There is no way in the English language (that I know of) to offer greetings at the start of Lent. Happy Ash Wednesday! doesn’t sound quite right. And yet we are entering a period of the year in which choral musicians – whether they are of a faith or not – have the opportunity to indulge in the rich repertoire of penitential music. If you have a chorister with a top C, now is the time to roll out Allegri’s iconic Miserere; and if you have the stamina, Tallis’s extended sets of Lamentations.
Facti sunt hostes eius in capite, inimici illius locupletati sunt: quia Dominus locutus est super eam propter multitudinem iniquitatum eius: parvuli eius ducti sunt captivi ante faciem tribulantis.
Her adversaries have become masters, her enemies prosper; for the Lord has sentenced her for the all her many transgressions: her children have been led captive before the face of the oppressor.
The words of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, written in response to the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people in the sixth century B.C., seem entirely present at the moment. While we all think of how we as choir directors and singers might appropriately express our feelings about recent events in Ukraine, we might consider how the right sentiments and the right materials are under our noses; in the music and texts which have been sung for generations. The works of Tallis and Allegri are themselves contributions to a tradition which reaches back beyond those composers. Tallis’s Lamentations reinvent the dramatic Catholic liturgy of Tenebrae for a Protestant Elizabethan culture which had abandoned such histrionics. And Allegri’s Miserere is famously a composite of many embellishments which accrued to the simple plainchant of the Sistine Chapel. It is no more by Allegri than Gregorian chant is by Pope Gregory.
One of the great privileges of working in Cambridge with student singers is the sense that, with each cohort of singers, one can again re-invent great music. At my own college of St Catharine’s, we are preparing for performance not just on the Tallis Lamentations but Bach’s great double-choir motet Komm, Jesu Komm. Not exactly a staple of the Anglican tradition, you might say; but the great thing about evensong is that, once the formal liturgy is over, you can really push the boat out. And this is how the tradition manages to be forever old and forever fresh; adaptable and relevant, through the repertoire we choose to sing, and the ever-changing personnel who come through the College to sing it.
Before Lent is over, the Cambridge Choral Academy will be holding its first weekend Retreat. The choice of the word ‘retreat’ is deliberate. We wish to provide an opportunity to participate in and contribute to this tradition; and at the same time to give space to reflect on what we do and why we do it. Let us hope that, over the next forty days, we can find in the music we all love, some sense of reassurance.
Edward Wickham, Artistic Director