The stress of saying ‘I love you’

Short responses can cause problems of stress

The Response for Psalm 17/18 looks incredibly straightforward : ‘I love you, [O] Lord, my strength’, – but this is deceptive. It’s the first line of the psalm, which makes it an obvious and fitting Response, but it’s tricky to deal with.  This is all because of stress.

men in white singing from shared copy
Trying to get the stress right
Starting with an unstressed word

At least, I started out thinking it was all because of stress, but now I think there is more to it than that. But let’s look at the stress first. The first note in any musical bar carries a stress, and when you set words to music, you have to take this into account. Because it has definite articles, English has a lot of initial unstressed syllables, and those can’t go on the first beat of the bar. So if your line is (say) ‘The Lord is a man of war’, you have to put ‘the’ on an unstressed, lead-up note in the preceding bar, so that you hit ‘Lord’ on the first beat of the second bar, as Handel demonstrates so beautifully.  All the settings of (for example) ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ have to place the stress like this.

Stress, rhythm and meaning

With a sentence like ‘I love you, [O] Lord, my strength’, as soon as you put it to music, you commit to one reading.  Am I stressing that I, personally,  love God as opposed to all the other people haring after false gods? Am I stressing that my feelings are strong and intense? At a pinch I can have two beats before the first note of the next bar, so I could stress that it’s you, God, that I love and certainly not anyone else. That [O] makes things even trickier. Without it, the line is one breath group; with it, there is a step in the middle. It takes up more space than you expect, without altering the meaning.

Lord and O Lord

Only Canada has the [O], but I was concentrating on Canada, because the [O] meant that I had to alter the tune completely.  Setting ‘I love you, Lord, my strength’  (US, UK and OZ Lectionaries) had not been too problematic.  I put the ‘I’ in as the last beat of the previous bar, and dwelt on the ‘love’ as the important word, with the ‘my strength’ just flowing as almost part of the name of the person addressed.  The US version is 3/4, the other 4/4, so the problem was not that the rhythm of the words was too strong.  However, neither seemed to work once the [O] was there.  Eventually I came up with a compromise for the Canada psalm which worked for me: ‘I’ is the first beat of the bar, but ‘love’ has a longer note (and a higher one), and the whole thing was in 3/4, so that it has a rocking rhythm, but the words of the Response move slightly against that rhythm.  Then I had to write a new verse tune, because the words are different from the other versions anyway….  If anyone else has not totally glazed over by this point, the first strophe in the US version starts,’I love you, O Lord’ (and the CAN one then drops the [O]) , so you move directly into that from the Response, just to keep you on your toes.

The stress of saying ‘I love you’

When I was thinking about it, though, it struck me that the psalms are the only place in the Bible where someone simply says ‘I love you’ to God, and it’s not surprising that it’s slightly awkward because it’s not something we say all that often.  (I am not specifically talking about romantic love here, though even in those circumstances, many people find ways to say that differently.  I am not including the Song of Songs in any of the general comments I am making about love, either.)  Some people can’t actually say it in words at all, except in moments of great stress (deathbeds, for example);  some don’t choose to, because they show love in a non-verbal way.  There is a beautiful poem by U. A. Fanthorpe, called Atlas, which expresses this perfectly.  Some languages use other, different words to say ‘love’ – the usual Italian for I love you actually translates as I wish you well, and Georgian uses the ethic dative, a bit like the ethic dative with placet in Latin.  French, like English, takes refuge in fuzziness: ‘aimer’ covers ‘like’ and ‘love’, and no two people will agree on the exact distinction between them (I love the smell of new-mown grass and I really like that particular cousin).

Weighty words

There seems to be tension about saying ‘I love you’, one might call it stress, either because it means so much (and we don’t want to lay ourselves open to that extent) or because if we keep saying it, it indicates that we don’t mean much by it.  The first is almost like the way a taboo works, or like the traditional Chinese avoidance of giving a new baby a name until it has survived a year, for fear that it will be snatched away.

The stress of saying it to God

So the psalmist sings,’I love you, Lord, my strength’ , and this is a really unusual thing to say to God directly.  In various books of the Bible, the speaker/writer describes how God has rescued him, supported him, brought him safe out of trouble and so on.  God is regularly described as doing something because of his love for us.  However, it’s difficult to imagine Moses or Abraham approaching God and telling him that they love him; the dialogue is on a different level.  The emphasis is on fear and enormous respect.  God talks about loving us, in some of the prophetic books (especially Hosea), but it’s usually indirect speech or general, rather than individual and specific.

Jesus and the question of love

When Jesus meets the rich young man, the narrative tells us that he looked upon him and loved him, but of course he does not tell him so (Mark 10).   When people see his tears for the dead Lazarus, they say, ‘See how he loved him!’ ( John 11.36) – third person, and past tense, so it’s safe.    The New Testament has a lot more about love (and less about fear), culminating in Jesus’ triple question to Peter after the Resurrection, which Peter handles very well, but it clearly makes him a bit uncomfortable, especially in the repetition (John again, chapter 21, and it isn’t in any of the synoptic accounts).   Jesus follows each question with the instruction to look after his sheep, which can only have confused Peter still further.  But I am trying to concentrate on the Psalms.

tending the sheep (with added music)
Putting it to music might mean less stress

You might expect that poems or songs (poems with tunes) would find it easier to deal with saying ‘I love you’ than prose, and I think that’s true, but only up to a point.  Simple declarations of love are still quite unusual.  Something is used to insert distance.  The Beatles’ ‘She loves you’ is in the third person ( though their songs became more direct later), and the ‘yeah yeah yeah’ makes it sound less serious .  Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s apparently spontaneous outpouring of love in Sonnet 43 uses the archaic ‘thee’ instead of you, which immediately removes the intimacy (obviously, if you go historically farther back, the ‘thee’ might be natural, but it isn’t here; even in Shakespeare it would be borderline).  ‘Thee I love‘ uses the archaic Quaker ‘thee’ plus inversion, to make it even less direct.  The cheesiness of these examples goes some way to proving my point.  People sing ‘I love you’ directly at each other in opera, but not as often as you might think; and it’s in a foreign language; and opera must have the biggest Verfremdungseffekt of all time anyway.

Fiddler with dancer
The power of music : leaning over backwards to express something
Telling God, and describing his love

It’s particularly startling to see ‘I love you’ in the psalms because it’s addressed to the Almighty, and yet the simple words suggest a shocking intimacy and equivalence.  To say it, places the speaker and the person addressed on the same level.  This is why it’s rare even in the psalms, because it involves a huge mental jump.  The intimate (you might call it mano a mano if you were the Sheriff of Rottingham) directness is specific to the psalms.   It brings the reader/singer up with a jolt where it occurs.  Saint Therese (the little one) addressed Jesus as ‘tu’ when she spoke or wrote to him, but her first editors corrected it to the more formal ‘vous’, feeling it was more appropriate.   (She does use ‘vous’ for God, though.)  David’s psalms would definitely translate as ‘tu’.

two people embracing
Love on the level

Most of the love in the psalms is an abstract noun.  There is a lot of discussion about God’s love for various just men, for his people, for the nation and so on.  The psalmist in the first person talks about his love for God’s law (at great length), about his love for God’s commands and decrees, his works, his precepts, his will, his name, his house (psalms passim).  The psalmist repeatedly calls on God to rescue him’in your love’, or uses ‘for his love endures forever’ as a recurring chorus (or even every other line, Ps 135/136).   It’s usually God doing the loving, and even so, the word is relatively rare as a verb.

Psalms that say ‘I love you’ to God

Psalm 17/18  is where we started, with the human doing the asserting : I love you, Lord (and even putting the O in cannot make it vague.  It changes the rhythm, but we are so used to addressing God with an O that we have become desensitised).  It’s not surprising to find that this is one of the psalms which we think is by David himself.   Another line later in the same psalm demonstrates again the equality which is so arresting : ‘he brought me forth into freedom, he saved me because he loved me’.  Psalm 114/115 has a similar movement, but it’s moved again into the third person : ‘I love the Lord for he has heard the cry of my appeal…..I was helpless so he saved me’.  Psalm 143/144 does not say ‘I love you’, but has a similar feel in an ecstatic chant : ‘He is my love, my fortress; he is my stronghold, my saviour’.  Fortresses and strongholds are not unusual adjuncts when love comes up in the psalms, I think to prove that this is all very manly and not a bit sissy.

Mythical boat with monsters
The sort of thing that the Lord can save us from

The rarity of saying ‘I love you’ to God in the Old Testament is because of humility and deep respect rather than any lack of love.  Psalmists and Bible writers encourage everyone to fear, respect, trust and bless the Lord, by instancing his past deeds and the wonders of creation.   David had a more son-like relationship with God, so he could sing ‘I love you, Lord’, but most of us had to wait until Jesus showed us that he actually prefers to be addressed as ‘Father’, and ‘I love you’ is an entirely appropriate response.

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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe writes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines.

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