Reading in our culture has become so attenuated that all reading is now considered “good.” Children are admonished to read in general, as if all books are equal, but a brain bloated with truisms and clichés, with formulaic stories and simple answers to badly asked questions is hardly what we should aspire to. For the strange thing is that even books we can no longer actively recall are part of us, and like a lost melody, they may return suddenly.
– Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking: Essays
A lost melody that returns suddenly. What a lovely way to express this phenomenon! The melody is not forgotten. It is lost. The willful thing returns, possibly of its own volition.
I find that there are a host of melodies, many of them religious, that flood my mind at times. Just yesterday as I walked the early morning streets on a Sunday, church bells intoned the tunes of this Pentecost season. I immediately whistled along with all three tunes that were chimed back-to-back. The last melody often coaxes choir and congregation to greater vigor verse after verse until choristers in better-heeled churches add the flourish of a descant. Yesterday, I rocked the descant blocks after the bells had faded. The tune, however, resonated in my brain, not in the air. I might have seemed a bit odd whistling a tune rarely heard outside Episcopal churches.
There is a community that would know that tune. They went to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They went to organ recitals on Fifth Avenue and trekked to St. John the Divine. When the protest marches were over, they took a bus to National Cathedral for Evensong. They listened to St. Martin’s in the Fields and King’s College. Most had never met, but in basements and back rooms of churches they intoned the melodies on cue. On public transit, eyes closed, they swayed their heads to their part, usually tenor or bass, but they knew the soprano and alto lines equally well. At work they may need to be silent. At home, the expectation might be that they are responsible for nearly everything. Their rooms might be chaos; their lives, tidy or a mess. But in this music, everything came together.
The choristers lift here, then lean, encouraging restraint or abandon. Coordinated entrances and the clipped enunciation of the consonants instill hope in the team. They explore alternatives only with the Master’s directions to which even the headstrong bend. Putting music away, they murmur appreciations for saved entrances, corrected tones.
My other lost melodies often echo working class tunes sung in my childhood at picnics, on car rides, or when doing tasks we’d wanted to put off. Wild Irish roses, the red-red robin, and my sunshine drew together my nuclear and distal families. If one was too grand to sing along, they were giving a sign that they were eschewing what constituted community for us. Our family singing had little by way of shared meaning when it came to my generation. We had not gone through a war with these songs on our lips. We did not survive the Great Depression. Our allegiance to the tunes seemed heartfelt, but they required none of the work that the religious music did.
When the melody is lost, it can return. I hope it brings back the recollection of the goodness and longing so present when the tunes were learned.