Kathryn’s aunt, Eleanor Knowles Laney, died a few weeks ago. She had been ill with a particularly ironic form of dementia for several years, but still the death of anyone close strikes home.
Ellie’s genius lay in words, and her ability to use them, and manipulate them. Early in her career she lived and worked in New York City, incubating her loves of writing, and Broadway drama and music, museums and other culture. Later she wrote for Salt Lake City’s Deseret News, and then for years edited for Deseret Books, the publishing arm of the Mormon church. Once she had a near-best seller on her hands. Eleanor got the assignment to write a biography of Howard W. Hunter, a member of the Mormon church’s highest council, the Council of the Twelve. Shortly after the book was published in 1987 or 1988, the president of the church, Marion G. Romney, died. Hunter was elevated to the presidency of the church, “prophet, seer and revelator” in LDS terms. Suddenly, Mormons all over the world wanted a copy of Ellie’s book.
With her love of words and music, Ellie’s infamy included her ability to pull from the depths a lyric from some Broadway show particularly appropriate, and funny, to whatever event unfolded at the moment. She was murder at Scrabble. Ellie’s family — siblings, nephews and nieces, husband and friends — shared at least some of this obsession with music and words.
I kid you not: At a family reunion Kathryn and Kenny and James and I attended, about 15 years ago, after an afternoon of picnicking, softball and third-degree visiting, the group retired to a room in a local Mormon wardhouse. Of course, there was a piano there. One of the cousins began plunking away, and within a few minutes a sing-along broke out, with various cousins taking turns at the keyboard. Broadway, pop, opera, hymns: It was pretty impressive. The hour grew late.
“Why don’t we close off with something grand,” Ellie said. “How about the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.'”
I laughed, but I think I was the only one who did. Singing around a piano is one thing — though, truth be told, some of Kathryn’s cousins can really belt it out (and have done on stage), and more than a couple are extremely accomplished pianists. Kathryn has at least one copy of the score; she had sung it with the Salt Lake Oratorio Society, and we have, several times, sought out the Handel sing-alongs with the Dallas Bach Society or some other organization where ringers, professional singers are brought in for the great solos, an outstanding orchestra provides the accompaniment, and enough members of good local choral groups show up that it sounds good, if not grand. But here we were in an LDS building, without scores, with a motley bunch who, I suspected, had not performed it often . . .
“Cousin X can do the piano better than I can,” said whichever cousin sitting at the piano at the moment. No one asked for a score. No one checked the hymnals to see if the lyrics could be dug up. I sensed disaster.
After a stunning impromptu piano introduction, sans director, the family was off and running, singing Handel at full throttle.
It was grand. No part of the harmony was missed. If anyone stumbled over any of the lyrics, it was masked by the many others who didn’t.
A once in a lifetime experience, I thought. Too bad no one had a video camera. No one would believe it.
You can understand how Ellie’s long slide into unintelligibility was a blow to everyone who knew her. For at least the last four years she had been in a care facility, often unable to communicate.
Her funeral in Salt Lake City, Utah, featured some nice performances by the nieces and nephews. The family is far-flung by now — some drove in from distant cities, some came out of the mountains, some flew from far away. A bit of a hometown service, but a hometown that now includes at least all of the U.S. and immigrants from several foreign countries. Officials of the Latter-day Saints added to the eulogies, extolling Ellie’s work on particularly difficult editing and writing assignments.
Then, at the end of the service, there was an apology about a lack of time to rehearse. But the show must go on — Ellie always loved the “Hallelujah Chorus.” So, with great love, half-a -hundred family members rose and sang the entire chorus, with full piano accompaniment, with every harmony, every key part sung well, and with gusto.
What a way to go!
This video below epitomizes “internet viral.” It was a larger venue, a larger, much more professional chorus, and it featured the Wanamaker Organ — but I’ll bet it was no better than that performance in Salt Lake City earlier this year. (For heaven’s sake, turn up the volume!)
Everybody needs more Handel in their lives, don’t you think?
How wonderful is it that this sing-in was organized with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation? Great idea by the Philadelphia Opera Company. We need more grand organs in department stores, if you ask me. We need them if you don’t ask me. Ellie, are you listening?