Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fortune's Remedy

One of my favorite things to do on Sunday at my house in Big Sur, if I don't drive in to Carmel to the Anglican church there, is to walk up the ridge to the top and bring my Book of Common Prayer and read aloud through the service for the week.  There are many aspects of this that are meaningful.  The liturgy is beautiful, and in their reading are echoed thousands of years of Church history, as if my voice reached less across the ocean I see from the top of the ridge and more across the waves of time not anchored in what the ancient Greeks called Kronos, the relentless passing of minutes and hours, but in Kairos, that gentler flow of God's hours that nurtures my soul, from eternity and back again.  I have written before about Kronos and Kairos and the way in which the time at table is a kind of hearkening of eternal Kairos, moments that nurture our souls.  The little prayer book that accompanies me is also a thing of beauty, given to me by a close friend and mentor, and covered in white French Moroccan leather.  I love its simple beauty in word and form.  Then there is the sheer exultant Beauty of God's creation, visible as far as the eye can see, headlands where the Santa Lucia mountains meet the sea in a spectacular coast unmatched in few places in the world.  And yet, as much as I love this, and find in nature's grandeur here a magnificent cathedral, I miss the uplifting singing of hymns, and when I am again hiking down the road, I invariably have one hymn or another in my head as I walk. 

As long as I have attended worship services, both in the United States and in Switzerland and France, it has been the music which has most often spoken to my heart. There is something about hymns that capture two forms of art: music and poetry, which transcend the raw ingredients of their composition and act as a kind of window into the eternal, much as a sacrament does.  Augustine famously said that the one who sings prays twice, in word and in song.   It is as if we take songs in, drink them into our souls and their melodies do indeed hearken the angels, who guard our quieter hours, singing in unison with us to the music in our hearts. It is not hard to see why this is, even through a glass darkly, for the heart of song is praise, that end for which mankind was created: to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The early Christians often sang in monophonic chant--one melody sung in unison-- and believed it was this uniting of their voices as one voice that called the angels to join with them. Today we still sing those old Gregorian chants, and we also sing in polyphonic style, or many voices, but I suspect the angels are no less present for the harmony. 

Singing this way is a heavenly participation which requires us to employ our physicality as an offering of sorts: to breathe deeply and engage our voices, and our very lifebreath in the act of worship, and this participation reveals a joy that wells up in the middle, something not often experienced simply listening.  As James K. A. Smith argues in his book Desiring the Kingdom, if being a participating member of society is reflected by one's ability to speak the language, music is the language of the Kingdom of God.  It "knits a vision into our bodies," which I would argue is as much significant for its physicality as its transcendence. Songs and their lyrics live in our minds and hearts long after they are sung, and like many people, I find both rolling around in my subconscious once the service is over with far greater frequency than the homily, and their melody continues to haunt my consciousness when I am home cooking Sunday dinner. I can recall the pure experience of joy remembered, too, as I cook, a kind of shared experience of heaven the sound of which echoes through my head.  It has always seemed an appropriate marriage: music and the table.

One of the differences between the hymns in America or England as contrasted with those I in which I have often sung in France is that unlike our largely major key harmonization, there is a sonority to French hymns that incorporates a dissonance I have long admired. It seems to perfectly capture the joy and the pain or sadness, both of which are a part of love, for we taste heaven, but do not yet inhabit its streets, and the path along which we walk in preparation is strewn with sorrows, as is all of life.  However, having said that, beautiful it also is, as we are slowly undergoing a transformation, which is a source of great Hope.  In the fourteenth century, a musician by the name of Guillaume de Machaut, who has written much music I love because it shares this love of dissonant echoes, and reflects the medieval Courts of Love and the music of the medieval troubadours of Provence (who understood love in this same way), began to introduce a new style called ars nova (new art) which injected considerable complexity into the polyphonic (many voice) form, such that the two or more voices began to be fashioned almost as if they were at war, one with another. They appear at war, and yet their intersection, point and counterpoint, reveal a stunning beauty.  I think this, too, is akin to our walk in life, for it is often the hardship of our life, at war with our pleasure, that fashions in us a rare and holy beauty, a new harmony or wellbeing.  New forms of harmony, incorporating this dissonance also appeared.   When I read of this, I am always reminded of the poet Rainier Maria Rilke, who wrote a wonderful book of poems entitle "Love and Other Difficulties," which a friend gave me long ago. Exactly, I think.  We have not yet learned to bear Love's beams and so find its embrace not quite the peaceful place we yet imagine. But Love Hopes.

Guillaume de Machaut was the century's acknowledged master of these and several other forms, both musical and poetic. Born around 1300 in Champagne, Machaut took holy orders and received an appointment as secretary to John of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia in 1323. This glorious knight, killed at Crécy in 1346, travelled extensively with Machaut in tow. Having begun as a trouver, traveling minstrel of sorts, Machaut returned to Rheims some time before John's death, where he had been granted a canonicate at the Rheims cathedral, highly unusual for someone who began as he did. During these years he wrote a number of motets, lais, ballades, virelais, some as part of his long narrative poems. He was later associated with John's daughter Bonne, wife of Duke John of Normandy, who died during the plague of 1349. His next close relationship was with Charles the Bad, King of Navarre, while in later life he received the patronage of King John the Good of France and his even more famous son, Jean, Duc de Berry. He died at Rheims in April of 1377.

While the extent and capabilities of Machaut's audience is not known, it is certain that his immediate audience was among the courts of the leading families of France. Like the poetic contemporaries and predecessors, his central theme, particularly in the narrative poems (or dits amoreaux) was Love, particularly courtly love.  Machaut's poem Remede de Fortune is perhaps the best known among musicologists and their literary colleagues.  Shall I tell you this story of the Remedy of Fortune? Briefly, the story line of Remede is this: after a short prologue introducing the recurring theme of Love and the Lady as educators of the artist, we are introduced to the youthful poet narrator, whom we shall call Amant.  Amant, thinking he was already educated in the ways of Love, has written a lai for his Lady.  The music for this scene allowed Machaut the poet to display his mastery of the poetic form while allowing Machaut the musician to use an example of an older musical form (ars antiqua) for quite another purpose. Amant, who sings, has not yet learned to be a lover. He was a callow youth with all the passion and lack of wisdom and perspective of youth. His song reflected this with its length, its overabundant and extravagent melodic variations, and it's reliance on archaic, thus uneducated, note forms. Amant is each of us and all of us, trying to learn the melodies of love, but stuck in archaic forms.  We need more glimpses of heaven's great promise of Hope to hear the new music.

The lady in our story discovers this work but does not realise who has written it. By chance (or by Providence or Fortune) she asks Amant to read the song (poem) to the court. He does so but is so overcome with the fear that she will realise he is the author that he fleas the court in emotional disarray. Lamenting on his sorrows, he enters the walled Park of Hesdin and there composes a complaint, railing against Fortune and Love. Exhausted by these events, he falls into a stupor but discovers that a beautiful but not quite human lady is sitting beside him. She disputes his opinion of Fortune and Love and sings a chanson roial detailing the joys of love. She completes her song and gives him a ring to cheer him. She then tells him that she is Hope, the friend of all lovers. Comforted, Amant asks for more advice, whereupon she sings a baladelle in praise of Love.  This piece is sung by Lady Hope. As she is the source of learning for Amant, and thus the key figure in the poem, it at first seems odd that her chanson roial is both monophonic and in the old style. But it must be remembered that the poem is by and about the Amant voice. As he has not yet learned of the joys of love so the listener cannot yet hear the new sound. Hope's song, though, is in marked contrast to Amant's creations in its lilting rhythm and light tone, suggesting the developments yet to come. We are again like Amant, only beginners in the joys of love, and so do not always hear the new sounds of its song.

Having learned from Hope, Amant returns to the court, composing and singing a ballade along the way. Hope appears to him once more to reassure him. As he returns he comes upon the Lady and her court dancing. She sees him and asks him to join the dance and sing for them. He does so without hesitation, composing and singing a virelais.  At first it seems surprising that Machaut has chosen to use a monophonic style to fulfill this task. But upon consideration the wisdom of this choice can be seen. Amant shows his developing maturity by choosing to sing not something to show off his virtuoso talents or his extravagent passion, but something fitted to the occasion: a simple dance tune. He is learning the humility that is a sign of the true embrace of Love. In the end, Amant sings: "Lady, my heart stays with you," which is not only a parting phrase but an expression of hope (or proof that he has learned from Hope's teaching). Once again the simple lyric does not do justice to the complexity of the musical rendering. The interplay between voices as leading tones keep the melodic line moving smoothly through the wandering yet controlled dissonance. Thus, while the youthful inexperienced lover has himself been transformed, so, too, the composer has shown the transformation of musical form.

Amant returns with the Lady to the court where she has provided a meal and entertainment for her companions. After this Amant has the opportunity to speak to her, whereupon he declares his love. The Lady declares her love for him and Hope appears to bless them. Departing from the court, Amant, in his joy, composes a rondelet. He returns to join the court in a tournament and sees his Lady looking at someone else. Consumed with jealousy he tasks her with her deed. She replies that she only did so to divert attention from them. He decides to trust her due to the lessons he has learned from Hope and the Lady.

Love Hopes.  And it is the music of worship which often helps us to hear the Hope in our hearts.  When we begin to see this hope, we begin to find the Greek eudemonia (the proper care and feeding of one's soul to find wellbeing) of which I wrote yesterday: we begin to flourish because we have embraced the Life, the great Hope in Him which sets the poetry of life to music.  If joy, praise and thanksgiving are the true expression of human fulfillment, if humans were truly made to glorify and enjoy God forever, then singing is a way that praise can transpose ordinary life to a higher level without losing what is good at the other levels. It combines discipline,and precision with a great liberation of body and imagination, in much the same way that cooking is a kind of hymn to creation and love.  Cooking requires this same discipline, such that the raw ingredients are transformed into an experience at the table that liberates our hearts and feeds us, as if we stood still in time.  Like the hymns of praise, there is a moment, in the words of Samuel Wells in God's Companion, "when those who have 'stood still, looking sad' (Luke 24:17) are rejeuvenated, and eyes that are downcast are raised on high", and can see and hear, and take in fully the art around them.  They have experienced a window into heaven, and heard the voices of the angels. They have begun to learn to embrace Love.
The table has a redeeming power over hearts, and can teach the true embrace of Love.  In the same way that songs live on in our hearts, so do meals, which are remembered and recreated in our hearts until they assume a liturgical significance which far exceeds the food itself.  In the movie Babette's Feast, this mystical redemption of the human spirit occurs at the table, and the chef who cooked the superb meal is described as an angel who had the ability to turn a meal into a love affair, where there was little distinction between righteousness and bliss.  In other words, at table we might begin to be redeemed and transformed by Love to see the Hope of Heaven's promise. Ultimately, it is not the food which is transformative, but the food feeds our soul such that we experience a love affair at table that opens our hearts to its music, just as music in worship opens our hearts to God who created us and redeemed us for Himself. This is reminiscent of the singing of the early church, in which it was believed the angels joined their voices, such that we might hear heaven's melody.

As for  tonight's table at The House which shall be Unnamed, I am planning a dinner to honor the coming autumn and yet recognize the beautiful end of summer day we are having: we will begin with a little heirloom tomato salad with rocket (arugula) and tapenade toasts.  The next course will feature two little fried oysters, cooked according to David Tanis' (of Chez Panisse fame) recipe in today's New York Times, and served with rouille.  Finally, I will make a little oven roasted potato, chanterelle, shallot, bacon and green bean warm salad over which to serve some grilled salmon with a tomato buerre blanc.  This will be followed by fresh fruit and cheese. Perhaps it will be Fortune's Remedy?  Now as for the music? Stay tuned.
Happy Cooking mes amis. May you find Lady Hope. A bientot a table..

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