Sunday, 9 September 2018

The consort of viols

Every year now a part of our summer holiday has been a visit to the North Norfolk Music Festival which continues to attract world class classical musicians to play in the churches along the coast. This year we went to see Fretwork, an internationally known group who were recently in Carnegie Hall and now here they were in the cool tiny church of St. Mary’s South Creake, where the audience is select and you need to bring your own cushions. Fretwork play viols, an instrument of the fifteenth century which have six strings and often with a flat back so shaped like a guitar, played with a bow but with frets. - hence the name of the group. There is not much music remaining because of the lost battle to the seventeenth century newcomer the violin but among that which does survive in the orignal is the Table Book to be found in the British Museum. A very large book the musical parts are written around the edges so that each player, treble, alto, tenor and  bass sits reading their staves as if around a dinner table looking inwards at one another. There is no sense that this is a performance - we are privileged when listening to this music to be eavesdropping on a conversation, a special musical exchange between four players in harmony with one another.

Which finally brings me to the Song of Solomon which is part of the Biblical Canon, not the apocrypha where so much of the wisdom literature is found but there in the Bible squeezed between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah. Probably written in the tenth century BC verse one of the book tells us that Solomon was its author. The style is certainly that of the prophetic and wisdom literature and may be closely related to the book of Proverbs. The subject of the whole book is love. Quite frequently I suggest to wedding couples that they consider some verses  from this as their reading instead of 1 Corinthians 13 not simply that this reading from Paul is used a lot but also because of that idea about listening to a conversation. Paul’s masterpiece is addressed to the Corinthian church and is a very public oration it is of the magnitude of Beethoven’s ninth symphony rather than of a consort of viols, it speaks of what love is and how difficult it is to define it while the Song of Solomon is a conversation and a description of a loving relationship:

Arise my love my fair one and come away
For now the winter is past the rain over and gone

I love using this as the reading immediately following the marriage blessing when the couple who have been kneeling arise, the man elegantly helping the woman to her feet and leading her to the chairs where they will spend the first minutes of their married life together.

The poetry is sensuous and delicate (you may say erotic) and we find ourselves almost embarrassedly hearing the thoughts of the writer -

My love is like a gazelle or a young stag
Look there he stands behind our wall
Gazing in at the windows looking through the lattice

Later in the book though we read of the power of love:

For love is as strong as death, passion fierce as the grave
Its flashes are flashes of fire a raging flame
Many waters cannot quench love neither can floods drown it

You may be asking yourself what has this book to do in the canon of Biblical literature -God is not mentioned in the book at all yet it has been part of the Canon and the Talmud for  a long time and reflects the ancient Hebrew understanding that both wisdom and love are gifts from God and are to be received by us with wonder, gratitude and celebration and the Christian understanding that God is love.