Touch in music and mystery

Katrina DowlingMusicLeave a Comment

handling bread

We use embodied metaphor to talk about knowing, thinking and experiencing. Just a few of the almost countless examples:

see the point
hold something up to scrutiny
chew over an idea
savour an experience
digest the meaning
play with a concept
return to a topic
grasp a concept
be touched by an experience
a weighty problem

And these metaphors are powerful when applied to the mysterious and transcendent. Not only is it through the physical that we learn to imagine the intangible, but “it is the body that makes spiritual experience passionate, that brings to it intense desire and pleasure, pain, delight, and remorse. Without all these things, spirituality is bland.”[1] The first two verses of Horatius Bonar’s 1855 hymn are strong in this kind of embodied metaphor as it applies to the Eucharist:

Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face,
here will I touch and handle things unseen,
here grasp with firmer hand the eternal grace,
and all my weariness upon thee lean.

Here would I feed upon the bread of God,
here drink with thee the royal wine of heaven,
here would I lay aside each earthly load,
and taste afresh the calm of sin forgiven.

In Alan Viner’s choral anthem “Here, O my Lord,” he uses just these two verses, which creates a great focus on the physical, tactile nature of the mystery and our encounter with it.

On one level, the setting does not aim to convey these sensual figures by literal word-painting, but instead it’s more expressive of speech-like delivery of the text. The lyrical phrasing dictates the musical phrasing and drives the shape and growth of the music; for example, the ends of phrases are articulated with lowering of both pitch and dynamic level. Similarly, in the second stanza, the poco più mosso (moving a little faster), louder dynamic, higher and wider pitch range and more active harmony all rhetorically move the song into new territory, while retaining the essential musical gestures of the first stanza – Viner has simply heightened them.

But one example of evoking touch in music is in “all my weariness upon thee lean,” in which a single chord is sustained through the word “weariness” and all the voices are static except for the soprano, which drops by a 5th. In this passage, it’s easy to hear the analogous shifting of weight from one person to another:

Here, O my Lord 1

We should note that the structure of this music is modified strophic, meaning that Viner sets the two stanzas to similar music, but varies it for the second stanza. As a result, this musical gesture recurs (modified) in the second stanza, where its relationship to the text is different, although not inconsistent with its first use – in the second stanza, “taste afresh the calm of sin forgiven” can also be associated with the lifting of a burden:

Here, O my Lord 2

Another tactile feature of the music is the use of suspensions throughout – not always as word-by-word painting of touch in the text, but always keeping the sense of touch and movement present. Suspensions are literally tactile experiences – they are notes that clash with the chordal harmony, and we hear the friction between their vibrations. And they are called suspensions or leaning notes because they are created by moving the voices a little out of step with each other, which makes a clash that needs to resolve, so they arouse notions of leaning, weight, push and pull, and momentum.

I find it a perfect meeting when music – by nature embodied, tactile, and moving –supports the expression of tactile metaphor, which in turn allows us to grasp something of a mystery, something that bridges the seen and the unseen.

The Mustard Seeds will sing “Here, O my Lord” at services of Holy Communion on 4 October and 1 November.

[1] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 567.

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