, was found dead in his apartment in Riga, Latvia, slumped over his computer. I start with that image because it’s a cold fact. But alongside that sad fact must be juxtaposed the opinion of a former student. He will be remembered, she insists, by his hundreds of former students as an entertainer. The passion he brought to his music he imported into the classroom with an actor’s flair for comedic drama.
A pastor and family friend, concerned that Im hadn’t been in touch with the musicians with whom he still played, forced entry and found him. The precise physical reason why the composer, conductor, organist, jazz musician and father of a teenage son, died alone in his apartment is not yet known. It is presumed that his heart stopped. What is known is that he was nearing end-stage organ failure due to chronic alcoholism, the end stage of an addiction he probably inherited in his DNA. An addiction he inherited from the war and occupation ravaged culture of his parents. He fought the disease. He lost the fight. Nothing heroic in that.
Who among us does not have a dark side? A contradictory side, that is destructive to a greater or lesser degree? His was destructive to a greater degree. But Imants Mežaraups had a heroic side.
In Latvia, the country of his parents’ birth, the Latvian Song Festival, an event that happens once every five years and that showcases the music that kept the culture from being wiped off the face of the earth by the Soviet occupation, is a few days from beginning as I write this. Diena, Riga’s daily newspaper, in the midst of this uproar, ran a full-length article honoring the loss of a composer upon whom they had bestowed in 2008 the award for the best original composition for that year’s song festival. Im’s Alleluia, the composition that won the award, was performed as part of the opening ceremony in the Riga Doms Cathedral. This event was hard to get tickets for. He got his sister, my wife, in, but I had to wait outside with our son. The concert was attended by the who’s who of Latvian luminaries, including Vaira Vike Freiberg. The much respected former president personally shook Im’s hand after the performance.
Im first brought his musical tastes to his parents’ motherland in 1988, when the three countries of the eastern Baltic were still subsumed by the Soviet Union, as part of a Latvian-in-exile’s ensemble, the Hummingbirds. Im returned to Latvia in 1996, left again to pursue teaching in Philadelphia where he could make a living wage, then moved permanently to Riga in 2003. Im is credited with helping to bring a new wave, or “color” as they like to say, to the Latvian music scene by combining jazz improv riffs with Latvian folk songs with avant garde antiphonal techniques. As fans of his compositions like to point out, he was not averse to dropping in heart-stoppingly beautiful harmonies when it suited his purposes.
Though he grew up in Philadelphia and earned a Doctorate in Musical Arts at Temple University, Im wanted to be where his music would be taken to heart. He gave up a solid middle-class life in academia—teaching at two private academies and in Temple’s College of Music—bought a flat in Riga, and moved there permanently, sentencing himself to penurious circumstances in order to pursue his passion. To support himself and help support his son, he taught at the Riga Cathedral Choir School, one of the most prestigious music schools in Latvia. Every week he drove to Talsi where he served as choir conductor and organist at the Lutheran Church. Radical budget cuts to government spending—teachers were State employees—rendered it all but impossible to survive on these wages, but the generous commissions and awards he began to earn for his compositions kept him going.
In Latvia, far from the middle-class comforts he could have taken for granted in Philadelphia, Im’s music means something. The lanky, kind, soft-spoken guy, so adept at assimilating information from a variety of sources that he could never seem to make up his mind about simple things, like what to make for dinner, had found the right home for his passion.
In 2010, Imants was invited by Latvijas Koncerti to contribute a new work to their annual Latvian Symphonic Music Concert. If you can get a copy of this music, do it, it’s haunting. With vocals sung by a mezzo-soprano and the full support of the symphony orchestra, the music journeys from hopeful, uplifting intonations as “winter puts on its shoes and sits on a stone” and spring melts the snow and stops the rain and cold winds and ushers in the summer sun, only to inform us that “the cuckoo, my cuckoobird wept.” Brothers and husbands have been called away to war. “You birches may be missing three limbs,” cries the sister/wife left behind “but I am missing nine brothers, my brothers have fallen in the war.” When winter descends, the notes are harsh, dark, delivered in minor keys at a marching, ominous cadence. It does not end happily. It ends with a cold fall rain, the tears of the mother who raised the sons.
Here is Im’s thinking about this signature composition:
“While reading many Latvian fold dainas (folk song texts without melodies), I began to arrange them according to a beautiful metaphorical parallel that can be found in many individual folk songs: the metaphor of nature as it relates to peoples’ interaction with one another and with their environment. In this work there are two parallel lines: 1) Nature. The warmth and beauty of summer. The premonition that in the autumn, rain will fall, in the winter, snow, and cold winds will blow. Gradually the winter will ‘slay’ the summer with its silvery sword… 2) People. The idea here is that Latvian young men, long ago, were sent to war for an unknown time and an unknown destiny; here this is reflected from the woman’s point of view. How did the sister, the bride, the mother get over this? … But perhaps the most important thing… the fact that long ago our young sons were brutally sent off to war by greedy and ambitious lords could be compared to the present day situation… Perhaps the present-day ‘war’ is the fact that thousands of our best and brightest are forced to emigrate to foreign countries just to earn a living for their families.”
So okay. He died too young. Largely his own doing. What makes him a hero?
His passion for Latvian music? His willingness to sacrifice material comfort to pursue his dream? His hard-headed persistence despite carping from critics who wanted him to either be more Latvian or more avant garde? Maybe his belief in the value of what he was doing, even when he couldn’t save himself? His generous willingness to share his passion, right up to the end? (He was sending me musical scores and patiently explaining the compositions as recently as this spring.) “Do you think he knew he was about to die?” my son asked. Now we’ll never know. His persistence in acting upon and upholding the value he held dear, that more than even the beauty he achieved, therein, I submit, lies the argument for elevating Imants to hero status.
The last generation had Masaryk. We need heroes, too, don’t we?