Wednesday, 11 September 2013

‘Lift me like an olive branch
and be my homeward dove’

Leonard Cohen at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham on 11 September 2012 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Leonard Cohen is in Dublin for two nights this week and I plan to be in the O2 to hear him tonight [11 September 2013].

Leonard Cohen’s concerts show in Ireland have become a major cultural highlight in Ireland each year, and I have been at those concerts since his initial comeback show in 2008 at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, as well as his concerts the 02, Lisadell, and at the Royal Hospital again last year.

I was given his twelfth studio album, Old Ideas in Wexford as a very special birthday present last year.

Without being at all morose, I have already let it be known that I would like to hear Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love (1984) as my coffin is carried out at my funeral.

I love its Greek chords, but more importantly, I am moved by the spirituality in this song that speaks tenderly, lyrically and poetically about a love that is eternal, that goes beyond human love, that transcends human suffering and that is consumed in the Love of God.

The song was first performed by Cohen on his 1984 album Various Positions. Although on first hearing, this song sounds like a love song, perhaps about a newly-married couple dancing at their wedding. But Dance Me to the End Of Love is about the horrors of the Holocaust.

In an interview, Cohen said the song recalls how in certain death camps, “a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on, those were the people whose fate was this horror also. And they would be playing classical music while their fellow prisoners were being killed and burnt.”

The members of the string quartet were going to be killed afterwards in the crematorium but were allowed to play music. This playing of music is joy and happiness to the members of the quartet, the last piece of love and joy they will experience before their own end.

The words “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin” refers to the string quartet’s instruments that are going to be burned in crematorium.

The words “Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon” compares the sufferings of the exiled Jewish people on Babylon with the sufferings of the Holocaust, and the words of the Psalmist “How shall we sign the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137: 4).

When the Jewish Czech composer Viktor Ullmann was deported to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt in 1942, he decided to remain active musically. There he became a piano accompanist, organised concerts, wrote critiques of musical events, and composed, as part of a cultural circle that included Karel Ančerl, Rafael Schachter, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása, and other prominent musicians there. He wrote: “By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon. Our endeavour with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live.”

On 16 October 1944, he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and there he was killed in the gas chambers two days later on 18 October 1944.

In his interview, Leonard Cohen spoke of the music and the words ‘Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,’ “meaning the beauty there of being the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation.”

But he conceded that “it is the same language that we use for surrender to the beloved, so that the song – it’s not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity.”

However, The Irish Times once said: “When Leonard Cohen takes to the stage, it’s no less than a cultural event of Biblical dimensions.” And when I listen to this song as a prayer, then the song too talks about being “gathered safely in” and talks to me of being able to trust in the love of God despite the greatest horrors that can be faced in life. And while our knowledge of this love is limited by our capacity to imagine it, it has, in fact, no limits at all: “Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone… Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn/ Dance me to the end of love / Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin / Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in.”

And when I’m dying, I hope no matter how and when that happens (hopefully many, many and many more years from now), I hope I am consumed in the love of God, and that the dance goes on.

Leonard Cohen at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham on 11 September 2012 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dance Me To The End Of Love, by Leonard Cohen

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
We’re both of us beneath our love, we’re both of us above
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love