Building Tension… with Meaning!

I submit this sentence, from Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves, as Exhibit A:

“Assuming a sentence rises into the air with the initial capital letter and lands with a soft-ish bump at the full stop, the humble comma can keep the sentence aloft all right, like this, UP, for hours if necessary, UP, like this, UP, sort-of bouncing, and then falling down, and then UP it goes again, assuming you have enough additional things to say, although in the end you may run out of ideas and then you have to roll along the ground with no commas at all until some sort of surface resistance takes over and you run out of steam anyway and then eventually with the help of three dots … you stop.”

… and this passage, Col 1:9-14, as Exhibit B:

“For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

When I first read Exhibit A, I thought, “Wow, here is someone who really knows how to use the English language.” The ability to build and build the tension to the very end is enviable.

A few days later, I heard Exhibit B spoken aloud (a world of difference from silent reading!) and I noticed the same increase in intensity. Here is a man who is about to explode with the message he has, and you can actually feel that as he comes to his joyous climax.

What does all of this have to do with music?

I can’t help but think of pieces such as Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” The seemingly unending increase of tension and excitement amazes me every time.

There also seems to be a corollary to the difference between Exhibits A and B in terms of music. Consider the endless sequences or 5ths progression from a lesser Baroque composer. It is obvious that the tactic works, but in the end, there is not always a payoff when the material itself is not that meaningful (A). On the other hand, the same tools in the hand of a master, such as Bach and the like, will never cease to delight. The essential value of quality material allows such composers to display incredible expression that is unmatched in the musical medium (B).

Although any composer can use the tools of the trade to pull at our emotions as the audience, the composers who use the same tools AND incredible content will always stand out.

Interestingly, Barber’s “Adagio” was later set as to the text of “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God).

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