In January of my freshman year, I resolved to go to more funerals. Like most of the resolutions I’ve made in college, I didn’t follow through with it.
Last Saturday night, around 1,500 members of the Yale community packed into Woolsey Hall to hear the Yale Symphony Orchestra and Yale Glee Club put on a magnificent performance of Ein Deutsches Requiem (“A German Requiem”) by Johannes Brahms. Very few events on campus are able to bring as many Yalies together as the typical YSO concert does; only Spring Fling and the likes of Jimmy Carter can draw such large crowds. What does it say about our campus that some of our most popular public events are performances of orchestral pieces written over a hundred years ago?
Perhaps so many students attend YSO shows because there’s not much to do at 7 p.m. on Saturdays, or because an orchestra concert makes for a perfect date night, or because a few too many of us listened to Mozart in the womb. But I like to think that students are drawn to pieces like Brahms’s Requiem for deeper reasons: Because they give us a chance to confront questions about life, meaning, beauty and time; they fill a spiritual hole in our day-to-day lives.
There were several reasons why, as a freshman, I thought it would be worthwhile to attend more funerals: to reflect on a human life in its entirety, to learn from the life led by the deceased and to take part in a communal gathering meant to provide solace to mourners. But, most importantly, I thought that attending funerals would serve as a constant reminder that my time on earth is short and easily wasted.
The third movement of Brahms’s Requiem begins with a similar sentiment: “Lord, teach me that I must have an end, and that my life has an end and that I must pass away.” The translation provided by the YSO uses the word “end” twice, but in the original German text, “end” refers to two separate words. The first German word translated as “end” means “close, finish”: Teach me that my life will some day reach its conclusion. But the second word translated as “end” means “goal, purpose”: Teach me that my life has a point, that there is a standard by which my existence is measured.
So, one reading of the opening lines of the third movement of the Requiem is that, by thinking about the inevitable end of our time on earth, we realize the urgency of making the most of our lives. But, when I listened to the Requiem on Saturday evening, I was thinking, not about the end of my life, but the end of my time at Yale.
In one sense, it’s very difficult for undergraduates at Yale to forget how limited our time here is. On our second day of school, we sing “Bright College Years,” an entire poem about how our time at Yale will end and we’ll be left only with friendships and memories. But in another sense, it’s very easy for us to forget how little time we have in this community of higher learning. We waste our time on Netflix and Facebook, put our energy into uninspiring classes and activities that “help us get ahead” and literally erase our memories after consuming too much alcohol.
During Saturday’s YSO concert, I thought back to all of the time I could have spent better during my undergraduate career: the resolutions I didn’t follow through with, the classes I should have dropped and the evenings I could have spent with friends had I gotten papers done earlier.
But Brahms didn’t write his Requiem for those whose time had passed. In fact, unlike most traditional requiems, Brahms’s Requiem barely references the dead at all; it focuses almost completely on those still living. The passage at the center of the piece is “Blessed are those who dwell in your house,” those who still have time to live their lives with purpose.
This isn’t really a column urging seniors to live the next five weeks to the fullest; it’s directed to the freshmen, sophomores and juniors. Remember that your time at Yale will end, and figure out how you want to measure your time left. This doesn’t mean cramming as many activities as possible into already unhealthy schedules. Spend your time at Yale on the really important things, whether hanging out with friends, going to academic colloquia or making the world a better place. And go to as many YSO concerts as you can.
Scott Greenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on Tuesday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .