Nisi Dominus

“Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it; except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”

My favourite musical setting for this is Monteverdi’s from his Marian Vespers of 1610. Not his only setting of the Nisi Dominus; & apparently yet another washed up recently; I have yet to hear it. The opening of this one is however so decisively otherworldly & paradisal that it will perhaps always remain in my head as the default setting for Psalm 126 (or 127 Jacobean). The gates suddenly open — the castle gate, the city gate — on the cornetts & sackbutts, the dulcian & shawm, “the krum-horns, doppions, sordumes of jolly miners” in Auden’s imagination of the scene, when he closes his Arcadian eyes to escape the heckling of an angry Utopian. Or as his “Horae Canonicae” begin:

          Simultaneously, as soundlessly,
               Spontaneously, suddenly
          As, at the vaunt of the dawn, the kind
               Gates of the body fly open
          To its world beyond, the gates of the mind,
               The horn gate & the ivory gate

Unless the Lord; for returning to the Psalm: “it is vain for you to rise before light: rise ye after you have sitten, you that eat the bread of sorrow.”

Handel’s grand version is also unforgettable, made I think for Italian patrons. England missed out on the Baroque, except in music; but even in music, the English (sometimes I use this word in an old Scots way, to mean “the English-speaking peoples”) were by the 17th century too far departed from Catholicism, too insular, too moated by the Channel, to enter into the spirit of the Baroque. To this day, I myself with my Protestant heritage fight a certain tight-assed quality that prevents me from fully enjoying, first, the extravagance of the Baroque. Then second, within it, the frank humility it expresses: the falling on one’s knees before Almighty God. Conversely, less noticed, the simplicity of means quite often employed, to express an invisible grandeur.

For Baroque could move both upward & downward through the scales; could turn inside-out & outside-in. It was not designed to accommodate mediocrity, & shoddy craftsmanship. It was continuing & adapting essentially Mediaeval notions of space, as sculptural & three-dimensional, in an age when everything was going stiff again, & architecture was returning to the old pagan façade — a big flat billboard, with a surface of marble; an appliqué of showy wealth with stuffed rubble behind it. Baroque was not “progressive” like that: not arrogant & empty of chest & brain. Baroque was reactionary. It was carved, in the round, & to be seen from every angle. It had nothing to hide; it had only to deliver.

Rubens is not loved, O gorgeous Rubens is not loved, & cannot be loved even in the resplendency of his colour, until one comes to terms with the Baroque. And this cannot be done until one overcomes one’s inner wincing at the Council of Trent, & the Catholic revival after all the defeats of the Reformation. The Protestant, Bauhaus sensibility shrinks from the Baroque as it shrinks from the Cross, when it finds the bleeding Man on it. (“Stand back! It might drip on your shoes!”) Rubens more or less intends the affront he offers to every pinched sensibility & soul: he was, after all, besides a painter, a diplomat & agent in the Tridentine cause, a welcome face at Rome & Madrid. He is the embodiment of “the Spanish Netherlands,” & God I love him for it.

We wince still, even at his fleshy women, having accustomed ourselves “progressively” over centuries now to our Northern, anti-Catholic notion of what a woman should be: thin, flat, & staring, like a boy; not curved & dynamic & fulfilled. By today, we inherit the anorexic runway model of post-Protestant capitalism: the perfection of onanism & sterility. But Rubens loved woman as woman: not hard & professional; but soft, round, & unashamed of her sex. There was nothing, as it were, “unisexual” about him. And his skies open, as the heavens open in the star gate; & his light shines down as from the Sun God. He will not be pinched; he will not apologize. He will not participate in the wince of the smug & self-satisfied — when confronted by their God.

There is a fine book by John Bourke, Baroque Churches of Central Europe (1958), should gentle reader decide to take a walk through southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria. I think that might be the best way for the Northerner — so long cut off from the light — to begin absorbing the Baroque spirit; to become acclimatized, & able to cope. Germans, even Lutheran Germans, could capture it (at least, outside Prussia), by constant exposure to the Catholic fact, which would not go away. And of course Bach understands it so well, that his Mass settings fit naturally into a Catholic church. He even used, pointedly, the old Latin Catholic texts, in his later settings. And his cantatas grow more Catholic as he ages. His fuges, too, are Baroque architecture.

My maternal aunt, Mildred Holmes — a Calvinist choirmistress & organist in Cape Breton — first called my attention to this. Bach grows “broader & broader, & ever more daring, & ever more certain what he is about.” (She scandalized her congregation by playing gratis at Catholic weddings; & then scandalized them again with her explanation that as there was only one Christ, there can be only one Church for Christians.)

But it is the Monteverdi that threw open the gate, for me, on this Psalm which has long been misread in our Northern climes. We take it, as we take everything, for a kind of hell-fire warning: “Except the Lord build the house,” … the sulphur will rain down. But no, it does not rain down, it is in us. For we have taken everything with a grain of sulphur.

Read the rest of this intensely, unambiguously pro-life Psalm. It is Baroque, Rubenesque. And it is addressed, as the Douay translation makes clearer than the old KJV,  to those who “eat their bread in sorrow.” Which would mean, us, for it describes us perfectly: our scowl in response to material wealth, our resentment of gifts, our childish cupidity & childless lascivity. Curiously enough, it tells us to have babies. “Blessed is the man who has filled his desire with them; he shall not be confounded when he shall speak to his enemies at the gate.” (At, for instance, the Gates of Vienna.)

This is joyous stuff. And yes, it is meant to affront the narrow, in their pokey little houses, in their mean cities, in which there is no room for God to reside. “Unless the Lord build the house”; “Unless the Lord keep the city”; unless we throw open our gates before the Risen Lord — we will live in the kind of environments in which we now live, in a world that is entirely man-made, & therefore very nasty.