How hope lost its confidence

Mendelssohn's setting of Psalm 42 prompts reflection on how modern 'hope' is tinged with doubt.

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    Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy after the portrait by Wilhelm Hensel.
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This year is the bicentennial of the birth of Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. His music is being widely performed, including, I am reliably informed, by one of metro Boston's many fine amateur chorales.

The more conscientious singers among them try to make sure that even if they're singing Mendelssohn in German, they understand the text.

Ah, but the real translation issues may be not between German and English. They may be instead between the times of the great Bible translations, the Luther Bible in German and the King James in English, and our own day. Specifically, a bit of research I did with a friend singing in the aforementioned chorale shows that hope has lost some of its self-confidence over the years.

The text in question is from Mendelssohn's setting of Psalm 42, which the King James renders as "Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God."

The German verb rendered hope in English is "harren" – which actually means to await someone or something. Many of the "wait on the Lord" passages from the King James include "harren" in their German versions.

That suggests that hoping for (or in) something meant the same thing as waiting for it. But in modern usage, though hoping and waiting are both future-oriented concepts, hoping remains in the realm of wishful thinking. Doubt has crept into hope.

To forsake the theological for the mundane: Compare "I'm waiting for the bus" with "I'm hoping the bus will come."

Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary defined hope, as a noun, in terms of confidence and trust: "Hope differs from wish and desire in this, that it implies some expectation of obtaining the good desired, or the possibility of possessing it. Hope therefore always gives pleasure or joy; whereas wish and desire may produce or be accompanied with pain and anxiety."

To illustrate hope as a verb, Webster used that very same verse from Psalm 42 cited above.

Hope may have begun to lose its nerve after it started hanging around with forlorn, as in the phrase "forlorn hope." Forlorn on its own means abandoned, deserted, or lonely and bereft. "Forlorn hope" is a military term, a phonetic spelling of a phrase borrowed from Dutch. It refers to a suicide mission – a "lost band," or a group of soldiers a commander is willing to lose.

The Online Etymology Dictionary notes sternly, "The phrase is usually used incorrectly in Eng., and the misuse has colored the sense of forlorn." It hasn't made hope any more hopeful, either.

Forlorn: Doesn't it sound like what it means? Can you just hear it as a mournful two-note orchestral motif, on the French horn or maybe the bassoon? "For-loooorn"? Sort of Mahler in a downer mood?

This famous passage by Abraham Lincoln (whose bicentennial is also this year, by the way) comes to thought as a more recent example of hope: "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away."

Is that the Psalmist's confident hope, or the doubt-tinged hope of moderns? Lincoln was writing less than 40 years after Webster's dictionary. But it's fair to say he was more open to ambiguity than the ever-theologically minded Webster.

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