Sunday, 18 November 2007

Miserere mei, Deus

Recently I've been listening again to Arvo Pärt's setting of the Miserere: Psalm 51 in the Hebrew (and usual English) order. Pärt's music sustained my devotional life --- such as it is --- through many expatriate years, and this setting of the great Biblical text is my personal favourite, and surely one of the best among Pärt's compositions.

It takes a little patience to approach it. An open copy of the Latin text will help, unless you know the psalm well enough in English (and have enough bluffer's Latin) to wing it as the song proceeds. The first three verses are quiet and reflective, almost to the point of stillness, until at peccatum meum contra me est semper (3b: "my sin is ever before me"), the setting falls endlessly into a great pit of music: the Dies Irae, no less.

Nine minutes in, one finds that all of this has been a preliminary. Stillness and quiet return, and the psalm begins a long slow climb of complexity, volume, and spirit, building to a sustained climax from verses 13-17: its two great peaks at Docebo iníquos vias tuas (13a: "Then I will teach transgressors your ways"), and holocaustis non delectaberis (16b: "You are not pleased with burnt offering") will take your breath away. And then verse 17's reflection, that the sacrifice [acceptable to] God is a broken spirit, appears as a still small voice after the storm.

This is a clever, sensitive, faithful reading of the psalm, and revelatory if you've been brought up (as I was) on sentimental and popular treatments that focus on verses 10-12. Let the reader understand: music, and specifically a demanding musical setting, can teach. This is how it's done.

An acquaintance was recently taking a shot at that most stationary of targets, the current state of Christian music. ("How the mighty have fallen" pretty much sums it up.) And it's true that there is very little to say in its defence. But I will defend Pärt anywhere, and in any company.

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