THE Lamentations of Jeremiah, a traditional feature of Holy Week, offer extended immersion in the trauma of betrayal, sham trial, desertion, and death which shapes the Body of Christ, the Church. Their recitation of civic lament, their A-Z of our corporate failings, express both our complicity in the injustices of the Cross and God’s unwavering love.
Nico Muhly’s new setting of the Lamentations, No Resting Place, commissioned and given its première by the Tallis Scholars in the Cadogan Hall, London, on 29 September, identifies a more contemporary injustice: the Windrush scandal. Latin and Hebrew are interpolated with English-language memoirs of the Windrush generation. Words of David Lammy MP, Bishop Rosemarie Mallett, and others bring Jeremiah into contemporary focus.
The disgraced and widowed Jerusalem sits with Caribbean exiles: Aleph, Quomodo sedet (“How lonely sits the city”): “I feel as if everyone is looking at me and saying ‘What are you doing here?” Beth, Plorans (“She weeps bitterly in the night, tears on her cheeks”): “[My Dad] must have been so depressed. Just those diaries saying the word ‘Grey’.” Ghimel, Migravit Judas (“Judah has gone into exile”): “To lose your job, driving licence and housing is systematically to lose your identity.” He, Facti sunt hostes (“Her foes have become the head”): “To remember our history is to lament, to wail.”
Set by a white, East Coast composer, with a nod to composers of Tudor England, and sung by an Oxbridge-elite, this premiere had the potential to reinforce the very imbalance and abuse of power endured by the Windrush generation. However, this juxtaposition of disparate texts is as masterful as it is potent. The Hebrew letters at the start of each verse, and their strange polyphonic abstraction, offer a bridge between these contrasting experiences of Exile, enabling the audience to identify more closely with both narratives.
Muhly writes: “Between each verse, the interviews are presented almost as recitative, but then one word or phrase is restated and taken up by a variation on the preceding Hebrew letter; for instance, the word ‘grey’ is set with the exact same descending scale as the letter beth.”
The 25-minute work, presented alongside more familiar settings of the Lamentations by Thomas Tallis (1505-85) and Robert Whyte (1538-74), was a tour de force by the ten-strong Tallis Scholars line-up, under their director, Peter Philips, who presented its soaring polyphonic passages, recitatives, heart-cramping dissonances, and radiant homophonic chords with their characteristic immediacy, intimacy, flawless intonation, and complete dedication to the text.
This work deepens the audience’s empathy for that recent and wronged generation. It increases our sense of their suffering, and reminds us that the experience of exile is central to the Judaeo-Christian story. It is also music of great potency, perhaps the apotheosis of this composer’s fascination with ancient liturgical forms and their ability to comment on the contemporary world. It deserves repeated performance and attention.
Canon James Mustard is the Precentor of Exeter Cathedral.