Well.  There have been a very few number of church services in my life that contained moments intense enough almost to count as mystical experiences.  This morning’s was one of them, and it lasted only while we sang a certain hymn.  This hymn made me very curious, and I thought about it a great deal while the pastor preached his sermon (which is not to say that the sermon was bad… during the moments I actually attended to it, I thought it rather above average).

The hymn was a transfiguration hymn (since today is Transfiguration Sunday), and it was unusual for our hymnal because it gave us only the melody line.  The organist presumably had something to tell her what harmonies to play, and I think it was these peculiar harmonies that set everything off for me (more of that in a moment).  The ciphers at the bottom of the page said that the text was from the Sarum Breviary, Salisbury, from the year 1495; translated by John Mason Neale (1818-66); and that the tune was “English, 15th century.”  Here are the first two verses of the hymn:

O wondrous type!  O vision fair
Of glory that the Church may share,
Which Christ upon the mountain shows
Where brighter than the sun he glows!

With Moses and Elijah nigh
The incarnate Lord holds converse high
And from the cloud the Holy One
Bears record to the only Son.

That is enough for you to get the gist.  It is poor poetry—not doggerel, to be sure, but no better than the average for most hymnals.  (I haven’t looked into the Latin, but my experience of Neale is that he is a fairly decent translator, and I will guess that the original does not have much more to it than he gives us here.)

The entire quality and feel of the verses changed dramatically when they were sung to the organ music.  I do not even especially mean to compliment the melody here, since it was 15th-century enough to be charming but not utterly captivating.  I wish I had an ear and some experience for the inner workings of harmonies and modes, but all I can say is that the music was in a minor mode, and the harmonies were ones I was not at all used to hearing.  Whatever they were, they completely overwhelmed everything, by which I mean the text.  The text in the hands of the organ was more or less like Hobbits in the talons of Eagles—carried to the tops of the mountains far above anything they could have reached on their lonesome.  The Gesamtaffekt (to coin a German word like Gesamtkunst, except that we weren’t in an opera) was indescribable.  When we sang “converse high,” the minor descending harmonies sounded like lowering thunder (a most satisfying affect for the councils taken between Elijah and Christ).  I have never before experienced a work of church music that so totally transfigured the text at hand.

The whole thing was provoking to me in light of several debates that we had in an aesthetics philosophy seminar during my undergrad.  The debates surrounded whether a text combined with music actually “means” differently than either a text or music on its own.  (This, of course, was designed to lure us into the labyrinthine debates concerning how exactly poetry “means,” and how musical notes “mean.”  We never found our way out after that.)  I have experienced very strong transformations of non-sacred music before, the most brilliant of them appearing in “The Return of the King.”  There Howard Shore works outright magic on what looks at first sight to be a mildly cheerful traveling song:

Home is behind, the world ahead
And I have many paths to tread;
Through shadow, to the edge of night
Until the stars are all alight.

Mist and shadow, cloud and shade,
All shall fade!  All shall fade!

The text is actually taken, with minor alterations, from Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, chapter 3.  Pippin sings it with high gusto as the Hobbits march along cheerfully through the Shire.  In the movie, however, it becomes a dirge:  Pippin sings it slowly and hauntingly as the viewer watches the knights of Gondor sacrifice themselves in a hopeless charge to retake Osgiliath.

Now this transformation is especially interesting.  Tolkien provides no sheet music for his poems in the Fellowship, but with Pippin’s presumably cheerful singing, one sees nothing more in the rhymes than a traveler eagerly hasting to his journey’s end.  After Shore’s transformation, however, the music seems to give the words a new sort of meaning:  “Home” is no longer a house, nor even a whole Shire, but perhaps all of this earthly life; the “paths to tread” may be paths of doom, or of the afterlife; “shadow” and the “edge of night” no longer mean their simple selves, but death and doom and perhaps despair; “stars” now perhaps signal some rays of hope.  As for “All shall fade”—the music works its magic with these words most deeply.  Hope fades, Lothlorien fades, the flower of Gondor fades, the world of Men fades:  the music has altered the meaning of the words by whole dimensions of reality.

I have to bring all my ramblings to a close, but I want to tie everything together with the power of music.  I am still trying to grapple with the reality of how a non-verbal medium can actually change the meanings of words themselves.  What does this say for our understanding ancient and medieval poetry, which (we are told) was meant not to be read but sung?  I’ve skimmed Aristotle’s Poetics again, but he doesn’t offer anything helpful on this head:  he too appears to have assumed that poetry sprang from “rhythm and harmony” and that much of it is meant to be sung.  If I can find another philosopher who analyzes this phenomenon of a sung text being greater than its parts, I will post on what he says.  For now, the whole thing remains a mystery to me.