Si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus."
"O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see:
If there be any sorrow like my sorrow."
The great cry of hurt written by the prophet Jeremiah mourning the destruction of the First and Second Temples, traditionally recited on Tisha B’Av, was co-opted by the first-rate Catholic composers of the 16th as motets for the Tenebrae Service of Good Friday or Holy Saturday, turning the POV to Mary and those at the foot of the cross.
You know what they say, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Pain for a devastating loss is the same, no matter who you are. The composers may have lifted the text, but they did make it completely their own with the most sublime composing saved for this holy day.
I am singing the setting by Gesualdo today. He was a prince of Venosa known for murdering his wife, her lover, possibly his son and father-in-law. He also wrote in a chromatic musical language 300 years before its time, it wouldn’t be heard again until the late 19th century. Completely astounding. Two telling comments from YouTube: “insanely stunning music by a stunningly insane man” and “really disturbing... that's Gesualdo. Perfection itself.”
Then there’s Bach. The composer who owns Good Friday by writing the St. Matthew Passion, which filtered down into the hymn O Sacred Head So Wounded, sung by all of Christendom for centuries. He also wrote Jesu Meine Freude, a 10-part funeral motet written in Leipzig between 1723 and 1727. I’m singing this today with the talented musicians at Immanuel Lutheran Church under the direction of the superlative Gwen Toth, along with her early music group ARTEK.
Here's a wonderful verse snippet from the motet:
"Though you rage, O World, and jump about,
I stand calmly here and sing
in fully secure peace.
God's power keep watch over me
so both earth and abyss must keep silent,
however they may murmur."
Wow. That really sums it up.
And there is no hymn more spine tingling than “Were You There,” the great spiritual from the POV of the Roman centurion who won the cloak of Christ at the crucifixion. Legend says he wandered in madness, asking all “were you there, when they nailed him to the tree?” (a version of the legend is in the 1953 movie The Robe).
Here is the great Paul Robeson bringing the fullness of that incredible bass voice to the haunting tune. I look forward to singing it with my colleagues at Ascension Roman Catholic Church.