Lost Lectures of the Fruits of Experience

Maurice Baring, Lost Lectures of the Fruits of Experience.
Peter Davies Ltd, London: 1932. Chapter 12: Music.

But the most remarkable musical experiences of my life happened by accident; one was pagan and the other was Christian. The first happened in Russia, and I have described it in other books, in detail, and I will not repeat the detail here; but it was a glimpse I had on an August evening in Central Russia of a procession of women who had come back from harvesting. They were walking against the skyline, and carrying their scythes and their wooden rakes with them, like the figures in a Greek frieze. As they marched past, they sang: first a solo chanted the phrase, and then the chorus took it up, and then solo and chorus became one, and reached a climax, and died away. It was a wonderful tune, a tune that opened its arms. It had not the usual sad wail that is peculiar to Russian singing: nothing of the unsatisfied yearning and restless questioning, for ever never ending on the dominant: on the contrary, what they sang was a hymn of peace and content and thanksgiving, that satisfied the soul. This sight and this sound seemed to tear away the veil of centuries and to take one back as far as ancient Rome and Greece, and further: further than Virgil and Romulus, further than the mysteries of Eleusis, further than Homer: right back to the Golden Age and the “large utterance of the early Gods.”

The second instance happened in Paris during the week of the Epiphany in I forget what year.

I strolled one evening into a dark little church.The church was empty, and the organist was playing by himself on an old-fashioned organ that sounded like the piped hurdy-gurdies of the beginning of the nineteenth century. He was playing fluted carols with tinkling runs and bell-like notes and soft lullaby, which had a freshness, a homeliness, a smiling tunefulness, an ineffable radiance and sweetness, such as I have never heard before or since. And in that little dark church I felt the wise Kings from the East and the Shepherds of Bethlehem were at prayer, and that the Hosts of Heaven themselves had for the moment ceased to sing “Glory to God in the Highest” to listen to the playing of that organist: for God had come down to earth.