It may seem like a strange decision to release a programme entitled ‘Lamentations’ at a time when, on the whole, everyone’s feeling pretty glum already. I’ll admit, there are times I’ve wondered whether I ought instead to have led with the tagline, which explains that in fact, this is a programme on a dual theme, on the one hand of grief, but on the other of hope.
Hope as a state of being is often invoked in today’s rationalist, super-organised world as something for the naïve or those too lazy to make things happen for themselves. In a world where we access information and are used to controlling every waking second of our lives through gadgets, systems and bureaucracies, hope can seem unnecessary. Of course, the current situation has changed that. We can look at the numbers all we like, follow the restrictions, but nobody really knows whether we’ll be free by Christmas or sucked into another ghastly cycle of rising cases and closing doors. We need hope more than ever, and it’s not naïve at all to say so.
The ancient texts explored in Lamentations acknowledge the peculiar bond between crisis and hope. We felt that the music to which they are set offer both a cathartic moment of calm, and an uplifting confidence in a better future. Josquin’s setting of the Miserere, unlike its more famous counterpart by Allegri, is through-composed, responding to the emotional peaks and troughs of the text. The words Miserere Mei Deus return like a refrain, sometimes wailing in throes of sadness, other times offering a light of faith that the call will be answered. My favourite variation is when it appears at the end of the second part, where the natural minor of the Phrygian mode breaks briefly into a passage of major chords as the miserere is proclaimed after the words “you are the God of my health, and my tongue shall extol your righteousness”. In the 500-year anniversary of Josquin’s death, it was a delight to luxuriate in this intelligent and nuanced setting.
Robert White’s evocative 6-part Lamentations sit alongside as the other major polyphonic masterpiece of this programme. The two long works are bookended by short new works, both of which happen to be in response to the present situation. 17-year-old Tiara Oberoi’s Lacrimosa sparkles in the upper voices. Its shimmering yet warm dissonances invoke for me the scattering of light dispersed through stained glass. I fell head over heels with it when I heard the multi-tracked version Tiara made for the Commonwealth Composition competition with her friends of The Harmony Chorus, a youth choir in her hometown Bangalore. Even in that strange, isolated form, I knew we wanted to perform this piece and it’s the perfect opening to our programme. I was not at all surprised that Lacrimosa, the only choral work in the top ten, won the Young Adjudicator’s Prize amidst hundreds of other entries from across the globe.
With similar serendipity my personal friend, composer Dawn Walters sent over a piece she’d felt inspired to write for The Swan Consort the day I was due to finalise our programme. It is a setting of a verse from the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, entitled Pro Dolorosa it uses a plainsong-like lilting melody, played through in a 13/8 metre. Like Josquin’s epic counterpart it too features ‘miserere’ as a returning antiphon, at times ponderous, at others uplifting and full of life.
Whilst the texts that inspired the four composers derive from the Christian tradition (appropriately enough for Holy Week), the expression of grief and the propensity to hope are deeply human experiences that reverberate across time and human cultures. Three poems by very different writers punctuate the programme, and I was delighted to read a simple poem by the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, which expresses longing for an unseen other. Like so many of Tagore’s poems, the work is simultaneously about yearning for the presence of a deity, yearning for the touch of a lover, or for a beloved family member or friend. “I have not seen his face.. only I have heard his gentle footsteps from the road before my house…”, he says. As restrictions begin to gradually lift, I look forward to seeing the faces of my loved ones for real, at a safe distance in the outdoors this spring, the season of new life. Let’s acknowledge our grief, our need for calm, and nurture the precious spirit of hope.
Lamentations remains available to purchase for on demand viewing at www.onjam.tv/the-swan-consort/ until 21st April 2021
The programme will remain available to view for 30 days after purchase
Standard tickets start at £8
Under30s can access the series for £3 by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
25% of ticket sales will be donated to the mental health charity, Mind.