November seems to be the time to remember those we love and honor. All Saints and All Souls days are just behind us; Veteran’s Day is just ahead. The exuberance of spring and summer are past, the earth’s winter quiet approaches. Melancholic might be the mood, but I sometimes appreciate the perspective of melancholy. The ancient Greeks after all believed that an imbalance in the four humors – choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic – caused disease. They connected each of the humors with a season, and, no surprise, melancholia was attached to autumn for them. Melancholy as part of a balance of “humors” needed for our wholeness is not something I’ve ever thought about before.
John Tavener’s elegiac work, Song for Athene, was composed after the tragic death of a young actress and made famous at the funeral for Princess Diana. Grief has turned to melancholy in this music and text, both of which communicate, for me at least, a sense of being drawn into something immense. The immensity of God’s love for us? Tavener had heard Athene reading Shakespeare not long before her death, and used a text which drew inspiration from the Orthodox church to which they both belonged and Shakespeare.Alleluia. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. (Hamlet, V:ii and In paradisum) Alleluia. Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom. Alleluia. Give rest, O Lord, to your servant, who has fallen asleep. (Orthodox funeral) Alleluia. The Choir of Saints have found the well-spring of life and door of Paradise. Alleluia. Life: a shadow and a dream. (Hamlet, II:ii) Alleluia. Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia. Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you. Alleluia. (Orthodox funeral)
Life: a shadow and a dream is the line that might be the most melancholic of all. Hamlet’s gloominess is condensed into a few short words on the nature of life. That life in which we are merely players is fragile, tenuous, fleeting.
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St. Alban’s choirs will sing Tavener’s work this Sunday. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itDW7U9ZzIA