In truth, much of my favourite music is not sacred but profane, insofar as it is not overtly religious or in the least liturgical; and yet these profane favourites are certainly sublime, reflecting the goodness, truth and beauty of Creation, the harmony of the cosmos and the music of the spheres…
Several months ago I selected ten pieces of sacred music for my imaginary desert island, choosing works by Tallis, Byrd, Verdi, Fauré, Allegri, Schubert, two works by Bach, anonymous songs from fourteenth-century Catalonia, and one modern piece by Richard Einhorn. Such a selection, as celestial as it may be, is nonetheless incomplete. It fails to include many of my favourites, without which my desert island would not be the imaginary paradise I wish to make it. In truth, much of my favourite music is not sacred but profane, insofar as it is not overtly religious or in the least liturgical; and yet these profane favourites are certainly sublime, reflecting the goodness, truth and beauty of Creation, the harmony of the cosmos and the music of the spheres. I would, therefore, like to move from the sacred to the profane, selecting ten profane classics to accompany the ten sacred pieces selected earlier.
I would begin with Schubert, whose Piano Quintet in A Major, known colloquially as “The Trout”, has remained a firm favourite ever since I first heard it as a child. Today, still a child, my heart leaps as the dancing piano takes me to the pied beauty of God’s Creation, “to rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim”, as Gerard Manley Hopkins would say. My second selection, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, stays with the pastoral theme, evoking images of the first cuckoo of spring, of rain, rainbows and the return of the sun, and of peasants carousing in an agrarian idyll, or, as Hopkins might say, to “finches’ wings, and landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough”. Thus do Schubert and Beethoven conjure the divine splendour of nature to the mind’s ear as surely and sublimely as Hopkins conjures it to the mind’s eye.
Staying with the agrarian theme, or what might be called the music of the Shire, I would also take with me to my desert island the Songs of the Auvergne (Chants d’Auvergne), arranged by Canteloube for voice and orchestra, a rustic celebration of the folk culture of France’s own “Shire”. Moving across the Channel to the English Shire, I couldn’t imagine being marooned without the consoling presence of The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams. The power of this piece of music has grown on me since I moved to the United States and was thereby exiled from the sweet fluting strains of this most melodious of birds. Its presence as an indispensably sublime musical accompaniment to many a hike in the English countryside remains with me across the abyss of the ocean, the rapture transcending the rupture of the years that separates me from it. It is difficult indeed to find adequate words to express the sheer majesty of God’s presence in the skylark’s song. Much better poets than I have endeavoured to do so. Take for instance, George Meredith: “He rises and begins to round/he drops the silver chain of sound/Of many links without a break/in chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.” Or Percy Bysshe Shelley: “From rainbow clouds there flow not/Drops so bright to see/As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.” And yet neither of these great poets captures the rapture as well as does Vaughan Williams. It’s almost as though the song of a lark as it ascends skyward is beyond the power of mere words. It needs the most beautiful music to converse with such beauty. Like speaking to like. In any event, I have waxed lyrical enough on something beyond my powers to convey. It would, therefore, be wise to move on.
My next selection is probably the one work of music that I admire above all others, and is by the one composer that I admire above all others. It’s the Tannhäuser Overture by Wagner. As with my professed inadequacy in the presence of the skylark, I confess to being unequal to the task of expressing the manner in which this soaringly impassioned tour de force transports me out of myself into somewhere better. I shall, therefore, desist, deferring to the words of another poet, Maurice Baring, who described Wagner as a “restless soul, for ever seeking bliss,/athirst for ever and unsatisfied”.
As my love for the Shire, in both its fictional and factual forms, is such a large part of the theology of place by which I root myself in reality, my next two selections reflect the love of homeland, Finlandia by Sibelius and Má Vlast (My Homeland) by Smetana. I saw Má Vlast performed in Prague, in the composer’s homeland, the perfect setting for a patriotic piece celebrating the Czech nation and people, evoking a sense of patriotism on my part for another person’s country, a passionate empathy which is good for the soul and good for the prevalence of peace among peoples.
For my next selection I move from the sweeping romanticism of Wagner, Sibelius and Smetana to the minimalism of Arvo Pärt. I recall my attention first being drawn to Pärt back in the 1990s when I was still living in England. I had Radio Three, the BBC’s classical music station, playing in the background when a piece of music gradually, almost imperceptibly, grabbed my attention, or, more accurately, the beauty of something playing subconciously dawned on my conscience, like the sun rising over the horizon of perception. The piece in question was Pärt’s tintinnabulatingly haunting Cantum in Memorium Benjamin Britten. I would dearly love to have this with me on my desert island but, as I’m restricting myself to only ten pieces, I will select Pärt’s Spiegel im Speigel (Mirror in the Mirror), which attains a mystical quietude and peace, which is almost the antithesis of the Wagnerian quest for passionate redemption, and yet, on a deeper level, harmonizes with it, the Pärtian thesis and the Wagnerian antithesis meeting in a transcendent synthesis.
My final two selections might almost seem bathetic, descending from the truly sublime to what the musical purist might consider the ridiculous. Risking such bathos, I will nonetheless succumb to my desire to have The Lord of the Rings with me on my desert island, musically as well as literarily. For this reason, I will select Johan de Meij’s First Symphony, also known as The Lord of the Rings Symphony, and Howard Shore’s score for the Jackson film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring. The former is light and breezy and no doubt nothing special from a musicological perspective but I appreciate the way that it correlates with Tolkien’s world and with the plot line of The Lord of the Rings; the latter is as good as it gets, me judice, as far as film scores are concerned. Shore’s score is truly Wagnerian in sweep and scope, ascending beyond the pseudo-Wagnerian dabblings of lesser composers of movie scores. Although Johan de Meij’s approach to Tolkien’s epic differs drastically in terms of style to Shore’s I get a thrill in comparing the manner in which both composers are inspired by the same text and yet express themselves so differently. This is especially evident in their depiction of the Shire and Hobbits.
Having descended to the level of fandom in my last two selections, I will leave the purist and the elitist to sneer at the triviality of my selection. So be it. Surrounded by these works of “profane” beauty and my earlier selection of sacred music, I will be quite content on my ideal and idyllic desert island without their approval. Closing my eyes, I will be transported to places where angels sing and peasants and hobbits dance. In such a place, who cares about the elitist or the purist!
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