What is old is new again…
Back in March, we sang these words, written by English poet Rachel Bates. We know the hymn from STLT as When Windows That Are Black and Cold – a misleading title, which I note in the post about it. We sang it to Danby, a lovely Ralph Vaughan Williams tune that at the time – and still does – seem to me too cheery, too lush. Especially when you consider that Bates very likely wrote this during the Blitz, when blackout conditions in England were so strict a candle flicker would elicit a citation.
Now at the time, I leaned into the stillness of this lyric, not thinking at all about when it might have been written and what it might have been in reaction to. I waxed more poetically about the lyric being “reminiscent of those too-infrequent moments of real quiet without the ambient noise of 21st century motors and currents” and rather missed the point in the third verse, “when the sky is swept of wars.”
Fortunately for us, Jason Shelton didn’t.
When Jason read these words, just after September 11, 2001, he saw them afresh and felt their meaning keenly. Because while we didn’t black out our windows, we did feel terror in those days. We did struggle the day passenger jets started flying again. We did wonder if there were more to come. And we were willing to give up a fair bit of freedom for security.
Jason wrote a choral anthem with these words but with a new tune, one that sits in that slightly unfinished, pensive version of the 5, a 3/2 + 2/2… this kind of five count isn’t jazzy, it is mournful.
As it should be. Jason named the tune Mauro, after a family friend, Dorothy Mauro, who died in the World Trade Center that terrible day. Knowing about Dorothy, knowing the original meaning from Bates, knowing that Jason’s keen artistic sense connected them to create this gorgeous, haunting piece… makes me love this even more.
When windows that are black and cold are lit anew with fires of gold;
when dusk in quiet shall descend and darkness come once more a friend;
When wings pursue their proper flight and bring not terror but delight;
when clouds are innocent again and hide no storms of deadly rain;
And when the sky is swept of wars and keeps but gentle moon and stars,
that peaceful sky, harmless air, how sweet, how sweet, the darkness there.
The tune is fairly easy, as long as folks aren’t expecting a fairly predictable shape note song (because as much as I love them, lets face it: they have a form and are fairly predicable). When talking about war, and terror, and remembering, and peace, I don’t think you can get a much better hymn than this one.
(Also, thanks, Jason, for naming it correctly!)