Grace and fervor -- making music
"Grace," a child is said to have announced, "is doing spiritual things easili." True. True inescapably for the child, whose very awkwardnesses are essential grace. True more escapably later on, when the accomplishment of grace seems often to be a thing of discipline and difficulty.
These thoughts are stirring as I liste in a Gothic church to a choral-orchestral program of two 20th-century French works, done with fervent grace by the Greenwich Choral Society here in Connecticut. They are Francis Poulenc's "Gloria," and Arthur Honegger's "King David," the first written later in its composer's life, and the second rather early. Honegger and Poulenc had each been associated with "Les Six,"m and mainly affiliated there in thumbing their noses at the musical pomposity around them. But these pieces, with whatever pungency, are addressing the spirit of man. They are, in fact, acts of prayer.
For Honegger, "King David" was a declaration of his deepest allegiance to tradition, including the biblical. Its music for voices and instruments was commissioned by Rene Morax to go with his epic drama at the post-war reopening of his own theater near Lausanne. Honegger later adapted the work as a kind of oratorio, with a larger orchestra and with a narrator filling in the play's action. The story reaches from David's shepherding childhood to the end of his life. Some moments, such as the meeting between Saul and the Witch of Endor, are expansively stagey. But the deeper drama, and the approach to grace, moves between David's heavy contrition -- particularly concerning Uriah and Bathsheba -- and his sense of ultimately transcendent divinity.
Honegger draws quintessentially a contour map of the human conscience. His lines of choral and instrumental counterpoint, remembering Bach not literally but with affection, seem to blow together on winds of feeling. They describe acquired wisdom and trust, as does the narrator in the magnificent dawn of David's "last words" from II Samuel: "He that ruleth over men . . . shall be as the tender grass, springing out of the earth with clear shining after rain." The closing chorus takes leave of David with prophecy of the Savior, picturing the symbolic flower stemming from him which will breathe new life on earth. At the last there are weaving Alleluias to float effortlessly within the sound and among the words.
It was some fifteen years after this that Poulenc, who was then in his and the century's mid-thirties, rediscovered his own religious sense in a time of spiritual crisis. Was this an about-face? Not at all. His songs still showed a nimble, secular lucidity in complementing and even clarifying the poetic nuances of such friends as Guillaume Appolinaire and Max Jacob. Reflecting the subtler, self-propelled dynamics of jazz, their course is intuitively steered and melodically blessed.
Poulenc still brought to every text the same sure, knowing grasp of song and dance. The syncopations in the Sanctus of his Mass is G (an earlier work), and the skipping beat of the praising Laudamus Te in this Gloria, as well as the arching penitence of its more inward prayer, bring the whole man, so to speak, into church. And out again. The composer told a friend that in writing the Gloria one thing he had in mind was a glimpse of "those serious Benedictine monks . . . playing soccer."
Yes, both the "King David" and the Gloria "do their spiritual things easily," to use the child's phrase. They evoke that legendary juggler of Norte Dame, who trusted his total skill, rather than just his borrowed words, as a language of devotion, and so preferred juggling to genuflection when he faced the altar.
Yet some of this rousing and soaring music is difficult, even formidable, to sing. Not all: Honegger remembered always the time he heard his Alleluias sung by a chorus of Swiss peasants. When Robert Shaw, on the other hand, recorded the Poulenc Mass he spent the best part of a night with his expert chorale tuning the sometimes gristly chord sequences. Later he met Poulenc and apologized to him for a note of anger -- or at least angularity -- that he felt had come into the recording as a result. "It was exactly right," Poulenc answered, as I recall Shaw's account. "This is in part an angular work. I think of it as Romamesque, in the spirit of those sharply angled figures of the Christ from Vezelay or Autun."
The Romanesque is the childhood of the Middle Ages. And while a child may fully and innately recognize the ease of "doing spiritual things," the more sophisticated development of grace may turn difficult. Then there are times when ease and difficulty meet in a remarkable balance. Poulenc figures them musically by giving a unison melody to altos and tenors in the same actual register: the altos, for whom it lies low, bring rest and ease to the sound; for the tenors it lies high and so their tone contributes a stretching, a certain tension. Yet it is onem sound, and if well sung the ease masters it, accomplishes it.
The balance of that sound is also close to the whole resonant spirit of Honegger's David -- a man of grace looking back over a like of hewn-out kingliness, and rejoicing.