“Eons must have lapsed before the human eye grew keen enough and the human soul large enough to give sympathetic comprehension to the beauty of bare branches laced across changing skies.”
By Maria Popova
There is something about the skeletal splendor of winter trees — so vascular, so axonal, so pulmonary — that fills the lung of life with a special atmosphere of aliveness. Something beyond the knowledge that wintering is the root of trees’ resilience, beyond the revelation of their fractal nature and how it salves the soul with its geometry of grief. Something that humbles you to the barest, most beautiful face of the elemental.
I know of no one who has captured that singular enchantment better than the artist, naturalist, philosopher, entomologist, and educator Anna Botsford Comstock (September 1, 1854–August 24, 1930).
In 1902, nine years before she laid the cultural groundwork for what we now call youth climate action in her exquisite field guide to wonder, Comstock wrote an article for the magazine Country Life that became, fourteen years later, her slender, tender book Trees at Leisure (public library | public domain) — a love letter to the science, splendor, and spiritual rewards of our barked, branched, rooted chaperones of being.
A century before Ursula K. Le Guin so mightily unsexed the universal pronoun, Comstock considers the role trees have played in “the aesthetic education of man” since the dawn of evolutionary time and writes:
Ages may have passed before man gained sufficient mental stature to pay admiring tribute to the tree standing in all the glory of its full leafage, shimmering in the sunlight, making its myriad bows to the restless winds; but eons must have lapsed before the human eye grew keen enough and the human soul large enough to give sympathetic comprehension to the beauty of bare branches laced across changing skies, which is the tree-lover’s full heritage.
Noting that “the mortal who has never enjoyed a speaking acquaintance with some individual tree is to be pitied,” for a tree “brings serene comfort to the human heart,” Comstock celebrates winter as the season that welcomes the most intimate connection between the human heart and trees:
In winter, we are prone to regard our trees as cold, bare, and dreary; and we bid them wait until they are again clothed in verdure before we may accord to them comradeship. However, it is during this winter resting time that the tree stands revealed to the uttermost, ready to give its most intimate confidences to those who love it. It is indeed a superficial acquaintance that depends upon the garb worn for half the year; and to those who know them, the trees display even more individuality in the winter than in the summer. The summer is the tree’s period of reticence, when, behind its mysterious veil of green, it is so busy with its own life processes that it has no time for confidences, and may only now and then fling us a friendly greeting.
Winter, Comstock observes, is the best time for learning to tell trees apart from each other. How to discern, and inevitably fall in love with, different species — the sycamore, with its “great undulating, serpent-like branches, blotched with white”; the golden osier willow, with its “magnificent trunk and giant limbs upholding a mass of terminal shoots that tinge with warm ocher the winter landscape”; the apple, with its “maze of twigs” and its “great twisted branches making picturesque any scene” — is what Comstock explores throughout the rest of her sapling-sized, sequoia-spirited Trees at Leisure.
For a different portal into growing more intimate with trees, explore Italian artist, designer, futurist, and inventor Bruno Munari’s uncommon vintage gem Drawing a Tree. Then, for no reason other than sheer delight, savor Women in Trees.
“If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.”
By Maria Popova
A century before an encyclopedia titled Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know fell into Alan Turing’s child-hands and seeded the ideas that bloomed into the computing revolution, an encyclopedia titled Wonders of the World fell into the child-hands of Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882), seeding in him the passion for travel to remote wonderlands of nature that took him aboard the Beagle to make the observations that ultimately came abloom in his evolutionary revolution.
Between lessons on Euclid, the teenage Darwin sat for hours reading poetry: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Shakespeare, Milton. Later, when he could only carry a single book on his voyages, he carried Paradise Lost.
At twenty, after traveling to a “music meeting” in Birmingham, Darwin wrote to his cousin: “[It] was the most glorious thing I ever experienced.” His love of music grew so intense that, as he began formulating his ideas about evolutionary descent, he timed his thinking-walks to hear the choir at Kings College Chapel. “It gave me intense pleasure, so that my backbone would sometimes shiver,” he recalled in his old age, baffled that music could move him so deeply despite his own exceptionally bad ear for pitch. (Here Darwin falls victim to his time and training, looking for a physiological explanation before the birth of psychology and neuroscience, before we understood how music moves us not by sense-organ mechanics but by the lever of feeling — that supreme interpretive art of higher consciousness, so that “matter delights in music, and became Bach.”)
This feeling-tone of the beautiful, this delight in the native poetry and musicality of aliveness, accompanied Darwin as he dove deeper and deeper into science to emerge with nothing less than a new world order of understanding the natural world and our place in it. In the last months of finalizing On the Origin of Species, the forty-nine-year-old Darwin wrote in an ecstatic letter to his wife and great love, Emma:
I strolled a little beyond the glade for an hour and a half… the fresh yet dark green of the grand old Scotch firs, the brown of the catkins of the old birches, with their white stems, and a fringe of distant green from the larches, made an excessively pretty view… a chorus of birds singing around me, and squirrels running up the trees, and some woodpeckers laughing… it was as pleasant and rural a scene as ever I saw and did not care one penny how the beasts or birds had been formed.
When the Beagle took him to Brazil in his mid-twenties, Darwin gasped in his journal as he beheld the grandeur of the rainforest:
It is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.
These “higher feelings” shaped his notion of divinity — he observed that the devotional experience people cite as their proof of God is based on the same “sense of sublimity” that nature’s grandeur stirs in the spirit, the same “powerful though vague and similar feelings excited by music.” (Two centuries later, the poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman would echo and harmonize this idea in her lovely notion of the Earth ecstatic as a personal religion.)
But then, as Darwin grew old, something happened — something he himself struggled to understand, something that caused him great sorrow: This radiant delight in aliveness through the transcendent experience of beauty — be it in spring’s symphony of songbirds or in a Bach sonata, in a Whitman poem or in the slant of sunlight on a centuries-old oak — grew dim, then was altogether extinguished. Darwin found himself mentally alert and active, but blind, deaf, dead to the life of feeling with which beauty inspirits us.
This gave him both his greatest regret and his greatest insight into the purpose of life.
In his final years, Darwin set aside an hour each afternoon to reflect on his life and to impart the private cosmogony of meaning he had discovered in his seven decades. In a set of autobiographical sketches he wrote for his children, bearing the heading “Recollections of the Development of My Mind and Character,” he considered what makes us human, what makes us happy, and what makes life worth living. After his death, finding in these notes immense insight and universal value, his children edited and published them as The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (public library).
In one of these recollections, the elderly Darwin writes:
My mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years… Poetry of many kinds… gave me great pleasure… Pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight… But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry…Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did.
In a sentiment of extraordinary lucidity and humility, and of immense foresight given what we have since learned about the brain, Darwin bends his mind into examining its own inner workings, illuminating the most essential nature of the human animal — a beast of feeling, wired not for brutality but for beauty:
My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
Anyone who has ever experienced limerence — a staggering more-than-third of the population, although everyone undergoing it feels alienated, alone, and abnormal — feels the instant relief of recognition. Anyone who has never experienced it feels baffled that a state so illogical can so possess otherwise rational and responsible people with no distinct psychopathology. Anyone who has found themselves on the receiving end of it — a “limerent object” — has shared in being at first flattered, then frustrated, then even furious at being so unpeeled from the reality of themselves in the ensnared eyes of the other.
Psychologist and philosopher of science Dorothy Tennov (August 29, 1928–February 3, 2007) coined the term limerence in the 1970s, drawing on a decade of research: data from thousands of questionnaires she administered, centuries of autobiographies and published personal journals, and several hundred case studies of people she interviewed from a wilderness of backgrounds and life-situations, all revealing a strikingly similar experience. Although she should have won a Nobel Prize for it — if the prize itself recognized the value of psychology to human welfare on a par with awarded disciplines like economics and physiology — she was largely dismissed and derided at the time she presented it, a time when the patriarchy of psychology was still ensnared by Freud’s fraudulent authoritarianism. Although her work became foundational to attachment theory, she died a footnote in the literature of her field.
Tennov detailed her revelatory findings in the 1979 book Love and Limerence (public library), in which she describes limerence as “an uncontrollable, biologically determined, inherently irrational, instinct-like reaction” that gnaws at the foundation of our vain beliefs about free will, unique among human experience in the total control it assumes of one’s thought process and the total helplessness of the thinker, no matter their degree of intelligence, emotional maturity, self-awareness, psychological stability, or force of will. Indeed, the single most crucial feature of limerence Tennov found is “its intrusiveness, its invasion of consciousness against our will.” (In this respect, I find, its closest kin is grief — that mental mouse that “chooses Wainscot in the Breast for His Shy House — and baffles quest.”)
People have been trying to control limerence without much success for as far back as records go, but it is remarkably tenacious, involuntary, and resistant to external influence once it takes hold… Limerence is unaffected by the intensity of our desire to call it into or out of existence at our wills… It can override self-welfare, and its power over life seems neither diminished with age nor less for one sex than for the other.
Drawing on her vast sample of “informants” — a term honoring the purpose of this research as the integration of information into greater understanding of what it means to be human, which I find to be a lovely improvement over the pathologizing “patients” or the dehumanizing “subjects” used by most psychologists and clinicians — Tennov distills the most elemental characteristics of limerence:
intrusive thinking about the limerent object, or “LO”
acute longing for reciprocation
dependency of mood on LO’s actions or, more accurately, your interpretation of LO’s actions with respect to the probability of reciprocation
inability to react limerently to more than one person at a time (exceptions occur only when limerence is at low ebb — early on or in the last fading)
some fleeting and transient relief from unrequited limerent passion through vivid imagination of action by LO that means reciprocation
fear of rejection and sometimes incapacitating but always unsettling shyness in LO’s presence, especially in the beginning and whenever uncertainty strikes
intensification through adversity (at least, up to a point)
acute sensitivity to any act or thought or condition that can be interpreted favorably, and an extraordinary ability to devise or invent “reasonable” explanations for why the neutrality that the disinterested observer might see is in fact a sign of hidden passion in the LO
an aching of the “heart” (a region in the center front of the chest) when uncertainty is strong
buoyancy (a feeling of walking on air) when reciprocation seems evident
a general intensity of feeling that leaves other concerns in the background
a remarkable ability to emphasize what is truly admirable in LO and to avoid dwelling on the negative, even to respond with a compassion for the negative and render it, emotionally if not perceptually, into another positive attribute
This total takeover of the will is what sets limerence apart from attraction, romantic fantasy, or a mere crush — takeover that begins with a level of stealth that reminds me of the famous parasitic wasp, mind-controlling its caterpillar victim into self-destruction. Tennov writes:
The onset of limerence has a voluntary feel about it. We go readily and willfully toward its promises of joy. It is only later that images of LO intrude unbidden and the mind suddenly cannot be set elsewhere the way a wayward volume might be returned to the bookshelf… Then there comes the time when you have had enough and want to finish it. Rational bases for hopefulness have been exhausted. The intrusions and literal aches of unfulfilled desire and precious wasted moments of life force the recognition that control may not be total. You even wonder about the past when control seemed possible, if not assured. Uncertainty increases. You wonder if you had the control you thought you had and whether you ever will again.
Whatever factors cause an individual to “select” a specific LO, limerence cements the reaction and locks the emotional gates against further intrusion. This exclusivity, which always occurs in limerence, weakens the effect of physical attractiveness, since the most beautiful individual in the world cannot compete with LO once limerence has taken hold.
Even so, and crucially so, Tennov is careful to make clear that although limerence is at odds with rationality, although it can be painful to the point of agony for the limerent and uncomfortable to the point of exasperation for the LO at whom its glaring beam of attention and need is directed, it is not a psychopathology, nor does it have correlation or consistent co-occurrence with any known mental illnesses. Rather, it is a style of attachment, the origins of which are still unclear and the course of which is nearly identical in all limerents — people otherwise reasonable and high-functioning. It strikes indiscriminately across age, race, gender, orientation, and calling, though it does seem to afflict the creative disproportionately, perhaps because the very process of limerence is in a sense a creative process — a process of sustained attention and selective amplification. (Indeed, an understanding of limerence suddenly casts a new light upon some of the world’s greatest works of art: So many classic love songs are heard anew as hymns of limerence, so many classic love poems are read anew as limerent elegies, in the proper dual sense of lamentation and celebration — the hundreds Emily Dickinson wrote to, for, and about her lifelong LO being a supreme example.)
Tennov also draws a distinction between limerence and projection:
Crystallization fashions an image of “perfections” from LO’s actual attractive features, the process… being one of emphasis rather than complete invention. In the laboratory, it was found that prolonged exposure to the imprinting object or person was unnecessary. In fact, the attachment could be undermined by too much familiarity.
When seen through the lens of these thousands of unambiguous and near-identical case studies — which illuminate limerence as an involuntary reaction to a stimuli still unclear, governed by emotional mechanisms still unclear but clearly and consistently at work — Tennov notes that “it becomes as illogical to favor (or not to favor) limerence as it is to favor (or not favor) eating, elimination, or sneezing.” She writes:
Limerence is not the product of human decision: It is something that happens to us. Its intrusive cognitive components, the obsessional quality that may feel voluntary at the moment but that defies control, seem to be the aspect of limerence in which it differs most from other states.
The most arresting characteristic of limerence — and the one most disabling to the sufferer — is that it takes hold only in conditions that sustain both hope and uncertainty, in a ratio that must not skew too far in either direction, or else limerence dissolves. Tennov contours the paradoxical demand:
For the process to develop fully, some form of uncertainty or doubt, or even some threat to reciprocation appears necessary. There is considerable evidence that an externally imposed obstacle, such as Romeo and Juliet met in the resistance of family and society, may also serve.
Too early a declaration on the limerent’s part or, on the other hand, too early evidence of reciprocation on LO’s part may prevent the development of the full limerent reaction. Something must happen to break a totally positive interaction. Not that totally positive reactions are without highly redeeming features in themselves; it is only that they stop the progression to full or maximum limerence.
However unappealing it may be in a universe conceived as orderly and humane, the fact is undeniable; fear of rejection may cause pain, but it also enhances desire.
Limerence can live a long life sustained by crumbs. Indeed, overfeeding is perhaps the best way to end it.
A further subtlety of this dual requirement of hope and uncertainty is that — for all of its irrationality, for all of its improbable optimisms and willful blindnesses — limerence, unlike delusion, lives in the locus of the possible. It is, in fact, sustained by that slender thread of possibility fraying from the loom of the improbable. Tennov writes:
Limerent fantasy is rooted in reality — that is, in what the limerent person interprets as reality. Your limerent daydreams may be unlikely, even highly unlikely, but they retain fidelity to the possible.
She examines the elementary particles and fundamental forces of limerence:
Limerence is, above all else, mental activity. It is an interpretation of events, rather than the events themselves. You admire, you are physically attracted, you see, or think you see (or deem it possible to see under “suitable” conditions), the hint of possible reciprocity, and the process is set in motion.
Because limerent fantasy depends on how you actually perceive reality, its content, which leads up to and renders plausible the ecstatic finale, varies not only from person to person, but from day to day as new knowledge becomes available.
Across all the limerents Tennov studied, the process follows a basic life-cycle and results in a set number of possible outcomes:
Limerence may begin as a barely perceptible feeling of increased interest in a particular person but one which if nurtured by appropriate conditions can grow to enormous intensity. In most cases, it also declines, eventually to zero or to a low level. At this low level, limerence is either transformed through reciprocation or it is transferred to another person, who then becomes the object of a new limerent passion. Under the best of conditions, the waning of limerence through mutuality is accompanied by the growth of the emotional response more suitably described as love.
The object of limerent desire, Tennov notes again and again, is not physical intimacy but emotional reciprocity — sex with the LO factors in only to the extent that the limerent interprets it as a symbol of reciprocity. Perhaps the most haunting aspect of the condition is that no reciprocity of love, whatever its nature or magnitude, can slake the longing for reciprocity of limerence. In fact, limerence most commonly develops in actual and not imagined relationships, often very close ones — deep friendships, or even love-relationships, in which one person is limerent toward the other but the other is nonlimerent.
The complexity, confusion, and suffering limerence inflicts are most intense in relationships where other factors — genuine friendship, shared experience, mutual artistic or intellectual admiration, kindred calling — exist rather independently of limerence, but have been subsumed by it. In such relationships, both the limerent and the LO can suffer greatly in the effort to disentangle one context from the other in order to salvage and reframe in a non-limerent context what is at bottom a deep and valuable connection. This I note both as a synthesis of Tennov’s research and as a lived record of my own experience.
Tennov highlights the difference between limerent and non-limerent attachment, which might share some major surface manifestations but spring from profoundly different emotional needs:
The person who is not limerent toward you may feel great affection and concern for you, even tenderness, and possibly sexual desire as well. A relationship that includes no limerence may be a far more important one in your life, when all is said and done, than any relationship in which you experienced the strivings of limerent passion. Limerence is not in any way preeminent among types of human attractions or interactions; but when limerence is in full force, it eclipses other relationships.
This asymmetry of feeling creates an asymmetry of responsibility, tilted in the other direction — toward the non-limerent person better capable of willful action and conscientious choice than the disabled limerent. In my own experience, the thoughtfulness, truthfulness, and tenderness with which a person exercises that responsibility — or does not — is one of the most revealing tests of character. Tennov writes:
Knowledge of the limerent state clearly suggests that the nonlimerent LO has certain responsibilities of an ethical kind. Better understanding of what the limerent person is undergoing and how your actions as LO influence that response will help to diminish the pain that the limerent person is experiencing, as well as the suffocating attention that is unpleasant for you.
The most heartbreaking aspect of limerence, the one that best highlights its disabling infestation of the will, is the excruciating self-awareness that haloes it — often so acute as to call to mind the out-of-body experience reported by coma victims who find themselves fully aware of what is going on in the room, even observing their own motionless body as though from some higher vantage point above the hospital bed.
With his permission, Tennov quotes at length from the diaries of one such exceptionally self-aware young man — Fred, one her psychology students, who grew limerent toward a woman he encountered during a research fellowship in France. Writing in the bleak pit of winter, after several months of limerence, Fred records with astonishing lucidity the respite afforded by a temporary disruption of the vital hope/uncertainty ratio that sustains limerence:
I feel a large impassable gap between us across which I must look ridiculous. Thus it is that my image of her image of me as reflected in her behavior and my own, not a change in her qualities (her attractiveness, for example), has produced this new condition of relative indifference towards Laura. I am afraid that this relief is temporary, however, and I will return to being more intensely stricken, but it shows the dampening effect that clear rejection can have. At least it is giving me an interlude in which I can get some work done.
Six tortuous limerent months later, at the peak of summer, he writes in another diary entry that captures the most terrifying aspect not only of limerence but of all love, at some fundamental level:
It seems to me that being romantically attracted to Laura means that I am bending my image of her until it is distorted. Things that might produce an unpleasant picture, I simply do not see. When she appears by relatively objective standards, beautiful and capable, I look long and hard. But when she is not at her best, when I catch her face in an unflattering angle, I turn my eyes away. If she were in love with me, she would do the same, and we might both be aware of the process in the other because we could feel it in ourselves. If that is true, “loving back” is actually furthering a deception. Only the best angles are allowed to show or be seen. To do anything else is to increase the risk of the dreaded rejection. But it is a disservice to a person not to perceive them the way they really are.
I hear echoes here of the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s gentle, sobering admonition that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” rooted in his teaching that “understanding is love’s other name.” To understand a person is to endeavor to accurately perceive their experience, their sorrows, their joys, their deepest needs as they really are. Limerence, in this sense, is the resignation of understanding.
Tennov identifies only three things that can reliably end limerence:
consummation: the bliss of reciprocation is gradually either blended into a lasting love or replaced by less positive feelings
starvation: even limerent sensitivity to signs of hope is useless against the onslaught of evidence that LO does not return the limerence
transformation: limerence is transferred to a new LO
But while limerence can be debilitating to its sufferer and stressful to the point of trauma for its object, its umbra of inadvertent harm reaches beyond the limerent and the LO — most commonly, and most vulnerably, to the children of limerent parents. Tennov shares the case study of one woman who reflected ruefully in midlife:
Today my children are grown and gone. I’m lucky if they get here on Christmas and call on Mother’s Day. I can tell you that I’d give anything to be back in the tiny apartment with my babies. The ironic and really tragic thing is that when my children were little, I was all wrapped up in my love affairs and unable to give them the time and attention I wish I could look back on.
I remember the summer that Amelia turned three. She was an adorable child. Everyone commented. I was sitting on the porch. I had just received Jeremy’s farewell letter and I was miserable over the rejection. For some reason I remember that Amelia tried to get up on my lap. She wanted me to read her a story. The painful part of the memory is that I turned her away and preferred to sit alone thinking of that horrible man than to care for and enjoy my little girl. How I wish I could get those days back again.
This case study struck me with particular resonance, for I have been that little girl in my own childhood and I have observed the mother’s tendencies in myself as an adult — a disquieting correlation that contours one of the many unmapped territories for further research that Tennov left in her wake: the question of heredity and developmental modeling in the origin of limerence.
Indeed, Tennov ends her revelatory Love and Limerence with optimism for future research, buoyed by a bold defiance of the dated idea that scientific knowledge of reality diminishes its wonder — an idea all the more pervasive in the study of feeling due to our millennia-deep mythologies of love as a separate species of experience. In a sentiment evocative of Ode to a Flower — Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman’s classic meditation on knowledge and mystery — Tennov argues that scientific inquiry will not “rob us of the ecstasy of reciprocation or of the artistic creations which limerence tends so often to inspire,” and writes:
I do not believe that to know limerence is to destroy it any more than to understand the physics of ionization is to destroy the beauty of the Paris sky.
Limerence theory is not merely a step toward understanding romantic love; it is also a step toward understanding how we can transcend those aspects of our inborn behavioral tendencies that inhibit our progress in the direction of self-determination… It may not be in contemplation of outer space that the greatest discoveries and explorations of the coming centuries will occur, but in our finally deciding to heed the dictum of self-understanding.
In an insight of tremendous foresight, presaging the scientific discoveries and still-unfolding mindset reorientation of the half-century since, she adds:
We have watched the field of psychology succumb to invisible pressures to conform to what is now beginning to be recognized as an outdated and inhibiting philosophy, an inordinate and ultimately stultifying disinclination to view ourselves as biological creatures. I believe it is time to reject that philosophy in favor of a new humility which bends to the innermost voices of our fundamental nature, and, in so doing, to shape that nature in accordance with truly human values which can only be discovered when we learn truly what it means to be human.
“Music has a unifying effect on the peoples of the world, because they all understand and love it… And when they find themselves enjoying and loving the same music, they find themselves loving one another.”
By Maria Popova
Julia Perry (March 25, 1924–April 25, 1979) studied at Juilliard, studied in Paris, spent more than a decade composing a haunting opera based on the Salem witch trials, wrote an operatic ballet based on Oscar Wilde’s almost unbearably tender book The Selfish Giant and a stunning orchestral requiem for Vivaldi, and went on to fuse the European classical tradition with African spirituals in extraordinary, deeply original music spanning nearly every classical genre, pulsating with an indiscriminate love of all that is human, soulful, and therefore beautiful.
The fourth of five daughters to a Kentucky schoolteacher and a pianist-physician, Julia — a cheerful tomboy, fiercely extroverted — was attending a school for gifted children by the age of ten, studying voice and violin, riding her bicycle everywhere, and unspooling her rich dramatic soprano in the town’s chamber music concerts. She was sixteen when her elder sister and musical muse — a gifted pianist and cellist — was killed in a train accident, of which Julia never spoke but which (how could it not) marked her deeply; music (how could it not) became her surviving connection to her sister as it offered its universal salve for grief.
She was not yet thirty when her magnum opus, the Stabat Mater, was being widely performed by European and American orchestras. In 1965, her Short Piece for Orchestra became the first composition by a woman of color to be performed by The New York Philharmonic and only the third by any woman. Even after a stroke paralyzed her right hand, Julia Perry taught herself to write with the left so she could go on making music, which she did even at the hospital, composing the last of her twelve symphonies — Symphony No. 12, “Simple Symphony” — there.
A woman of color and genius in a pre-Civil-Rights white man’s world, she scored the arc of history with her prescient words, doing for the common language of music what Einstein, brilliant and persecuted, had done for the common language of science eight years earlier in the midst of a World War, in the midst of exile.
In 1949, Perry wrote:
Music is an all-embracing, universal language. Music has a unifying effect on the peoples of the world, because they all understand and love it. In music they find common meeting ground. And when they find themselves enjoying and loving the same music, they find themselves loving one another… Music has a great role to play in establishing the brotherhood of man.
Complement with Perry’s German contemporary Joseph Pieper on how music saves our souls, her English contemporary Aldous Huxley on its transcendent power, and her American colleague Aaron Copland (who was also taught by Nadia Boulanger — the first female conductor of The New York Philharmonic, Perry’s teacher in Paris) on how to be a gifted listener, then savor this stunning 2021 performance of Perry’s work by the Experiential Orchestra (who have previously done the same civilizational service — the vital work of resistance to the selective erasure of genius and beauty — for another forgotten, trailblazing composer: the deaf visionary Ethel Smyth).