Monday, March 30, 2009

Pure Philology

I woke up this morning at 2:30 with my brain on fire. That happens to me from time to time, particularly if the events of the previous day have been provoking. I went to choir practice in the afternoon and my friend Gordon spent part of the time trying to help the members of the choir comprehend that the words of hymns are not merely sounds to be articulated, but sentiments to be conveyed by the meaning of those words in combination with one another. As we went through the several verses of “Precious Savior, Dear Redeemer”, a hymn that we are going to sing on Easter Sunday, he asked about each noun, verb, adjective, and adverb, soliciting from us the meanings attached to them. Our practice was considerably improved.

Precious Savior, dear Redeemer, Thy sweet message now impart.
May thy Spirit, pure and fervid, Enter ev'ry timid heart;
Carry there the swift conviction, Turning back the sinful tide.
Precious Savior, dear Redeemer, May each soul in thee abide.

Precious Savior, dear Redeemer, We are weak but thou art strong;
In thy infinite compassion, Stay the tide of sin and wrong.
Keep thy loving arms around us; Keep us in the narrow way.
Precious Savior, dear Redeemer, Let us never from thee stray.

Precious Savior, dear Redeemer, Thou wilt bind the broken heart.
Let not sorrow overwhelm us; Dry the bitter tears that start.
Curb the winds and calm the billows; Bid the angry tempest cease.
Precious Savior, dear Redeemer, Grant us everlasting peace.

H.R Palmer

During the latter part of the Third Watch this morning, I began to think about my own response to language. I wondered if I, like J.R.R. Tolkien, could consider myself a pure philologist. “I like history”, he said in a letter to his son Christopher, “and am moved by it, but its finest moments for me are those in which it throws light on words and names.” Tolkien frequently spoke of his “linguistic aesthetic”, his predilection for certain kinds of sounds and rhythms in language that particularly pleased him. I find that I am not particularly satisfied with anything that I have writtn unless it can be read out loud, no matter how long a sentence may be, no matter how lengthy an essay may be; good writing is a joy to read out loud. In conjunction with the sounds and rhythm of any piece of prose or poetry is the flow of ideas that illuminate the mind and heart. This only comes when a writer actually has something to say, when he has felt or understood something profoundly. This, more often than not, is the great stumbling block for most erstwhile writers. Shakespeare’s MacBeth laments something of this meaningless prattle that many writers choose to serve up to their readers.

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

This, of course, is Gordon’s point exactly. To sing without the accompanying intended emotion subverts the whole point of performing.

I wrote earlier of John Denver’s “Perhaps Love”, a piece that was originally performed by Denver and Placido Domingo. Many years after the song first aired, John Denver performed “Perhaps Love” in a live concert somewhere in Southern California. A friend who was at the performance commented afterward that for some reason that particular version, just the singer and his guitar, had moved the audience more deeply than anything that he done that night. Denver smiled and said, “It was something that I learned from Placido. He sang his part with emotion, each word having its own articulation, its own sound, its own emphasis, according to its meaning. ‘Cloud’ and ‘warm’ should be sung differently than ‘storm’ and ‘steel’ and I have tried to do more of that when I perform.” Imagine that! Many people cannot abide the duet and prefer the solo, but the power of Denver’s solo performances derived directly from the collaboration. Domingo helped Denver get inside of his own creations.

There is a point of diminishing returns, however. I write songs to express feelings that I have bubbling up inside of me. Sometimes the feelings are so strong during the composition that I cannot publicly perform the song until I have sung the piece over and over again, pushing the emotions down. Sometimes I get so far inside of a song that I forget what I am doing, even failing to play the chords properly on the guitar. I frequently have to practice a set for months in order to strike a balance between the sentiments and the skills.

When the choir first gathered to practice the three hymns that we are going to sing on Easter, Gordon asked me to talk to the members of the choir about the historical setting for “Peace Be Unto Thy Soul”, a work that he had composed based on a passage of scripture. I did so with some expertise. The effect on the altos, where one of my daughters was performing, was dramatic. Jennifer said afterwards that the women around her could not sing, they were so deeply moved by what I had said. As we rode together to the practice yesterday, Jenny said, “Hey! Gordon didn’t ask you to talk about the hymns this week, did he?” I replied in the negative. “Good,” she said. “I would really like to get through the thing this week.”

Two weeks ago I had no trouble whatsoever singing “Peace Be Unto Thy Soul”. Yesterday, I could not finish the piece at all. My knowledge, my preparation for my little talk two weeks ago, had steeled me somewhat against the power of the lyrics. With that knowledge fading from my mind, my heart unabashedly accepted the significance of what Gordon had written and I was undone. Hopefully I will do better next week and the week after that.

Words mean things. They represent little pieces of who and what we are. They allow us to share the innermost parts of our private sanctuaries with each other. Communication is, in the end, “communion” with all of the power that particular word can convey. We invite others to drink from the living waters of our soul and by so doing we are mutually and eternally bound to each other. If done properly, the union is accompanied by brotherhood and love. I am glad that I know Gordon Jessop.


Bliss said...

Well said.

Katscratchme said...

I also have to sing a song over and over in order to stem the overflow of emotion. I have yet to perfect the ability to sing with the emotion to touch people without completely losing it myself.

Katscratchme said...

I forgot to say: I've only done it once to my knowledge. After experiencing Bells Palsy, I was able to understand a certain song's message of finding rest in the Lord. I did not cry, but I found out afterword that several people in the congregation did and were powerfully touched.

Anonymous said...

I woke up in the middle of the night, too, thinking of music. In next month's ensign is a piece of music that I sung in LDC, "Behold the wounds in Jesus' hands." I was thinking about it and how Bro. Brenchley has us sing it, and it's powerful effect on how we felt and how we sang it. I love music that touches the heart and spirit!

Jen said...

I still couldn't get through it. . . it doesn't help that I had previously found personal application in the scripture quoted in that song . . . maybe if I focus on the notes and not the words I'll do better . . . of course, that's not what Gordon wants. . .