Saturday, March 15, 2008

A thought for Holy Week

Sometimes a few lines of verse work their way into my head and keep popping up when I'm trying to think of other things. As I prepare for a busy round of Holy Week services in the coming days, something about this stanza has a peculiar resonance:
Dishevelled and in tears, go, song of mine,
To break the darkness of the heart of man:
Say how his life began
From dust, and in that dust doth sink supine:
Yet, say, the unerring spirit of grief shall guide
His soul, being purified,
To seek its Maker at the heavenly shrine.
Guido Cavalcanti (1250-1301), tr. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

What an ear for language that man had! Read the third and fourth lines aloud, and you'll hear what I mean; the repeated "s" sounds hiss harshly like so much dust running through the fingers. (The complete poem can be found here.) Of course, musicians are most likely to encounter this rather obscure poem through the part-song by Elgar, whose melancholy fits the text perfectly:



The interesting collision for me is thinking about this text while practicing the great Bach chorale prelude "O Mensch, bewein dein Sunde gross", which is my postlude this Sunday. One could almost tag Cavalcanti's poem as a caption onto Bach's piece, so closely do they follow each other in sentiment. These sorts of resonances across the centuries never fail to fascinate me, and remind me what a privilege it is, as a church musician, to be able to retell this wonderful, ancient story every year.

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