Wednesday, June 20, 2012

`Fifty-five Seconds of Pure Majesty'

Dave Lull passes along an interesting passage from an interview with Samuel Beckett in Remembering Beckett/Beckett Remembered: A Centenary Celebration (edited by James and Elizabeth Knowlson, 2006):

“The Bible was an important influence on my work, yes. I’ve always felt it’s a wonderful transcript, inaccurate but wonderful. There are some wonderful hymns too. One was written by a man called Lyte. He was at Portora [Portora Royal School, Beckett’s old school]. `Lead kindly Light amid the circling gloom’. It was either that or `Abide with Me’. Wonderful. (He sings.) `Abide with me/Fast falls the eventide/The darkness deepens/Lord with me abide.’”

Beckett’s work is saturated with allusions to the Old and New Testaments, so that’s old news to close readers (More Pricks Than Kicks, anyone?), but his fondness for old hymns is noteworthy. Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847) was a Scottish Anglican who wrote “Abide with Me” three weeks before his death from tuberculosis, and Cardinal John Henry Newman is the author of “Lead Kindly Light.” Lyte’s hymn is customarily set to William Henry Monk’s “Eventide.” The lyrics are a prayer beseeching God to remain steadfastly present throughout life’s trials and even unto death, and some of the lines have a distinctly Beckettian flavor: 

“Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see…”

I learned “Abide with Me,” though not the words, from Thelonious Monk, who made it the opening track on his 1957 album Monk’s Music. I’ve always assumed it was a joke, with Monk reveling in the surname he shared with the composer. Also, Monk doesn’t perform on the track, a nice gesture on an album titled Monk’s Music. However, his biographer, Robin D.G. Kelley, tells us “Abide with Me,” along with “Blessed Assurance” and “We’ll Understand It Better, By and By,” had been a favorite hymn of Monk’s since he was a boy in North Carolina. In Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009), Kelley writes:

“He had arranged it for horns only, and the result was fifty-five seconds of pure majesty.”

Anthony Cronin in Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist (2002) reports Beckett arrived at Portora Royal School in 1920 at age fourteen. It was an Irish Protestant boarding school and Oscar Wilde had been a student there, though in Beckett’s time his name had been removed from the scroll commemorating academic prize-winners because of his “conviction for homosexual offences in 1895.”About the school’s other literary associations, Cronin writes:

“Apart from a former headmaster, the Reverend Robert Burrowes, appointed in 1798, who wrote the famous, macabre Irish ballad poem, `The Night Before Larry Was Stretched,’ and a former pupil, Henry Lyte, author of `Abide with Me,’ the school was innocent of literary traditions.”   

The authorship of “Larry” is disputed, though The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett: A Reader's Guide to His Works, Life, and Thought (2004) identifies a glancing parody of the ballad early in Watt:

“You remember the night that Larry was born, said the lady.

“I do, said the gentleman.

“How old is Larry now? said Mr. Hackett.

“How old is Larry now, my dear? said the gentleman.

“How old is Larry, said the lady. Larry will be forty years old next March, D.V.

“That is the kind of thing Dee always vees, said Mr. Hackett.

“I wouldn’t go as far as that, said the gentleman.”


rgfrim said...

"Lead, Kindly Light" was Mahatma Gandhi's favorite hymn and the title of a lyrically living biography of h by Vincent Sheehan.

Rick Freeman

George said...

In one of the sequences in the Cyclops chapter of Ulysses, Mulligan and Lenehan sing "The Night Before Larry Was Stretched."

Roger Boylan said...

As the man said, "How can one better magnify the Almighty than by sniggering with Him at His little jokes, particularly the poorer ones?"

Anonymous said...

Hymnology is a wonderful avocation, as is anything connected with music. I have sung hymns my entire life and have a collection of hymnbooks in my library.

My favorite hymn is Now Thank We All Our God, written by two German hymnists, with words by Martin Rinkart(1586 - 1649) and music by Johann Cruger (1598 -1662). The version of this hymn in most modern American hymnbooks have the words translated by the incomparable Catherin Winkworth and the music harmonized by Felix Mendelssohn.