About this Recording
8.573078 - Choral Music - The Lost City: Lamentations Through the Ages (Sospiri, C. Watson)

Lamentations Through the Ages


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
The concluding refrain: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum (Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God) taken from Hosea 14:1.

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.

The Lord is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him.
It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for a man that he bear the yoke of his youth.
For the Lord will not cast off for ever:
But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies.
For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum

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.

O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte:
Si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus.
Attendite, universi populi, et videte dolorem meum.
Si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus.

(Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?
Behold, and see:
If there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.
Behold, all ye people, and witness my sorrow.
If there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.)

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.

Ye that pasen by the weiye,
Abidet a little stounde.
Beholdet, all my felawes,
Yef any me lik is founde.
To the tre with nailes thre
Wol fast I hange bounde;
With a spere all thoru my side
To mine herte is mad a wounde.

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.

LAMED. O vos omnes qui transitis per viam attendite et videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus quoniam vindemiavit me ut locutus est Dominus in die irae furoris sui
MEM. De excelso misit ignem in ossibus meis et erudivit me expandit rete pedibus meis convertit me retrorsum posuit me desolatam tota die maerore confectam
NUN. Vigilavit iugum iniquitatum mearum in manu eius convolutae sunt et inpositae collo meo infirmata est virtus mea dedit me Dominus in manu de qua non potero surgere Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum

(Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.
From above hath he sent fire into my bones, and it prevaileth against them: he hath spread a net for my feet, he hath turned me back: he hath made me desolate and faint all the day.
The yoke of my transgressions is bound by his hand: they are wreathed, and come up upon my neck: he hath made my strength to fall, the Lord hath delivered me into their hands, from whom I am not able to rise up.
Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God.)

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.

Recordare Domine, quid acciderit nobis; intuere et respice opprobrium nostrum.
Hæreditas nostra versa est ad alienos, domus nostræ ad extraneos.
Pupilli facti sumus absque patre, matres nostræ quasi viduæ
Aquam nostram pecunia bibimus; ligna nostra pretio comparavimus.
Cervicibus nostris minabamur, lassis non dabatur requies.
Ægypto dedimus manum et Assyriis, ut saturaremur pane.
Patres nostri peccaverunt, et non sunt: et nos iniquitates eorum portavimus.
Servi dominati sunt nostri: non fuit qui redimeret de manu eorum.

(Remember, O Lord, what is come upon us: consider, and behold our reproach.
Our inheritance is turned to strangers, our houses to aliens.
We are orphans and fatherless, our mothers are as widows.
We have drunken our water for money; our wood is sold unto us.
Our necks are under persecution: we labour, and have no rest.
We have given the hand to the Egyptians, and to the Assyrians, to be satisfied with bread.
Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and we have borne their iniquities.
Servants have ruled over us: there is none that doth deliver us out of their hand.)

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.

Hear this: The Lamentation of Jeremiah the Prophet begins
Aleph. How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow! She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!
Beth. Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.
Gimel. For these things I weep; mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water, because the comforter that should relieve my soul is far from me: my children are desolate, because the enemy prevailed.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum

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.

Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst, die voll Volks war.
Alle ihre Tore stehen öde.
Wie liegen die Steine des Heiligtums vorn auf allen Gassen zerstreut.
Er hat ein Feuer aus der Höhe in meine Gebeine gesandt und es lassen walten.

Ist das die Stadt, von der man sagt, sie sei die allerschönste, der sich das ganze Land freuet?

Sie hätte nicht gedacht, daß es ihr zuletzt so gehen würde; sie ist ja zu greulich heruntergestoßen und hat dazu niemand, der sie tröstet.

Darum ist unser Herz betrübt und unsere Augen sind finster geworden:
Warum willst du unser so gar vergessen und uns lebenslang so gar verlassen!

Bringe uns, Herr, wieder zu dir, daß wir wieder heimkommen!
Erneue unsere Tage wie vor alters.
Herr, siehe an mein Elend!

(How lonely sits the city that was full of people!
All her gates are desolate.
How the stones of her sanctuary lie
Scattered at the head of every street.
He sent fire from on high; into my bones he made it descend.

Is this the city which was called the most beautiful, that in which the whole land rejoices?

She had not thought that this would be her final end; therefore her fall is terrible, and she has no one to comfort her.

This is why our heart has become sick,
These things have caused our eyes to grow dim.
Why do you forget us for ever, why do you so long forsake us?

Bring us, O Lord, back to you, that we come home again!
Renew our days as of old.
O Lord, behold my affliction!)

John Duggan
Many thanks to Joseph Koczera, SJ for his help with the Mauersberger notes and translation

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