Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Musical Relativism

The game "One Song to the Tune of Another", from the BBC Radio 4 programme "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue", provides ample proof of the reality of both appropriate and inappropriate pairings of text and music. Comedic effect here relies to a very large extent upon the fact that some music is instinctively recognised by the audience as expressing a contradictory mood to that of the text articulated. Music embodies meanings and communicates- and can do so in the absence of words. If this were not the case there would be little cause for music in film soundtracks. It can heighten the purely visual or enhance a verbal text. Nor is this merely a matter of words and music sharing the same metre, although it is surprising what you can get away with when the text involved is a regular metrical verse form.

It is worth tryng out "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "My Old Man's a Dustman".

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

At the normal speed of the song it becomes quite absurd. Slow the tune down, however, and it isn't quite as funny. Indeed, if word gets out, it might prove a serious rival to the familiar tune!
Speed and rhythm are important aspects of whether a melody is suitable or not.

Consider the following rhythm:

Rum-titty, rum-titty, rum-titty-tum...
Rum-titty, rum-titty, rum-titty-tum...

I think that most people will agree with me that that is a merry little rhythm. It is sunny, pleasant and cheerful, with, perhaps a touch of the nursery about it.

Now consider the Sanctus of the mass with its text drawn from the vision of Isaiah (6.1) and St Matthew's Gospel (21.9). Even if one were to completely ignore the scriptural contexts from which the text is drawn one would surely have some awareness of the focus upon the awesome otherness, the holiness, of God. Hardly a merry little theme! So where did I get the little jingle above?

It is my rendering of the Sanctus of the "Gathering Mass" by Paul Inwood. It stuck with me after mass last Sunday. One can only ask what was he thinking of? The vision of Isaiah? The entry into Jerusalem? Or was it that classic of children's television- "Trumpton"?

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