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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

15 September 2023

As he listens to musicians tuning up, Malcolm Guite is filled with hope

I HAVE been back in the States for another performance of “Ordinary Saints”, a work that combines painting, music, and poetry, which I put together with the painter Bruce Herman and the composer J. A. C. Redford (Poet’s Corner, 8 April 2022). It’s always a pleasure to take part in these performances, not least because I get to spend time with really accomplished musicians and share with them the build-up towards the concert.

Compared with the level of skill and the complexity of what they do in a concert, my own contribution, in poetry-reading, is simple and straightforward; so I have time simply to watch and listen as they rehearse. Indeed, my pleasure begins even before the rehearsal starts.

The latest version of “Ordinary Saints” took place in the music department and concert hall of a university. I found myself walking round the building and hearing the little snatches of music which emerged from the various practice rooms off the main corridor: from behind one door, the sound of a trumpet playing bright scales and flourishes; from another, a violin playing the same achingly beautiful phrases over and over again; and, from a third, a pianist playing arpeggios that sounded like some lovely fountain constantly filling and overflowing.

I was in awe of the level of practice and commitment that these students put in. In a world of instant gratification, their long commitment is more countercultural than any of the hippy gestures of my youth.

Then, I left that corridor and came to the concert room itself, in which the professional musicians were about to rehearse our performance. I was glad to be in time to hear them tuning up. An orchestra tuning up, even a chamber orchestra or a quartet, is one of the most exciting sounds in the world, filled as it is with expectation of what is to come. And its movement from initial discord to a growing and strengthening cohesion around a single note is itself an emblem of hope.

I found myself recalling the wonderful opening of Donne’s “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness”, a poem composed when he thought that he was dying, when he thought that this might be the last thing that he ever wrote. The poem opens with a metaphor of music — indeed, a metaphor drawn from the very thing that I was hearing: tuning up before a concert:

Since I am coming to that holy room,

Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before.

Those five lines have so much to offer. A lesser poet might have written “Where with thy choir of saints for evermore, I shall play thy music”; but Donne does something far more profound: “I shall be made thy music.” He recognises that the bliss of our being, utterly fulfilled in God’s presence, is itself music, that the new creation is itself a kind of symphony, and, if so, then all our lives in the old creation are a kind of tuning up.

It is such a helpful metaphor. All my mistakes, my off-key phrases, my false tones can be redeemed, tuned up, brought into harmony with the true note that Christ sounds and re-sounds. I can keep listening for that note, I can let the Sprit raise the faltering notes that I sound to that perfect pitch. And then, when the curtain of this world is drawn to reveal “that holy room”, the unveiled presence of God, I can finally become the music that I was meant to be.

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