Tuesday 12 April 2022

We had no idea that this Lenten music would become so poignant in today’s turbulent world - Tom Herring of SANSARA reflects on music for St John’s Smith Square’s Easter Festival

SANSARA (Photo Theo Williams)
SANSARA (Photo Theo Williams)

In the guest posting, Tom Herring of SANSARA reflects on how music programmed for St John’s Smith Square’s Easter Festival resonates in today’s turbulent world, tormented by disease and destruction

In 2020, SANSARA was fortunate to record Marco Galvani’s setting of the Lamentations during a brief window between lockdowns. At the time, lines such as ‘How desolate lies the city that was so full of people’ took on new meaning in the context of the pandemic, capturing the reality of people’s experiences all over the world.

Today, Jeremiah’s Lament for the lost city of Jerusalem resonates anew, especially as we enter Holy Week with a series of concerts at St John’s Smith Square’s Easter Festival. In addition to three late-night, candlelit services exploring Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responses, we have teamed up with Fretwork for a programme of ancient and modern works - Arvo Pärt and Robert White.

For centuries, composers have been inspired by the Passiontide story to write some of their most striking and heart-wrenching music. Fuelled by great emotional intensity and universal themes, the choral music of Holy Week invites engaged reflection on our own personal path as well as wider society’s trajectory. Watching the nightly news of suffering and destruction on the edge of Europe, this music speaks to us with a vivid immediacy, particularly in the context of Arvo Pärt’s life journey.

Arvo Pärt was born in 1935 in Estonia, then part of the USSR. He started composing in the late 50s, writing music for children, films, documentaries, puppets and animations.This culminated in Credo (1968), a controversial work in the Soviet Union, which resulted in a creative block for 8 years. In that time, Pärt rejected conventional compositional techniques and turned his attention to the music of earlier periods: Gregorian chant and renaissance polyphony.

In 1972, he joined the Russian Orthodox church and his profound religious belief has guided everything he has written since.  One of his most often-performed works has become Fratres, written without specific instrumentation in 1977.

In 1980, Pärt moved to Vienna, and then to West Berlin before returning to Estonia in 2010. In 2006-7, he dedicated all his performances to the murdered human rights activist and journalist Anna Politkovskaya. His 4th Symphony is dedicated to Mikhail Khodorkovsky and to ‘all those who are imprisoned without rights in Russia’. His music is the most performed of any contemporary composer.

Part’s Stabat Mater was originally composed in 1985 for three voices and three instruments - violin, viola and ‘cello. Richard Boothby has created an arrangement of the Stabat Mater for viols which was recently approved by the composer, who commented:

“Music must exist in and of itself…the mystery must be present, independent of any particular instrument…the highest value of music lies beyond its mere tone colour.”

It is fascinating performing Arvo Pärt’s music alongside the Lamentations of Robert White who was born in 1538. They represent one of the high points of English vocal music of the time. The Lamentations of Jeremiah have become associated with Lent, though they are not directly related to the Easter story.

As with the Galvani mentioned above, White’s text laments the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Each Chapter has 22 verses, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The siege of Jerusalem, between 589 and 587 BCE, was the decisive event in the Jewish-Babylonian war, in which the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II besieged Jerusalem. The city fell after an 18-month siege and the Babylonians pillaged and destroyed the city and burned the First Temple. After the fall of Jerusalem, the Judeans were exiled to Babylon and Judea was annexed as a Babylonian province.


At the time of programming these concerts with Fretwork, we had no idea that this Lenten music would become so poignant in today’s turbulent world.   

Further information from the St John's Smith Square website.

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