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My last song of the day featured the famous Norwegian soprano singing Shenandoah, and here she is again. I’ve never heard anyone do this better, though its most famous rendition is by Sarah Brightman.

It might come as a surprise to learn that this breathtaking chorale was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, part of requiem mass he composed in 1985 as a memorial for the death of his father, and partly, so it’s reported, as an emotional response to a story he read in the New York Times that was so tragically, shockingly horrible that I’m not even going to tell you what it was. The resulting piece was generally received as something completely unusual and unexpected, coming from the composer of the musical stage extravaganzas that all of us had grown either to love, or viscerally hate. I agree; it sure doesn’t sound much like anything from Evita or Cats to me, though I guess you can hear similarities to some of the big numbers from his prior repertoire, maybe I Don’t Know How to Love Him, or Music of the Night. Maybe. But no. Not really. Those and other crowd-pleasing show-stoppers were essentially pop tunes, arguably even pretty good pop tunes, but Pie Jesu strikes me as something wholly different, reaching a much higher and more genuine level of emotion, while barely resembling anything most of us would dare think of singing in the shower. It’s just not like his other stuff.

To my ears it has real gravitas, and I find it deeply moving, which perhaps betrays a middlebrow sort of sensibility, given the snotty and dismissive reaction the whole requiem received from the musical cognoscenti at the time. Some of the contemporary commentary was borderline vicious. The review from the classical music aficionados at Gramophone magazine opined that “alas the tunes here are all short-breathed, often starting out promisingly but petering out after a bar or so, and scarcely any of them are memorable”, before concluding that even the best of it was “broken-backed, vulgar and commonplace”. What do I know? I’m just one of those untutored slobs who knows what he likes, as perhaps has been all too obvious throughout this Songs of the Day series, but so be it, Pie Jesu makes me cry. Play it when I’m in a certain frame of mind and it flat out makes me weep.

The Latin words, borrowed by Webber from the hymn of the same name, as well as another named Agnus Dei, translate to the simplest and most moving of sentiments, compelling even to this stone-hearted atheist:

Merciful Jesus, merciful Jesus,
Father, who takes away the sins of the world
Grant them rest, grant them rest eternal

Most aspects of professed Christianity, as thrust nowadays into the political realm by modern evangelicals, leave me both angry and disgusted. At its purest though, as exemplified often in the hymns and psalms I was taught as a child, the pristine Christian vision of a merciful deity and an everlasting peace to come makes me wish it was all true, and that I could believe it. It would be so soothing to believe it.

For most of the time I’ve known Webber’s version of Pie Jesu, I had no idea what had inspired it, or of the meaning of its Latin lyrics, but it doesn’t take a whole heap of emotional intelligence to grasp that it’s meant to be an expression of profound mourning. In my imagination, when I first listened, it seemed to contemplate some sort of enormous tragedy, something sinful and horribly inhumane, perhaps even a crime against humanity, and I saw this image in my mind’s eye:

This haunting photo was taken after the devastating fire-bombing of Dresden near the end of the Second World War, an act so merciless (some would say depraved) that it shook Churchill to his core, and would certainly be called a war crime today. I first encountered it in a book about military aviation, after which it became mentally indelible, and it came instantly to mind as I absorbed the music, bringing along with it the context of all the details I’d studied over many years of reading about the bombing offensive during WW II, all the horrors we inflicted, and all the terrible things the German people had done to bring those horrors upon themselves, guilty and innocent alike. Sometimes, all of that still floods over me when I listen. Funny how the mind works…

It turned out that the piece wasn’t inspired by anything of quite that scale, though if the stories are true, in essence I wasn’t far off. Trust me. You don’t want to know.

I recall reading somewhere that just after VE day, ground crews (and if memory serves, some politicians) were taken on aerial tours of the devastated German cityscapes, in order to show them what all of their strenuous efforts had accomplished. I suppose it was meant not just to sate their curiosity, but as some sort of affirmation of a job well done. To me, perhaps owing to the benefit of hindsight, and reasoning from the standpoint of a much different time and place, it seems more like something meant to impel them all towards sorrow and atonement. The truth is, I really don’t know what they should have felt. Sitting here now, comfortable in the world that was secured by such necessarily savage violence, and conscious of the superhuman courage and sacrifice of the men who prosecuted the air campaign against Germany, I honestly have no idea what was right, or what a moral person should feel now about all of it. Maybe they didn’t either, and I wonder – were the men taken on those gruesome sightseeing sorties at peace with all they’d contributed towards the vital effort to bring Nazi Germany to its knees? Or did some of them, despite knowing in their bones that almost anything is justified when engaged in a crusade against unspeakable tyranny, still ask themselves that most horrible of questions: Christ, what have we done?

The films taken on those post-war overflights, showing the little that remained of all those virtually eradicated cities, play in my head, and I sense in the music not merely sadness, but deep regret.

2 comments on “Song of the Day: Sissel Kyrkjebø – Pie Jesu

  1. Your article reminds me of this one, recently in The Week and NY Time mag: The Man who wouldn’t look away. What’s interesting (and predictable) are the many long-term effects and opinions about what he felt and truly meant with his own grief and shame.


    1. graemecoffin says:

      In all these years of study, I’ve not heard of this man’s story until now. Thanks for sending it my way.


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