Words, words, words (Philippa, an opera – blog 11)

Posted on Posted in American culture, My blog, Opera articles, Philippa - an opera in progress, Words

…continuing my series of blogs on the development of the opera Philippa, based on the life of Harlem-born concert pianist Philippa Duke Schuyler. Philippa was the daughter of African-American journalist George S. Schuyler and white Texan Josephine Cogdell who thought that if they combined their superior genes they could produce a genius. Philippa was, indeed, a prodigy. She played her own compositions with the New York Philharmonic when barely in her teens. She died in Vietnam in 1967 rescuing ‘the orphans’, the children of US servicemen and Vietnamese women…

“What languages should Philippa be in?” is one of the questions I’ve been asking myself during research into this opera. English should be there of course, since she was born in the US; Vietnamese because she died in Vietnam; French because French was still spoken in Vietnam at this time and it would also have been the language of some of her African boyfriends. Should Latin should be included? What language would Catholic services have been conducted in, in 1967, especially in Vietnam? The vernacular wasn’t adopted instantly everywhere after Vatican II.

Hue cathedral
Huế Cathedral, Central Vietnam, photo: Lưu Ly, 26 August 2008

We went to a Latin mass last week. I wanted to get a feel for how a Latin mass feels. I couldn’t quite catch all the words (and I was listening for those I know from classical music). I was a little disappointed, wondering if the priest was mumbling, but later I figured that perhaps that rapid-fire and merged(?) delivery denoted a kind of familiarity with the text that was in itself moving. I remember reading Peter Brokenshaa’s account of a Pitjantjatjara inma in his book, The Pitjantjatjara and Their Crafts and how one of the features that most convinced him of the heartfelt-ness of the ceremony was the casual familiarity with which the men sang their lines, acted their parts, handled their objects…

And there was something ‘down-home-y’ and casual about the service that was endearing. “Remember,” said the priest during the sermon, “how John the Baptist pointed out Christ with the beautiful words, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’?” “Remember?” Were we there? He spoke of the childhoods of John the Baptist and Jesus looked after by their mothers St. Elizabeth and ‘our Lady’ (“Remember?”) and told us that, “The pope has talked about this in a beautiful book which hasn’t been published but when it’s been published you’ll be able to buy it” – all one sentence.

We talked to some women afterwards and asked why they made a point of coming to a Latin mass. It’s what they grew up with; they like it. They gave me another word to add to my ‘Philippa glossary’ of words that are not and have never been part of my everyday conversation – ‘indult’. Of course, with Philippa the list of words that I don’t include in everyday conversation includes military terms like MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) or TAOR (Tactical Area of Responsibility) or addresses like 409 Edgecombe Avenue (the 13-storey apartment block in Harlem which was once home to Julius Bledsoe who sang ‘Ol’ Man River’ in the 1927 premiere of Show Boat and NAACP luminaries such as W.E.G. DuBois or Walter White or Thurgood Marshall), but I had to stop and think how much there is to learn in life when I looked into the term ‘indult’.

If I was sum up ‘indult’ it’s a permitted Latin mass or permitted portions of mass in Latin. According to Wikipedia the word is “a term from Catholic canon law referring to a permission to do something that would otherwise be forbidden”.

Then I found that there is such a thing as ‘the “Agatha Christie” indult’. Apparently after the introduction of the Mass of Paul VI in 1969-70, several British intellectuals wrote to the pope requesting permission for continued use of the Tridentine mass by those who wished to continuing using it in England and Wales. The signatories talked of the mass’s cultural significance; for many British catholics the Latin mass was also a symbol of the suffering of martyrs during the Reformation. Among the signatories were Vladimir Ashkenazy, Kenneth Clarke, Joan Sutherland, Cecil Day-Lewis, Robert Graves, Yehudi Menuhin…

But the story goes that when the pope was considering the plea, he scanned down the list of names on the petition and came across ‘Agatha Christie’. “Ah, Agatha Christie”, he apparently said, and signed the indult.

Nice story, lovely character detail. What I love mostly, though, is the knowledge that there is no end to what I can learn.

“Not a blade of grass grows uninteresting to me” – Thomas Jefferson

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