Wednesday, April 4, 2018
An Old Song
I am eleven years into retirement. That’s long enough to allow me to make a provisional judgment of how things are going. In a word, or rather two words, things are going just fine, if you discount certain medical inconveniences. And that is because I recognize the fact that I am retired. I don’t really understand the mentality of retirees who insist on still going into the office each day at the age of ninety or who love to boast that they have never have been so busy as they are now. I certainly don’t go into the office every day, and I am much less busy than I used to be. The things I miss about the old professional life are, on the whole, more than compensated for by the greatly expanded opportunities to travel and to spend time with family members, especially grandchildren.
There is nonetheless one aspect of my old regime for the loss of which I occasionally breathe a metaphoric sigh, and that is regular attendance at specialized academic conferences. I used to participate in several each year, and at some annual meetings I was a regular. It was a wonderful way to keep up, to some degree, with interesting work in medieval studies, and to keep alive personal relationships with distant friends and colleagues. It was with real pleasure, accordingly, that I received notice, a few months ago, that a conference was coming to me, so to speak. A general mailing from the Princeton Latin American Studies program announced its sponsorship, in April of 2018, of a conference called “De Canciones y Cancioneros: Music and Literary Sources of the Luso-Hispanic Song Tradition.” It invited the submission of abstracts for proposed papers—the academic equivalent of a theatrical audition.
The title uses terms from the early Iberian literary vocabulary. A canción is a song or lyric poem. A cancionero is a collection or anthology of such poems, a song-book, generally bringing together pieces by a variety of authors, to be circulated privately among a group of friends. The concionero was the way that poetry was “published” before the age of printing and in many circles for a century or more into that age. Now I make no pretense of being a scholar of Latin American Studies, and I know not a single one of the conference’s organizers. But I did feel that, unbeknownst to said organizers, it had been invented especially if not exclusively for me. I had after all very recently published a whole book on a song by the Portuguese poet Luís de Camões, a song that can reasonably claim to be the most famous lyric of the Iberian Renaissance, the first partial text of which appeared in an important sixteenth-century cancionero owned by one Cristovão Borges.
Well, I made the cut in the chorus call, which was good; but it is now suddenly April of 2018, which is slightly worrying in that I have seventy-two hours to finish off a twenty-minute talk to be delivered on Saturday. I’m just kidding about the worry. It is really rather exhilarating to be in this situation. I once wrote a whole twenty-minute paper while sitting on a toilet seat in a San Francisco hotel, and my problem here is not finding enough to say but finding a way of reducing too much to a mere genteel sufficiency.
The Camões poem, often called by its Portuguese incipit “Sobôlos rios, ” is a complicated “version” of and commentary upon the psalm Super flumina Babylonis (“By the waters of Babylon”, number 137 in the King James numeration.) The psalm Super flumina already had a particularly rich exegetical history. The tradition held that all the psalms had been written by David. But this psalm, the obvious setting for which is the Babylonian captivity, hundreds of years after David’s reign, presented difficulties. The solution of the rabbis was to regard the content of the psalm as proleptic and prophetic, the content of a future event presented as though current. For European literary history the peculiar and unique literary power of the Psalter lay in the fact that while it was at the center of the corporate prayer life of the universal church, and especially of the corporate life of the religious orders, each individual psalm lent itself to personal and private appropriation. Not every penitent had orchestrated the death of his own army general in order to cover up his adultery with the man’s wife, as David had; but every penitent could and did sing or say the Miserere (Psalm 51, the most famous of the penitential psalms) in response to his or her own particular moral situation. “Miserere” is the first word spoken in dialogue by the pilgrim Dante in the Commedia, and no other word could be more appropriate to his situation. The psalm Super flumina Babylonis likewise has many personal and adaptive remakings in secular and vernacular literature, but no other is so extraordinary as “Sobôlos rios”. This “pearl of all poetry” does indeed seem almost prophetically written with this conference in mind, for the poem's principal subjects are music and song, and more particularly the Luso-Hispanic tradition of amatory song of which the poet has been one of the great practitioners and acknowledged masters, and which he now in palinode must reject.
For me there will be an additional pleasure quite beyond that I shall doubtless find in the learned musicological papers. The event will take place in the Taplin Auditorium, a venue frequently used for student music recitals. Think of it perhaps as the “off Broadway” of the Princeton music scene. I knew Frank Taplin—a wealthy and generous philanthropist, and a fine pianist—fairly well. He had been a Rhodes Scholar just before the second World War, and among the many cultural contributions of his later years was his service as President of the Metropolitan Opera, where he was among other things a notable fund-raiser. I never thought I must one day perform in his auditorium.