Thursday, August 6, 2009

"How Strange and Godlike"

.Why We Sing, Part IV

As a chorister and as one who writes about choral singing, I’m always interested in understanding more about how music moves us and re-creates in us the longings of our entire race. Here’s one of my favorite passages from Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, describing Tess’s reaction to the ancient music she hears in church one morning. Though rejected by her neighbors, she feels a certain connection to the long-dead composer whose music thrills her senses.

In the course of a few weeks Tess revived sufficiently to show herself so far as was necessary to get to church one Sunday morning. She liked to hear the chanting – such as it was – and the old Psalms, and to join in the Morning Hymn. That innate love of melody, which she had inherited from her ballad-singing mother, gave the simplest music a power over her which could well-nigh drag her heart out of her bosom at times.

To be as much out of observation as possible for reasons of her own, and to escape the gallantries of the young men, she set out before the chiming began, and took a back seat under the gallery, close to the lumber, where only old men and women came, and where the bier stood on end among the churchyard tools.

Parishioners dropped in by twos and threes, deposited themselves in rows before her, rested three-quarters of a minute on their foreheads as if they were praying, though they were not; then sat up, and looked around. When the chants came on one of her favourites happened to be chosen among the rest – the old double chant "Langdon" – but she did not know what it was called, though she would much have liked to know. She thought, without exactly wording the thought, how strange and godlike was a composer's power, who from the grave could lead through sequences of emotion, which he alone had felt at first, a girl like her who had never heard of his name, and never would have a clue to his personality.


Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), Chapter 8

Learn more about the tune "langdon" here:

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