Saturday, April 11, 2009

How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place

Today, CBC2 radio played Brahms's German Requiem in its entirety. It was enchanting. The requiem curves upward, then down again, like a beautiful arch, like a rainbow. It builds and builds to its centrepiece, the fabulous How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place, then curves again, gently, to its conclusion. As I listened, I was struck by the beauty of the requiem, of course, but also by the fact that it transcends its traditional religious setting.

How to explain? As an atheist, I can appreciate the numinous quality of the music and share in the emotions expressed in it, even in the ecstatic release of the central movement. I'm not even sure that the words matter in this outpouring of emotion. I know that the movement is about heaven, and about the soul's longing for unity with God, but for me it is also about hope, and the meaning is carried in the music itself.

Another example of choral music in which the notes themselves, and their harmony, and the flow of the music on the breath of the singers, are so intense and so perfectly in balance, that you don't need to understand the words to be transported - is the Allegri Miserere:

It may seem like a strange leap, but after I listened to the Brahms, I was left thinking about Paul Simon's "Everybody Loves the Sound of a Train in the Distance (Everybody Thinks It's True)". I checked YouTube for a sample of that song, but it's not there (I thought everything was on YouTube!) So I found an indirect link (through Paul Simon's website to i-tunes. The last stanza,

What is the point of this story

What information pertains

The thought that life could be better

Is woven indelibly

Into our hearts

And our brains

is, for me, what connects the song to Brahms, to Allegri, to the seemingly endless human capacity for hope and its expression in music.


Kathryn Magendie said...

It's funny, but when I visit people, I never think about whether they are "religious" or "believe in God" or whatever...unless someone just says it outright, I would never know where they are in that journey or thought or ideal. It's interesting how things are interpreted based on that, though -- music, the universe, life, love, literature....all very interesting concepts and ideas from all very different kinds of people!

As for your comment on my blog this morning - I used to have the flying dreams - but those are usually when something "bad" is after me and I must get away - wait! except I have had some that were fun - where I was gliding about...

Sandra Leigh said...

Yeah. Those are the good ones -where you put your arms out, Superman-style, and swoop around at about ten feet off the ground, rise up above the trees when you need to, feel the breeze on your face.

John Hayes said...

Beautiful music & wonderful reflections on it. The Miserere is really heavenly, even to an unrepetent "whatever I am" like me. Thanks!

Jeanne said...

Beauty calls to us....

Sandra Leigh said...

John and Jeanne, I have fond memories of hearing the Miserere for the first time. It was on an album I bought (maybe Winchester Cathedral Choir?) back when my children were small. They soon learned that when the Miserere came on, everything else stopped. There was a great hush in the house while I stood, trembling, in front of the stereo. ;>)

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