Do you ever have this experience, where a companion asks you what restaurants or books or music you love most, and your brain instantly empties with the velocity of an airplane toilet? The one artist who reliably clings to my brain, when these discussions involve film, is the Canadian director Atom Egoyan. It is likely because I first encountered his work during my undergrad years, when my brain could still retain information, but in any case, his 1997 movie The Sweet Hereafter is one of those under-theradar (despite winning the Grand Prix at Cannes) gems that is my go-to in these scenarios.
To tell you that the story involves a school bus careening off an icy road and into a frigid lake — an accident in which many children die — is definitively not a spoiler. And you should certainly seek this one out once you get home, in part because Ian Holm gives one of the most extraordinarily nuanced performances of any actor, ever.
The tragedy in this story is not the accident. It is the catastrophe of being left behind.
The dead, though desperately missed, are nevertheless gone and not participating in our anguish. Don’t tell the Vatican, but I think this is where Saint Peter’s remorse lives, after betraying Jesus not once but thrice. Let’s be honest, all of these scenes were inevitably (see: prophecies) going to include one guy who rats out The Son of Man’s location for a bag of silver, some guys falling asleep on the most climactic night of their lives, and of course one guy who would deny ever knowing his spiritual captain. Peter just drew the short straw on his role in this play. The tripartite deed itself is not really the cause of his pain. It’s knowing that he expedited the death of a friend, even though that death was preordained. He is left behind, and this is gutting.
Wait, this is a program essay…what are we talking about, exactly?
Right. What you’re here to see is one of the most luminous musical entries from the High Renaissance, Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro, or “Tears of Saint Peter.” I’m not sure about you, but when I hear music of this era — and specifically a cappella numbers — it taps into something that feels primordial, or at the very least, elemental. Even though this piece would never have been allowed as part of a liturgy, it is sacred, and so was required to work within certain constraints. No frivolous, virtuosic singing allowed. But as any of you who have encountered a painting by Mondrian or a play by Beckett know, it is often the existence of severe constraints that produce some of the most elevating or thought-provoking art.
Much has been written about how Orlando di Lasso strips his Lagrime score down to only the essential elements, with nary an extraneous note to be found. To my mind, this is at best hyperbolic and at worst idiotic, because who is to say what notes are superfluous? But I get the sentiment. What you’ll inevitably experience today is music in which the text is never obscured, and from which any vocal flourishes are completely absent. Notice how the composer captures the inescapability of regret, and the unique tone of each segment’s text. Leaning primarily on harmony and rhythm alone, how does he inhabit this psychological labyrinth Saint Peter finds himself trapped in?
A few notable examples stand out to me. In the second movement, “Ma gli archi,” we get the double-down. Not only is Peter’s guilt going to haunt him — no lesser force than God will keep this wound flowing — as though newly cut open, each day FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE. It is a fantastic allegory illuminating the fallacy of “closure.” There are some moments that we will never escape, no matter how much therapy or apologizing or pharmaceuticals we attempt. Again, the betrayal of Jesus was a dire mistake attributed to the more or less preordained human trait of self-preservation. Peter’s life was in danger, and his animal instincts kicked in to gear. The real catastrophe, even after his friend rises from the dead, is having to wake up each morning to that regret. To be left behind, even as the world soldiers on.
It is intriguing that Lasso penned this opus at the very end of his life. I don’t think that it’s projecting irresponsibly to say that if this was his swan song, Orlando was grappling with a deep regret as he neared the end. Why not a song of thanks, or a celebration of God’s creation for his final number? Perhaps he’s generously offering us the chance to reckon with our regret long before we reach the end. A possibility to know that a fault may never be forgiven, but that by taking ownership of it, we might not cower under its shadow for the rest of our lives.
Another example of the many faceted nature of this story — which is perhaps universal — arrives with the 10th movement, “Come falda di neve.” Both the text and the music pivot to some degree here. There is a glimmer of sunshine, literally, as Peter’s fear “like a snowflake” melts in the springtime of his Master’s mercy. It’s not total absolution that is given, but a kind of beautiful balance offered in which the betrayal lives in a space of sadness, rather than self-hatred. The relief is massive, even if the best-case scenario is lifelong heartache.
Do you hear the turn in the music? There is a compassion in the harmonies of the ninth movement, “Chi ad uno raconntár potesse,” but something lifts in “Come falda di neve.” Using only harmony and a gentler approach to the text, we — and Peter — realize that not all is lost. There may just be a reason to persevere.
One reason I love The Sweet Hereafter so devotedly is that it is patient, and doesn’t hinge on any one dramatic reveal. Lasso’s masterpiece has, until its final movement, mined the poetry of Luigi Tansillo. But in the magnificent outro, the composer exercises his editorial prerogative by writing a motet — a distinctly sacred form — and it is here that I believe the music becomes universal, and not just about the plight of Saint Peter. It is an invitation to all of us to a reprieve, if not absolution. Christ may have had nails brutally hammered into his hands and feet, but this was a pain measured in hours. It pales in comparison to years of self-condemnation.
The music that we are left with is so spare. It’s as if Lasso desires for us to lean forward: this is the moment, that more than any other, we should ponder. It feels like a rendezvous with the divine, whatever that means to you. Whether your transgression caused a bus to plunge beneath the ice, or your lot was to fulfill a prophecy…or perhaps something altogether less sensational: hope is still within the grasp of those left behind.