Requiems for the digital age: a meditation on war and peace

Requiems for the digital age: a meditation on war and peace

As war rages across the Middle East, taking time to honour the victims can only bring us closer to our own humanity, writes Hadani Ditmars.
5 min read
25 Apr, 2018
Today's wars make it easy to assume we're in the worst of days [AFP]
As unarmed Palestinian protesters continue to be mown down by Israeli snipers, and the horrors of the war in Syria dominate headlines, it's easy to assume we live in the worst of days.

But a recent concert by Oxford's renowned early music ensemble the Tallis Scholars proved a polyphonous reminder that armed conflict is hardly a new human phenomenon.

In a programme named War and Peace, designed by conductor Peter Phillips to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War in 1918, it was the 15th century - the age of the "armed man" - that loomed large. 

But as gorgeous glorias and kyrie eleisons unfolded into the night, my thoughts turned to more contemporary horrors and their current day often unsung victims.

Historical parallels were resonant as the programme opened with the 15th century song L'homme armé

The Armed Man should be feared:
Everywhere it has been Decreed
That every man should arm himself
With an iron coat of mail

As the programme noted of life in 15th Century Europe, when L'homme armé first became popular, "war was an omnipresent threat".

"Many watched aghast as the old order seemed to crumble before their eyes. In 1453, the Ottoman Empire had sacked Constantinople, putting an end to the thousand-year old Byzantine empire. Later that same year, the Hundred Years War between England and France culminated in a bloody battle at Castillon. The song obviously resonated with a people preoccupied with war: the armed man was indeed to be feared."

Now, in our own age of fear, as the seeds sown in the First World War and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire continue to bear terrible fruit, there was a sense of full circle musical mourning in the moving performance.

As the programme notes explained, "During the Renaissance, musicians often survived by deftly navigating the courts of the noble and wealthy and securing their favour. In return, there was an expectation that this beneficence be recognised in the output of the artists in their employ. Funeral motets were one opportunity for composers to display their gratitude (and help ensure their continued favour with the next generation)." 

And while present day media - just as the 15th century nobility - tends to mourn celebrities and ignore the less televisually worthy, my own thoughts turned to the young people of Gaza and Syria. 

Who will give to our eyes a well of tears? And shall we weep day and night before the Lord?

The deep grief expressed in Alonso Lobo's beautiful motet Versa est in luctum was written for the funeral of the Spanish King Philip II in 1602: 

My harp is turned to grieving
and my music to the voice of those who weep 

It evoked my own mental images of young Palestinians being shot down in distant fields, and of Syrian children dying in darkened basements.

Who, I wondered, would commission their funeral motets?

As the Tallis Scholars sang excerpts from Guerrero's Missa Batalla - the Gloria that depicts the sounds of battle and the Credo that radiates hope in salvation through resurrection, I imagined a slowed-down video montage of young Gazans fleeing for their lives. Their names and the names of their grandfathers who still hold the keys to their homes in Jerusalem displayed on screen, as worthy of mourning as any celebrity or king.

During the mellifluous mourning - Who will give to our eyes a well of tears? And shall we weep day and night before the Lord? - of Jean Mouton's quis Dabit Oculis, written in the 15th century for his patron, Queen Anne of Brittany, I thought of young Gazan artist Mohammed Abu Amr, killed by a sniper's bullet on March 31 during the "Great March of Return".

A day earlier he had sculpted I Will Return out of sand on the beach.

Later in the programme, May Flights of Angels sing thee to rest  - the first line of Sir John Tavener's blend of Orthodox rite and Shakespearean verse, Song for Athene (popularised when it was performed at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997) seemed somehow a perfect ode to Abu Amr. 

But what will it take to penetrate our own coats of iron mail - the very distance and comfort of our media saturated world where compassion has been reduced to clickbait?

Taking time to honour the victims of contemporary battles can only bring us closer to our own humanity, one that is in increasing need of salvation.

As the programme closed with Victoria's music for the Requiem Mass, with it's plaintive cries of "Liberame!"  (Deliver Me, Lord, from endless death), I wondered, who will write the requiems for the newly fallen souls we scroll past daily on Facebook?

Kyrie Eleisons for the digital age. Lord have mercy indeed.

We remember those killed in Gaza since the beginning of The Great Return March:

1. Omar Wahid Samour, 31
2. Mohammed Kamal al-Najjar, 25.
3. Jihad Zuhair Abu Jamous, 30.
4. Amin Mansour Abu Muammar, 22.
5. Ibrahim Salah Abu Sha’er, 17
6. Nagy Abdullah Abu Hjeir, 25.
7. Musab Zuhair Al-Soloul, 23.
8. Abd al-Qader Mardi al-Hawajri, 42.
9. Mahmoud Saadi Rahmi, 23.
10. Mohammed Naeem Abu Amro, 26.
11. Ahmed Ibrahim Ashour Odeh, 19.
12. Jihad Ahmed Farina, 34.
13. Abdel-Fattah Abdel-Nabi, 18
14. Bader Fayiq al-Sabbagh, 22.
15. Sari Walid Abu Odeh, 27.
16. Hamdan Isma’il Abu Amsha, 23.
17. Fares Al-Ruqab, 29.
18. Ahmad Omar Arafah, 25.
19. Osama Khamis Qdeih, 38.
20. Majdi Ramadan Shabat, 38
21. Hussein Muhammad Adnan Madi, 13.
22. Subhi Abu Atawi, 20.
23. Mohammad Said al-Haj-Saleh, 33.
24. Sedqi Faraj Abu Atawi, 45.
25. Alaa al-Din Yahya Ismail al-Zamli, 15.
26. Hamza Abd al-Al, 20.
27. Yaser Murtaja, 30
28. Ibrahim Al-‘ur, 19
29. Mujahed Nabil Al-Khudari, 25.
30. Marwan Odeh Qdeih, 45
31. Mohammed Hjeila, 30
32. Abdallah Al-Shahri, 28
33. Tahrir Wahba, 17, M.
34. Saad Abu Taha, 29, M
35. Mohammed Ayoub, 15
36. Ahmed Abu Hussein, 25
37. Abdullah Shamali, 20
38. Ahmad Rashad Al Athamna, 23
39. Ahmed Nabil Aqel, 25
40. Mahmoud Wahba, 18
41. Muhammad Nimer Al-Muqadma, 55