|About this Recording
8.573078 - Choral Music - The Lost City: Lamentations Through the Ages (Sospiri, C. Watson)
THE LOST CITY
In the summer of 2011 Sospiri travelled down to Roujan, in the south of France, to record a series of choral settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. We had discussed the project at length, and decided on a mixture of ancient and modern settings that would give a sense of the many different approaches to the text by composers over the centuries.
The Book of Lamentations is a poetic text of the Hebrew Bible traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah. It mourns the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple in the sixth century BC; but it is also part of a literary history that goes back several thousand years; a history of ‘city laments’ which, in an outpouring of sorrow, details the destruction of human settlements by natural disasters or man-made events. The story of Jeremiah, seeking solitude to grieve the terrible loss of Jerusalem, is described in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco and Rembrandt’s Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem.
As with so many biblical texts, the Book of Lamentations has a resonance that stretches far beyond the time of its writing. Today, the number of displaced people is on the increase, whether through war, famine or drought; and the yearning for a city—real or imagined—is as potent as it has ever been.
In the liturgy the texts are spoken or sung during Holy Week, in the days preceding Easter Sunday. The powerful images of darkness, desolation and confusion become a prophetic metaphor, linking Christ’s betrayal, arrest and crucifixion with the destruction of the Holy City hundreds of years previously. From the sixteenth century, composers have chosen verses from Lamentations and set them polyphonically, as with Victoria’s Tenebrae Responses and Tallis’s Lamentations. Sometimes they serve a strictly liturgical function as antiphons and responses, other times, as with John Mundy’s set on this disc, they have a more political agenda, drawing parallels between the destruction of Jerusalem and the schisms in the Catholic church brought about by the Reformation. When a composer sets several verses together, the following elements are frequently added:
An opening announcement: Incipit Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae (The Lamentation of Jeremiah the Prophet begins)
A Hebrew letter at the head of each verse
Our recording opens with Cecilia McDowall’s The Lord is Good. I met Cecilia at the ACDA conference in Chicago in the spring of 2011. I was enthusing about Sospiri, and telling Cecilia of our plans to make a recording of Lamentations. I tentatively suggested that she might like to consider writing something for the disc, expecting to hear how busy she was…but, instead, she said, ‘I’d love to!’ A couple of months later a score appeared in my intray, via her publisher, OUP. We were absolutely delighted with the work the moment we began rehearsing it.
The verses have been chosen to capture the essence of penitence, supplication and longing which are so characteristic of the biblical text; and this is modulated by a strand of hope, so that there is a beautiful, shifting balance between desolation and expectation. The music moves from slow-moving homophonic passages to restless polyphony and back again, as simple, concordant harmonies contrast with piquant, arid clashes. Over this, two solo soprano voices weave a mellifluous line, with distinctive, middle-eastern overtones, illuminating the struggle of an exiled people.
The Lord is Good was shortlisted for a BASCA award in 2012.
One of the most frequently set of the Lamentations verses is 1:16. It is one of the most heart-rending and piteous verses of all, and appears in various forms on the disc.
The second track is a rich, emotive setting by the brilliant cellist, Pablo Casals, which creates a dialogue between different voice pairings and full choir, and ends, as it begins, with a hushed iteration of the opening line.
The eighth track, a setting by the Argentinian composer Pablo Ortiz, shimmers like a mirage. Chords gently overlap and morph one into the other, before racing to a brief climax and dropping back down to a hazy whisper.
In the fourth track, on the other hand, Britten uses a mid-fourteenth century English variant—typically spiky and dramatic in style, with perfectly judged dissonances and swiftly changing dynamics. The piece is the seventh in his collection Sacred and Profane.
In the tenth track Ralph Vaughan Williams sets verses 12–14. Most of the work is for upper voices only, with homophonic, modal cascades contrasting with a solo alto voice. There follows a magical climax: the hushed voices of tenors and basses are heard for the first time—in A major—singing the word Jerusalem. In contrast, the upper voices answer in the distant key of F minor, before the full choir builds to a glorious reiteration of Jerusalem, moving through a sequence of keys to rest once more in A major.
In the wonderful double-choir setting by Dominique Phinot, (Track 3), he sets the first eight verses of Book V of the Lamentations. In the Incipit, and the first two verses, the two choirs trade phrases in a predominantly homophonic style, coming together in rich, sonorous tuttis at section ends. Then, in verses 3 and 4, the upper voices weave a beautiful contrapuntal texture, which is taken up by the lower voices in verses 5 and 6. The final two verses return to a largely homophonic style. In verse 7, both choirs come together in a luxuriant tutti, and verse 8 returns to a more antiphonal style. Similarly, the final invocation, Jerusalem, Jerusalem…, begins antiphonally, but the two choirs rapidly begin to overlap, joining together for the climactic closing phrases.
For my setting, I picked three verses from the first book of Lamentations, and decided to follow convention: to begin with the Incipit; to preface each verse with Hebrew letters (Aleph, Beth, Gimel); and to conclude with the line from Hosea (14:1). I also decided to use the English translation from the King James Bible because we were in the midst of celebrating the 400th anniversary of its publication.
I was delighted when I found out that the trumpet player, Robert Vanryne, would be accompanying the choir to France. I imagined that the trumpet could provide a new voice that would shift the sound of the choir—and my thinking—into a different realm. I love the work of the trumpet player, Jon Hassell, who has championed an unconventional style of playing built around a mesmerising, soft, breathy timbre, largely in the lower register of the instrument. I did not realise how difficult it can be to control the trumpet in this register, but Robert delivered a wonderful performance, making the part his own.
I imagined the Hebrew letters like those in medieval manuscripts, where the first letter is ornately elaborated and decorated. They are static, architectural and contemplative.
Our recording concludes with the motet Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst by Rudolf Mauersberger. He served for over forty years as music director of Dresden’s historic Kreuzkirche and as leader of the church’s renowned boys’ choir, the Dresdner Kreuzchor. This motet was written at the end of World War II in response to the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden, which claimed the lives of over 25,000 people (including eleven young choristers from the Kreuzchor) and destroyed one of Germany’s greatest cities.
Mauersberger weaves together several nonsequential verses from Lamentations to produce a unique and highly charged lament for his devastated city.
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