e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Archive for the tag “music”

For the love of haiku – Nidhöggr and its music

The current haiku challenge on the Carpe Diem blog is a really different one this time; a piece of music called Nidhöggr. I enjoyed the music, but found using it as a haiku prompt quite difficult.

As far as I can find out, the Nidhöggr is some kind of dragon, popular in Scandinavian mythology.

The voices of rhythm
and melody, echo
the dragon’s heartbeat.


Odes to Joy

Having looked at laments, I thought I’d investigate the opposite – poems, songs and music celebrating joy. A quick surf around the web shows there are a lot of them.

Dictionaries define joy in terms of intense gladness, happiness or rapture. ‘Rapture’ is closest to what I understand by it – for me it includes a feeling of being uplifted. I don’t find it surprising that many of the poems applauding it are religious and that it’s often described as one of the benefits of meditation.

Several websites give long lists of poems and songs about joy and related emotions. Fabulous – so many people familiar with and inspired by this wonderful feeling.

In the West, one of the most famous pieces of music is Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony. It’s a setting of a poem of the same name by Friedrich Schiller, about the possibility that all men may become brothers.

The music has been adopted as the European Anthem by both the Council of Europe and the European Union. In theory the anthem has no lyrics, but there are in fact a number of verses in various languages. They express joy in the idea that Europe’s unity in diversity will last forever and contribute to world peace – all very worthy but not leading to great poetry IMHO.

On a more intimate scale I’d like to share one of my favourite poems by William Blake.

Infant Joy
‘I have no name:
I am but two days old.’
What shall I call thee?
‘I happy am,
Joy is my name.’
Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while,
Sweet joy befall thee!

What is a lament?

A few days ago I did a post in which I labelled the book I am a Chechen as a lament.

This made me think about laments – what are they? The Oxford Dictionaries Online gives several definitions but the one nearest what I meant was ‘a song, piece of music, or poem expressing grief or sorrow’. Some other dictionaries add ‘regret’ as a lament-mobilising emotion.

There are poetic laments everywhere. The Bible is full of them, not only in the book called Lamentations but also in the Psalms and elsewhere. In ancient and traditional societies epics like The Iliad and Beowulf usually incorporate at least one at some point in their narrative. Modern versions may be online – see A Mathematician’s Lament.

The song type is popular in opera, particularly sung by the soprano or mezzosoprano. Performance by women is generally more common than by men – is this because women have more to sorrow over or because they feel the emotion more often, or does the habit have a technical basis – women’s voices fit the music better? This is a speculation for another post.

In pure music, pibroch, the classical music of Scotland, is full of laments for the dead and I don’t doubt so are other musical traditions.

Is a requiem a kind of lament, I wonder? It contains fine poetry and is usually set to music. But a true lament is sung or said for the benefit of the living; a requiem is for the dead.

Not all laments are about death. Other kinds of sorrow can be treated in this way. Loss of homeland (a common theme for the exiled, like Ibn Hamdis, a Spanish Arab of the middle ages) of states of mind (e.g.The Land of Lost Content contained in John Foulds Keltic Suite), or reputation – as Cassio in Othello

Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost
my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of
myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation,
Iago, my reputation!

Lament is not nostalgia, though it has many things in common with it. It’s stronger and more central the the lamenter’s life, and probably more universal.

I let Shakespeare have the last word: not only with a list of things lamented, but with a reminder that there are ways of overcoming them and getting back to looking on the bright side.

Sonnet 30
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

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