Comments of Nicholas Delbanco

Many many thanks.  I have admired this school, and its remarkable president, for not merely years and decades but—given our present calendar—centuries, millennia, and it’s an honor as well as great pleasure to be standing here. My remarks will be brief—truly so—but I could reduce them even further to two words. Congratulations, everyone. 

Still, the chance to offer a sentence or six is one I can’t refuse. That part of your curriculum which is called “Clear Writing” is one I am aware of and of which I wholly approve. You may not know quite yet, because it’s habitual here, how extra-ordinary such an expectation is, how fortunate you’ve been to study in a school where close attention to expressiveness continues to be paid. Where your teachers are your colleagues and engage in the same quest. It’s difficult to say a clear thing confusedly or a confused thing clearly, though I may just have managed to do so. Take it as an article of faith, I mean, that there’s a nexus established between clarity of thought and clarity of diction, and that a thing worth saying is worth the saying well. As the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, Er war ein Dichter, das heist, Er hasste das ungefahr. Neither my German accent nor my German is impeccable, but I translate this line to mean: He was a poet, which is to say, he hated the approximate. Or, he despised the inexact. “Clear writing” asks you to do so, and it’s a credo by which I hope you all will continue to live. Whether your course of study is dance, philosophy, or history, whether you make a life in language or law or computer science, I trust the lessons learned will be with you enduringly. That’s what we mean by commencement of course, and the cliché is no less true for being often uttered: the word is oxymoronic, both a beginning and end. May each day be a commencement as well as a completion for you all.

Some years ago, I wrote a book called Lastingness, about artists in their elder age, and one of the figures I profiled was the great Catalan cellist, Pablo Casals. The Marlboro Music Festival is, as you know, a family affair, and Casals participated in your festival for years. Folks eat, sleep, drink, and argue music in the summer here, with an informal earnestness that marries practice to performance—the apprentice and the master craftsman side by side. On July 11, 1970—long before you all were born and before the birth of some of your parents—I watched Casals conducting Beethoven’s Egmont Overture in the music barn.  He was ninety-three. 

The Maestro was bent and infirm. It took him minutes to walk from the wings, inching laboriously forward, taking small uncertain steps to the podium and hauling himself up into position as if every movement was painful and might just prove his last.

The orchestra waited, respectful, while he regained his spent breath. The silence extended, expanded; the Maestro stared down at his feet.  Never large, he appeared to have shrunk. We worried; we asked each other, sotto voce, if he required assistance and should be helped from the stage.

And then, of a sudden, Casals raised both arms and was transformed. He threw himself forward, exhorting the players, galvanic, increasing the tempo, wielding the baton as though it were weightless and conducting the Egmont at speed. He showed the brio and athletic exuberance of men not half his age. The fortissimo thundered, the barn fairly rocked, the celebration of freedom over oppression with which the overture (and Goethe’s play) ends was just as sounding and resounding as Beethoven might have dreamed it in June of 1810.

When the last note died down, the conductor’s arms dropped. He bent his bald head. Again, he looked old and exhausted; again he took slow weary steps and shuffled off into the wings while the hall full of people applauded. All his energy had gone into the music; there was, it appeared, nothing left.

Now I too will shuffle off. My brother is the one—this has always been true in our family—who will do most of the talking; for me, the rest is silence. But let me close by saying that it’s doubly an honor to share this stage with Ellen and with Andrew; as his older brother, he’s been a very hard act to precede.