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Morimur: dying and rising

Mark Argent
4 September 2019

In 2001 the Hilliard Ensemble with violinist Christoph Poppen, brought out the CD Morimur. It’s rich musical experience, but also something that I’ve found a very valuable resource for people on retreat at times when death and bereavement are very much around. Religious language often separates death and resurrection: the church is sombre and bare on Good Friday, but festooned with flowers on Easter Day. Often that is the right thing, but not always: Morimur holds the two together richly.

The chaconne that ends Bach’s D minor partita for solo violin has a number of Lutheran chorales (hymns) associated with death and resurrection in its texture, and it’s thought that Bach processed some of the grief around the death of his first wife in writing the violin partitas and cello suites.

For this project the four members of the Hilliard Ensemble sing the chorales between the movements of the partita and then they all come together and sing the chorale melodies with the chaconne. One of the singers commented that it should be a simple concert, simply singing a few hymn tunes, and yet he would get to the end of the concert drenched in sweat, having been through something very intense.

The music is haunting and beautiful. Making sense of it is more of a challenge: the German is archaic, and there’s a lot to be gained from googling the texts. In a curious way it is like being with someone in spiritual direction: their experience is authentic, but it is not yours, so it needs careful listening. Somehow there is a richness in glimpsing someone else’s experience — in this case that of Bach. Honouring the mystery of another person and their experience of God is part of the fascination of spiritual direction, but here it goes further. It’s as if, by not-quite understanding, there’s a chance to stand on the edge of a mystery that feels richer than it would if things were all sewn up.

Resurrection is at the heart of the Christian story, but it’s also a surprise. Working a little to get into the spiritual space is deeply nourishing. Sometimes “death and resurrection” can sound like a cliché, and something a little left of field can add a great deal to the experience, particularly when the conventional doesn’t feel authentic.