Thursday, 17 March 2011

Psalm 47

I've been listening to this piece of music a lot lately. Psalm 47 'Gloire du Seigneur' Op. 38 by the French composer Florent Schmitt:

Also, listen to parts two and three. If I'm going to be completely honest about it, I'm not sure whether I love or hate this piece of music. One thing's for certain: it's impossible to be ambivalent about it. This is the sort of music that grabs you by the heart or by the throat – either way, it makes it hard to breathe. I walk down the road with it up loud in my earphones, and it's exhilarating, energizing. My pulse races, I break into a skip, I can sense the elements around me and the spinning planet, and tears appear at the corners of my eyes. It's like the musical equivalent of licking a 9V battery.

Psalm 47 was written in 1904, and sounds like it. For its sheer grotesque, bombastic, unrelenting pomposity posing as 'grandeur', I loathe it. The music itself is both sensual and inhuman. It seems drenched in the machine-forged passions of twentieth-century totalitarianism – more Nuremberg Rally than Cherubic Choir. Barbaric. What an astonishing thing to love a god or an ideology with such passion that you would sacrifice your very last trace of individuality in order to lend your lungs to be part of the million-strong chorus.

'Paradiso', from Dante's Divine Comedy, illustratred by Gustave Doré in 1866.

The lyrics are of course a bit scary . . .

Psalm 47
1 O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph.
2 For the LORD most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.
3 He shall subdue the people under us, and the nations under our feet.
4 He shall choose our inheritance for us, the excellency of Jacob whom he loved.
5 God is gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises: sing praises unto our King, sing praises.
7 For God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises with understanding.
8 God reigneth over the heathen: God sitteth upon the throne of his holiness.
9 The princes of the people are gathered together, even the people of the God of Abraham: for the shields of the earth belong unto God: he is greatly exalted.

'Who would live in a house like this?'
. . . but it's not the religious content of the words that bothers me. The music itself feels quite irreligious, it has a primitive, pagan quality to it – it was a big influence on Stravinky, who'd be writing The Rite of Spring a few years later – as well as a defiantly Modern spirit. Florent Schmitt's paradise is illuminated not by candlelight but by countless electric bulbs. It evokes the New Tower of Babel in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. And yet every time I listen to it, I'm won over by its ballsy chromaticism. I admire the sheer over-the-top nerve of building such a vertigo-inducing skyscraper of tonalities.

For all his avant garde ambitions, it must be admitted that Schmitt's aesthetic has closer affinities to the mystical Wagnerian tradition of the previous century than to the experimentalism or expressionism of the new one. And perhaps its special appeal derives precisely from its unusual place in history. It's an absurd piece of music. It's scary. It's hilarious. It's clever. And it prosthelytizes with ludicrous, dazzling optimism.

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