Sunday, March 1, 2009

Matins

Early this morning, I woke up with a strange sensation. I felt hushed and expectant, almost as if I were in a church. The air outside my window was cool, the light dim and grey. For a moment I thought that these things alone were responsible for the still, listening mood into which I seemed to have awakened.

Then I heard the music. It was a recording of the Tallis Scholars singing Gregorio Allegri's Miserere, and it was coming from the kitchen. Apparently one of my students wanted to listen to it while he ate his breakfast.

Well, that wasn't such a surprise after all. Allegri's Miserere is my student's new thing. He wants to have it near him all the time. I don't know how he can stand it, myself -- Miserere strikes me as so thoroughly exalted and celestial, so pure in its sweetness, so haunting in its crystalline articulation of the essential, ineffable longing that seems to lie at the core of the human spirit, that there's only so much of it you can take at one time.

Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea, et a peccato meo munda me.

I mean, come on. At breakfast?

But the thing is, this little boy gets very, very interested in whatever interests him, at breakfast and everything, so I guess that's that.

What surprises me, in a way, is that his taste alighted on this particular piece. Don't get me wrong, I'm not faulting his choice. In my totally untrained and ignorant opinion, Allegri's Miserere is, without question, the most unutterably lovely piece of music known to man. It's just that, in the context in which I introduced it, I'd have expected a more tempered response.

After all, the whole thing happened pretty much by accident. My students had spent the previous day (starting at five in the morning) at one of the innumerable academic competitions that seem to be the lot of the average eight-year-old in Beijing. During their English/Latin lesson that afternoon, they were understandably too tired to do the exercises I had planned, so I scrapped the main lesson and hauled out some recordings for them to listen to instead.

I had kind of expected them to get a kick out of the first recording I played, which was "It's Witchcraft," performed by Frank Sinatra. For one thing, we're in the midst of reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, so the idea of enchantment and its various ramifications is much on their minds. And for another thing, they are always asking me about jazz (I don't know why), so I had imagined that related musical genres would also interest them. But the big band sound seemed to leave them pretty cold.

So, I switched gears again and told them the next piece would be a Latin psalm. They perked right up at that. They don't actually know much Latin, but they love the idea of it (which is, after all, the main thing -- you can't teach that) and they also love the idea of the Christian liturgy. Anyway, I played it for them, not expecting much except the few minute's peace which the this-is-Latin-so-be-good-and-listen-to-it trump card usually furnishes.

In the event, they weren't quite as attentive as I'd have liked while the music lasted, but then when it was over one of them said to me, quite seriously, "I think maybe I have heard this before. In a movie, maybe." I told him that this was quite possible; it is, after all, a famous and much-loved piece and is certainly featured in some film scores.

(In fact, I had briefly considered playing MoveOn.org's extremely successful spot "The Human Cost of War" for them, so they could see the way the music contributes to the power of the ad. But then I decided they would find it too upsetting, so I didn't. I mean, come on, they're only eight.)

Then I played them a Bach prelude -- Julian Bream on solo guitar, and then the lesson was over. As we packed up our books and papers, I asked them which piece they had liked best, and they both plumped for the Miserere. William said it was the best music he had ever heard. He said this a few times. Apparently he told his mother the same thing later that evening. Then he borrowed a copy of the recording from me.

We had Miserere again at lunch today, and I suppose we'll have it yet again at dinner, and tomorrow at breakfast, and so on for some days until William has had enough of it, or perhaps until one of us confiscates his iPod. In the meantime, I have looked out a Chinese translation of the 51st Psalm (luckily it is readily available online, so I didn't have to repeat the Horace adventure) and have promised to teach them the Latin version in our lessons.

Fitting out their Latin and Chinese translations in preparation for today's lesson, I was reminded of a story I told them yesterday: according to tradition, only the choir at the Sistine Chapel was initially authorized to perform Allegri's Miserere; anyone else who tried it did so under threat of excommunication. Then Mozart came along and (so they say) wrote it down from memory after hearing it once. After that, it could not be contained. As William has so effectively demonstrated, it now belongs to everyone, everywhere.

Of course, that's the thing about music, isn't it? It is a function of the laws of physics -- it inhabits the material universe in which we also live and breathe -- and yet it is disembodied, as if it were a being of pure spirit. It has a way of spilling over walls and stealing through windows. It floats on the wind and lodges in the heart.

Since I'm writing a dissertation about a closely related topic -- about the transmission of music by means of poetic description, actually -- I feel rather as if I ought to have something more to say about William's new discovery. But I don't seem to come up with anything. I mean, it's kind of all been said, hasn't it? As the Chinese Record of Music has it, "Music unites." And, as the philosopher Xun-zi pointed out, "Music is delight."

On that note, tomorrow we'll be doing The 59th Street Bridge Song. I am hoping that my students may be coaxed into connecting the line "I've got no deeds to do, no promises to keep" with another poem they have already studied:

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

As the fellow said, "When a friend arrives from far away, is it not indeed a joy?"

3 comments:

sheri amor said...

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep -nice....

Chris said...

"Of course, that's the thing about music, isn't it? It is a function of the laws of physics -- it inhabits the material universe in which we also live and breathe -- and yet it is disembodied, as if it were a being of pure spirit. It has a way of spilling over walls and stealing through windows. It floats on the wind and lodges in the heart."

What a beautiful way to describe music.

The children you teach sound like they must be a pleasure to be with. I am used to some of my students having no opinion on anything whatsoever, it must be very refreshing to have such enquiring minds.

flyingfish said...

Sheri: glad you liked it! Nothing like a little Frost now and again.

Chris: Thanks! You are certainly spot-on: I am unbelievably lucky that my students are so bright and eager. They have their sullen and apathetic days, sure, and also a few fusses and tantrums (hey, they've been over-tired since about 2005 so far as I can tell), but on the whole they are about as funny, charming and ready to be engaged as it's possible to be.

I reckon your situation is a bit different, because you teach in a somewhat more formal setting. When I taught at a university in Beijing (many, many years ago) I had a similar experience. No one ever seemed willing to muster an original opinion about ANYTHING. Or hardly ever. (Remind me to tell you the story of the taxi driver and the owl some day.)