The inadvertent lesson of the fiery furnace

A young gentleman comes now and then to our dining room in our sumptuous residence for old nippers and plays upon a lute while we devour our macaroni and cheese. Fortunately, I had never seen a lute, but it seemed to me I had met one somewhere in the Bible and this made me think of the "peesaltree." I hastened to consult the Scriptures, and I don't readily find a lute. But I did find the peesaltree, and that made everything worthwhile.

The lute is a stringed instrument formerly much used, with a fretted neck and strings to be plucked or struck. It is not at all like the loot we use Down-East to scoop and move dirt. (My desk dictionary doesn't know about a horse-drawn loot.) The soonest place to study biblical melody is in the story of the burning, fiery furnace and the delivery of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Here it describes all kinds of music as a summons to worship King Nebuchadnezzar's golden image. Here you can find the peesaltree, too.

My dad liked to tell about the parish minister who faithfully came to each house for the customary free feed. He dutifully offered a lengthy and monotonous grace that delayed tackling the stew, which is what the kids came for.

In one of his preprandial prayers, the reverend dwelt on this graven image of the king, and in enumerating the instruments he spoke distinctly of the "peesaltree." My dad and his family were already acquainted with the psaltery as a musical instrument, for in family devotions they had heard their mother expound on the fiery furnace many times. The story, she said, taught a mighty lesson always to be carried in mind. When the king asks the three young Hebrews who will deliver them from the burning, fiery furnace, they reply that their God will do that.

Then, my grandmother told her youngsters, comes the greatest lesson of all! The young men, facing a searing, scorching end, placidly tell King Nebuchadnezzar that their God shall surely deliver them, but that if He did not, they still would not bow down and worship the idol. Grammy emphasized the grim humor involved, namely, that if the trio was not delivered there would be no tomorrow. But she also dwelt on the tremendous repudiation this was to the king. No wonder he was wrathful and consumed with fury!

So this mealtime, when the visiting clergyman brought up the tale of ancient Babylon in his blessing of the food, my dad and his brothers and sisters, and Uncle Levi and Aunt Mary and probably a few others, were extremely unready to hear him call the psaltery a peesaltree. My father said that never again did the holy didacticism of the burning, fiery furnace have the slightest meaning to his family. Mention it, and everybody thought "peesaltree" and went into hysterics.

Dad said that this Uncle Levi, many years later, cut a squash leaf from the vine, split the stem, and blew it so it sounded like a fisherman's makeshift fog horn. Thus the biblical word attained fact, and every fall the youngsters would make peesaltrees and blow them for laughs.

Being a confirmed nonmusician I am not the best authority on the lute, the peesaltree, and all other kinds of music. I think a psaltery is a sort of lute meant to accompany the singing of psalms, which are found in the psalter, or psalm book.

David, I hear, favored the harp, but it may be that David's harp was some kind of lute, and possibly a lyre, which is like a loot only different. Did you know that Queen Marie Antoinette was proficient on the harp?

I feel unequal to a fair judgment about the lute as a digestive aid in an approved and respectable retreat for the deserving elderly. Willing to embrace the opinions of better-informed companions, I asked Mrs. Laura Scotworthy what she thought of the lute with smoked pork chops, and she said, "It ain't bothered me none too much yet, but give it time. Once I get my broccoli soup chewed, I don't let nothin' else work me up." I haven't tried the broccoli soup again, so I have accepted the lute as an agreeable support to institutional nourishment.

This gentleman strokes his lute one string at a time and one note at a time. I do not perceive a tune, so I suppose there is no sheet music for luting. "Yankee Doodle" is one tune I recognize, so I asked him if he could play "Yankee Doodle," and he said he supposed so but then he didn't. So I eat my soup and learn about music, and I am glad because I always thought you blew into a lute the way you play a bagpipe. I'm told you can still study the bagpipe at the Gaelic College in Nova Scotia, and the full course of study takes 17 years. I have a brother-in-law who is an accomplished piper. One time he was passing the night in a hotel in New Hampshire, and some enraged people burst into his room, picked him up, and cast him from the back door into a snowdrift.

When the police asked him what he thought triggered this animosity, he said he didn't know. He said he was merely sitting there on a chair quietly playing his bagpipe. My brother-in-law is also the one who answered the little lady who asked what those things are that stick up over the piper's shoulder: "Those," he said, "are the drones. If it were not for the drones, the Scottish bagpipe would sound no better than an ordinary piano."

And that's every last thing I know about a lute.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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