. . . And the night shall be filled with music.
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Day Is Done"
It's hard to sing while you're weeping. And yet singing is akin to weeping. That's why so many of our favorite songs are sad ones, so many of our favorite plays are tragedies, and so many of our favorite stories are tales of loss.
I couldn't get through a certain part of the song* without breaking down. I wasn't the only one. At the pub afterward, I learned that my daughter and several others had also been blubbering their chords.
Art-works that refer to themselves (the canvas about painting, the play about acting, the song about singing) attack the bodies of artists intimately. And in this case when the poet, who has begged his loved one to give her voice to verse, reports that the night is now filled with music, while the basses drop by a fifth to low D flat, then those who make music together, agreeing on a chord that sets the room to shudder, feel their fundamental glue dissolve. It's black magic, or sinister science. But we have to get over it. We're artists. We're paid to sing (or in the case of our chorus,** who do other things for their supper than sing, we reward ourselves by singing); we're not paid, or rewarded, to weep. The singing uses the same muscles as weeping, but stops the weeping; or more precisely, it proves that weeping has stopped. It pulls together what has been dissolved. And that's why the old sad songs that every generation writes again, you know the ones, the songs that say your love is lost or your child is dead or you'll never see Innsbruck again, or Paris or Vienna or San Francisco, or your friends from the good old days, or the old country -- that's why those songs make us so damn happy. And that's why our happy songs can in a moment bring us to tears.
Singing resembles the spontaneous utterances of the body: the scream of pain, the grunt of labor, the fart of laughter, the cry of fear, the ululation of grief. It's as difficult as these utterances but it isn't any of them; it's the body's report on them. And in reporting, the body sends a message. I am still alive, it says. Alive and striking back. Alive and still in control, if not of the world, at least of myself. Whatever it is I have suffered, I am still here to see it, and to make you know that I was here seeing it. And for as long as some of you are hearing my song, I am still here, rising above the unfortunate accident of my mortal pain. O grave, where is they victory?
It's after midnight in Paris, and this evening I go to one of the great churches and join with fifty others in singing one of the saddest songs ever written, the Stabat Mater. In thirteenth-century Latin it tells of Mary standing at the foot of the cross where her child had died a ghastly death, "morientem desolatum." We sing this song in the setting of Francis Poulenc, about whom there is much fuss now in France because he died fifty years ago. Among the things one should know are the meanings of the text; one should know exactly what the poet is saying as you sing it. And yet it's dangerous to know such things, for the black magic of verse and sound can undo us. It's hard to sing when you're weeping. Somehow Poulenc and the unknown poet of eight centuries ago pull a rabbit out of the hat: from our grief comes the hope of a triumph. Not the least of triumphs are Poulenc's snappy rhythms, his chords chock with blue notes, his tunes that take the singer from church to the cabaret and then to outer space.
It's hard music. Shall I be worthy? I must pull it together. I must sing this.
In Les Mis they say that to love another person is to see the face of God, but I think there's at least one other way. The spheres are said to have a music of their own. When you stand in a room with dozens of others as the ten notes of a chord click in, the room sings back to you and you give up your body to the sound. Then the veil may pull back a little so God can look in. Though the dress code requires black shoes, I think I should remove my sandals before entering such holy ground. For this time there shall be no doubt; we shall know what to do and when to do it. We poor mortals whose bodies threaten to dissolve are pulled together, reformed and improved by the song.
So it doesn't matter what the song reports. Not in comparison to the act of reporting -- of putting pain in a bracket and setting it on the side, so we can rise from it.
A song is a prayer.
*Stephen Paulus's choral setting of the poem (adapted).
**New York City Master Chorale, cond. Thea Kano http://www.nycmasterchorale.org