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From the jaws of the lion

March 30, 2015

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.

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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.

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You might enjoy Children and the twist in the tale, or Ashes and snow .

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2015 3:47 am

    Your photos are just gorgeous!

    • March 31, 2015 10:58 am

      Thank you. That is a compliment indeed, coming from you with your own beautiful photography on your blog!

  2. Caroline Waterlow permalink
    March 31, 2015 10:36 am

    Another great piece of writing from you – I went to a performance here in Bath recently of the Mozart Requiem, at a local catholic church. Inspired by your observations I think it is time for me to dig out the programme and relook at the words. In fact I think I have a score somewhere……..Lovely photos, too. crocuses are amazing – they look so fragile, yet are about the first spring flower to appear regardless of weather conditions.

  3. March 31, 2015 11:10 am

    Thank you. Mozart’s Requiem is always worth seeking out, isn’t it? The most spine-tingling, moving occasion on which I’ve sung it was on the bicentenary of Mozart’s death. We sang it in church as part of a proper liturgical requiem mass for his soul, at the hour of his death (so in the middle of the night). Unforgettable.

  4. March 31, 2015 12:36 pm

    After reading “Libera eas de ore leonis,/ ne absorbeat eas tartarus,/ ne cadant in obscurum,” I wondered what feminine plural thing (eas) was to be freed. It turned out to be animas, which is what English calls ‘souls’. For the Romans, anima was, in its most literal sense, ‘air, a current of air, a breeze, wind’. By extension it became ‘the vital principle, the breath of life’. By further extension the word came to designate any creature endowed with the breath of life, as we still see in our Latin-derived word animal.

    Ancient Greek had a related word, anemos ‘wind’, which is likely the source of the name of a flower, anemone, also called windflower, which by coincidence I showed in my blog on the same day as this animated post of yours:

    https://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com/2015/03/30/anemone-flower-by-dry-leaf/

    • April 1, 2015 10:49 pm

      Thanks for visiting, Steve. Your thoughts leading us from Latin grammar to Texan wildflowers are right up my street! I am always fascinated by the origins of names and the Classical roots of so many of our everyday words. (Perhaps I was a philologist in a past life?)

      And your windflower/ anemone, with its intense depth of violet blue – a colour my camera and I cannot capture – is just beautiful.

      • April 2, 2015 1:05 pm

        I’ve often thought that word origins should play a much greater role in education than they do now (when they play almost no role at all). In Classical mythology, for example, characters’ names are often descriptions of their attributes, as in Pandora, which means ‘all gifts’. In mathematics, a tangent is called a tangent because it’s ‘touching’ a curve, and a secant a secant because it’s ‘cutting’ across a curve. In chemistry, oxygen got its name from the fact that it ‘generates sharpness (i.e. burning)’. In poetry, the long-short-short meter is called a dactyl, i.e. finger, because of its resemblance to the long-short-short segments in a finger. In grammar, a noun is a ‘name’. In music, an arpeggio is actually a ‘harp-eggio’. I could go on at great length, but you get the idea.

        I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it, but at

        https://wordconnections.wordpress.com/

        I have an etymology blog that deals with the connections between words in Spanish and English. Even if you don’t know Spanish, the information about the English side would make sense to you.

  5. Toffeeapple permalink
    March 31, 2015 3:51 pm

    Crikey, that is fearsome wording isn’t it? I hadn’t realised that religion was so – uncomfortable.

    Lovely images though, thank you!

    • April 1, 2015 10:55 pm

      It certainly is fearsome wording, and there’s more where that came from. Christianity, despite being grounded in the belief in a loving God, can be very challenging: it is far from ‘meek and mild’ in its demands on the believer!

      On the other hand, there are spring flowers as well as ravenous lions in this beautiful world. Always something in which to find joy. 🙂

  6. March 31, 2015 8:41 pm

    So appreciate you taking time to write the words to the poem/piece. Religions used to often make people uncomfortable – or fearful to make the message forceful and urgent. Old fairy tales/folk tales were similar? Maybe they had a point and purpose.
    Enjoyed the post – and smiled at your boys.
    Hope your Easter week is meaningful and calm

    • April 1, 2015 11:00 pm

      That is a very interesting point about old tales being full of darkness. I don’t know the answer as to why it should have been so, but I will ponder it. I’ve been reading about the archetypes and messages behind folk tales and find it all fascinating.

      Glad you enjoyed this – and a happy Easter to you!

  7. April 1, 2015 8:17 am

    It has been very much winter in spring this year, hasn’t it?
    I can’t sing, but I often wonder what it is like to sing in a large choir and feel ‘inside’ the music. It must be very special – transcendental perhaps.
    I will email you a couple of choral links you might enjoy (perhaps not what you might imagine)

    • April 1, 2015 11:38 pm

      Thank you for the wonderful links! I enjoyed them both enormously.

      At its best, yes, it is something like a transcendental experience to sing in a large choir. Like any activity, it is quite different to be involved than to be a spectator: I have discovered, for example, that fishing in the middle of a fast-flowing river is quite different from watching from the bank. (I would say it is far more immersive, but one generally hopes that it isn’t…) When fishing, you are ‘in’ nature, a part of your environment, rather than just admiring it.

      Similarly, when singing in chorus one is ‘in’ the music, just as you intuit. Besides that connection to the music, there is also something rather extraordinary about singing as a group, in harmony: the experience is far more than the sum of its parts. Choral singing is meant to be good for one’s mental and physical health, which makes perfect sense to me. I feel very lucky to be able to do it, even if only at amateur level.

  8. April 1, 2015 9:13 am

    Yesterday as I walked through sleet and snow, I was thinking the same thing about March coming and AND going out like a lion this year. Your concert sounds amazing. I will be singing with a small Liturgical Choir, and the congregation, in a Sung Communion tomorrow night. I like singing to perform, but I particularly like singing as a form of worship (though the distinction can be blurry). Last year on Palm Sunday I went to a hard-hitting Presbyterian service in the Western Isles where the minister told us we shouldn’t become too attached to our family in friends, because we might well be parted from them after this earthly life. I felt very strongly against this viewpoint, and my reaction led me to read some very interesting books about Universal Salvation. I now have a name for my interpretation of Christianity: I am a universalist!
    Wishing you all a very happy Easter.

    • April 1, 2015 11:55 pm

      I too love singing as worship, though the music in our church leaves a good deal to be desired! Scots don’t really like to sing out except at football and rugby matches, it seems to me: in church we come over all reserved and self-conscious. My husband and I both like to belt out the good Wesleyan hymns, though, and are always happy when there is a family wedding or baptism, as all the cousins belt them out too and we make a thunderous family choir!

      The old hellfire-and-brimstone approach to life after death still holds sway in parts of the Kirk,doesn’t it, however much it has lost favour with other denominations. Funny how there can be a sort of delicious thrill in being terrified. There was a kirk I attended regularly as a girl where it was standing room only on Sundays, as people couldn’t get enough of the roaring, doom-laden rhetoric of that minister. There is something of the same feeling evoked by these sung Requiems, I think. Yet I do sympathise with your reaction to what you heard. The Eternal does not change with our changing times, but if God is love, then your interpretation sounds closer to the truth, I’d have thought…

      Anyway, I hope you enjoy singing in your Maundy Thursday service, and that you and your family have a blessed and joyful Easter.

  9. April 3, 2015 8:32 pm

    We’ve had rain, snow, hail and gales in this last week of March. Hoping you have a peaceful Easter and a calmer April.

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