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Words and Music 6 Lamentations

Songwriter David Breslin, replying to my first Words and Music blog, raised the issue of Latin settings: “Whenever I set a poem in English to music, it seemed only fair to make the words as clear as possible. This ruled out or made tricky many kinds of musical device, and made the idea of writing my own ‘text’ simultaneously with the music too tempting to resist. And yet, I certainly have no objection to hearing complex polyphonic Latin settings!”

John Potter made a similar point in his reply: “As a singer of early music I often find myself singing in Latin, which is fortunately understood by almost nobody as the literal meaning of many of the texts would render them un-performable, so I can happily invent my own meanings using the language to articulate the notes and the listeners create theirs too.”

We know that setting Latin was not a choice for many composers of church music but a necessity. All the same many composers have chosen to set Latin, for a variety of reasons, no doubt, but high among them the very issue that David and John have articulated. It gets round the problem of intelligibility. In a way it also, nowadays – perhaps always – has the effect of ennobling the music, of raising it above the mundane. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus Rex are two very good illustrations of how Latin is viewed by some composers. Stravinsky got some of the Latin wrong, but didn’t care; badly wrong in one case – so that the chorus greets the arrival of Kreon in Oedipus with ‘Vale, Vale, Vale!’ which means ‘Farewell, farewell, farewell!’ But the use of Latin in the first place was noteworthy. It is neither the original language of the Psalms nor the natural language of the composer. Nor was it the original language of the libretto of Oedipus (a French adaptation of Greek, then translated again into Latin at the composers request). In the case of Oedipus the choice of a dead language for a theatrical work is, to say the least, eccentric. Of course both Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus Rex are masterpieces, and I wouldn’t change a thing in either of them! Oedipus is one of the most powerful operatic experiences in the repertoire, and the way the French (or English) synopses of the ensuing Latin scenes are delivered from ‘outside’ the action is brilliant. Nevertheless, what concerns me here is the reason for the compositional choice – remembering that it was Stravinsky’s choice and not the idea of a writer or dramaturg. Using Latin sets the composer free (especially one who is not in the least concerned about linguistic correctness or natural stress of words). The music can do what it likes, go where it wants, without the constraints of ensuring the clarity of words. Complex polyphony is fine. Endless repetition, melisma, and awkwardly fragmented words cause no problems.

When, as a student, I sang tenor in the university chamber choir, one of my favourite pieces was Lamentations by Thomas Tallis. The text is from the Old Testament Book of Lamentations, and is in Latin. Well, actually it is not all from the Book of Lamentations. And some of it is in Hebrew. At the time, all I knew was that it was Biblical, that the Lamentations were some kind of lament for the fall of Jerusalem (the word Jerusalem is repeated mournfully many times) and that I liked singing it. When, much later, I became interested in the Old Testament, I found myself researching the Book of Lamentations, and discovered that Tallis had only set a tiny part of it (the opening lines); that about a quarter of Tallis’s text is additional introductory material (Here begin the Lamentations of Jeremiah the prophet) which is not found in the Book of Lamentations itself; and that the long melismatic polyphonic settings of the words Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Heth, which had always puzzled me, are also not to be found in any English or Latin version of the Lamentations.

Of course, it is immediately obvious from a glance at the Book of Lamentations that it is too long to be set in its entirety, and that even an abridged version would require a full length oratorio (Tallis’s piece is about 20 minutes). In fact the ‘Book’ is in five chapters, each a separate lamentation in verses whose number is always a multiple of 22. The first, second and fourth chapters have 22 three line stanzas; the third chapter has 66 lines; the fifth has 22 lines. Why 22? Because the Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters. The rationale here is that each chapter is an ‘acrostic’ – in other words each verse (in Hebrew) begins with the successive letter of the alphabet. This is a device to aid memorisation – for these verses were sung or chanted from memory. Tallis merely nods in the direction of this acrostic structure by incorporating four Hebrew letters as structural markers in his setting (Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Heth).

What also struck me, was that while the Tallis is ‘cool’ (meaning the opposite of passionate), the Biblical text is highly emotional and, in places, harrowing. The despair is palpable in lines such as: Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine; they ravished the women in Zion and the maids in the city of Judah; thy children faint for hunger in every street. None of the poet’s horror is conveyed through the austere polyphony of the Tallis; nor is it in the modern settings by Krenek and Stravinsky which are also in Latin.

The opening lines, in English, read:

How does the city sit solitary, that is 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?

The repetition of the word ‘how’ is not a coincidence. The Hebrew name for Lamentations is ‘Ekhah’, which means ‘How’. The poet describes sorrow and pain, but also incredulity – How has God allowed this to happen?

In my piece The Wormwood and the Gall for Mezzo soprano and small ensemble (1982), I aimed to bring out the full horror of the verses in English. I selected lines from the opening, and then from later chapters, to create a scenario which begins with pitiful, introverted lamenting and slowly builds to full throated wailing. I used the word ‘how’ as a refrain, with whole sections simply repeating the word with a combination of misery and anger.

The final words of the piece are taken from the third chapter and offer hope of deliverance:

Remember mine affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall; Surely my soul has them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me; this I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.

For this closing section I borrowed a passage (Remember/clap/finger clicks) from my favourite song of the 1960s: Remember (Walking in the Sand) by the Shangri Las. Was I suggesting that the pain in the voice of 17 year old Mary Weiss captured the pain of Jeremiah the prophet? I don’t think so – she only lost her boyfriend. All the same, the contemporary reference perhaps reinforced my aim of making the text meaningful for a modern audience, rather than presenting it in a cool shroud of Latin.

Listen to The Wormwood and the Gall here

And to the Shangri Las here


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