Holding the hands of the tempest-tost: Caroline Shaw's libretto

I've waited quite some time to introduce Caroline Shaw's libretto. That's partly because, as 7R approaches, the lives of those preparing it are becoming ever more active and, proportionally, richer. There is so much to be found in Buxtehude's work alone, and the responses are so thoughtful, evocative, and unique that they demand our concentration. The challenges are welcome, as we approach the day - Monday - when ICE and Quicksilver will descend on Philadelphia, followed by composers, poets, scholars, and, finally a week from today, an audience, to hear all this for the first time.

But, I waited also because Caroline's words - mostly chosen and then paraphrased by her - are so timely, with all this talk of building walls and targeting entire faith communities. Faith: the reason many of our ancestors came to these shores – this place where belief is respected and protected. 

We asked our Seven Responses composers to create 21st-century responses to the texts Buxtehude set in his late-17th-century attempt to capture the suffering of Jesus on the cross. In his cantata To the Hands, which comes near the middle of the oratorio, we hear and feel the graphic description of the nails in the hands of Jesus - in medio manuum tuarum, ''in the middle of your hands.'' It was to the nails in the feet of Jesus that David Little addressed his libretto – how they are turned into amulets and magic powders, further wounding him whom they originally pierced. 

Caroline focused, not on the nails, but on the hands themselves, exploring - in her own words and paraphrases - hands that embrace and hands that labor, wounded hands and hands that suffer. In the middle of all this, she includes a movement in which we hear strings arpeggiating in gestures that remind us of the time of Buxtehude, but occasionally seem to dissolve from one key to another. This is not atypical of her writing; she often will take a pre-existing work (she quotes Buxtehude's music throughout her response) or an established form (in this particular movement, a baroque dance) and, through repetition of small motives, reveal what lies within, or what lies behind when seen from a different angle. But she brings this convention into the contemporary discussion by presenting a list of numerical figures, spoken by the choir, drawn from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. (You can see that source here:  http://www.internal-displacement.org/global-figures)

It is impossible to hear this list of numbers, as it grows from thousands to millions, and not contemplate our relationship with the unnamed people of those statistics - the old and young, oppressed, emasculated. And yet, they are not pushed at the listener; the sterile delivery as a list (they are, in fact, just numbers) seems to deepen our sense of wonder at these unfathomable numbers. As Caroline writes in her program note:  ''Sometimes data is the cruelest and most honest poetry.''

Poignantly, those numbers follow Caroline's paraphrase of Emma Lazarus' 1883 poem ''The New Colossus,'' which many of us know from the Statue of Liberty, where it is inscribed. (There is also the wonderfully sentimental song of Irving Berlin.). In her poem, Lazarus names that statue the ''Mother of Exiles'' and becomes her voice: ''Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me.'' Caroline picks up the description of her work here:

While the third movement operates in broad strokes from a distance, the fourth zooms in on the map so far that we see the intimate scene of an old woman in her home, maybe setting the table for dinner alone. Who is she, where has she been, whose lives has she left? This simple image melts into a meditation on the words in caverna from the Song of Solomon, found in Buxtehude’s fourth section, Ad latus.

In caverna. In the hollow of the cliff.  From the cleft of the rock.  The hands, enfolding.  Comforting. Perceived in words and in music, as we perceive them in our lives. Who among us has not, in the privacy of an intimate moment, stolen from the chaos of our lives, held the hand of a partner, lover, friend, and marveled at its beauty? Stroked it gently? Traced the lines, the hairs, the creases in the knuckles? Settled a finger into the palm? Pondered the limb perfectly designed to meet our own hand in prayer, or to fit into the hand of the Other to say, 'come,' as a parent, a sibling, a husband? Said through those gestures, ''it's OK,'' or, ''it will be OK, because I have your hand.'' Holding. Connecting.

Caroline continues:

The sixth and final movement unfolds the words in caverna into the tumbling and comforting promise of ''ever ever'' – 'ever ever will I hold you, ever ever will I enfold you.' They could be the words of Christ, or of a parent or friend or lover, or even of a nation.

Caroline doesn't mention in her note a significant aspect of her words that the listener will hear; she twice replaced the singular with the collective. In the first movement, in Latin, ''in the middle of your hand,'' transforms into ''in the middle of our hand.'' And, in the last movement, in her paraphrase of the Lazarus poem, speaking to all nations, in English, ''I will be your refuge'' becomes ''We will be your refuge.'' 


Of a nation

Holding the hands of the tempest-tost. Wounded.

To the Hands


[Prelude — no text — choir on vowels only]

[text from Buxtehude’s Ad manus — Zechariah 13:6 — adapted by Caroline Shaw, with the
addition of in medio manuum nostrum (''in the midst of our hands'')]

in medio. in medio.
in medio manuum tuarum
quid sunt plagae istae in medio manuum tuarum
quid sunt plagae istae in medio manuum nostrum

in the midst. in the midst.
in the midst of your hands
what are those wounds in the midst of your hands
what are those wounds in the midst of our hands

[text by CS, responding to the 1883 sonnet ''The New Colossus'' by Emma Lazarus, which was
mounted on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903]

Her beacon-hand beckons:
give to me
those yearning to breathe free
tempest-tossed they cannot see
what lies beyond the olive tree
whose branch was lost amid the pleas
for mercy, mercy
give to me
your tired fighters fleeing flying
from the
from the
let them
i will be your refuge
i will be your refuge
i will be
i will be
we will be
we will

[text by CS — the final line, in caverna, is from Buxtehude’s Ad latus — the line from the Song
of Songs
, in foraminibus petrae, in caverna maceriae, or ''in the clefts of the rock, in the hollow of the cliff'']

ever ever ever
in the window sills or
the beveled edges
of the aging wooden frames that hold
old photographs
hands folded
gently in her lap

ever ever
in the crevices
the never-ending efforts of
the grandmother's tendons tending
to her bread and empty chairs
left for elijahs
where are they now

in caverna
in caverna

[text: Global figures of internally displaced persons, by country. Source: Internal Displacement
Monitoring Centre (IDMC) data as of May 2015. Accessed on 01/03/2016 at
Note: only the numbers will be used, not paired with the names of the countries. You can
view those at the website above.

[text by CS — final line a reprise from original Zechariah text]

i will hold you
i will hold you
ever ever will i hold you
ever ever will i enfold you

in medio
in medio