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Music and the Spoken Word: 'Scene in the Form of a Prayer'

POSTED: October 2, 2017 10:39 a.m.
Deseret Connect/

Why is it that so much of life’s profound beauty has roots in heartache and sorrow?

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Editor's note: “The Spoken Word” is shared by Lloyd Newell each Sunday during the weekly Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcast.

Why is it that so much of life’s profound beauty has roots in heartache and sorrow? There seems to be something about human nature that causes us to reach the highest during our lowest points. We see it when tragedies and disasters strike and people come together to love and help each other in ways they’ve never done before. We see it in sublime art and music, which often enough is inspired by hardship and trial, even as it fills us with solace and joy.

A good example of this truth is a song by Charles Gounod, one of the most prolific composers in 19th-century France. His sacred compositions were confessions of faith and devotion to the Lord. One historian observed, “He could as readily write a sermon as an opera" (see "Charles Gounod: His Life and His Works," byMarie Anne de Bovet, published in 1891).

When Gounod was semi-retired, enjoying the fruit of his labor, his 5-year-old grandson died. This tragedy filled Gounod with such grief that he turned once again to writing sacred music. In a final surge of creative energy, he pointed his art and his faith steadfastly in the direction of hope.

In April 1893, Gounod composed a song he titled “Repentir,” which means “to repent,” with the subtitle “Scene in the Form of a Prayer.” We know it today as the beloved song “O Divine Redeemer.” The words captured his feelings as he mourned his grandson’s passing and as he approached the end of his own life — he passed away only a few months later. It is a prayer for forgiveness, a plea for mercy, a supplication for strength and a meditation on life:

O divine Redeemer!

I pray thee grant me pardon,

And remember not … my sins! ...

Haste Thee, Lord, to mine aid!

Thy pity show in my deep anguish, …

Hear my cry,

Save me, Lord in Thy mercy; …

How appropriate and instructive that Gounod found solace in a “scene in the form of a prayer.” Perhaps this is why inspiration so often grows out of tragedy, why beauty so often grows from ashes (see Isaiah 61:3) — because in such moments our hearts turn to the only real source of peace and sweet assurance: our divine Redeemer.
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