Herbert’s Formula

In his poem “Easter,”1Read the poem at Breviary Hymns. George Herbert employs three primary images, appointed to the first three stanzas, respectively, heart, lute, and song. The heart, in the biological sense, brings growth and healing to the body in which it pumps, and, in the non-biological sense, effectuates both affective and self-sacrificing acts; in both senses, life would cease altogether if it stopped functioning. Although no one sees another person’s heart, without it, one wouldn’t live to be seen.

The pulsating activity of the heart generates and regenerates the body, represented by the lute of the second stanza. In fact — a bit of music theory too often forgotten — the consistency and regularity of the human heartbeat initiated what music theory calls “four-four” or “common” time (i.e., four beats per measure). The unseen heart acts through the seen body; the lute, or any musical instrument, becomes an extension of the body, as any true musician will testify. The heart gives life to the lute: the lute flows from the heart.

While technically not an image like heart and lute, song, recognized by its subjective counterparts — listening ears and commensurating intellect — still has archetypal value. Song causally points back to heart and lute, since it only exists as their effect. Song, then, flows from both of the former: lute presupposes heart, and song presupposes lute and heart. Paradoxically, song unites heart and lute even though song required their unity: even though heart and lute preceded song, the musician inseparable from his lute became so precisely because of the music they make together.

One may see in this an analogy of the Christian Trinity. The Father begets the Son, and His Son, since fully God and fully man, has a body. The Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. This paradigm parallels heart, lute, and song. The unseen Father acts through the seen Son, and the Holy Spirit, while not an image like the Son, nevertheless pours forth empirical entities, by creation of and in Creation, and points back to the Father and the Son; and yet the Holy Spirit, the bond of love between them, is what unites them.

The conceit — the correlation of Song to Spirit, Art to Creation — makes itself known well enough. Spirit and Song clearly share a unique capability of binding things together. Having dealt with the general point of “Easter,” this more particular essay draws out the implications of a far subtler conceit, that “all music is but three parts vied and multiplied.” Ingrained within the poem, this conceit possesses rich “formulaic” qualities concerning music specifically, and art generally. Because this aphoristic formula operates within the larger conceit already outlined, the remaining must occasionally revert to the previous discussion, for indeed music works somewhat like God, and art resembles Creation. Hence the necessity of hanging the Trinitarian backdrop in approaching music as “three parts vied” and then “multiplied.”

A basic chord consists of three notes: the first, third, and fifth of a diatonic scale. The third, when in its proper place, produces a major chord, and when diminished a half-step, a minor chord. In a very elementary sense, the foundation of all music lies here. “All music is but three parts vied”: song, or music generally, begins with three notes carefully measured one against the other. The more obvious analogy to the Trinity lies in this first meaning of “vied”: three notes are one chord and three Persons are one God. In either case, each individual finds an aspect of identity in the other two, however analogically. But “vied” also implies competition. One can measure against others to identify with them, or to see who gets on better or faster than whom. To “twist a song,” notes have to get moving. Stagnant chords have no more affinity for composition than do stagnant dancers for competition. Music must run an internal race; vying notes and chords have to compete with one another, fight for prominence within the song.

More than “three parts vied,” song needs be “multiplied,” as when each note, lower than another in one position, transposes to a higher octave, beyond the previously belittling. Lute must “struggle for thy [its own] part with all thy art,” as in a resolution from a fully-diminished chord to the major-seventh chord just below, or the minor-seventh chord just above. These obscure knights, through their jousts for different positions on their particular gridiron — the key of a particular piece of music — “twist a song pleasant and long,” going octaves upon octaves, and combinations upon combinations of melody and harmony within those octaves, all built upon those “three parts vied” majors and minors. This discordia concors perhaps evidences some secret layer of reality with an indiscernable language (music is, of course, like mathematics, a kind of language), wherein music argues with itself: harmony, conflict, resolution; thesis, antithesis, synthesis. This Trinitarian analogy, less obvious than the previous one — since God never disagrees with Himself — nonetheless finds reconciliation in the comparison between musical composition, in the manner just discussed, and infinite creative activity. Both begin “three parts vied,” save for the fact that God’s “multiplication” of being(s) operates with the first meaning of “vied” and music with the second.

But how do the apparent conflict-resolution games remain intelligible to the hearer? Furthermore, how does song, ultimately a by-product of contingent instruments which require contingent players, live on once it ends? Taken apart, after all, song’s material reality amounts merely to wood hitting upon metal and skin, horse hair rubbing against catgut, random cracks, tweets, and honks (discordia).

The notion of spirit returns, this time taken broadly to include the spiritual soul of man. Being material, demanding a formal cause for purposeful existence, song requires an intellectual spirit to bind together all the constituent parts, all the vying parts, into musical intentionality or consciousness. Like days in the year, “we count three hundred,” for which “there is but one.” Song holds together only in the intentional existence of intellect. “Spirit,” say the speakers of the secret language, “may ‘bear a part, and make up our defects with his sweet art’.” For even the irregularities and deviations from a piece of music, simply transposed or utterly ruined by bad players, the mind can mend (concors).

Briefly alluded to above, European musical tradition before the twentieth century almost logically followed from the human heartbeat, therefore nearly from life itself. The organization amplifies profoundly in what follows from music: the art of dance. Moving from music to dance further illuminates the genius of Herbert’s formula. The heart, having led to music, now leads to dance. Since man and woman together represent humankind, the dance germinates “three parts vied” of heart, song, and, essentially, the couple(s) unable to play lutes. The human heart beats, human bodies play instruments, and subsequent human bodies dance. Music, dance, and couples, by this model, have no discontinuity: man and woman come together — each with one’s own heartbeat, hence in theory already united to the music — and participate in the dance. Streamlined with the music, in a community of other men and women of identical stance and motion, all form one physical harmony, maturating in an imminently rational activity. Dance, like song, began “three parts vied,” and then “multiplied,” now sustained in spirit: notes and chords, persons and motions, unified and reified. Unlike the “struggle for thy part” within music, the “vying” of rational minds — at least, in the context of dance — more closely resembles their rational Creator, since vying in this case involves cooperative investment in the mutual activity.

Through the dance — which enables even the least musically inclined to “bear a part and make up our defects with his sweet art,” dancers one with the music like the musicians — all re-enact the origins of the worlds, which, as some have said, were created in music. Art — the seeming consequence of human life and suddenly appearing to have a life of its own — demonstrates again the capacity of Herbert’s formula, for the issue of re-enactment leads down yet another avenue, now “three parts vied” of heart, song, and dance.

The progeny of Existence is existence, and the children of the Creator are creators. Existence and art alike reproduce themselves in different manifolds. All art, it seems, matches Herbert’s formula: even the painter’s primary colors begin “three parts vied,” and from that point multiply. The art of living leads to music, and music to the dance. The suggested re-enactment within the dance, then, results in drama. The dancers — players of a theatre in which, cast as gods and angels, men and women, by their creative, beating hearts, perform the creation of the heavens and of all days — prefigure their Heavenly Day, itself prefigured by Easter, which “is but one, and that one ever.”

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1. Read the poem at Breviary Hymns.

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