From a letter to a friend. She had been talking about ways to read literature more closely and deliberately - by copying parts of it, for instance - and was musing about the other arts, and how much time pianists must spend examining the structure of each piece they play. I replied:
You're right about close readings - it's the same reason for drawing things in order to see them better. Pianists, though, don't necessarily read that way when they're engaged with the sheet music. If you are a good sight-reader you can simply move through the music without thinking much about the structure at all. I'm finding this with the choir: churning through music at such a fast pace with professionals and experienced amateurs, your goal is to get it into performance shape as quickly as possible. But that may mean you barely read the text, don't think about the keys or harmonic structure; you make sense of the shape and feeling of the music by fitting it into what you already know about the period, adjust the breathing and the rise and fall of the lines according to your developed musicality, and perform it. Then it goes back onto the shelf for another six years. But you certainly haven't "lived inside it," and I miss that - it is not, in other words, study.
Last night, along with a mass setting by Herbert Howells, we sang a Thomas Morley motet - absolutely beautiful - a sustained contrapuntal exploration for five vocal parts of this text:
Lavabo per singulas noctes lectum meum.
Lacrimis meis stratum meum rigabo.
I am weary with my groaning
Every night I make my bed to swim
I water my couch with my tears.
How terrific an Ash Wednesday text is that? But it was in Latin, and we had only fifteen minutes of rehearsal time allotted for putting it together. The performance was very good, but I felt my own experience of the music had barely begun...I did laugh inside as it went by, though, thinking how "lavabo" is a word I first discovered in IKEA -- that's "bathroom sink" in French-Canadian stores. (I discovered later, from the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia, that "lavabo," Latin for "I shall wash," is "the first word of that portion of Psalm 26 said by the celebrant at Mass while he washes his hands after the offertory, from which word the whole ceremony is named." From the liturgical rite, the word came to mean a basin for the washing of hands.)
Last night the Dean, who's retiring this year and getting even more forthright than ever - which is saying something - preached an excellent sermon about how difficult faith is in the 21st century when the God we were taught about is simply impossible to believe in anymore. But he talked about the "thin places" which were important in Celtic spirituality, and where we might find them now. Music and poetry of course were two of the places important to him, and he quoted a long section of Eliot's "Little Gidding" while I sat there with Howells and Morley on my lap, watching the reflective face of our director as he too listened, looking off into the chancel. I felt fortunate -- though rather like a rare bird that knows it's being kept alive in a hot-house -- and somewhat renewed after a few weeks of not being in the best frame of mind. Caring for one another, and finding time to spend in these thin places, is about all we can do in the modern world, I think.