I heard Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major for the first time only a few weeks ago and the strangest thing happened. I immediately thought of her: Catherine Phillips, a Quaker missionary, carrying a friend’s lifeless body across the icy reaches of Albemarle Sound in 1754.
I had not read Catherine Phillips’ Memoirs of the Life of Catherine Phillips in nearly 20 years. I am sure I had not thought about her or her book more than once or twice in all that time.
Yet, as soon as the clarinetist played the first solitary notes in that concerto’s unspeakably beautiful second movement, the adagio, I could see a particular moment in Phillips’ story as clear as day.
That clarinet concerto was one of the last works that Mozart completed before his death in 1791, and some consider it the first great work ever written for the clarinet.
I don’t know how or why, but something in Mozart’s composition instantly put me into the middle of a scene that Phillips described.
* * *
At the moment in Memoirs of the Life of Catherine Phillips that I remembered, the 26-year-old missionary was a long way from home. Six years earlier, she had received her call to preach at a Quaker meeting in Dudley, where she was born. It was a small town in Worcestershire, England.
“Having now entered the list of publick [sic] combatants in the Lamb’s army, I pretty soon became concerned to travel for the promotion of truth and righteousness,” she wrote.
Determined to spread God’s word, Phillips and an Irish companion, Mary Peisley, sailed to America in October 1753. After disembarking in Charleston, S.C., they made their way into the Carolina backcountry and to a Quaker settlement on the Haw River in Alamance County, N.C.
They traveled remote roads, and they relied on the hospitality of strangers. More than once, they fell asleep at night on hard ground or a little heap of pine straw.
One night they rested in a camp by a swamp and slept under “a little shed of the branches of pine-trees, on a rising sandy ground, which abounded with lofty pines.”
At times, they stayed in roadside camps with Indian traders, peddlers and other itinerants, men (usually) that gathered together at night for their common safety.
Her faith was often tested. Once she tumbled into swamp waters. Near the Green Swamp, locals told her that a panther had recently killed a traveler in the vicinity. She often heard wolves howling at night.
Phillips was undaunted. After visiting Quaker meetings at New Garden and Eno River, she and Peisley turned back to the coast. They traveled to Wilmington, at that time a roughhewn little seaport on the Cape Fear River, surrounded by malarial swamps and rice plantations.
They also visited Bladen County, a territory of more great swamps and scattered plantations to the west of Wilmington.
Then, on January 20, 1754, Catherine Phillips and Mary Peisley headed to the colony’s oldest and largest Quaker settlements—those on the north side of the Albemarle Sound.
The Quakers had been a strong presence in that part of coastal North Carolina since the 1670s. That was only a couple decades after the founding of the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) in England, where they faced considerable persecution in their early years.
For decades, the Quakers on that north side of Albemarle Sound had been the colony’s only semblance of organized religion, at least the European kind.
The Quakers had also played an influential role in the colony’s early political life, but their heyday had come and gone by the end of the Tuscarora War in 1713.
* * *
The two women’s journey was not easy. From Wilmington, the distance to that part of Albemarle Sound was greater than 150 miles. Bridges were few, roads poor, accommodations sparse.
“In this journey we met with considerable hardships, the people amongst whom we were being very poor, their houses cold, and provisions mean,” she wrote in Memoirs.
Phillips described this poverty and the difficulties of travel, but she never complained, at least not in Memoirs.
In February 1754, she preached at the Piney Woods Meeting and the Old Neck Meeting, two of the colony’s oldest Quaker meetings.
Founded in 1723, the Piney Woods Meeting was located in Perquimans County. It is still active today and is the state’s oldest continuously active Quaker meeting.
The Old Neck Meeting, in Pasquotank County, was older than the Piney Woods Meeting, but did not last as long. It disbanded at the end of the 1700s, when Quakers all over coastal North Carolina were pulling up roots and moving to Ohio, Indiana and other distant places.
Recalling the crowd at the Piney Woods Meeting, Phillips acknowledged that the novelty of seeing an itinerant woman preacher might explain why so many people came to hear her exhort.
“No women-ministers had visited . . . this country before us, so that the people were probably excited by curiosity,” she reasoned.
* * *
At a meeting in Perquimans County, Phillips met a Quaker woman named Rebecca Tombs, a wife and a mother of seven. Apparently they formed a quick attachment to one another.
When Tombs learned that Phillips intended to make a side trip to the village of Bath, she offered to accompany her. (Peisley stayed north of the Albemarle.) Located on the Pamlico River, Bath was the colony’s oldest English town, though it had only been established half a century earlier.
To get to Bath, Phillips and Tombs had to cross Albemarle Sound and then follow a low ridge along the edges of the East Dismal Swamp, a vast pocosin wetland that once covered much of the great peninsula between the Albemarle Sound and the Pamlico River.
On a bone-chilling day, the two women crossed the sound. In Memoir, Phillips wrote, “the frost was so hard that the water… was frozen some distance from the shore.”
Apparently chilled by the ferry crossing, Tombs grew ill as they proceeded around the swamp toward Bath.
Once in the village, Phillips preached to a largely non-Quaker crowd at the courthouse. Soon after the close of the meeting, Tombs “was seized with ague”—ague was a general term for malaria and any number of other diseases marked by fever and shivering.
In Memoirs, Phillips recalled that she “soon became apprehensive of [Tombs] being removed by death.”
The two women quickly headed back toward Tombs’ family in Perquimans County, but they did not get far. “The Almighty did not see fit to continue her in her pain,” Phillips remembered.
Rebecca Tombs died on the morning of February 20, 1754.
* * *
Phillips had a casket built, and then she began the journey around the swamp again and back to the ferry landing on the south shore of Albemarle Sound.
She was a shaken woman. In her native England, Phillips had been no stranger to morbid illness and short lives, but she never got accustomed to the high incidence of infectious diseases in colonial America or to the often quick, fatal results.
In that darkest hour, she blamed herself for Tombs’ death. Doubts haunted her. She felt that she should not have allowed Tombs to accompany her to Bath in the middle of a winter cold spell.
Of course, as the casket was loaded on the ferry, Phillips also knew who waited for her on the other side of the Albemarle: a widower and seven motherless children.
In her Memoirs, she confessed that, at that time, “like Jonah, she wished to die.”
She was referring of course to the Biblical prophet—but not when he was in the whale’s belly. She meant later, when Jonah was angry at God for showing mercy to the sinners in Ninevah.
* * *
That was the moment that I saw so vividly when I heard the adagio in Mozart’s clarinet concerto: Catherine Phillips standing next to the casket that held her friend’s body on the deck of the ferry, as the wind filled the sails and the boat’s crew set course across the sound.
Somehow it was as if Mozart had written that adagio to capture that scene, so achingly forlorn it was, so full of loss and longing and sadness, yet also so utterly and sublimely beautiful.
I don’t fully understand why, but as soon as the clarinetist played the adagio’s first notes, all of these things were of one piece: I saw the ferry’s hull, the broad grey estuary and that brave, heartbroken woman determined to bring her friend home.
I thought of the Quaker missionary’s weariness, as she struggled to comprehend God’s will, and how small she felt on that great inland sea.
I thought about that ferry crossing, and Mozart’s adagio, and the way they had grown connected in my memory.
I thought of time and history, and I thought about all the waters that we are called to cross in our lives.
And I thought about the loved ones I have carried home.
* * *
YouTube features several good performances of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major. My great favorite is that of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra from just a few years ago. The conductor is Cornelius Meister, and the soloist is the extraordinary Icelandic clarinetist, poet and novelist, Arngunnur Árnadóttir. To go directly to the adagio, you can skip to the 12 minute, 45 second mark in the recording.