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On my desert island, I would need to give myself Prospero-like powers, so that the music could be played and sung as mystically as the music of the spheres by an ensemble and choir of invisible nymphs…

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music…

sirenLorenzo’s lines from the final act of The Merchant of Venice are some of the finest in Shakespeare’s illustrious canon. They display the Bard’s understanding of the beauty of the cosmos, the music of the spheres that shines forth the harmony of God’s Creation and the splendor of the truth that sets it in motion. “Mark the music,” Lorenzo urges us at the end of his monologue, which prompts me to do just that.

Several months ago, in an essay published in this journal, I imagined myself marooned on a desert island surrounded by my favourite books. Ever since then, I have contemplated a return to that same desert island, this time surrounding myself with my favourite music. In order to do so, I decided that I would need to give myself Prospero-like powers so that the music could be played and sung as mystically as the music of the spheres by an ensemble and choir of invisible nymphs, conducted perhaps by Ariel himself. This is necessary because I would not want electricity or other manifestations of modern magic on my fantastically idyllic island.

Having concocted an imaginary library of books for my desert island, I would now conjure a list of sacred music, selecting ten religious pieces for my choir of sylphs to sing.

Commencing with the selection, I would choose to be accompanied on my desert island by the music of fourteenth-century Spain, or Catalonia to be precise, choosing the merriment of the songs of praise in the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (“Red Book of Montserrat”). These songs burst forth with the sheer joy of the faith of the Middle Ages and were written so that pilgrims to the shrine at Montserrat could not only sing but dance. As the anonymous scribe who compiled the songs in the Red Book explained, the songs are meant to aid the pilgrim to lift his heart and his dancing limbs to God: “Because the pilgrims wish to sing and dance while they keep their watch at night in the church of the Blessed Mary of Montserrat, and also in the light of day; and in the church no songs should be sung unless they are chaste and pious, for that reason these songs that appear here have been written. And these should be used modestly, and take care that no one who keeps watch in prayer and contemplation is disturbed.”

From the jollity and merriment of the mediaeval pilgrim, my next selections would reflect the beauty of the Faith, as practised in clandestine fashion in sixteenth century England. Thomas Tallis’s magnificent Spem in Alium soars in polyphonic splendor to heaven, praising God in words taken from the Book of Judith:

I have never put my hope in any other
but in You, O God of Israel,
who can show both anger and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins
of suffering man.
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth,
be mindful of our lowliness.

My other selection from sixteenth century England, William Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices, was published by the composer in 1593 or 1594, at a time when its performance was illegal due to Queen Elizabeth’s tyrannical war on religious freedom. Two other Masses would accompany me on my imaginary island. The first would be Bach’s magisterial Mass in B Minor, the performance of which in Oxford shortly after World War One, inspired the poet Siegfried Sassoon to rapturous delight in his “Sheldonian Soliloquy.” The second would be Fauré’s Requiem, the Pie Jesu from which has to be one of the most sublime pieces of religious music ever composed.

Paralleling the selection of three Masses, I would also select three Ave Marias, two of which, those by Schubert and by Bach/Gounod, are obvious, whereas the third, the sensuous Ave from Verdi’s Otello, perhaps less so.

My ninth selection would be somewhat edgier and certainly more modern. Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, composed as recently as 1994, was inspired by the classic silent movie, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), for which it serves as a scintillatingly beautiful soundtrack.

For my final selection, we go back to seventeenth century Italy and Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus (“Have Mercy on me, O God”), a setting of one of the Penitential Psalms, which shines forth not only the words of God’s mercy but the glory of His Creation in the heights to which the human voice “like an angel sings, still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins.” Listening to this, one can hardly avoid echoing the awe-inspired words of Lorenzo that “such harmony is in immortal souls.” With such music sounding celestial in one’s ears one could almost believe oneself in Paradise itself!

Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Maybe I’ve heard Schubert’s Ave Maria performed horribly too many times, but it is no longer one of my favorites. I’d replace it with Mozart’s Ave Verum.

  2. I cut my amateur musicological teeth as a producer and presenter of sacred music programs on community radio in the 1980s, and it is my duty to point out that for every work that justly or otherwise finds its place in the “western canon” of sacred music, there are hundreds of lost, unknown, little know, underappreciated and neglected pieces of equal beauty and spiritual import. These arose in every musical style and period, and many (not the lost ones, of course) can be found and enjoyed with just a little effort.

    How many music lovers know, for example, of the Mexican polyphony composers of the late Renaissance? de Padilla, Capilas and Salazar are some names to investigate.

    For those with limited listening time, the reliable favorites from Palestrina through Bach and Mozart to Faure et al. naturally form a welcome and accessible precis of the best of sacred music, and are no less rewarding for being popular. Mr Pearce’s selection reflects this tradition nicely, and I applaud his inclusion of the lesser know Einhorn work.

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