2pm, 26th June 2017
People entered the large stone Church of St Matthews in Albury NSW, speaking in hushed tones. Down the front of the church was the coffin, painted with humpback whales breaching in an ocean of pastel blues and greens, painted by Ursula’s friend Kathryn Pyle. In a further breach of tradition, we were offered the opportunity to graffiti the painted coffin, with coloured crayons. People wrote their final messages to Ursula Genaehr, a German musician who came to live in Australia 22 years ago in the tiny rural community of Kiewa, just south of Wodonga.
I first met Ursula in Albury, in 1997. She was in the audience of a recital by Jouissance—a quintet I was touring with—soprano, tenor, shakuhachi, double bass and percussion. After the gig, she singled me out for an intense bear hug. “You and I will be very good friends!” she declared as I struggled to breathe. And so it came to pass… although the tyranny of distance and my perpetual touring made occasions to meet rare.
We performed together twice, the first time in March 1998, in the Albury Gallery, in a concert entitled “Intersecting Lines” — with myself on shakuhachi, Peter Hagen on harpsichord, Ursula Genaehr on recorders and visiting Japanese dancer, Machiko Kaneko. We performed Baroque pieces; traditional and contemporary Japanese works; my own composition for harpsichord, shakuhachi and dance; and a collaborative improvisational work featuring all the performers and the beautiful hanging and hand-held aluminium chimes made by Ursula’s husband, Jürgen Lett. We all stayed at the home of Ursula and Jürgen, and Machiko was so excited to see kangaroos grazing on the hillside opposite. It was a fun time. Two years later, beautiful Machiko died of cancer in Japan. We had been friends since 1986 when I first lived in Kobe, and she had inspired me to create many new works of music for her dance. A great loss.
In August 2001, my duo “Questing Spirit” with harpsichordist Peter Hagen travelled north once more to perform with Ursula, this time on the south side of the river in St John’s, Wodonga. We included a piece entitled Machiko in Kiewa—a composition for chimes, shakuhachi, harpsichord and recorder in tribute to our absent friend. Jürgen’s wind chimes were augmented on this occasion by my tuned bells made from cast-iron caps gleaned from the top of old power poles. We were also joined by Ursula’s friend Rosemary Farrell to read poetry.
In a review by Gregory Lewis in the Border Mail, Mon, Aug 27, 2001, he wrote:
“their… silence, poetry, spirituality and melody… echo a time when musicians were dedicated to grace, style, beauty and in the case of the shakuhachi, profound meditation. Four new works displaying the unique colours and techniques of these uncommon instruments were most rewarding. Melbourne composers Le Tuan Hung and Dindy Vaughan combined the sounds in surprising and unconventional ways, while allowing each player to express strong solo ideas. I very much enjoyed Vaughan’s Lacrymae, a lament for our lost wild rivers that featured some exquisitely gentle playing.
Also played were delightful recorder sonatas by Handel and Telemann, presented by Genaehr with her usual infectious enthusiasm, flawless control and impeccable sense of style. The shakuhachi has no connections with Baroque music but Norman took the plunge, presenting a Handel flute sonata and a duet with recorder by Couperin…”
That was 16 years ago. I have dropped into Kiewa only a couple of times since. Unfortunately, this region is not on my usual circuit of touring, so Facebook has been a great way to stay in touch. Then in March this year, or perhaps a bit earlier, I was at home in Mornington and received a phone call from Ursula, “I want you to play at my funeral.” I hesitated, I didn’t know much about her condition. The thought of her dying was a little hard to grasp… she was a few months younger than me. Then I dared, “when are you planning that to be, exactly, Ursula?” “The Doctors say it could be soon. My condition is terminal.” My mind raced… all life is terminal! What do you say? “Winter. I think it will be winter,” she continued. “Ah… I will be in the Northern Territory in Winter… I am honoured to be asked, Ursula, and of course, I will do my best to be there…”
There were subsequent, brief correspondences, and it was clear that the promise to “do my best” was not good enough. I explained I may be in remote Arnhem Land, and contacting me may be tough, and to get out of there in a hurry could be prohibitively expensive… It made not a bit of difference. She wanted an unqualified “Yes”.
Over the next two months occasional FaceBook posts hinted at her steady decline, and she again messaged me with “You must be there to play.” So I simply typed, “I will play for you.” “Thank you.” So, I was committed. A day later, she kindly messaged. “Your travel expenses will be covered. Don’t worry.” I admit, that was an enormous relief.
Many weeks later, preparing to head north, I asked for the first time about details. “Who else will be performing?” And this is what Ursula typed from her hospital bed on 13 June at 7:14pm.
Peter Mander (Tenor) is singing from the 3rd movement of the Brahms Requiem
(Lord, please teach me that my life has an end and that I have to leave, that I have to go….) Good text and the only religious one. Later he will sing a Renaissance love song and a piece by Strauss. Good texts. I might have an Indian group dancing and a string quartet in the gardens. You would open the ceremony after everyone has moved in and is quiet…playing something of your choice. Then you would play in the middle after Peter Mander and when all is done, walk out playing the Shakuhachi. Anything you play will be fabulous so I leave the choice of music to you. Love, Ursula.
So, she was thinking of three pieces. Now to choose them, practice and prepare. In the meantime, my annual winter bronchitis had rendered me speechless and not at all well, and I was packing for my escape north to hot Darwin. Ursula may linger for weeks or months, I thought. I had already delayed my departure by a couple of weeks, but my body needed the warmth; my work up north could wait no longer; and my flight was booked. So I packed the appropriate scores and instruments and headed north to heal and work.
A week after touching down in Darwin, my voice and health improving daily, I had begun my transnotation work with a Yolngu songman, cultural elder and linguist team, but all too soon, I was back on a plane to wintery Tullamarine, followed by a long drive to the New South Wales border.
The next day, in Albury, the service began with me performing the ritual hand gestures, lifting of the shakuhachi and a bow of the head while facing the coffin, before turning to face the congregation to play Tamuke (Offering) — a Zen shakuhachi meditation dating back three or four hundred years. The gestures were taught to me by my first shakuhachi teacher, Nakamura Shindo, as the correct way to commence a piece as an offering for the dead. Ursula knew of this piece and had heard me play it before. I played the version taught to me by my second teacher, Tajima Tadashi, somewhat modified by subsequent master-classes with his teacher Yokoyama Katsuya. My understanding was that Ursula wanted me to help bring people to a place of focused silence to begin the proceedings. About 300 people filled the resonant 19th century church—a gathering of Ursula’s friends and music students, and Jürgen’s family members. These beautiful people were fully focused.
A warm welcome by the colourful Father Peter MacLeod-Miller, Arch Deacon, dressed in full purple regalia, followed. As he lit a candle for her, he informed us that Ursula had disliked black for funerals, and had stipulated that this was NOT to be a “religious” event. He then wryly reflected on Ursula’s choice of music when introducing the 3rd movement of Brahms Requiem, sung by the magnificent tenor Peter Mander and accompanied on piano by Ben Wilson.
This was followed by a verse from The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam (1120 CE) read by Ursula’s friend Rosemary Farrell. Rosie introduced herself as “The Fairy.” Apparently this was the nickname Ursula had given her. In the early years of Ursula’s move to her new home in Australia, Rosie had danced in a show with Ursula’s music, and their movement and music students sometimes performed together at the local Conservatorium. Rosie walked with a light step and liked to wear flowing and fluttery clothing, so for Ursula, Rosie was always ‘the fairy.’
Rosie said a few words about Ursula’s choice of reading, “I feel that this poem is about her relationship with us through music and Ursula’s relationship with life itself.”
With them a seed of Wisdom did I sow
And with my own hands Wrought to make it grow
And this is all the Harvest that I reap’d –
“I came like Water and like Wind I go”
Then came the Eulogy/Biography read by Fr Peter. As in life, Ursula organised her own funeral to the nth degree. In her “biography” Fr Peter said she described herself as “insubordinate” (he clearly agreed). And she also spoke of hating the habit of some Australian audiences of unwrapping lozenges, or eating and drinking during a performance. And she could not stand mobile phones going off in concerts. (This was the cue for us to turn them off!)
There was a call for tributes, and Rosie stepped forward and shared her tale of being hugged so strongly by Ursula one time, that her brand new gold bangle, gifted by her husband, had been crushed into a new shape, forever a reminder of Ursula. She held up the bangle and there was much laughter—it seems Ursula’s powerful embrace was known by all present. Fr Peter later spoke of how the combined energies within that hug had bent a gold bangle into a new shape. “Ursula, bent all of us into a new shape after meeting her.” He later commented that the gold bangle story represented how we all were now ‘Ursula-shaped’ because we shared in her life.
At the wake following the service, in the richly-furnished historic home of Adamshurst, I heard another tribute from Jenny who’d been too shy to step forward in the service. She told me and Rosie how she had been working as a lifeguard at the local pool, when Ursula had turned up with her violin and handed it to her, commissioning her to take good care of it while she swam. Over the weeks, she got to know Ursula and heard her say that there was not enough time to fit in her study of Bengali. Still holding the precious violin, Jenny suggested that Ursula kick her way up and down the pool with a laminated set of memory cards balanced on a kickboard held at arms length. The next week Ursula did just that! She turned up with that week’s vocabulary all duly laminated, and from then on studied as she kicked her way through the laps.
In the middle of the service, standing in the high pulpit, I played Unde – a chant composed by the German mystic Abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). A few days earlier in Darwin, I’d been inspired to make a new arrangement of this medieval chant, to be performed as a solo for shakuhachi and voice. I alternated playing Hildegard’s melodic line with singing the Latin text. I then combined alternating tones, blending sung and blown notes.
Unde quocumque veninetes perrexerunt,
Velut cum gaudio celestis paradisi suscepte sunt
Wherever they arrived at in their wanderings,
there was a warm welcome, like we shall receive in Paradise
Possibly too religious? At least I was wearing my colourful flares, although my top was black…
Fr Peter then led a spoken responsorial with the repeated declaration, “Ursula, we will remember you.” An audio recording of Ursula followed. She was speaking from her hospital bed a few days before she died. She shared highlights of her travels and marriage to Jürgen; the intelligence of animals; the central role of music in her life; her childhood and family in Germany; comparisons of the German and Australian education systems; her “passion” and lack of “fashion”; the need for our government to sanction same-sex marriage and her secret desire to be the flower girl for Fr Peter, if he ever had the time to find a partner! Her chat was filled with recommendations on how to live a good life. Ursula was ever opinionated and ever the teacher, even beyond the grave.
Peter Mander then sang the love song Amarilli by Guilio Caccinni (1551–1618) – incredibly beautiful. I had not heard this work before, and it reminded me of Orpheo’s lament for Eurydice from Monteverdi’s opera of 1607. I must listen to more Caccinni! Peter’s tenor voice has a passionate beauty that is delicious.
This was followed by a photo tribute with a sound track of Vivaldi recorder music, which showed various aspects of Ursula’s life including trips to Bangladesh, Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka and India with Jürgen.
Then came a reading from Morgen! (Tomorrow!) by John Henry Mackay, a Scottish German friend of Richard Strauss, who set his words to music in 1894. The lyrics of this famous German love song were presented in the original German on the order of service, but read in English by Fr Peter. I truly felt for Jürgen at this point.
And tomorrow the sun will shine again
and on the way that I will go,
she will again unite us, the happy ones
amidst this sun-breathing earth,
and to the beach, wide, wave-blue
will we still and slowly descend
silently we will look in each other’s eyes
and upon us will sink the mute silence of happiness
Following the committal, Peter Mander and Ben Wilson performed Zueignung — a different work by Richard Strauss. I was hiding up in the walled pulpit, just loving the glorious sounds of Peter’s voice. What a treat! Ursula knew what she was doing! Peter Mander had driven up from Melbourne for this funeral.
My cough was threatening to return, so, contrary to the dictates of Ursula, I very quietly poured myself a drink of tea from my small thermos and unwrapped a lozenge to suck. Snugly hidden on the carpeted floor of the pulpit enclosure, I silently toasted my fiercely correct friend and fellow insubordinate.
It was then my turn. I walked to the raised altar area behind the coffin and began playing Tsuru no Sugomori (Nesting Cranes) – a piece that has become my signature tune over the last three decades: a beautiful contemplation on the cranes of Japan, and one that I have always associated with the brolgas and cranes of Australia. As I played, I spotted the coffin bearers hovering up the back, wondering when they should come down to move the coffin. Still playing, I nodded to them, and they advanced. Turning around the wheeled trolley cradling the coffin, they set off down the central aisle with Ursula’s body enclosed within the beautifully painted coffin. [The belly of a humpback whale was painted on its underside, only visible by those of us cheeky enough to lie down on the floor before the service and admire it.]
The funeral director then asked the people to be upstanding as the coffin passed from the church, and he encouraged members of the Lett family in the second front row to lead the exit of people from the church. Jürgen gently intervened, and I was able to slowly walk the full length of the aisle playing the shakuhachi as I passed between the upstanding friends and family of this remarkable musician, music teacher and perpetual music student (she took up oboe when there was no oboist to play in the local orchestra!) Clearly, Ursula had touched the lives of so many students and families in the communities straddling the Murray river.
At the door I turned to face back into the church as I played the last notes. I then beckoned for folk to follow. Ursula had said I was to be a Pied Piper to take them out of the church, but Jürgen had modified that with “they must stay still and listening until you have finished.” I walked out into a crisp but mild winter’s day, took a sprig of rosemary and placed it on Ursula’s beautiful coffin, now in the back of the open hearse. I had fulfilled my promise.
I’m not sure why Ursula asked me to play for her funeral exactly. She was aware that shakuhachi was used a tool for Zen meditation and prayer from the early 1600s in Japan, although the instrument is older than that. I have played Tamuke—Offering for the Dead for many memorials and funerals over the years. It has a power all its own. Ursula had heard me play it in the past for Machiko, but she hadn’t dictated which pieces I was to play for her funeral. She’d left that to me.
Ursula was a larger than life personality, a very fine musician, and thoroughly insubordinate. I am very grateful to have met her.
“Ursula, we will remember you.”
— you came like Water and like Wind you go —
My FaceBook entry on 25 June at 20:36 https://www.facebook.com/AnneMNorman
To all those who sent me beautiful birthday messages and greetings, thank you. I have just arrived at a motel in Seymour en route to Albury… ran out of energy, so will continue the journey tomorrow morning. Started the day in lovely warm Darwin, had a laksa with beautiful Anisha Angelroth at Rapid Creek markets and then on to the airport. A fun time in the air next to a lovely couple from Winchelsea – Charlie and Jennie, sharing crazy travelling yarns and life philosophies. Got myself an invite to go and watch the Brolgas dancing on their farm one day … nice. At Tullamarine I changed from summer into winter clothes. The woman on the Thrifty Car rental desk kindly filled my thermos and I sipped a superb Honey Mountain oolong from Taiwan in a comfy car, until I decided it was time to rest. After turning on the warm heater and electric blanket, I open my laptop to find many warm birthday greetings, thank you. Tomorrow I play shakuhachi for a friend’s funeral in Albury. A remarkable woman … will tell you more tomorrow. Time for bed. Love to all. Anne
Jürgen’s son, Ian, posted photos and a lovely comment on Facebook following the funeral: 26 June at 21:31
What a woman. Celebrating the life of Ursula Genaehr today were over 200 people. And many fine musicians. When Anne Norman played haunting shakuhachi flute in St Matthews Church in Albury I ached for each note. And I yearned for more at the end of each note. Ursula would have loved it.