Stammering and understanding – words can be tough


I know that it sounds so terribly arty-poncy but I have been writing a fair amount of poetry recently and, even worse than that, I have been doing some poetry reading too.

Heaven help him, people who know me will be thinking, is there no end to his daftness?

Well, hopefully, not.

I recently recorded myself reading some of these pieces for Utube and I really shocked myself to hear how hesitant, or let’s be honest, stammery my voice has become since my brain haemorrhage seven months ago.

I have been aware of it in my head ever since I came round from that coma but most people have said that they didn’t notice it. Well they are not saying it now.

Yesterday, for example, I found, maybe for the first time that I was totally stuck on a word beginning with the letter B. I just could not get it out so I swore instead.

I don’t know why it has got worse as I have begun to feel a lot better in most other ways. Maybe my neurologist will have some suggestions when I see her in a couple of weeks.

One possibility is that I still might have that “benign lesion,” a cavernoma in my brain. Something I read about, I know I shouldn’t, on the internet. It is a weakening of the wall of the veins which forms a grape-like lump and which would have to be removed by surgery.

I will have to wait for my next MRI brain scan in October to find out about this but it is the only possible “underlying cause” left according to the neurosurgeons who studied my last MRI scan results.

Apart from that, this week has been the beginning of that period that I thought would never come. I am no longer feeling permanently concussed – and mostly, I am not constantly aware of my brain injury. It is an amazing feeling, making me realize how ill I had felt up until last weekend. So a stammer is a pretty cheap price to pay considering what could have happened to me.

So let’s go back to that poetry reading. One of the poems was, I suppose, about language amongst other things. It plays with some Italian words with the idea that we all, Italians apart of course, love the sound of Italian but don’t really know what it means. I was intrigued by how language can still have meaning for us even if we don’t actually understand the words.

I have always, until recently anyway, been a singer of sorts. It is a deeply rooted instinct for me and, I suspect, if I was asked what was in my head at any given moment, one of the things would always be music. A song by Rodgers and Hart, an aria from a Verdi opera, something from The Killers’ latest album or, more often than not, a line from a Haydn mass.

I have always been like it. My musical memory, sadly, has not taste either. Often the most banal pieces of music take up residence there for weeks on end.

As a pre-pubescent child I was a boy alto who could manage all the low notes but not those high tones that everyone associates with boys’ voices. I was never going to be the boy that breaks everyone’s heart at Christmas with Once In Royal David’s City. As a consequence, I was generally rested in the singing department especially as my voice broke when I was relatively young.

Brilliant boy sopranos are often over used and their voices are quite often destroyed by the time they have turned into one of those very average tenors or basses that fill the back rows of local choirs. I think I was lucky there because I was not considered a singer at all until my voice had well and truly “settled.”

I was then amazed to find that I could sing high – high like a tenor – and it was a wonderful moment. That feeling has never left me and for a lot of my life I have been asked to sing.

Singing has tended to mean doing stuff in churches which has been fine by me but maybe given me some youthful illusions about the existence of God and the importance of the liturgical calendar.

One of the most significant moments, musically, for me was when I was about 14 and my school put on a performance of Haydn’s glorious Nelson Mass. I was singing in the chorus and enraptured through every rehearsal. I was astounded by the beauty and drama and by the excitement of the vocal lines joining together. I could probably sing all of the parts of that mass even today. It is certainly one of those pieces which I would never want to live without.

One of the other things the Nelson Mass gave me was a love for the Latin words of the Mass. Latin had been merely a school lesson until it came alive for me in Haydn’s music. Yet, obsessively no doubt, I learnt the words by heart. They too still revolve in my head.

So for a pretty secular person, the church and its music has played an important part in my life.

Last Sunday, I started to listen to the second cycle of Bach’s church cantatas, I am collecting the clean and mostly lively recordings conducted by Masaaki Suzuki and volume 42 arrived not long ago. I went through the first cycle on the correct Sundays in the year trying to see what the great man was trying to say in particular seasons. In some ways these works are like a diary.

Each cycle of cantatas begins at this time of year – Trinity – because that just happened to be when he got his job as music director of the main churches in Leipzig and writing these works was his main responsibility.

There seem to be two schools on the Bach cantatas. You either think they are great religious music or you think that they are great music wasted on religion.

There is a half-way house, like in too many things maybe. Great they certainly are, inspirational in fact in that way that profoundly religious artists manage to convey a sense of “spirituality” even to all but the most aggressive atheists.

My problem comes from the depressingly puritanical Lutheran texts – put simply, I would much rather hear these works in Latin and not making too much of an effort to translate.

I don’t really want to listen to a year’s worth of Sundays hearing all about my sins.

So back to the Roman Catholic mass. I am no Catholic but Joseph Haydn did catch me at that impressionable age and the mass does mean “something” to me.

Early last year I went to Rome and visited the Vatican, the sensational Sistine Chapel with the Michelangelo ceiling that defies even the most enthusiastic expectation. I also went to the other great Roman church Santa Maria Maggiore where the composer Palestrina was director of music.

His masses, maybe the most perfect of all the settings of the Latin mass, still inspire me long after I have stopped singing in such works. It was exciting and slightly unnerving to be in the church where the great man actually worked.

Now, after experiencing, or rather not experiencing a deep coma, I have to tell people who are interested in such things that I didn’t see a light at the end of a tunnel or a kind man in sandals stretching out his arms to welcome me. Yet this music still moves me maybe in the way I think about a lot of things – uncomprehendingly.

Here is the poem:

Outside The Cathedral

Santa Maria Maggiore,
Beautiful words for foreigners.
Saint Mary the Greater,
An ecclesiastical code.

O sole mio, Santa Maria.
Arrivederci Roma.
Italian words, so beautiful,
The world beyond the mundane.

Santa Maria Maggiore,
A big church in the middle of Rome.
Grey dome, pigeon fluttered,
In Italian, for me, much more.

Man from Palestrina, maestro!
Wine merchant composer, man of the world,
At Santa Maria Maggiore.
You created the perfect line.

Perfect lines perfectly joined,
In the house with the perfect name.
The sound of the church, forever,
Ah, grazie maestro, perfetto.

The mass of Pope Marcellus,
Missa Papae Marcelli,
Beautiful words for foreigners.
No meaning. Beyond meaning. Perhaps.

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