From Verdi’s “Requiem” to “Let’s Get Together”: By Annie Laurie Gaylor

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

One of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s many distinguished members happens to be David Randolph, conductor of the famed St. Cecilia Chorus, which, despite its inherited name, is entirely secular. David Randolph, at 93, has the distinction of being the oldest person ever to conduct at Carnegie Hall. He also has the distinction of having conducted a record number of full performances of Handel’s “Messiah.” As he would tell you, in person and in his newly-reprinted book, This Is Music, he doesn’t let words get in the way of good music!

A year ago last May, Dan and I were invited by David, a Lifetime Member, and his wife, Mildred, to be their guests at the spring 2007 concert, which featured a freethought theme. It was a first for both of us to visit Carnegie Hall, named of course for that famous freethinker, Andrew Carnegie. Ensconced in the best seats in the house, we marveled at the beautiful hall, perfect acoustics and inspiratio nal but pagan music.

So it was with alacrity that we gratefully accepted David’s generous invitation to return as his guests for the May 2, 2008 performance of Verdi’s Requiem. Verdi, of course, was a nonbeliever. Dan, who devours biographies about composers and musicians, likes to tell the story, related by a historian, that Verdi, an altar boy, grew up to warn: “Stay away from priests.”

No sooner had we started to make plans for an east coast sojourn when we learned that “Letting Go of God” comedian Julia Sweeney was to be married to Michael Blum in Los Angeles on May 3, and that we would be invited! We happily made coast-to-coast plans, this time including our daughter Sabrina.

Our pilgrimage to New York City this spring included tickets to the Broadway play, “Thurgood,” a thoroughly satisfying one-man show about Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall featuring the wonderful actor, Laurence Fishburne. (I had forgotten, being a child when it happened, that for an all-too-brief interim in this country’s history, the Supremes had actually halted all executions, under Marshall’s influence. Those were the good ole pre-torture days.)

We squeezed in a visit to the New York Botanical Garden while it was showing “Darwin’s Garden,” an ode not just to a beautiful English garden, but to Darwin’s plant research. And we got to tour the offices of Air America Radio (which streams live and broadcasts FFRF’s radio show, “Freethought Radio” over many of its stations), shook hands with Rachel Maddow, were interviewed for The Lionel Show by its obliging atheist host, and were treated to a fabulous lunch at the Bowery Bar by Air America’s Joe Kenavan. Despite their busy week of rehearsals, the Randolphs found time to make us their dinner guests. David, as always, ate the heartiest and seemed the least tired after the four-hour dinner party! We felt privileged to visit the couple’s apartment, where David and Mildred have lived for 57 years in a quiet, rent-controlled building in Manhattan. It is filled with a captivating lifetime of musical mementos, albums and books. The living room is dominated by a lovely 1906 Steinway grand, which Dan couldn’t resist “christening.”

David Randolph also had invited Dr. Oliver Sacks, whose most recent book is Musicophilia!, to be a guest at the May 2 concert. So we found ourselves meeting him and a friend for sushi before the concert. First we toured Dr. Sacks’ fascinating offices, where his capable assistant, Kate Edgar, took us into a little room filled with crystals, obligingly turning off the lights to show off their illumination for Sabrina (who has read most of his books). Dr. Sacks handed Sabrina something small, and smiled when her hands and wrists immediately dropped under the unexpected weight. “That’s tungsten,” explained the author of Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. He also showed us a very cool (literally), new kind of LED lamp and other artifacts. This neurologist’s office artwork even included a drawing of a migraine! (Well, the depiction of what someone in the middle of a major aura might–and might not–be seeing.) Sabrina, our family’s major migraine-sufferer, immediately recognized it. Best of all, Dr. Sacks handed us a copy of a work in progress, his manuscript for an article about the Darwin exhibit at the Botanical Gardens, in which he explained the significance of Darwin’s plant studies in clinching the proof of evolution.

This medical raconteur unparalleled recounted a memorable story over dinner. (I hope he won’t mind if I share it here.) He described a patient at the Bronx hospital where he practiced for decades, who had come up to him one day and said, “Dr. Sacks, I know you to be a compassionate, caring doctor. So I can’t understand why you said to me the other day: ‘Take your hat and your coat and put them on and go up to the top of the building and jump off.’ ”

Dr. Sacks asked him: “Did you actually see me, or did you only hear my voice?” The patient admitted that he had only heard his voice. Dr. Sacks kindly suggested to him: “If you ever think you hear me say something like that again, look around. If I’m not there, you’ll know it’s just an auditory hallucination.”

Several weeks later, the patient came up to Dr. Sacks and again reproached him for having told him to “take your hat and your coat and put them on and go up to the top of the building and jump off. This time, you added, ‘And don’t bother looking around for me. I’m here!’ ”

Dr. Sacks drove us from the Village to Carnegie Hall for the big occasion. We again literally had the best seats in the gorgeous house. Before the concert began, with its impressive orchestra and three choruses, the audience had the opportunity to read the “Note on the Program” in the Playbill by conductor David Randolph. He reported on the history of Verdi’s Requiem, which “was occasioned by the death, in 1873, of the 88-year-old poet, novelist and statesman Allessandro Manzoni, whom Verdi revered.” Despite The Requiem’s immediate popularity, “There was talk of ‘sacrilege’ in Church circles.” Randolph’s “Notes” made clear Verdi’s irreligiosity:

“Charles Osborne, in his biography of the composer, says: ‘Verdi’s attitude is not one of calm resignation to death and does not in any way portray it as the joyful gateway to the life hereafter. His Requiem is a Mass for the living rather than a Mass for the dead.’ “Verdi’s attitude toward religion is clearly indicated in a letter written about him by his wife, Guiseppina: ‘For some virtuous people a belief in God is necessary. Others, equally perfect, while observing every precept of the highest moral code, are happier believing in nothing.’ ”

Randolph also noted: “Incidentally, two other great requiems, those by Brahms and Berlioz, were composed by nonbelievers.”

The nonagenarian David literally sprinted up the stage to begin the concert, and his energy never seemed to flag. We got to follow Mildred to The Green Room, where David, post-requiem, was holding court for a throng of admirers.

We got up very early the next morning for a direct flight to the West Coast for The Wedding, that freethought event of the season. The guests, who included many academic friends and family members of Michael Blum, as well as Julia’s family and friends, were treated to a short, smile-inducing film about the very unlikely and circuitous way in which Michael and Julia finally ended up meeting. Suffice it to say that if Julia hadn’t written and performed her play, “Letting Go of God,” she never would have met Michael. Praise freethought!

The radiant bride was ensconced in an elegant, satiny gown and the processional included many pretty little flower girls. Julia’s daughter, Mulan, walked down the aisle to the tune of “Let’s Get Together,” a song from the Hayley Mills Disney movie, “The Parent Trap.” (Aficionados of Julia’s play, “Letting Go of God,” know that as a Catholic school girl, Julia had a soft spot for Hayley Mills, who once played a “scathingly brilliant” teen delinquent in a comedy movie about a Catholic girls’ school. As an agnostic youngster and similar Hayley Mills fan, I personally had always felt “The Trouble with Angels” veered toward the tragical when they made poor Hayley Mills, of all people, become a nun!) No sooner were the guests of this nontraditional wedding done laughing over the “meet cute”/“meet freethought” film montage, when we discovered that the couple was to be married by none other than fellow “Saturday Night Live” alum and comedian Don Novello, a.k.a., Father Guido Sarducci. (Novello was once arrested in Vatican City and charged with “impersonating a priest.”)

Among the silliness was Father Sarducci’s off-hand observation that the water-into-wine bit by Jesus at a wedding was really quite a “frivolous miracle.” There has never been another wedding ceremony like it! It was the perfect touch for the star of “Letting Go of God’ and her strongly unreligious groom.

The newly-weds entertained their friends and family in royal style, needless to say, and made it a thoroughly memorable event. We took home the fancy personalized menu as a memento. It will help me remember the wonderful four-course feast, concluding with “Berry Blossom Wedding Cake,’ described as:

“Three layers of Vanilla Sponge Cake brushed with Orange Liquor filled with White Chocolate Mousse and Fresh Berries Decorated with Crumbled Meringue and White Chocolate Shavings.”

Now that’s what I call a real wedding cake! It was so good that Sabrina and I, after each polishing off our first piece, split another.

Our felicitations to the newlyweds, who have many secular adventures together ahead of them!


Event of the Season



Requiem conducted by David at Carnegie Hall on May 2. Dr. Sacks, along with Dan, Sabrina and Annie Laurie, were guests of the conductor. Verdi and Andrew Carnegie were also unbelievers, by the way.

P.S. In June, Mildred Randolph fell and broke her hip. She is recovering from surgery, with David at her bedside, and a city of well-wishers. Our love to them both.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is a cofounder and copresident of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and is married to Dan Barker, also co-president. They live in Madison, Wis., with their daughter, Sabrina.

Freedom From Religion Foundation