Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Twelve

The Twelve: Anthem for the Feast of any Apostle

Without arms or charm of culture,
Unimportant persons
From an unimportant Province,
They did as the Spirit bid,
Went forth into a joyless world
Of swords and rhetoric
To bring it joy.

When they heard the Word, some demurred, some were shocked, some mocked. But many were stirred, and the Word spread. Dead souls were quickened to life; the sick were healed by the Truth revealed; released into peace from the gin of old sin, men forgot themselves in the glory of the story told by the Twelve.

Then the Dark Lord, adored by this world, perceived the threat of the Light to his might. From his throne he spoke to his own. The loud crowd, the sedate engines of state were moved by his will to kill. It was done. One by one they were caught, tortured and slain.


O Lord, my God,
Though I forsake Thee,
Forsake me not,
But guide me as I walk
Through the Valley of Mistrust,
And let the cry of my disbelieving absence
Come unto Thee,
Thou who declared unto Moses,


Children play about the ancestral graves: the dead no longer walk.
Excellent still in their splendor are the antique statues: but can do neither good nor evil.
Beautiful still are the starry heavens: but our Fate is not written there.
Holy still is Speech, but there is no sacred tongue: the Truth may be told in all.
Twelve as the winds and the months are those who taught us these things:
Envisaging each in an oval glory, let us praise them all with a merry noise.
W. H. Auden, 1964, as printed in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson

A terrific poem, I think: so many memorable turns of speech from this text have seeped their way into my brain. The second stanza in particular makes you sit up and take notice; this is almost shocking in its modernity and timeliness over forty years later. The speaker's target is not Sin with a capital S, but the far more insidious problems of apathy, inattention and loss of faith. It's a prayer for our time in the best sense: rather than simply "updating" old ideas with poorly written, colloquial language, this combines echoes of traditional King James English with the characteristic terseness of modern verse. What's more, it captures the condition of Christianity in the age of mass media. As Marshall McLuhan has written, it's easy to be in the world and not of the world when you live in an electronic universe. Separating ourselves from the mundane physical world, the first challenge of Bunyan's pilgrim, is now easily accomplished by everyone. Witness, for example, the spread of quasi-religious movements which, since the dawn of the electronic age, have successfully detached spirituality from any backing in reality. One can hardly change the channel without being urged to harness the spiritual forces within the core of your being, or some such nonsense. This sort of quasi-spirituality is the ultimate abstraction, attractive because it cannot be proven true or false, requires nothing of you, and can be fitted to any ideology. Christianity, having for centuries urged others to look to eternal things, is now in the odd position of having to tell the world to put its feet back on the ground.

Unless you're a really huge Auden fanatic, however, you probably encounter this poem first through the crackerjack choral setting by William Walton. In a perfect world, Walton's music would need no special pleading, because everyone would listen to it and find it immensely attractive, but for some reason he occupies a decidedly second-tier place in modern music at best. I honestly can't understand why; orchestra directors should be pouncing on a twentieth-century composer whose music is sophisticated yet immediately attractive. Maybe a large part of it is the lingering snobbery about music from anywhere other than France or Germany, or the assumption that anything so immediately enjoyable must be of suspect quality. But Walton's music is immaculately crafted, and beyond the shiny surface there's a lot going on. Just look at this propulsive rhythmic figure from "The Twelve":

I have a hard time imagining any rhythmic combination in a 9/8 measure with a greater sense of rhythmic drive. Just look at the way it builds up through the first bar, lashes out into the second and returns to its original position. Like much of Walton's music, I can't imagine it being conceived prior to the Industrial Revolution - its periodic, insistent motion sounds like the noises of heavy machinery. In the inexorable motion of the figure, you can see the Word spreading like wildfire through the world.

I could cite any number of other examples from the anthem: the horrifying harmonic shift on the word "kill", a sound suddenly cut off as though stifled, or the infectious paradisiacal dance at the end of the work and the way Walton introduces the organ's Tuba stop at the last minute - but I'm acutely aware of how close to babbling incoherence I become when faced with this music. I love everything by Walton that I've ever heard, and I've heard almost everything, from the early and much-plagiarized Portsmouth Point Overture (I'm looking at you, Godfrey Ridout) to the gnomic, tersely written late choral music. Obviously, I've long passsed the point where I have any sense of critical distance. But "The Twelve", I think, should have a place at the forefront of English choral music, and stands with the best of Walton's work. Is it a Masterpiece? I don't know what that means anymore. But I like it. Go listen to it.


hugoid said...

Thank you. I agree agree agree. Most of Auden's libretti are very rewarding, but for me this is the jewel. Walton's setting is immaculate as well. The beginning and the fugue at the end both vocal and organ voicings are in a league of their own.

James said...

"The loud crowd, the sedate engines of state were moved by His will to kill." Talk about prophecy of Roe v. Wade.