National Adoption Day and the Pledge Drive

By James David Jacobs

Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 20-21

This Saturday marks the tenth annual National Adoption Day. This has some personal meaning for me, as I was adopted when I was thirteen following the death of my father and the incapacitation of my mother. As it happens, I was formally adopted by my cello teacher Millie Rosner, to whom I feel the deepest love and gratitude, especially considering how I manifested the difficulties I had adjusting to my situation.  One thing that I had to learn early on, and am still learning, is that compassion is not a closed, two-way transaction; you may never get everything you need from the people whom you imagine owe it to you to provide for you, but it's very possible that you may get those things from someone else who doesn't owe you anything. That may feel awkward -- and certainly some people see this whole subject as some sort of pathology, which is where we get the pop-psychology term "co-dependent" - but it's those people who give of themselves to create a safe haven for people to whom they have no apparent obligation that make the world work. I have siblings whom I love and admire very much, so I have no desire to disown my identity as a Jacobs, but since I was deprived of a stable family unit at an early age I learned that playing music was a great way of creating a community wherever I go.

I think about this when I listen to Beethoven. (That's him in the picture, at the age of 13.)  His music speaks to me in a very profound way; I really do think listening to his music as I was growing up saved my life almost as much as Millie did (and since she adopted me as a music student, the two aren't unrelated.) Since his music moved me so much, it was natural that I would want to read about his life, about Beethoven the man. Not a nice guy. Of course, he had a worse childhood than I did, an abusive father, no Millie to adopt him, and then there was his deafness. Still, as a grownup he did some things involving his relatives that were really beyond the pale. Does that affect the way I feel about his music? Yes and no. What I hear in works such as the Waldstein sonata, the A minor string quartet, the Ninth Symphony, is a man who is using music to create a utopian plane of consciousness, a vision of what life could be like if not for all the damage. Bach did this too, but he based his vision in a cosmology based on mathematics and a secure Lutheran theology. Beethoven wasn't secure about anything, but he knew the power of music, a power that enabled him to transcend his own upbringing. Perhaps this is what I subconsciously picked up on when I was a child: this was written by someone, who, like me, was someone adopted by music. Someone who was failed by circumstance and damaged people, but saved by music. While I'm disappointed not to have musical gifts comparable to Beethoven's, at least I have my hearing (which would be even better if I hadn't stood too close to a bass amp when I was nineteen, but that's another story.)

Sometimes I think all musicians are orphans waiting to be adopted. They exist to shine a little of that utopian vision on those who take the time to listen; a vision that can serve to inspire, to remind us of the cosmic possibilities to our existence that we lose sight of in our day-to-day lives, a bit of coffee (or protein, or whatever we need that day) for our soul that enables us to soldier on. And those who play the music that speaks the deepest, the music that requires some investment in terms of time and concentration on the part of the listener, are the ones most needing to be adopted. This music doesn't come in neat little 3-minute doses. It sometimes gets too soft to be easily heard, too loud to be comfortably heard, and the musicians sometimes make an ugly sound on purpose to make an expressive point and to tell the composer's story. In a world of ever-increasing commodification, it's harder than ever to find a place willing to exhibit this music. Like orphans, musicians are only able to survive because of the generosity of people moved by what they do and who they are.

When I was a child reading composers' biographies, I always noticed that there was a tone shared by all of them -- it would describe, for example, the struggles that Mozart had to go through, portray him as a genius among all those uncultured barbarians who didn't recognize his genius, with the tacit implication that if only he were alive today in America we'd know better and embrace him with open arms. I really bought into that as a kid, and it was a real blow to me to realize that, if Mozart were alive today, forget about it. No Figaro for us. If anything, this is one of the hardest periods in modern history to embrace great music.

Which is why it's such a joy to live in Boston, where the Symphony has been going strong for over one and a quarter centuries, where the church bells in Roslindale peal out Handel every day, where one can't go anywhere in the city without encountering someone carrying an instrument case. The city has adopted classical music in a very profound way, and I feel very much at home here.

Which is why, during the pledge drive this weekend, I urge you to consider what your contribution means: becoming a foster parent for this music that only has a home when we make the effort, when we take the action to listen actively, to make the time to consider the deeper possibilities, and to make a material investment in that vision. This is how we create a family and a community that will last into the future, and find a place for more souls looking for a place to call home.

More Arts & Drama


Sound Tracks


WGBH Music


Call the Midwife

Sign Up

Sign-up for WGBH Arts & Drama updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.

Support for WGBH is provided by:
Become a WGBH sponsor