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Singing polyphonic music without accompaniment – music of the Renaissance – is as pure and delightful an experience as can be imagined. It is luxuriant to feel oneself in the center of an interwoven tapestry of voices, and when performed well individual vocal lines emerge only occasionally to highlight certain colors or feeling, much as a touch of red or gold will attract the eye to emphasize a detail in a painting.   There is a scuptural feel to this music as well – it has heft and shape and volume, sometimes ethereal and gossamer as a glass-spun butterfly, and sometimes with a muscularity to rival Michelangelo.

But when the human emotions evoked by the music coincide closely with those of the listener or the singer, its power can stop the heart. This has happened to me recently working on the exquisite “When David Heard” by Thomas Tomkins, an English composer of the Tudor and Stuart period. Using the text from 2 Samuel 18:33, Tomkins has written a beautiful and painful anthem in which King David laments the death of his son. It is a profound and moving set of lines, and justly famous both within and outside religious tradition:

“When David heard that Absalom was slain He went up into his chamber over the gate and wept, and thus he said: my son, my son, O Absalom my son, would God I had died for thee!”

This text is even more deeply affecting when one remembers that Absalom was not a good son. He was, in fact, a fratricide, killing his half brother to avenge his violated sister; and power hungry too, raising an army in rebellion against his aged father in an attempt to seize the throne. And yet, when David received the news of his son’s death, he responded not with triumph or gratitude or joy at the victory, but with deepest grief and heavy sorrow for the loss of his boy.

Wisdom about the parent-child relationship is present in these words, even when family bonds have become hopelessly complicated, laced with anger, spiked with power struggles and misunderstanding, tested, provoked, inflamed and exhausted. It is no wonder that these same lines have been recalled and set by so many artists, writers and musicians over millennia.

Understanding the nature of a relationship does not always translate into compassionate action, does it? My own aging and ill mother, so often petulant and frustrated and impatient, frequently brings out the very worst in me. It makes no difference when singing Tomkins piece, though, for I can rarely prevent tears from springing to my eyes. I know that when the time comes, the anger will be forgotten and I too will feel pure and unadulterated grief.

©Poets Sinews, 2015. Reuse with permission.