In the 1200s St Dominic preached against the Albigensian heresy.
That’s not the lede I expected to write about my recent trip to the symphony, but all of my reflections on the premiere of Lieberson’s Songs of Love and Sorrow led me back to a lesson I’d taught on Dominic earlier that day. Composed as a companion piece for Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, Songs of Love and Sorrow also sets poetry by Pablo Neruda, this time putting the powerful Chilean poetry in the mouth of a baritone rather than a mezzo-soprano.
As a stereotypical stodgy New Englander, a lot of Neruda’s work feels foreign to me. His expressions of emotion are tactile and earthy, with a lack of inhibition that makes me feel even more uptight in comparison. I’m probably not alone in approaching Neruda (and anything else that challenges me that much) with an overly intellectual detachment, trying to analyze its rich physicality with the sobriety of an over-trained mind. Plena mujer, manzana carnal, luna caliente [Full woman, flesh-apple, hot moon] – for we priggish Americans, it can be easier to hold images like that at arm’s length.
That detachment was impossible last night. Lieberson’s evocative setting energized Neruda’s poetry, but even more revelatory was the very experience of live music.
We are bodies, living in a world we can touch, feel, see, smell, hear. The sonic experience of orchestral forces in a live setting is incomparable, a fact of which I am reminded on every trip to the symphony. The magic of skill and intention forming sound waves that surround us is a perfect example of the blessings of our physical world. Add to that the power of a perfectly calibrated human voice – an example of every part of the human body working together perfectly, art truly incarnate – and you have a recipe for transformation.
Cantas y al sol y a cielo con tu canto/tu voz desgrana el cereal del día,/hablan los pinos con su lengua verde: trinan todas la saves del invierno. [You sing, and your voice peels the husk /of the day’s grain, your song with the sun and the sky,/the pine trees speak with their green tongue:/all the birds of the winter whistle.]
A rich human voice, an orchestra, an emotive musical setting of sensual poetry created the perfect storm, tearing me away from the elite intellectualism honed over many years in the ivory tower. My brain was ripped out and I was only body, heart and blood and guts and skin.
So what does this all have to do with St Dominic? The Albigensians, like many before and after them, professed that the human body and all other matter was evil. Although the Albigensian heresy died out in the decades following Dominic’s preaching, that principle still lives in the hearts and minds of many Christians. We go to church and are scared to open our mouths and sing, never mind move our bodies or touch the person next to us. We believe our faith and our identity are found in what we think rather than how we embody that belief through physical action. Trying to stay on the right side of gluttony we avoid any indulgences, ignoring the many gifts of God that come to us through our sensations. We’re mostly brain, a little heart, and no guts. We’re scared – of sin, of our appetites, of our power.
But to look at the people who truly embrace the physicality of our creation, they don’t slide into gluttony or sin but achieve something truly mystical. Earth’s crammed with heaven/and every common bush afire with God (Elizabeth Barrett Browning). By means of all created things, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin). The king saw his image/in your faces/when he made you mirrors of/all heaven’s graces,/a garden of surpassing/sweetness, a fragrance/wafting all graciousness (Hildegard von Bingen).
It’s easy to spend a lot of time with my head in the clouds, hoping for things not seen. But everything in the here and now was created and proclaimed good – including us. What a gift it is to get out of our heads and into our bodies, touching the earth that sustains us, touched by the art that occasionally inflames our senses until our old ways burn up and we become something new in their clean, pure ash.
And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
I felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind. – Neruda