Is music more moving than poetry? A silly, imprecise question. These two things have moved me most
In an uprising against the English crown, likeable, brave, impetuous Harry Hotspur is killed by Harry Monmouth who later becomes Henry V. In the aftermath Hotspur’s widow, in an agonised and detailed lament for her dead husband, blames Hotspur’s father (Lord Percy) for not providing sufficient battle support. (Henry IV, part two)
I came upon this speech when I was a snotty, uncaring fifteen-year-old knowing nothing about anything.
The time was, father, when you broke your word
When you were more endear’d to it than now!
When your own Percy, when my heart’s dear Harry,
Threw many a northward look to see his father
Bring up his powers, but he did long in vain.
Who then persuaded you to stay at home?
There were two honours lost, yours and your son’s.
For yours, the God of heaven brighten it!
For his, it stuck upon him as the sun
In the grey vault of heaven; and by his light
Did all the chivalry of England move
To do brave acts: he was indeed the glass
Wherein the noble youth did dress themselves:
He had no legs that practis’d not his gait;
And speaking thick, which nature made his blemish,
Became the accents of the valiant;
For those who could speak low and tardily
Would turn their own perfection to abuse
To seem like him: so that in speech, in gait
In diet, in affections of delight,
In military rules, humours of blood,
He was the mark and glass, copy and book
That fashion’d others. And him, O wondrous him,
O miracle of men! Him did you leave,
Second to none, unseconded by you
To look upon the hideous god of war
In disadvantage; to abide a field
Where nothing but the sound of Hotspur’s name
Did seem defensible: so you left him
Never, O never, do his ghost the wrong
To hold your honour more precise
With others than with him! Let them alone:
The marshal and the archbishop are strong:
Had my sweet Harry had but half their numbers
Today might I, hanging on Hotspur’s neck,
Have talk’d of Monmouth’s grave.
Too long? Too Shakespeare? But wouldn’t we all wish, post-mortem, to be remembered in those passionate words: “And him, O wondrous him, Oh miracle of men” and have our beloved evoke us as bitterly as: “hanging on Hotspur’s neck, Have talk’d of Monmouth’s grave.”
Can music match that? Yes it can. Queen Dido, envisaging her death, asks only that she be remembered. But this will require patience. Forget the terrible film quality, the timing numbers, the stupid costumes, the uncertain gestures and the initial lines of song. Listen, finally, to Janet Baker singing When I Am Laid To Rest with out-of-world intensity that hints at death’s unknowingness. (Purcell, Dido and Aeneas)