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At a Solemn Musick : John Milton shows his appreciation for noble words and music in uplifting harmony.
At a Solemn Musick

From ‘At A Solemn Musick’, by John Milton (1608-1674).

Milton’s celebration of noble poetry set to music, which he presents as an echo of the music of heaven itself, is couched in terms of the Sirens of Greek mythology, two mysterious winged women hidden in cliff-tops whose enchanting song drew sailors irresistibly.

BLEST pair of Sirens, pledges of Heav’ns joy,
Sphear-born* harmonious Sisters, Voice, and Vers,*
Wed your divine sounds, and mixt power employ
Dead things with inbreath’d sense able to pierce,
And to our high-rais’d phantasie present,
That undisturbed Song of pure concent,*
Ay sung before the saphire-colour’d throne*
To him that sits theron
With Saintly shout, and solemn Jubily,*
Where the bright Seraphim in burning row*
Their loud up-lifted Angel trumpets blow,
And the Cherubick* host in thousand quires*
Touch their immortal Harps of golden wires,
With those just Spirits that wear victorious Palms,*
Hymns devout and holy Psalms
Singing everlastingly;
That we on Earth with undiscording voice
May rightly answer that melodious noise;
As once we did, till disproportion’d sin
Jarr’d against natures chime, and with harsh din
Broke the fair musick that all creatures made
To their great Lord, whose love their motion sway’d
In perfect Diapason,* whilst they stood
In first obedience, and their state of good.*
O may we soon again renew that Song,
And keep in tune with Heav’n, till God ere long
To his celestial consort* us unite,
To live with him, and sing in endles morn of light.

* Modern spelling: ‘Sphere-born’, that is, coming from our universe rather than from heaven. According to ancient classical cosmology from Plato to Bede and Copernicus, the earth lies at the centre of a system of rotating, translucent celestial spheres or orbs, like onion layers, in which the stars and planets are embedded. Only a few years after Milton died in 1674, Sir Isaac Newton developed the theory of gravitation which led to the abandonment of the theory of celestial spheres; Copernicus and Galileo (whom Milton had met seven years earlier while touring Italy) had already rearranged the spheres to place the sun at the centre.

* Modern spelling: ‘verse’.

* Modern spelling: ‘consent’, i.e. voluntary agreement. In the 1646 edition the word was ‘content’, but it was emended for the 1673 reprint presented to the author. For the song of the angels, see Job 38:5-7, Isaiah 6:2-6 and Revelation 7:9-12.

* Modern spelling ‘sapphire’, a semi-precious transparent blue stone, a variety of corundum (aluminium oxide). Milton is referring to Exodus 24:10, where Moses on Mount Sinai saw the God of Israel, “and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone”. On the throne of heaven, see Revelation 4.

* Modern spelling: ‘Jubilee’, in the Authorised Version ‘Jubile’, a time of liberty, restored rights, and rest from labour. In ancient Jewish Law, every fifty years land that had been sold off reverted to its original owner; employees and slaves returned to their homes and families; and land was left trustingly uncultivated. See Leviticus 25:8-13. The Jubilee was announced by a blast upon a ram’s horn trumpet.

* The seraphim (singular ‘seraph’) are spirits of fire who occupy a place in heaven closest to God himself. See Isaiah 6:1-8 and for a peculiarly English take, see our post Birds of Paradise.

* Modern spelling: cherubic. The cherubim (singular ‘cherub’) are ‘living creatures’ (according to Ezekiel) who among other roles carry the throne of God; they were depicted doing so on the Ark of the Covenant in the Jerusalem Temple, and described by Ezekiel as accompanying God’s visit to the Temple. See Exodus 25:18-22, Ezekiel 10 and Isaiah 37:15-17.

* Modern spelling: choir. The Prayer Book of 1662 still spoke of ‘quires and places where they sing’. In modern English, a quire is a quantity of sheets of paper: properly 24 (but sometimes decimalised to 25) sheets, or one twentieth of a ream.

* Those Christians who have endured persecution at the hands of the world, and stayed faithful even to death. See Revelation 7:9-17. The palm-frond was a universally understood symbol of victory in the Greco-Roman world.

* Diapason, from the Greek meaning ‘across all [notes]’, indicating a perfect harmony at the octave. It is also the name of one of the most common stops (sounds) on a church organ, providing a solid base for the rest. Milton wants us to understand a perfect harmony among all creatures.

* That is, before Adam and Eve tasted of the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden. See our post Adam and Eve.

* Probably in the sense of a musical group (‘a consort of viols’), but possibly alluding to the Church as the Bride of Christ.

From ‘At A Solemn Musick’, by John Milton (1608-1674).

A Song of Pure Concent

George Frideric Handel’s ‘Chandos Anthem’ No. 9 is titled ‘O praise the Lord with one consent’, and sets a text from Psalm 135. The melody is strongly reminiscent of the popular hymn ‘O God our help in ages past’ (and Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘St Anne Fugue’). Here the opening chorus is performed by the Sixteen, directed by Harry Christophers.

Find this music (or similar) at Amazon.co.uk

O PRAISE the Lord with one consent, and magnify his name. Let all the servants of the Lord his worthy praise proclaim.

Psalm 135.

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Picture: Photo Jastrow, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. View original
A Siren, painted in about 570-560 BC on a dish found in Tanagra, Boeotia, north of Athens, and now kept in the Louvre. According to Homer there were two Sirens, and they were generally held to be birdlike creatures with women’s faces and voices. Odysseus, so the great Greek poet tells us, had to be strapped to the mast of his ship so that he could not follow their enchanting sound.
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