How desolate lies the city, that was full of people…
When we met for the last time before the Coronavirus lockdown, it was already clear that we would not be able to give our traditional presentation of Music for Good Friday. Disappointingly, this meant postponing our keenly and widely anticipated second performance of Matthew Oglesby’s superb Requiem, Penthos. The mood was sombre, with a significant number of our members already choosing to stay at home. So for an hour we just sang music for fun.
However, the Good Friday programme was also due to include a fine motet which we had sung at the first performance of Penthos, and which had special resonances for Good Friday this year: Rudolf Mauersberger’s Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst (‘How desolate lies the city’).
75 years ago, in February 1945, the Allies attacked and destroyed Dresden in a ferocious firebomb raid, timed for the end of Shrove Tuesday, and the traditional Carnival. The children, temporarily relieved of the firewatch duty they now habitually undertook in the absence of the menfolk, were out and about. Mauersberger, then Kantor at the Kreuzkirche, lost eleven of his choristers that evening, as the church, school and archives, together with most of the city were incinerated and reduced to rubble.
Six weeks later, over the Easter weekend that followed, he composed the motet Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst, setting an astringent selection of verses from The Lamentation of Jeremiah so terse and disjointed that it at once conveys the mute speechlessness of trauma while allowing the music to delve deep into that darkness which speech cannot reach. It was first performed the following August, at the first service conducted in the ruins of the Kreuzkirche, but only achieved popularity in Germany in the 1960s, as the next generation of Germans reached adulthood.
With all this in mind, as our last act of singing together before entering this modern period of darkness, we went into Leeds Minster and despite our diminished numbers, sang this wonderful work to an empty church. This is a recording of that occasion, which we offer, ‘warts and all’, in place of the live performance. We hope that it resonates for you as it did for us, while also lending some perspective on our current troubles, whether you are listening this Good Friday or on another day, and we look forward to the day when we can sing it to you live.