Ave maris stella

After a storm-blowing day, figuratively but also literally, there is the making of tea, and the longed-for quiet in which to collect oneself. To be now warm, and dry, surrounded by my books; and kept, in the light and company of a candle. A hymn tune had been forming from dust in the air, but I could not place it; interwoven, it seemed, both plainsong and baroque.

Then it came to me, by slow deduction: that I was listening in my head to something by Monteverdi, that I had last heard decades ago. For with it the image came to mind of the interior of a beloved parish church, in England. Yet it could not have been that little place.

I am an illiterate: I cannot read music. Ashamed, I try to keep this to myself, together with the fact I cannot sing, either. I recall “songlines,” that come to me unbidden, and tease me, playing just beyond my ken. Perhaps I would have forgotten them, had they been written down and filed away; they remember me only from my own effort to remember them. The human mind makes compensations, and unmakes them; memory withdraws when it is no longer required. But it comes again out of the shadows, timidly when summoned. And tries, even when it does not understand what it has been asked.

Most certainly it was Monteverdi: famous Monteverdi. For on searching I found the hymn on disc: a John Eliot Gardiner recording from 1989. I had last played it, now I realized, when my children were very young.

It comes back to me in the memory of my flesh. My Down-syndrome child, listening with me; the sense of his presence in my arms and lap. One’s heart breaks sometimes, around such recollections: my child, Matthew, at age of two or three; so fragile and so perfect in his untutored love.

So I played the music on my little machine, just as I had then: the Ave maris stella. It has plainsong at the top, and the verses fall out of it, exchanged between choirs in alternating rhythms as a mystical dance. I love the music but not so well the recording, whose forceful instrumentation makes the Christian hymn too courtly. I had remembered it as choirs, only; with solos less poised. But it is still sublime.

We need to renew our appeal, to Our Lady, seen in the vision as star of the sea. For here we are in the chains of the guilty, in the darkness of the blind, weighed down, weighed under. Break chains, bring light, and purge us: O Mother Mary, meek and chaste. Lead us to thy Son.

That is what the song is saying: Prepare for us a safe journey. The words come out of the memory in a jumble, from a Latin that is untranslatable, following its own inexplicable thread.

It goes back at least to the eighth century, more likely to the sixth; and the melody to time hidden, within the envelopes of time. The hymn is associated with Saint Bridget of Ireland; the earliest manuscripts came to St Gall from there. And after a thousand years, it became the anthem — sung always in Latin, never in their native French — for the Acadian people of our Canadian Maritimes. For they, too, knew it could never be translated.

By then, the music had passed through the hands of a thousand composers, and re-composers, in churches by their tens of thousands. It is by now too much to assemble in mortal thought; too much for us to imagine. Yet ever, beyond the reach of our forgetting, all would of itself recombine. For always it was sung for one poor sinner, kneeling humble and broken in the stalls.