Resilience 7: Eternal Rest (James Whitbourn)
It was Covid-19 that brought me to the music of the composer James Whitbourn. I was looking forward to hearing Annelies, his 75-minute work that features extracts from Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. I was to close the 2019-2010 season of the Ottawa Choral Society. And then all public performances came to an abrupt, non-negotiable Covidian close.
In preparation for that concert (now, optimistically, rescheduled in the choir’s 2020-2021 season), I started listening to Whitbourn’s other music and discovered a composer who writes startlingly powerful vocal music with huge chords, wonderful melodies, floating suspensions, and sudden dramatic dynamic shifts.
Although this final item of Resilience Reimagined features Whitbourn’s music, the piece I have selected is not the from Annelies. I’ve chosen instead a short earlier work that he wrote for the BBC’s coverage of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 2002.
As you listen to it, you might well think, “I’ve heard this before!” And you would be right. Whitbourn has “stitched” into this short piece a few bars and harmonics that echo Handel’s great anthem “Zadok the Priest.” This is certainly not plagiarism. Whitbourn explained in an interview that this was his intentional device to “lift” a moment into something ceremonial, and unapologetically accepting of grief.
The gift of this intense but finally gentle choral work is that it has. Musically speaking, given me permission to grieve. As I look back on the past few months of Covid-19, how private and unspoken this work of grieving has become. Funerals for five people, broadcast via Zoom. Final visits in care homes and hospitals not permitted. Priests under the age of 65 racing from institution to institution (because their age and powered-up cell-phones allowed them to do what their older colleagues were prevented from doing: donning personal protective equipment and getting past those well-guarded front doors) to give the Sacrament of the Sick to people they were meeting for the first time.
There will be a time when here in Canada we finally examine in our hearts the extent of the damage, the terrible shadow that has been cast over the way, as a community, we honour life that has entered new life. I think of all those who died in the company of exhausted medical professionals, but not their families or friends.
I think of all those relatives and friends. Locked out from this. We could read about those who died, page after page, in all those newspaper obituaries which were, in effect, ungiven eulogies. Words that could not be listened to directly by mourners, mourners who otherwise would surely have travelled across provinces just to be there, and be present, to listen, to support, to cry and laugh and remember. And, oh, if they only could: embrace. The one liturgical event that has always been there to help us say goodbye to a life, and to everyone else present, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
Here in this igNation context, I think especially of those frail and elderly members of the Jesuit community in the infirmary at Pickering who died, such a remarkable cohort of Jesuit experience and wisdom.
So pause now. Take a deep, deep breath as this ark enters what could turn out to be calmer waters. Consider the seven steps taken in this series: resilience as disobedience, as reconciliation, as a matter of faith, as subject to change, as surprised by joy, as inspired by simple but courageous acts, and finally, as a quality that acknowledges the experience of loss. Seven steps captured in the fourteen words of Whitbourn’s music.
Eternal rest grant unto us, O Lord.
May light perpetual shine on us. Amen
If you choose this link you must then scroll down the page to find “Eternal Rest” and click on the “play” icon.
Or you can take this link to the choir, Commotio’s website:
Eternal Rest is a track on the 2009 Naxos CD performed by the choir, Commotio, “James Whitbourn: Luminosity” Naxos: 8572103
French Cemetery: Kevin Burns
Empty Roy Tomson Hall “Courtesy www.roythomsonhall.com” or Empty Royal Albert Hall “Courtesy of www.royalalberthall.com”
IHS Christogram “Creative Commons”