Friday, 20 November 2020

Soul of discretion

Some years  ago I wrote (here):

Songs in my forthcoming concert have made me think about gender. My first ..issue, thinking point.....? comes in Fauré's Cantique de Jean Racine (written  'when Fauré was still at school', as programme notes tend to say, although he was a fairly mature 19-year-old at the time). The basses sing Dissipe le sommeil [... ⇦ NB] languissante qui la conduit à l'oubli de tes lois

I've sung this piece many times [see here for a rantette], but only recently I started to think about gender. There was no feminine noun that the object pronoun la could refer to. If the thing that was the object of conduit was sommeil then the  languissante shouldn't have its feminine ending, and the la conduit should be l'a conduit – so that it's not an admission of weakness but a confession of past sins.

This seemed to me to be a great discovery – all those editors had got it wrong; I started sharpening my mental pencil, in preparation for a letter to the publishers of European Sacred Music. After all, the editor was John Rutter,  and I had a history of textual nit-picking with him:

But look back at that NB a couple of paragraphs back. Before writing my planned letter I checked the score, and realized my potentially embarrassing mistake: the basses don't sing all the words. The upper parts sing the whole sentence:

Dissipe le sommeil d'une âme languissante 

Qui la conduit à l'oubli de tes lois!

Oh well....

This was a bit defeatist (Defeatist? Moi?); there could still be a musicological point worth making. There are, as I wrote before looking at the score, two possible interpretations of the sounds:  

  1. qui la conduit is an admission of (present) human weakness
    Here, la conduit means "[it] leads"  [the soul is being led by human frailty]
  2. qui l'a conduit is a confession of (past) misdeeds (l'oubli de tes lois)
    Here, l'a conduit means "[it] has led" [sleep – human fecklessness – has led to l'oubli de tes lois]
    I can almost hear Fr Gregory saying 'I hadn't time'. 
    The context was a soul in Purgatory aspiring to get into Heaven, speaking to the celestial bouncer in justification of their sins of omission.

There is a pun here, based on the two meanings of conduit and Fauré knew that. It's not inconceivable that he wanted the basses to sound Sam-the-Eagle-like. After all, the phrase is  marked by a very prominent bass entry. Perhaps the 19-year-old was having a sly dig at his schoolmaster father, who sent him away  from the family home in the South of France twice: he lived at home for only 14 five of his first 19 years –  with a foster mother until he was four, and then after only  five happy years...

(of the chapel near his home he wrote:

I grew up, a rather quiet well-behaved child, in an area of great beauty. ... But the only thing I remember really clearly is the harmonium in that little chapel. Every time I could get away I ran there – and I regaled myself. ... I played atrociously ... no method at all, quite without technique, but I do remember that I was happy; and if that is what it means to have a vocation, then it is a very pleasant thing.

quoted in Wikipedia


... he was sent to Paris to study at the Ėcole Niedermeyer.


Meanwhile, a pedant's life doesn't get any easier: in My soul doth magnify the problem I wrote (of a concert that include the Magnificat)

...The words of the Magnificat reminded me of a confusion that keeps cropping up in the life of a choral singer. In the text that that link points to you'll see in the third line of the Latin exultavit, translated in the English as "hath rejoiced". But later on the word exaltavit appears, translated in the English as "hath exalted".

Italianate pronunciation of Latin now gets involved. Listen to this YouTube clip; the relevant word starts occurring from about 30 seconds in, and is repeated as often as Vivaldi chooses. When this vowel (not unlike the English /ʌ/ phoneme – the one that occurs in, for example, "exulted", although it is closer to [ɑ]) is heard by a strictly Anglophone ear, confusion arises..

And this a/u problem hasn't gone away. In the ENO's recent rendition of Mozart's Requiem one of the alternations between in aeternum and requiem eternam was a fleeting blemish (at 51'14") on a very welcome live concert. I'm sure I'd be happier if I didn't notice this sort of thing, but there we go. The choir of ENO usually sing in English, so maybe I should cut them some slack; shame though.


PS My choir was rehearsing (via Zoom) last night, and it reminded me of a previous concert, of which I had written:

...My favourite moment during rehearsals involved a private joke – private, that is, to people who have a bit of Latin. 

We were singing an arrangement of In Dulci Jubilo that involved only half the choir singing the second verse and the other half joining in at the words Trahe me post te. As often happens when more people sing, there was a tendency to slow down. Our conductor said 'I feel as if I'm having to drag‡ you along after me.' This was my moment of private hilarity [little things...], as the words mean 'Drag me after you' (think of tractor on the one [Latin] hand and draught [animals] on the other [English].
More here

Update: 2020.11.2311:45 – Added <inline_PPS /> and fixed dodgy maths re Fauré's time spent  at home.

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