Matthew White was born in 1973 and began singing as a treble with St. Matthew’s Men and Boys Choir in Ottawa, Canada. He graduated in English Literature at McGill University and currently studies with [...]
They spoke about it
German and English Lamentations and Elegies “The greater the passion for life, the more bitter the pain of being torn from it.” —Philippe Ariès, Images de l’homme devant la mort, 1983.
No historical period has more glorified human existence, its pleasures and its works than the Baroque. But, as shadow is essential to light, so too a sense of disquiet, of anxiety, and the all-pervasive awareness of the precarious, perhaps even futile nature of human activity are hallmarks of the entire 17th century. Marcel Brion writes that “the immense love of life that the era exalts leads in singular fashion to a melancholy that is one of the essential elements that make up the tenor of the times.” Among authors and moralists, and in the numerous still lifes known as “vanitas,” depictions of the inevitable outcome of all existence remind us of the brevity of life, and of the danger of encountering the hour of Judgement in a state of sin.
From the Middle Ages onward, writes Philippe Ariès, “memento mori beckon us first and foremost toward conversion motivated by the fear of being overtaken by death.” With the succor of faith, the soul aspires to eternal life; alongside death in all its terror emerges a death now tamed, viewed even as a long-awaited liberation from the vicissitudes of our earthly passage. But in an age when the fundamental concepts of instrumental reason and the notion of individuality begin to establish a foothold in Western consciousness, “they (memento mori) express the emotions of modern man confronted by the nothingness he has begun to discover.” In the world of music, new techniques—such as the rise of melody and the use of dissonance for expressive effect—which seek nothing less than to represent human passions, give magnificent voice to the pathetic, and to the anguish of the soul. Lamenti, which the Italians were first to compose, evoke the suffering and death of mythological heroes and heroines. Later, bending to the imperatives of the Counter-Reformation, musicians adapted the genre to relate the life of Christ and of the secondary biblical characters. But the ideal occasion for funereal music was most often provided by the demise of real individuals. First and foremost among these compositions were the monumental works performed at the mortuary ceremonies of princes and monarchs, but over time more intimist settings appeared, in the form of elegies and dirges which paid tribute to friendship and gave voice to sorrow at the loss of loved ones. So it was that William Byrd in 1585 paid homage to his master Thomas Tallis with the elegy Ye sacred Muses.
The Funerals, a pavane by Anthony Holborne published in London in 1599 in a collection entitled Pavans, Galliards… and short Airs both Grave and Light, was written for Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke, who in 1586 lost both parents and her brother, the poet Philip Sidney. Thomas Simpson composed his pavane, Sachevil’s dolorosi, on the death of the Count of Dorset Thomas Sackville, in 1608—and published it two years later in Frankfurt in his Opusculum neuwer Pavanen, Galliarden, Couranten, und Volten. Deep affection pervades John Blow’s moving Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell, a musical setting of a poem by John Dryden, himself an admirer of Purcell. The piece is a tribute to Purcell, Blow’s student and friend, who died in the prime of life, in 1695. For all its subject’s lofty rank, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s Lamento on the death in 1657 at age 48 of his first employer, the Emperor Ferdinand III, seems more an expression of friendship than the result of an official commission. The emperor was himself a musician; Schmelzer, in his opening adagio, quotes a musical motif borrowed from a madrigal on the brevity of life, composed by the sovereign himself, while the second movement echoes the death knell, a figure much in vogue throughout the Baroque.
Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s touching Balletti lamentabili, written ca 1670, like perhaps most of the In nomine—polyphonic compositions constructed upon a fragment of Gregorian chant—composed by the English masters of the 16th and 17th centuries, brings to mind death in a more abstract manner, unconnected with the demise of a particular individual. These works should perhaps be understood as the musical equivalents of those objects symbolizing the passing of time—spent candles, hour glasses, skulls, soap bubbles or withering flowers—found in the “vanitas” of the age. Purcell’s air, Draw near, you lovers, composed in or about 1683 on a poem by Thomas Stanley, expresses anguish at the thought of ending one’s days alone, forgotten and uncomforted, while the fear of dying in a state of sin finds illustration in numerous sacred texts set to music with the sense of the pathetic so characteristic of the Baroque aesthetic.
Ach, daß ich Wassers genug hätte, a lamento by Johann Christoph Bach, gives voice to the torments and sufferings of the soul with remarkable expressiveness. The cantata Ich habe genug, by his distant nephew Johann Sebastian Bach, responds with reassurance. For the soul at peace with its Creator, death appears as deliverance from the tumult and din of the world. Drawing on a concept reaching back to Greek antiquity and often employed during the Baroque for its allegorical richness, the second aria by Bach, employing the rhythm of a berceuse, conflates death with sleep. Whether it be fear, pain, reassurance or resignation, the Baroque laid great store in the emotions surrounding death, the loss of the near and dear, the passing of time, and the vanity of earthly distractions. Even today we feel the deep ambivalence that permeates its artistic output: we are tempted to conclude that even Christian solace cannot entirely dissipate the underlying sense of anguish associated with the ultimate end.
© François Filiatrault, 2002
Translation: © Fred A. Reed, 2002