Delighting in Plainness

Nephi famously delights in plainness, pledging to speak the doctrine of Christ “according to the plainness of [his] prophesying.” Surely the core doctrine of baptism—the topic of Nephi’s discussion—needs to be presented in a straightforward manner, lest confusion arise. And yet, what does “plainness” mean, exactly? Does plainness require that a speaker eschew all ornamentation, or style? Beyond that, what does it mean to “delight in plainness”?

Consider this sentence, appearing two verses after Nephi’s expression of delight:

And now, if the Lamb of God, he being holy, should have need to be baptized by water, to fulfil all righteousness, O then, how much more need have we, being unholy, to be baptized, yea, even by water!

“Plainness” evidently allows for careful and moderately complex rhetorical balancing, as this sentence’s two halves use parallelism to blend opposition (“he being holy” and “we, being unholy”) with commonality (the two instances of “by water”) in order to emphasize the human need for baptism. This kind of skillful rhetoric belies any sense that a commitment to plainness demands blunt exposition in the manner of “Jesus needed to be baptized, so you really need to be baptized.” Plainness, that is, does not preclude beauty.

Perhaps, then, the Psalms offer a useful gloss on Nephi’s notion of plainness when they call for us to “worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.” A supernal illustration of this possibility appears in the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, master composer of the 16th-century Italian Renaissance.

Of Palestrina’s many works (the Choral Wiki lists over 300), I will focus on only one: the Gloria from his well-known Missa Papae Marcelli. Here is a video that also contains the score:

[youtube http://youtu.be/5k3bfqQ1SpU]

For a work of this richness and beauty, it’s remarkable how clearly the text itself (included below) comes through—even when not all the parts are singing the same words at the same time. Writing about the gift of tongues, Paul uses a musical metaphor to address the importance of speaking distinctly:

It is the same way with lifeless instruments that produce sound, such as the flute or the harp. If they do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?

Palestrina’s clarity is what makes this music about worship, instead of showing off. He saves the fireworks for the “Amen” at the end, when everybody knows what the choir is singing and is therefore free to rise with it in exultation.

Beyond simply making the text clear, Palestrina uses the music itself to draw emphasis to the words. My favorite (around 3:10 in the video) is the treatment of “suscipe” (“receive” in “receive our prayer”). The music shows heaven and earth meeting in this plea, as the soprano begins high and descends at the same time as the second tenor ascends to the same note where the soprano began (albeit an octave lower).

Plainness seems to define Latter-day Saint worship: our chapels tend toward the unadorned, and our leaders wear simple business suits instead of elaborate vestments. Palestrina shows us, though, that our plainness need not be humdrum. Indeed, as the Saints were about to cross the plains a revelation instructed them to “praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of thanksgiving.” Even Jesus, about to face Gethsemane, sang a hymn with his disciples.

Plainness does not mean that our worship services should be dry deserts, when our call is to make the desert blossom as a rose. There is a place for loveliness within our burlap walls, and when we learn to worship in the beauty of holiness, we will discover that even plainness can produce delight.

MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, composer, 1594

Isaiah 35:1-2 (KJV); Psalm 96 (BCP); Mark 14:26 (KJV); 1 Cor. 14:6-12 (NRSV); 2 Nephi 31:1-5D&C 136:28-33

The Collect: Almighty Creator, who placed our first parents in a garden of delight: grant that in our worship of thy Beloved Son Jesus Christ we might become co-creators with thee in shaping the beauties of a new paradise, where, raised by thy Spirit to the heights of rejoicing and song, we might dwell forever in unity with the One God. Amen.

Here is the Latin text of the Gloria:

Gloria in excelsis Deo
Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
Laudamus te. Benedicimus te.
Adoramus te. Glorificamus te.
Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam,
Domine Deus, Rex caelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens,
Domine Fili unigenite, Iesu Christe,
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris,
Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis;
Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram;
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis;
Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, tu solus Dominus,
Tu solus Altissimus, Iesu Christe,
Cum Sancto Spiritu, in gloria Dei Patris.
Amen.

Here is the English translation from The Book of Common Prayer (what else?):

Glory be to God on high,
and on earth peace, good will towards men.
We praise thee, we bless thee,
we worship thee, we glorify thee,
we give thanks to thee for thy great glory,
O Lord God, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty.
O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ;
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Thou that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Thou that takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer.
Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father, have mercy upon us.
For thou only art holy; thou only art the Lord;
thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost,
art most high in the glory of God the Father.
Amen.

Comments

  1. lovely contemplation — and I really enjoyed your formalistic analysis of Nephi’s delight in plainness.

  2. it's a series of tubes says:

    Nephi says Isaiah’s words are plain to those who have the spirit of prophecy (2. Nephi 25:4). Clearly something can be very complicated and intricate, yet plain – at least as Nephi views it.

  3. I do enjoy your perspective on this. Just because it it “plain” does not mean it has to be boring. Thank you Jason.

  4. I think this means that Nephi would do well on twitter. King of soundbites. Except, in reality, he’s full of it. He quotes Isaiah extensively, an obscure beat poet from halfway around the globe who uses all sorts of oblique imagery? He writes psalms about how he’s not worthy (without citing any real egregious sins)? C’mon. That’s why Nephi reads like we just picked up his journal. He’s not exactly the master of self-awareness.

  5. The beauty in LDS culture is in utility, clarity, and a confident faith. There is also a celebration of plain as in “homely,” like the clunky, repetitive prose of the Book of Mormon. Homeliness in dress and speech is a badge of humility and a stand against vanity. This is a sore trial for vain members like myself.

  6. Some people who look at the Book of Mormon text and message and think it presents something plain or homely aren’t looking at all of its myriad and complex offerings. And yet, despite its richness, its glamour and mystery, its core message is simple and one we would all be well served in accepting: “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.”

  7. What did Palestrina have against 8th notes that he had to write in 4/2?

  8. That’s a good question, Frank. I suspect that what we’re up against here is a process of change in musical notation over time. I’m not an expert, but from what I’ve seen older notation is quite different to today’s, so what we’re seeing here is the product of a modern editor. If you poke around on the choral wiki, you can find scores that adapt the older way to include eighth notes.