I had just graduated from high school and as a boy from upstate New York was faced with changes my life. For the first time in my life, I was going to be away from home for an extended period of time as I began my freshman year at the SUNY at Buffalo. At the same time, my friend, Mike Debatt was facing a similar situation. The boy from Brooklyn was away from home too as a part of that same freshman class. We met each other when we joined the AFROTC Program. As classmates, we got to know each other well and discovered that our interests intersected in many ways. We both ended up as Political Science majors, and we both loved classical music. Within two years we were roommates in an apartment near school.
As we shared that apartment, we also shared our interest in music. Even with our meager resources as college students, we grew our collection of classical albums. The real cherished albums were produced by either Angel Records or Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft, or DGG. They usually had the finest orchestras and the greatest selection of repertoire. Among the many composers we listened to, one of our favorites was Ludwig van Beethoven. There were times when the three of us would gather in that apartment, Ludwig, Mike and me, sharing in some of the greatest music of the last two centuries.
In 1970, the focus on Ludwig van Beethoven became quite intense, as Beethoven’s 200th birthday would fall on December 16th, 1970. I was always able to remember Ludwig’s birthday, as mine was one day earlier on December 15th. On that day, we all gathered in the apartment and I was given several gifts to open. I will never forget Mike’s gift. It was a DGG boxed set of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic. I was ecstatic! Beethoven’s birthday was going to be very special that year.
We spent many hours listening to that wonderful set. Beethoven’s famous symphonies like the “Eroica”, the “Pastoral” and his monumental 5th were a joy to hear, articulated by one of the great Beethoven interpreters of that age, Herbert von Karajan. Of all these symphonies, one stood out above all others, Beethoven’s 9th. In a stroke of genius, Beethoven included a choral finale in the fourth movement based upon Schiller’s poem “An die Freude” or “Ode to Joy”. The joining of orchestral and choral voices during the finale was a revolutionary step, but the product is simply amazing and unforgettable. Ludwig, Mike and I became fast friends, cemented in a common love of Ludwig’s amazing 9th.
In less than two years, our friendship entered a new phase. We graduated from college, accepted our USAF commissions and went to different parts of the country. Mike went to Navigator Training in California. I went off to Illinois to Aircraft Maintenance Officer Training. In a way our lives intersected again, as we both ended up in the Strategic Air Command, Mike as a B-52 crew member in Georgia, and I as a Maintenance Officer in New Hampshire. We still got together on a few occasions. He was in my wedding party and I was in his. We maintained contact with letters and phone calls as time went on. We both ended up separating from the USAF and moved into civilian jobs. Mike moved to Rhode Island and went into the investment community. I moved to Saratoga Springs, New York and went into manufacturing.
Living in Saratoga had a neat benefit. The Saratoga Performing Arts Center was only four miles from my home and was the summer home of the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra. While there I had the chance to visit our friend Ludwig. The Philadelphia Orchestra was performing Beethoven’s 9th! I had never seen Beethoven’s 9th performed live and couldn’t wait to go to the concert. What an experience! As I sat on the lawn on a gorgeous summer night, I looked at the heavens above me while I was transcended by Schiller’s words and Beethoven’s music; “Ahnest du den Schopfer, Welt? Such ihn uber’m Sternenzelt. Uber Sternen muss ehr wohnen.” Yes, I felt the creator, knowing that He dwelt beyond the stars. O Freude, what joy!
As the years went by, our respective lives changed yet again. I moved to Florida many years ago and began feeding my love of music by joining our church choir and singing. Mike moved into management with his company and accepted a position as Branch Manager in Albany, New York, my hometown. We had an opportunity to visit while we were on vacation in New York about fifteen years ago and had a chance to reminisce and share our friendship.
In 2005, I had yet another opportunity to visit with Ludwig. The Florida Orchestra and The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay were performing Beethoven’s 9th. Lynn and I went to the concert and savored that wonderful music yet again, but with a slightly different feeling as we knew several of the orchestra members and had friends who sang in the Master Chorale. During that concert, I told myself that, should my schedule permit, I would love to be a part of the Chorale.
In late 2005, the lives of Mike and I intersected again. Mike had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. As he and his wife Jan sought treatment from doctors throughout the northeast, they were given the news that the tumor was inoperable. They came to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, where surgeons felt that they may be able to excise the tumor and offer Mike a chance to recover. The surgery was scheduled for November. Mike and I made tentative plans to meet for dinner once the surgery was complete. Unfortunately, the surgery did not go as planned and complications set in. The next time I saw Mike at Moffitt, he was in a coma from which he would not recover. I did my best to support Jan and her family as she faced difficult decisions. Mike was placed in a hospice facility in Dade City. I made several trips to the Hospice to see Mike. My last trip was the night before he passed away in January, 2006.
A year later in April, 2007, we all returned to the Dade City Hospice for a reunion. Mike’s family had made a donation to the facility and was awarded a plaque to honor their contribution. Lynn and I went to the reunion, where we met Mike’s former B-52 crew. I decided to honor Mike by singing a song called “Eternal Father Strong to Save”, which asks help from God in caring for those in the military. We all shared our memories of Mike, and I recounted the story of the Beethoven boxed set he gave to me which I still own and treasure.
In August of 2007, I learned that The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay was holding auditions for new singers. Since my work schedule had changed and would permit me to attend rehearsals, I signed up to audition. We were told to bring a favorite song to sing as part of the audition. I selected “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”. I was pleasantly surprised to hear from the Master Chorale that I passed the audition and was now a member of the ensemble.
At the end of my third year in the Chorale, I learned that we were scheduled to perform Beethoven’s 9th in 2011. Once again, I was ecstatic. I would now have the opportunity to become even more intimate with Ludwig’s beloved 9th. Since then I have had the honor of performing Beethoven’s 9th two more times, once with The Florida orchestra and once with the Cleveland Orchestra in Miami.
Oh, by the way, the last building I see before I turn into the USF School of Music parking lot on the way to Master Chorale rehearsal each week is the Moffitt Cancer Center. Having spent so many hours there visiting Mike, I think of him every time I see it.
This week, we are in final rehearsal for the opening concert of The Florida Orchestra’s 2016-2017 season, featuring Poulenc’s “Gloria” and Beethoven’s beloved 9th Symphony. 150 voices are prepared to join with the Florida Orchestra and soloists as we put life into the notes printed on a page. Under Maestro Michael Francis’ direction, we will combine our preparation with Dr. James K. Bass and Brett Karlin to create a memorable event for all in attendance to hear.
I know it will be both memorable and emotional for me. As I stand on the risers, my mind will go back to that apartment in Buffalo, the DGG boxed set, and a pair of friendships going back more than forty years. Ludwig went on to be with the Creator centuries ago. Ten years ago, Mike joined him. I know that they are both watching and will be at that performance with all of us on that stage.
As for me, I will sing for Mike: “Einem Freund gepruft im Tod”