An Elegiac Fugue (string quartet)

” People look at my library, and they think that I am interested in everything. But I am interested in one thing; I am interested in Love.”

We sat in the kitchen of our sweltering dorm room late one evening during Samuel Hsu’s last summer at Csehy Summer School of Music. For hours we had talked of music and theology, the one and the many, greatness and humility. Despite the heat we were drinking tea (which was always his way). There was only one bag of chamomile left, and he insisted I make my own cup first (which was also his way).

Somewhere in the course of the conversation he came to those words. Many of my memories of Dr. Hsu have faded, or gone completely, in the years since his death, but I can still see and hear him speaking those words. In that moment, I glimpsed not only the depth of his thought, but the nature of his heart, in brightest focus. He was making a theological point at the time, but in doing so had summarized himself.

He was the most learned and wise person I have known, the most sensitive musician, and yet the most generous of spirit. As my teacher Kile Smith put it, “Sam was the most ‘in’ the world and least ‘of’ the world of anyone I know.” He was worthy of every praise and accolade this world can offer, yet kept none for himself. Instead, he built up those around him (whether he had known you for decades or a day), and differed all glory to his Savior.

On December 1, 2011, Dr. Hsu was hit by a car on his walk to the train, which he took every morning from Center City to teach at Philadelphia Biblical University (now Cairn University) in Langhorne. I remember that it was a Thursday, because that was the day of our 19th-century music history class. And I still wonder what was on his mind to share with us that morning.

When it came time to pay tribute in music to my beloved mentor, I decided two things. It had to be a fugue, often considered throughout history to be the pinnacle of the composer’s craft, and it had to be a string quartet, the perennial illustration of consummate musicianship. The piece begins in a wandering and subdued kind of mourning, which later manifests itself fully. In the closing moments, grief is mingled with hope, remembering both what has been lost, and what is to come (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).

But beyond all of that, I hope you hear something of the love Samuel Hsu shared with all of those around him during his time on this earth, and beyond still further, of the greater Love to which his life was constant testimony.

 

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