The setting in Hebrew of Psalm 23 titled “Adonai Ro-i” by composer Gerald Cohen is perhaps the most popular piece in Jewish America at a Yizkor service, a remembrance service during the Jewish High Holy Days. The setting in Hebrew of Psalm 23 titled “Adonai Ro-i” by composer Gerald Cohen is perhaps the most popular piece in Jewish America at a Yizkor service, a remembrance service during the Jewish High Holy Days. The song evokes Jewish folk melodies in a lilting meter that is appeasing and at the same time nostalgic. In contrast to this piece I chose to do a rendition of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, the spiritual. Further recommended reading about this spiritual can be found here: https://www.shmoop.com/swing-low-sweet-chariot/meaning.html. In this piece the Protestant metaphor of going to Heaven is equated to finding freedom from slave labor. In this religious faith “to go to heaven” means to pass away after leading a life of good deeds and believing in the savior Jesus Christ. Therefore by “passing away” the speaker of the song finds freedom. As in Psalm 23, this popular spiritual has a message that transcends death. Swing Low’s ideal of freedom is like Psalm 23’s ideal of faith. Both ideals soothe our soul and our suffering with the promise of something that is bigger than ourselves and that we can be a part of.
The Hymn Breaths with adapted poetry by Senegalese poet Birago Diop reminds me of the Mexican tradition of “Dia de los Muertos” or “Day of the Dead”. The idea is that our ancestors are all around us, that they have not completely disappeared after death. In many cultural traditions this idea of “Presence” by the departed is a celebratory one, because after all, they are not gone at all. It contrasts with the idea of reincarnation in that our ancestors are part of us and around us, part of the world itself. One of my favorite hymns, “Have I Not Known”, party engages us with this idea of “Presences”. The original poetry is by William Blake, and the hymn tune is known as “Jerusalem”, perhaps England’s own unofficial National Anthem. The song was featured in the opening ceremonies at the last Olympics in England, and in film and television. However, the words of Don Marquis, the ones we use in our hymnal, to a tune that already has a rich history, take the mystery of life and death to a new height. This is a song that I would like sung at my funeral or memorial service. Here is the poetry of Don Marquis, again… “Have I not known the sky and sea put on a look as hushed and stilled as if some ancient prophecy drew close upon to be fulfilled? Like mist the houses shrink and swell, like blood the highways throb and beat, the sapless stones beneath my feet turn foliate with miracle. And life and death but one thing are and I have seen this wingless world cursed with impermanence and whirled like dust across the summer swirled, and I have dealt with Presences behind the veils of Time and Place, and I have seen this world a star bright, shining, wonderful in space.”
About the author
Angel de Armendi, Music Director
Angel (he/she/they/any) received his Bachelor of Music degree from New World School of the Arts and continued his study of piano performance at Florida International University. He made his way to Tallahassee through the Music Theory graduate program at FSU. While in school he diversified his piano skills accompanying FSU and Tallahassee City Ballet dance classes. His interest in vocal coaching took him to the Asolo Song Festival in Italy during two summers, as Assistant Director/Pianist and Composer In Residence. In Tallahassee, he also directs the High Holy Days Choir at Temple Israel, and has been their regular pianist since 2008. His love for sacred music and practice has motivated him to go through and graduate in 2015 from the Music Leadership Credentialing Program, offered by the Unitarian Universalist Musicians’ Network. During their 2015 conference in Boston he was unanimously elected as Board Member at Large for the Board of Trustees, a three-year voluntary commitment. He is deeply committed to building a thriving music program at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tallahassee.