Desolate – RPC Music Notes, Sun 15 March 2020

Desolate is one of many words our language gained from England’s Norman conquerors in 1066. In English we tend to associate it with places, whereas its French antecedent desolée expresses more of a personal feeling of loss or regret. We see both meanings in today’s two choral selections, and we see two strikingly different musical portrayals.

The longing words of Psalm 42’s first three verses are in the voice of one spiritually bereft, perhaps feeling abandoned by God after daily mocking by those questioning his faith – perhaps questioning it himself all the while. The poetic image used is that of a thirsty deer longing for water, and Noel Rawsthrone’s musical depiction of this longing shifts sadly between solo and duet passages in weeping, descending melodies, and terse choral chant-like textures that bring the whole into the first person plural voice.

William Byrd’s anthem setting of Isaiah 64:10, Civitas sancti tui is a frank acknowledgment that the holy city has been made into a desert, a desolation.  The greater meaning here than the ‘mere’ physical destruction of the city cannot be understated: for God’s people Jerusalem forms the seat of faith, of power and of hope, a fact not lost on its Babylonian conquerors, now leading defeated Israel into exile. In the music, a short section expresses that simple fact, and then we hear Jerusalem and its more poetic name Sion along with the Latin words deserta and desolata repeated over and over in a strikingly serene, almost psychological way. As if to drive home the simplicity of this admission, the voices of the choir sound here for the first time homophonically, that is, at the same time rather than in alternation.

Rev. Kendall reminds us today of the sanctity of water – in the ancient world, yes, but no less in our own time and place: Canada, with its unparalleled wealth of fresh water continues to fail its First Nations in the provision of this basic life-critical commodity, and also faces the uncertainty of water sovereignty as its increasingly parched neighbour to the south increases pressure to have access within a deteriorating climate. Water gives life, gives sanctification through baptism, gives health, cleanliness and stability to individuals and nations – its loss is synonymous with desolation.

In March 2020 the world teeters on the brink of uncertainties such as a global disease outbreak and global climate emergency: let us remember that water, though plentiful in the way we know it, in many other places is already rare as music in the desert. Let us pray and work to maintain and remediate the people and places made desolate by us and our world.