From the jaws of the lion
March this year came in like a lion, with snow and gale-force winds.
‘Oh well,’ we thought, ‘that means we can look forward to a balmy end of the month. “In like a lion, out like a lamb,” as the saying goes.’
Since then, the weather has been predictably unpredictable, although we have had rather more snow than is typical for March here: a fairly regular fall every week or so, though melting almost as fast as it arrives. Between hail, floods and high winds the occasional day of gentle sunshine and burgeoning buds has reassured us that Spring is on track – and then more snow sweeps in.
Yesterday evening, my husband brought the boys and my mother to listen to a concert I was singing in with our local choral society. It was a gloriously indulgent programme of Mozart, culminating in his great Requiem Mass.
I have always enjoyed the opportunity to sing a requiem set by a great composer. In origin a mass for the newly departed, the requiem’s weighty subject matter seems to inspire musicians to some of their most heartfelt and thrilling work. As a performance piece, the requiem is probably best known for the Dies Irae sequence, the words of which are from a thirteenth century poem about the terrors of the Last Judgement. They did not mince their words about damnation in the Middle Ages.
‘Dies irae, dies illa/ solvet saeclum in favilla...’ ‘The day of wrath, that day/ [when] the world will dissolve in ashes…’
In essence the poem says that, when the great Judge comes on that terrible day to judge the living and the dead, knowing all our faults, how shall a wretch like me avoid being cast into hell? It’s a tremendous piece of writing, both a vivid cry of terror and an urgent plea to the only possible intercessor, Rex tremendae maiestatis/Jesu pie, Jesus Christ both kingly and kind.
‘Ne me perdas illa die,’ begs the poet, ‘Do not forsake me on that day./ Faint and weary you have sought me,/ redeemed me through your suffering on the cross;/ may such labour not be in vain.’ It is a good piece to sing in Holy Week, as the Christian year approaches the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
As the poem continues, the author manages in the midst of his terror to move from pleading only for his own soul, to pleading for the souls of all the faithful departed.
‘Libera eas de ore leonis,/ ne absorbeat eas tartarus,/ ne cadant in obscurum’ ‘Deliver them from the jaws of the lion,/ lest hell swallow them up,/ lest they fall into darkness.’
Just writing about this poem makes me shiver. When you add to these words the music of Verdi (volcanic, terrifying) or Mozart (driven, terrified), the effect is literally (for me at least) hair-raising.
It is no longer used much in religious services, however. The Catholic Church removed the Dies Irae from funerary masses as part of the great reforms of the 1960s, feeling that its medieval emphasis on judgement and damnation was discouraging. Certainly, I imagine that most of us saying goodbye to loved ones in a Christian context would rather contemplate the infinite mercy of the resurrected Christ than the possibility of ‘poenis inferni/ et…profundo lacu‘, ‘the pains of hell and the bottomless pit’. Nevertheless, it remains a deservedly popular piece in the classical choral repertoire.
After the concert on Sunday night, I caught up with my family in the auditorium.
‘What did you think, boys?’ I asked them. ‘Which parts did you like best?’
They thought for a second or two.
‘I liked the loud bits,’ grinned the younger one. ‘Especially the bit about being eaten by a lion!’
As he dropped off to sleep at bedtime, he was still humming ‘de ore leonis‘ under his breath.
It was a late night for the boys. When we awoke this morning, the wind was howling around the castle; a flurry of snow hurtled past the window as I opened the shutters. This year, contrary to the old saying, March seems to have come in like a lion and to be going out like…well…a lion. But we remain confident of the redemption of Easter, and Spring.