The Darkest Day

This article was originally published on JULY 21, 2011

photo by Yuming Chiu

photo by Yuming Chiu

Mark Carlson:The Darkest Day
Carl Berdahl, euphonium
Mark Carlson, organ

This is one of the saddest pieces I have ever written.

It began as a request from Carl Berdahl, a euphonium player and a former music theory student of mine at UCLA, that I write something for his senior recital. Carl was a man on a mission—to enlarge the repertoire for his instrument—and since I really love the euphonium’s gorgeous, soulful sound, and since he was so enthusiastic about my music, I was eager to do it.

He had various ideas for what the piece might be, including a concerto for euphonium and a medium-sized ensemble of woodwinds—still an idea I like! But for many practical reasons, I settled on writing a piece for euphonium and organ.

Mark, Jesse, and Carl

Mark, Jesse, and Carl

During the spring before I started writing the piece, another of my former students, Jesse Rosenman, had a stroke at the ridiculously young age of 21. It was painful to see such a young, vibrant, on-top-of-the-world person felled like this, and at first, no one knew if he would survive. (Fortunately, he has completely recovered and has flourished).

On the first day that Jesse was able to accept visitors in the hospital—the first day that he started to speak again, haltingly—I went to see him and joined a long line of his many friends, also anxious to wish him well. His parents allowed me a few minutes alone with him, and we shared a brief, touching, and even amusing conversation.

It was such a relief that he was showing signs of recovering, but still, I left the hospital overcome with sadness—sadness that a young man, so full of life, should ever have to go through this terrible experience—and as I drove away, the melancholic melody that begins this piece came into my head.

The piece isn’t at all the story of Jesse’s tragedy, but it was certainly inspired by it. And listening to it now, I hear it as an expression of that unspeakable sadness, of the anguish that such incomprehensible experiences cause us, and which are, alas, so much a part of human existence.

This is the first in a series of occasional articles about specific pieces.