Do we not shun the street version of a fine melody?—or shrink from the news that some rarity—some bit of chiselling or engraving perhaps—which we have dwelt on even with exultation in the trouble it has cost us to snatch glimpses of it, is really not an uncommon thing, and may be obtained as an everyday possession?
—George Eliot, Middlemarch
The song I want to tell you about isn't special because it is specially fine—though it is that—or because it is one of my favorites—though it is that, too. The song I want to tell you about is unique because it is the only song I know which I cannot hear whenever I like.
Beatus vir, qui in sapientia morabitur, et qui in justitia meditabitur, et in sensu cogitabit circumspectionem Dei.
Blessed is he, who remains wise, and who meditates on justice, and is mindful of the ever-watchfulness of God.
The text is short enough. It is from the book of Sirach, chapter 14, verses 20 and 21. It was set to music in the 16th century by Orlando di Lasso.
Musically, it is rather simple. It is not measured, but there are about 33 whole notes from the beginning to the end. I have it before me on a single sheet of paper. It is two part polyphony. There are few things I have to say about the melodies themselves. One is that the upper part is Phrygian, while the lower part is Dorian. The very beginning is arguably the most beautiful moment; the altus begins on a D, and holds it for a whole note. But when the cantus begins on an A, which would have been a perfect fifth, had the altus held steady, the altus has dropped a half-step, and the chord is instead a minor sixth. It's very impressive.
The beauty of the opening of this song is important to me, because from the moment I heard that minor sixth, I was in love with it. I can think of only one other piece of music that hooked me from the opening chord.
I first heard this my freshmen year of college, in freshmen chorus. I heard it exactly the way it was not meant to be heard—from a piano. It was played for us so that we could know how it sounded, that we might learn it more easily.
But the reason this song is so unique, is because it is nearly impossible to find a recording. As a result, I can only listen to it when either it is sung by others, or when I can find someone to sing it with me. This inability to produce the music when demanded leads me to a fuller appreciation of the beauty of the whole. By myself, I can only sing the lower part (and I do sing it, under my breath, or whistle it, very often). The necessity of finding a second person is at once both satisfying and bizarre. I never can know when I will hear it again, but that only means that it always is a surprise, and a pleasure.
I think I would be in a miserable place if all the music I liked were unobtainable except through the skill or company of others, but I also think that it is important to keep some things just out of reach. Their very transcendence will give them a life and a character that the vulgar cannot have. Besides, there also is nothing quite like walking around Annapolis on a Saturday night, with a soprano, singing bits and pieces of your favorite songs.