Saturday, May 27, 2006

Well, it smites my lyre anyway

I have been listening, over and over, to Handel’s 1707 ‘Dixit Dominus’: I’ve got a version performed wonderfully by The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra

Apart from a gruesome ‘midi’ file, I’m afraid that I cannot find an mp3 on the net. Anyway, once it had got under my skin, I wanted to know what it was about. Handel was setting the Latin text (from the Vulgate) of what became Psalm 110 in the English bible. I was aware of other settings of this psalm, notably Monteverdi’s. There’s a list at

To see what the text of this glorious music actually says is a shock. In the fifth and sixth sections, Handel is setting ‘confregit in die irae suae reges’ (‘hath broken kings in the day of His wrath’) and ‘conquassabit capita in terra multorum’ (‘He will crush heads in the land of many’ or (AV), ‘he shall wound the heads over many countries’). To ‘confregit’ and, even more markedly, ‘conquassabit’, Handel gives an exultant setting. The sopranos shriek, the tenors shout (all in their highly modified way). Violence was (surely) never celebrated with such beauty. The sentiments are those of a savage tribe, but delivered in such a way that you have to love and admire humanity: the special genius who can score such music, and the men and women who have nurtured their talent till they can perform with such intensity and precision.

Psalm 110 is power-worshipping, the kind of power that smashes enemies abroad. The version in The Book of Common Prayer enthuses: ‘He shall judge among the heathen; he shall fill the places with the dead bodies: and smite in sunder the heads over divers countries.’ It celebrates the inauguration of a king as being, simultaneously, high priest ‘for ever according to the order of Melchisedech’. For this moment of union of temporal and sacred power, Handel again supplies a canon (I think) of astonishing beauty. When Henry VIII passed the Act of Supremacy, he didn’t know it, but this was what he had in mind. And yet, and yet: because Handel sets in a Christian tradition, while there may be a residual sense of power embodied in a here-and-now mortal priest-king, as that priest-king really has to be Christ, the psalm (as set) also expresses, exuberantly, the destruction of all temporal kingship: kings as footstools, broken kings, a new reign in which ruling has been swept away.

Psalm 110 achieved its cultural prominence through a misunderstanding: ‘Dixit Dominus Domino meo’, it starts: and this was inevitably read as ‘The Lord (God) said to my Lord (Jesus)’. With that poorly-evidenced doctrine of the Trinity to shore up, here was a text with God speaking to His Son. What might have begun as a praise-song by a court poet about David, or might have been David’s own song about Solomon (or some future leader), and what was certainly a psalm that acquired a very special personal application in the reign of Simon Maccabeus, then went on to be quoted repeatedly in the New Testament. Heralding a messiah, it was inevitably recruited by Christians as being a messianic text about Jesus. This is Isaac Watts’ 1719 version (opening):

Thus the eternal Father spake
To Christ the Son, ‘Ascend and sit
At my right hand, till I shall make
Thy foes submissive at thy feet.’

Watts’ title for his version of the psalms was candid enough: The Psalms of David, imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship. He translated by choosing those interpretations of the text which were to his mind the “most evangelical and most beautiful”. Watts found the psalm so important, that he gave it three iterations, and interpolated into the text as he thought fit: “Thro' the whole earth his reign shall spread, / And crush the powers that dare rebel” – Christ as the conqueror.

Yet as Watts indulges these sanguinary but devout fantasies, he acknowledges the actual gospel narrative. The last verse of the Latin psalm is obscure (‘De torrente in via bibet: propterea shall He lift up the head’ – ‘He shall drink of the torrent in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head’). Mary Sidney (1561-1621) translated expansively, and swings deftly from the bloodily triumphant, to the Messiah being victorious in death:

Thy Realm shall many Realms contain:
Thy slaught’ed foes thick heaped lie,
With crushed head ev'n he shall die,
Who head of many Realms doth raign.
If passing on these ways
Thou taste of troubled streams:
Shall that eclipse thy shining rays?
Nay, light thy glories’ beams!

Isaac Watts pushed that ‘torrent’ still further into metaphoric paraphrase:

Tho' while he treads his glorious way,
He drink the cup of tears and blood,
The sufferings of that dreadful day
Shall but advance him near to God.

There’s a story that the birth of English Literature as a discipline had something to do with World War I: that a generation of classicists forgot their Greek while serving in the army prior to going to ‘Varsity’, and so a new subject was devised to suit their shortcomings. Looking into psalm interpretation made me think that our kind of interpretation took root after people lost faith in 19th century forms of Bible interpretation (or that form of scholarship just became too difficult/vexed/mad). Just have a gander at Professor Hildebrandt’s footnote density!

(My picture is Kind David harping, from a painting by Jan de Bray.)

1 comment:

Deep Phil said...

I'm singing Dixit, along with about 70(!) other former pupils, at a retirement concert for my old music teacher, at the start of July. To familirise myself, I've been listening to it as I cycle to work along the Thames towpath. It is an astonishingly beautiful work, made more so by sunshine and riverbank. I was googling for a translation, and found your analysis, which is very interesting -- thanks.