Thursday, November 20, 2008

Surprised by Sorrow

Perhaps one of my most significant finds on the Internet recently has been LastFM, mainly because it keeps introducing me to music that I would otherwise never have heard. My most recent find has been Henryk Górecki's 'II Lento E Largo - Tranquillissimo' from his Symphony No 3. Also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs this is a haunting, moving and uplifting piece that brought tears to my eyes. Despite its title it is not sorrowful or gloomy – it is slow, meditative, beautiful and haunting. It is amazing how music can affect you like this – there are so many pieces that can move me to tears or joy within just a few notes. I only have to hear the opening guitar chords of Johnny Cash's version of Trent Resner's 'Hurt' and tears are in my eyes and I am choking up; the opening sustained chord of 'Shine on You Crazy Diamond' and I am literally transported to another world in my mind.

Films too can have this effect – if you can sit through the closing scene of 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence' between Tom Conti and Takeshi Kitano and not weep, then you have a heart of stone! And if the dénouement of 'Sophie's Choice' does not makes you turn away in horror (especially if you a parent) then you have no soul!!

My wife has often observe how odd this is when I did not weep at my own parents' deaths, or that of my Grandmother, with whom I was especially close, or indeed the deaths of several good friends in recent years. Nor did I weep tears of joy at my children's births,. Yet I can cry at a song or a film. Some might think that makes my callous, others that this is just another sign of how emotionally stunted men are – but that is, as ever just looking at the surface. Tears can be faked, but genuine emotions run much, much deeper, and like many men I reflect my deepest feelings in other ways – through the written word, through other acts, rituals, spoken words. Raw emotion does not always cause the same external response in every person.

But that still does not answer how a piece like Barber's 'Adagio for Strings' or Vaughan Williams' 'Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis' can evoke deep emotions and even lead me to weep, when life events do not evoke that response. I do not have the answer fully yet, but maybe music has the power to evoke something deep down in the human soul, homesickness for a place we have never known, nostalgia for a time we never lived, looking for a world that isn't yet. That hunger for something more, something beyond all of this.

Górecki's Symphony No 3 is a musical setting for words written by various people at different times in history who were separated - child from mother or mother from child. The second song that so captivated me was written as a prayer by a Polish girl, Helena Błażusiak, on the walls of her cell in a Gestapo prison calling on the Virgin Mary for protection. It is a cry of hope in the midst of sorrow and separation, for reunion with her mother, for safety, for a better future. In expressing that deep, spiritual longing in music, it shows not only Górecki's genius as a composer, but how deep seated this longing for a better world is in us all.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

90 Years

Today, in many different nations, there was an act of remembrance for those millions who died in the First World War – 90 years to day that the Great War ended. That the War to End all Wars failed to achieve an end to war is one of the great clichés of the last century. That we continue to mourn those who have died in wars being fought to this very day is another truism. As Steve Turner once wrote, 'history repeats itself; has to; no one listens'. But I have always preferred the words of Wilfred Owen:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.

The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


We do need to remember, although there is a good deal of debate in this day in age about what we are remembering. Is it the "Glorious Dead" who died in a noble cause, or is the horror and futility of war, and the hope that we might find a better way.

A week to the day that Barak Obama came to power in the States in the hope that he will lead their nation towards peace and change. The world hopes he does – and the weight of expectation on one man to save our troubled world are not only unrealistic, they are genuinely dangerous because ultimately, he is not going to succeed. I pray that he does make some difference, but he cannot solve the world's problems. And he is less likely to be as a good a friend to Africa as George Bush has ironically turned out to be - not for lack of good will, but because war and economic collapse will be his priority. We need to remember that others came before Obama promising a brave new world – I was reminded of the euphoria eleven years ago when Tony Blair was elected British Prime Minister – and remember how his tenure as PM ended? And remember Bush wanted to avoid embroiling the US in overseas ventures until that fateful morning in September of 2001 changed the course of his presidency. Events, dear boy, events – you never know where they will lead you.

So, let us remember the dead, of all sides, soldiers and civilians, and remember that leaders will never succeed in ending conflict forever. But let us pray that, this once, they succeed.


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