Three Quick Clerihews

Georg Friedrich Handel
worked often by candle,
complaining “Messiah
shall end both my eye-ah.”

Georg Friedrich Handel
cut the air about a sandal
to the tenor’s dismay, who had practiced
very much to be John the Baptist.

Georg Friedrich Handel
avoided all scandal
which is why Totus Floreo
is not in his oratorio. 


Seeking Song and Story

Once upon a time, I read this guest post by Briana of Pages Unbound.  I put in my two cents about sidekick protagonists, carried on with my reading, and proceeded not to think about it further for four months.  But that post has been bouncing about my mind of late, for a couple of reasons.

The first is that Briana sought something that might not have existed.  She wasn’t looking for help remembering that one book she read in seventh grade that focused on the sidekick for a change and also it involved the Brooklyn skyline somehow. Had none of us readers had any volume to suggest, we might have taken it as a request to create such a narrative for her.

The second reason I’ve been thinking about it is that this post highlights the benefit of human eyes and human minds when one is on the hunt.  Google and other search engines do their very best to help one find a particular item or passage, and there have often been times when I could use such tools to find a song, a movie, a book of which I only recalled the haziest details.  But if you don’t come up with the right search terms, or if your query gets too lengthy, it can impede rather than assist your progress.

Therefore, dear readers, I bring my concerns to you, and hope that you can help with one or the other of these things I seek.

I’m looking for…

…a piece of music. 

I sang it in June 2001, at the Illinois Summer Youth Music choir camp.  It is called “Canticle,” and I sang it as part of an all-girl ensemble led by some Canadian lady whose name eludes me.  Tragically, I supposed that remembering all the words and most all of the notes would help me to find it again.  I was mistaken.  The text is Psalm 89:1 (or Psalm 88:2 for the Douay-Rheims folk) in Latin: Misericordias Domini in æternum cantabo; in generationem et generationem annuntiabo veritatem tuam in ore meo.  No idea who composed it.  No idea if it’s a setting of some earlier composer’s work or chant.  Someone, for the love of my sanity, tell me this rings a bell for you.

UPDATE: I ask, and Jenna delivers!!  Michael Levi’s Canticle!  MY HEART IS FULL OF SONG.

…an explanation for why “capital” should be different from “capitol.” 

Evidently I completely forgot this distinction in the years since my elementary spelling classes, but “capital” refers to the city or town which serves as the seat of government, while “capitol” refers to the building in which the legislature gathers.  Typically heterographs don’t bother me, but I just. don’t. understand.  Someone call the Inky Fool.

UPDATE: I have been informed that the legislative building was named, per Jefferson, for the Roman temple of Jupiter on Capitoline Hill.  Thus far I am satisfied that the difference stems from an existing difference between the words in Rome, but there has been no further illumination of the difference between Latin suffixes or whatnot.  Do feel free to ring up Inky anyway and see what capital he can make of it.

…a less-typical narrative. 

This one’s a bit tricky to explain.  Earlier today, I read this post (which, briefly, is the story of Susan Isaacs looking for love online, getting rejected from eHarmony because she didn’t fit into their algorithm, and eventually finding The Man on Christian Cafe).  I’m not 41, and my fortnight on OkCupid is nothing compared to Susan’s litany of dating site attempts.  When I reached the end, I was glad for her: she seems to have found what she was looking for, and it rounded out the story quite neatly.  But it also rang a bit hollow because it rounded out the story so neatly.

    "The artistic flaw is inaccuracy, specifically a violation of the canons of reality. Things don’t happen that neatly. It’s an upward slope, finally plateauing into a straight line. Which…when that happens on your heart monitor, it’s a bad thing." Oh, Dr. Whalen. How illuminating you are.

“The artistic flaw is inaccuracy, specifically a violation of the canons of reality. Things don’t happen that neatly. It’s an upward slope, finally plateauing into a straight line. Which…when that happens on your heart monitor, it’s a bad thing.” Oh, Dr. Whalen. How illuminating you are.

This isn’t normally a criticism I raise, because I appreciate both romance and happy, tidy endings.  I don’t recall ever complaining about the Prince marrying The Girl in any given fairy tale, or how relationships (and events more generally) shake out in Austen, Harry Potter, Stardust, or the Lord Peter stories.  I don’t whinge about Dune ending with “History will call us wives,” or the end of That Hideous Strength.  I don’t consider myself a feminist, and have never evaluated books on the basis of whether or not they pass the Bechdel Test.

But Susan’s story (and Hannah Coulter, and The Princess Bride, and any given article on Boundless) suggests that there is no other narrative, that no lady can ever be happy without The One, that the only ending possible is marriage.  This ground has been trod by a lot of women in tiresome family-vs-career arguments, but the fact remains that I want a story: a different story than my usual fare, something involving a woman who is content with a different sort of happy ending.  I’m looking for a female character who is content to live her life on her own, if only to show me that it is possible.

Surely one must exist; for all I know, there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of such stories that I’ve completely missed.  And if not, my dears, please help me write one.

A Foretaste of the Feast to Come

So I’m part of this choir that sings Handel’s Messiah in Hill Auditorium every year.  Sometimes that means we sigh at the fact that it’s December again and we’re singing Messiah for the 4th or 10th or 37th time.  Sometimes that means we pass over rehearsing Handel in favor of rehearsing more unfamiliar repertoire; this season, it’s MacMillan’s Tu Es Petrusthe finale of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and Milhaud’s Oresteia.  Sometimes we hold our scores but never look at them, which can backfire on the odd occasion our conductor makes changes to the dynamics or duration of the notes.

It can get a bit wearing, is what I’m saying.  Singing a piece year after year ought to make it more polished, but I’m convinced I get worse at the melismas every time.  Squishing onto the risers never really gets better.  I typically end up counting how many movements are left.  December doesn’t really get any warmer (well, okay, it did this year.  One-off).  I never get any less liturgically confused.   The Hallelujah Chorus always feels so relaxed and somehow that doesn’t seem right.

And yet, no matter how wearing it gets, the moments remain which remind me why I do this – why I’m part of a choir, why I sing, why music is:  The end and final aim of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.  In high school, we had choir tour shirts with this line from Bach on the back, but it hardly seemed so true then as it does now.

During performances this weekend, that nigh-wearisome familiarity with the score allowed for the music to glorify God and refresh the soul as I’d never before experienced it.  The notes, the rhythms, the dynamics, the diction: they were not abandoned, but observing them was drawn up into conveying the meaning, the truth of words heard so often over the years that we sometimes cease to attend them.  To paraphrase our conductor, each chorus must be sung as though for the first time these words have ever been heard:

For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulders

Glory to God!  Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth.

Surely, surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruiséd for our iniquities.  The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healéd. 

Let all the angels of God worship Him!

The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.

Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive!

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing!  Blessing and honor, glory, and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb.  Amen!

When the final cutoff arrived, it seemed to me that we hadn’t yet sung enough…in fact, it seemed we never could.  The power and verity of those words provided a glimpse of what praising God in perfect heavenly harmony might be like.  To focus one’s energy on the One who is worthy of all praise: this is delight.  This is what we were made for.  This is a foretaste of the feast of thanksgiving to come.

Facing Death

Given that Lent has begun and all readers hereabout have been reminded that they, too, are dust, it seems appropriate to relate some reflections on man’s approach to death which have filled my mind of late.  As part of the UMS Choral Union, I’ve learned two musical pieces which look on the fact of Death and endeavor to leave the hearer with some manner of serenity.

The works in question are Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutsche Requiem and John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls.  For weeks I was so intent on getting the notes and rhythms and pronunciation auf Deutsche correct that I didn’t give much attention, if any, to the broader scope of each work.  But now concert week has arrived, and with it the full orchestra (rather than the piano accompaniment used in most choir rehearsals), soloists for the Brahms, and the children’s choir called for by Adams’ piece.  Finally my part is put in context; finally I can begin to grapple with the significance of these works as a whole (though imperfectly; the audience is, unsurprisingly, much better placed to hear the interplay of the performers).

At first it seemed to me that the Deutsche Requiem and the Transmigration of Souls were the complete antithesis of each other; to a certain extent, that still seems the case, but the full truth is knottier and I hope to elaborate on it.  So first, a discussion of John Adams’ work:

On the Transmigration of Souls

This piece was first performed about a year after the 9/11 attacks on the United States; Adams was commissioned in January 2002 to compose it, which gave him only a few months to write before it would need to be rehearsed.

When first learning it, I felt a certain amount of repulsion.  The notes are not easy, the words do not flow, the intervals are hellish, the rhythm is unnatural, and heaven help the children’s choir.  I thought “This is what modern music is.  I cannot stand it.”  Which, to a certain extent, remains true.  Concert week started, and I thought “Gracious.  Deutsche Requiem…and American requiem.  This is the closest thing we have.  Good heavens.”

It would be rather problematic.  Were this piece the closest we could get to a requiem, it would signify a world full of eternal dissonance, hopeless of resolution.  None of it is quite sung legato; all is sung in various degrees of choppiness.  The choirs repeat and repeat words, stuttering like a defective music box or broken automaton, and in such strange rhythms that all understanding of rhythm, of the words themselves, is lost, and all one’s individuality with it.  It is inchoate, increasingly fragmented, full of sirens and forlorn brass and the crash (the heartrending crash!) of destruction.  Everyone sings in the past tense, saying “She was the apple of my father’s eye,” or “I loved him from the start,” or “I wanted to dig him out.”  No one looks to the future; no one dares.  And when the women finally sing, simultaneously, six or so notes of a chromatic scale, half-steps from each other, each is singing the right note – but it sounds wrong, a hopeless muddle of meaningless sound, a terribly sad end.  I nearly despaired of it, saying “Transmigration of souls?  That’s just what it isn’t.  Not a soul gets mentioned throughout, folks.  Sorry, that’s what you’ve left yourselves with.  You have answered “Light!” with “Love,” but it’s no one’s love in particular and it’s certainly not Love Incarnate.”

Then I read what Adams himself had to say about it:  it is not a requiem, it is not a memorial, it is a memory space.  It is not necessarily about the souls who were living on Earth and then suddenly died (it most certainly doesn’t describe their ultimate destination), but focuses on the souls left behind, and what they face, how that loss transforms them.  He sought, most of all, to convey some idea of what that day signified through musical texture rather than a narrative or flat-out description.  A good deal of artifice is involved in making the words sound “natural,” i.e., the way that they might have been spoken.  Like the texts Adams employed, the work is a portrait of grief – hence the mystical strings and the lonesome horns and crashing timpani.  They represent how suddenly one’s life is changed by another’s death; how bereft are those left behind; how that great interloper enters even our office buildings, our planes, our city streets full of everyday sounds and (what we might be tempted to call) ordinary people.

So in the end, it is an honest way to face the end, particularly another’s end.  Perhaps it is even less despairing than I had thought.  I will leave with what Adams himself said of the piece:

My desire in writing this piece is to achieve in musical terms the same sort of feeling one gets upon entering one of those old, majestic cathedrals…you experience an immediate sense of something otherworldly. You feel you are in the presence of many souls, generations upon generations of them, and you sense their collected energy as if they were all congregated or clustered in that one spot…

Whether it is the presence of “generations of souls” one encounters in cathedrals, of course, is a topic for another day.