Saturday, February 10, 2007

Carly Simon and Thomas Tallis: O Jerusalem

I went to a shindig the other evening at the Waldorf in honor of a captain of industry, who thankfully had a great sense of humor about what is sometimes a deadly formal affair. Adam Sandler, one of the presenters, had a very funny bit about some letters to a certain male magazine that had just surfaced . . . .

But the highlight of the evening for me was when Carly Simon performed at the behest of the captain of industry. She sang “Oh Susannah” from her new album, McCartney’s “Blackbird” and then “a hymn for Howard and for New York”

Let the river run
Let all the dreamers
Wake the nations.
Come, the New Jerusalem . . . .

That line sent shivers down my spine. She’s in the deep, smoky part of her range, which as an alto, I love to hear. But beyond that, there’s something stirring about hearing the words “the New Jerusalem” sung. Jerusalem is not just any word.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum.

The week before I had heard the majesty of the word pronounced in Latin (with that lovely soft “yeah” for the “J”) at a concert of the superb Vox Vocal Ensemble, an early music a capella group under the direction of George Steel of the Miller Theatre at Columbia University. I went with John Steed’s little-known brother, Osbert, who is a musicologist. Going with Osbert is like having a living audio guide at your side—-his knowledge of composers, modes, theories, trivia, is staggering.

The Vox concert offered the Lamentations of Jeremiah from the English composers Parsley, White, Byrd, and Mr. Tallis. The text they all set comes from the Latin translation of the book of Lamentations (which follows the book of Jeremiah) for liturgical use during the Holy Week service of Tenebrae. It was written by the prophet, or one of his followers, after the destruction of the Temple as a people mourned their defeat at the hands of their enemies. In Judaism it is read on Tisha B’Av, the fast day that commemorates the catastrophic event.

Different Renassiance composers set various parts of the whole text, which has a fascinating structure: each of the 5 chapters has 22 verses, corresponding to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, except chapter 3 which has the multiple of 66 verses. This wiki page details all the verses-—it’s the clearest delineation I’ve ever seen.

A greatly beloved setting is by Thomas Tallis. He set the first five verses of chapter one.


It’s all exquisitely mournful, but for me, Beth is the most beautiful.

PLORANS PLORAVIT IN NOCTE—-“by night she weeps in sorrow.” I could live in that Latin. I love the sound of plorans—-it’s so much more expressive than crying.

ET LACRIMAE EIUS IN MAXILLIS EIUS—“and tears run down her cheeks.” Lacrimae are so much deeper than tears.

And after that personal/national sadness is sung, comes the haunting supplication:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum.
Your nation is in ruins, you need to return to the Lord your God.

No one other place is as important to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity as Jerusalem. Does the word simply hold the weight of all that import, and is that what sends the chills when the Vox Ensemble sings the sublime line of Tallis, or Carly Simon sings it in exuberance? Whichever, for me it is a very special aural moment in an overly visual world.

I entreat you to discover the sublime beauty of Renaissance polyphony, if you are not already a devotee, and the glories of the Tallis Scholars. For you tristate people, go hear this art in person at the Vox’s next concert.

As for Carly, her New Jerusalem is the soundtrack to this fan video for The West Wing. What a perfect salute to the Latin-speaking President Bartlet. Boy, I miss that show.


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