Marking Holy Week through Biblical Lamentations and music inspired by 20th century atrocities

The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart

Music for Holy Week: The Desolate City

Music by Antoine Brumel, Philippe de Monte, Palestrina, Byrd, John Mundy, Rudolf Mauersberger, Douglas Mews and Jack Body

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Good Friday, 14 April, 7:30 pm

The theme of this concert, The Desolate City, was a reason to look at two cities that have suffered terrible, war-driven destruction in living memory (Dresden and Hiroshima), and to associate physical destruction with social and moral destruction as described in Biblical accounts of cities considered to have been desolated by sin or perhaps merely by adoption of a rival religious faith.

The Book of Lamentations and Psalm 137 provided the main source of music: various Renaissance motets based on the words that can be read as mourning God’s desertion of Jerusalem and thus his complicity in the city’s destruction by the Babylonians in the 6th century BC. The words of Lamentations are traditionally recited during Tenebrae, in Holy Week.

The concert was preceded by a revelatory talk by Michael Stewart and, as well as words printed in both English and other languages in the programme, a large screen behind the choir displayed the words progressively – surtitle-like throughout. An excellent innovation.

Rudolf Mauersberger’s motet Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst, was one of the three non-Renaissance works in the programme. It applied some of the words from Lamentations to the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945, less than three months before Germany’s defeat. Mauersberger was director of Dresden’s Kreuzchor through World War II and this motet is perhaps his best-known work. The Kreuzkirche was destroyed in the bombing, and was rebuilt around 2005.

The motet expresses a deep feeling of grief, in dense harmonies that are punctuated with pauses that allowed the sounds to fill and re-echo through the large space of St Paul’s. Where I was sitting some voices, probably the soloists, Phoebe Sparrow, Rebecca Howan, Phillip Collins and Matthew Painter, seemed to emerge from deep within the choir and sanctuary, as if they were physically removed. Whether or not that was a calculated effect, the performance created a quite transcendental spirit, giving the impression of a rather more splendid composition than perhaps it is.

To follow that by Byrd’s powerful Ne irascaris, Domine (from Isaiah), 370 years earlier, was to dramatise its contemporary relevance: in a totally different way. Through its message of spiritual rather than physical desolation, the Catholic Byrd expressed his anguish, living in a dangerous, Protestant England. The performance was exquisitely solemn, each short stanza quite extended musically, with each vocal section deliberate and perfectly in place so that at times certain voices could emerge distinctly.

Then came Palestrina’s Super flumina Babylonis (the first verses of Psalm 137), the generation before Byrd’s. Though a ritual lament for the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, it paints a much more peaceful atmosphere in less complex and tortured musical syntax than Byrd’s. The choir’s superbly subtle and expressive capacities were impressively revealed.

Another setting of Psalm 137 came from the pen of Jack Body, this time a setting of the original Hebrew text. The succession of pleas was handled by dividing verses between men and women, dramatically and colourfully, as if to emphasise the varying ways in which the anguish of the people could be expressed. At one point (my Hebrew is not up to identifying the precise section) women’s voices rose to an almost terrifying pitch. For me, it revealed musical dimensions in Body’s music that I may have rather underestimated: sophistication, choral virtuosity, confidence.

Philippe de Monte is another rather unfamiliar name from the mid-16th century – shameful in the light of his prolific output: Flemish but, like many Flemish composers, multi-national; a few years older than Palestrina. As Michael Stewart explained, he too was touched by Reformation controversies/persecutions. On account of Queen Mary’s Catholicism, her brief reign (1553-58) gave Catholics a short respite between the Protestant extremes of Edward VI and Elizabeth I. De Monte served at her court in 1554-55 in the entourage of Philip II of Spain who was her husband.

In the 1580s he sent to the embattled Byrd a copy of this setting for double choir of some verses of Psalm 137, Super flumina Babylonis, “as a show of solidarity”, as Stewart wrote: Jewish exiles in Babylon = Catholics in England.

To one whose mid-16th century polyphonic sensibilities are not highly cultivated, it sounded not too dissimilar from Palestrina, Lassus, Vittoria or Byrd for that matter. It was slow moving and beautifully articulated.

Byrd’s Quomodo cantabimus
A year later, Byrd replied to De Monte, sending a copy of his setting of different verses of the same Psalm, Quomodo cantabimus and the choir sang it after the interval. Here there was an unexpected feeling of delight somewhat at odds with the words, as Stewart’s graceful sweeping arm movements delineated scoring that was more complex, dense, interesting (I thought) than De Monte’s. After all, Byrd was a survivor in a hostile climate.

Antoine Brumel was the earliest of the composers featured in the concert (born c. 1460); another of the French-Flemish school. The notes reminded us that he was the composer of the Earthquake Mass performed by The Tudor Consort in 2012. Unlike that important work, for twelve parts, this motet, Lamentatio Heremiae Prophete, was for men’s voices in four parts, which created a very homogeneous, tranquil, constant feeling, a chance to pay attention to the excellence of tenors and basses. I had even jotted the word ‘stately’ in my notebook.

John Mundy’s Lamentations
The last Renaissance piece was John Mundy’s De Lamentatione: a setting of a Latin poem by Jean de Bruges (about whom I can find references to only an engraver and illuminator). After their absence for a few minutes, the high sopranos here particularly pleased me, though the choir’s unvarying evenness, refinement as well as endlessly delightful dynamic and articulation variety again maintained rapt attention through the seamless contrapuntal score.

Finally Douglas Mews’s Ghosts, Fire, Water which I heard sung by Nota Bene in September 2009, and in November 2011 a performance by Voices New Zealand was reviewed in Middle C by Peter Mechen.

This was sung by alto soloist Michelle Harrison in a sort of responsory pattern with the choir. It’s a powerful work set to a poem by James Kirkup, which is an impressively persuasive and vivid evocation of the human catastrophe; yet it almost burdens itself too much with unrelieved anguish and anger (on the other hand, can Hiroshima be considered otherwise than as an utterly unjustifiable atrocity?).

So I concluded that music is the better vehicle for the expression of horror at a crime that words simply lose their ability to handle. The performance was a model of expressiveness and profound emotion while at the same time, of restraint and unambiguity. In this context, the use of spoken words towards the end, instead of music, made the greater impact.

So this was a brilliantly conceived programme, employing examples of traditional Christian music for the major sacrament of the Christian year, book-ended by two of the worst horrors of the 20th century; in wonderfully prepared and executed performances.



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