Monday, April 28, 2008

Bridging the Gap

Mosaic Replica of Palace Triclinium (Dining Room)
Roman, 1743, replica from drawings of original of c. 800
Rome, Piazza of S. Giovanni in Laterano
One of the things that alternately makes me angry or amused, depending, I suppose, on my overall emotional tone at the time, is the mindset that persists in judging the events of the past by the standards of the present. This lies behind, or perhaps more properly is the product of the currently fashionable antipathy at all things Western. However, as the English writer, Leslie Poles Hartley wrote, ”The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

What is amusing in the currently fashionable mode of thought, which ignores this bit of wisdom, is that today’s present rapidly becomes tomorrow’s past. No doubt persons in the future will find today’s actions to be dismally wanting by their standards.

However, it must be said that it requires a great effort of the imagination to think oneself back into the world of our ancestors. We can sometimes touch them when we stand in a building that has served a long life, but not often. We can stand in Chartres or Notre Dame or St. Peter’s and participate in the liturgy, for example. Yet, because of modern lighting, sound systems, etc. we can never really recreate the world as they experienced it.

Art cannot help us here. It can show us a part of the world they saw, to be sure. However, once again, the changed atmosphere in which we now view it, whether in situ (as for a fresco) or in a museum, or on a computer screen, divorces the work of art from the living reality of the world in which it was created.

There is one possibility though for coming into close contact with the past on something like equal ground. This is in music. Perhaps because of its transitory nature, of notes that occur and then fade, a reality is created in our world that opens to us the world of the past.

In this regard I would like to mention two CDs that I find particularly poignant in their creation of a world that is lost.

The first is Music of the Crusades (Decca). This CD (a reissue of an LP dating from the 1970s) brings the Crusades and its people to life. There are rousing recruiting songs, songs of loss and longing, songs of dedication. There is a beautiful song, Palestineleid, written by the renowned German troubadour, Walther von der Vogelweide, full of reverent wonder at the experience of being in the Holy Land. And there is the song purportedly written by Richard the Lionhearted while imprisoned by the Emperor. In the variety and intensity of some of the emotions we can touch the medieval world. Too frequently we read history as if it were something enacted by people of two dimensions, somehow removed from our living emotions and complexities. This recording helps to restore some of the living emotions of those who went before us. They were as we are and as they are so shall we be to those who follow us.

Equally interesting is more recent CD, called Chant Wars (RCA). This is a permanent record of what I can only describe as “the greatest concert I’ve ever attended”. I was privileged to attend a live performance about five years ago, a few years before the CD was released. If you think of Christian chant as ethereal and otherworldly this CD will change your mind. The 9th century was formative for Europe. It was the century that saw the creation of the Carolingian empire under Charlemagne, his father and his sons. What this CD reveals is the “war” between the musical interpretations of the older, Mediterranean world and the newly rising assertive world of the Franks. Unfortunately, the CD lacks the verbal narrative comments and readings from contemporary sources that accompanied and enlightened the live performance, and the accompanying notes don’t quite make up for this. Otherwise, the recording does provide a terrific way to enter into the real Middle Ages.
Pope Leo III and Charlemagne at the feet of St. Peter
Roman, c. 800 (replica done in 1743)
Rome, Piazza of S. Giovanni in Laterano
Note that both the Pope and the King have square
haloes, indicating that they were still living when the
work was created.  Note also that St. Peter is giving
each a symbol of their office.  He gives Pope Leo
the special stole, called a pallium, that designates
a pope or archbishop.  He gives Charlemagne a
banner with six stars.
I found one item in particular to be very worthy of note. It is the last piece on the disk, the Laudes Regiae, a version of the Litany of the Saints. It takes you right back to a specific day, sometime around 800, in Rome. The saints are requested to come to the aid of Pope Leo III (Leoni, summo pontifici et universalis pape, vita!) and Charlemagne (Carolo excellentissimo et a deo coronato, atque magno et pacifico regi Francorum et Langobardorum, ac patricio Romanorum, vita et victoria!). It is sung as more of a definite acclamation, with great excitement, than as a suppliant prayer. Easy to imagine the Pope and the Emperor entering old St. Peter’s or the Triclinium of the Lateran Palace (where a replica portrait of the pair at the feet of St. Peter is still visible to this day) accompanied by this acclamation and easy to imagine oneself in the shadows. Suddenly, you find yourself in touch with the living world of 1,200 years ago.

(If the description of this last piece sounds a little familiar, it could be because an extremely sedate version of the same Laudes Regiae was used at the beginning of the inaugural Mass for Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.)