Sicut Cervus

A few years ago, I sang Palestrina's Sicut Cervus with my church choir. I had never heard of it; initially I took it for just another anthem that our choir director had dredged up from somewhere: slow-moving; polyphonic; Latin—church music.

As we rehearsed it, I found that it grew on me. By the time we performed it, I had come to like it much, and the realization that I wouldn't be singing it again left me with some sense of loss.

Later, I discovered that Sicut Cervus is a work of some note; a Google search easily turns up characterizations such as

One of the great musical masterpieces of the Church...
... by many accounts the most outstanding example of religious choral art from the Renaissance.
One of the more gorgeous examples of polyphony...

Music

Sicut Cervus opens with the tenors alone and exposed for the first two measures

The first three measures of Sicut Cervus

The piece is in four, but it's kind of in two, and that first lone whole note might as well be in one. It is sung at a slow tempo, and I consistently had difficulty acquiring the meter through the first two bars.

In the third measure, you can see the altos enter at D over the tenors' G to make a 5th; the tenors alternate their G with D below, which makes a whole octave against the altos. Open harmonies like these continue throughout the piece, and lend it a flowing, haunting beauty.

Text

The text is adapted from Psalm 41:2, from the Clementine Latin Vulgate Bible
Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum,
ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus.
Here is a loose word-for-word translation from Latin to English

Sicut   As
cervus   the deer
desiderat   longs
ad   for
fontes   springs
aquarum,   (of) water,
ita   so
desiderat   longs
anima   soul
mea   my
ad   for
te   you
Deus.   God.

anima

The Latin anima translates to the English soul, and the English soul comes with two millennia of baggage. It is wired into Christian theology, and—especially—ideas of dualism.

I'm not a dualist, so the English soul doesn't have much force for me. When I sing the Latin anima, I hear other English words that are descended from it:

Animal (n.)
Latin, from animale, neuter of animalis animate, from anima soul
Animate (adj.)
Middle English, from Latin animatus, past participle of animare to give life to, from anima breath, soul
With these words in my head, singing anima mea becomes joyous: my animal; I am animate.

The phrase reminds me a bit of the daemons in Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials.


Notes

singing it again
You can hear it—and even sing along with it—on YouTube...but it's not the same.
tenors
I'm a tenor
daemons
which reify a self/soul dualism...

Steven W. McDougall / resume / swmcd@world.std.com / 2011 December 13