The aspect of death explored in Gabriel Jackson‘s short choral work Justorum animæ is on the peace it brings to the souls of the departed, a fitting theme for today, being All Souls’ Day. The Latin text is drawn from the offertory from yesterday’s liturgies for All Saints’ Day, originating in the apocryphal book of Wisdom, and like so many texts (and human acts) that grapple with death, it is primarily focussed on the living, seeking to bring some reassurance to we who are left behind. Their souls, we are told, “are in the hand of God”, and while the second line seems a bit confusing—how can they not be touched by “the torment of death” when they are patently dead?—the overriding message that no more harm can come to them is self-evidently true.
Jackson’s music embraces the soothing thrust of the words, setting them almost like a lullaby, lilting phrases atop soft, oscillating diatonic chords that appropriately defy a sense of cadential finality. The only time when its gentleness and sense of serenity are challenged comes with the restrained umbrage wrought by the third line. At “Visi sunt”, the choir abruptly rises in volume, the harmony twisting with mild dissonance and the melodic line briefly soaring high in indignance; peace implies permanence, and the unhappy response to the words’ hints of a definite end in such a context as this is understandable. Only gradually do the voices regain their composure, and when they do it’s with a slightly different music from before, softer and more meditative, an offering and a valediction, letting-go the souls of the departed into the infinite, unknowable beyond.
This performance of the work, its broadcast première, was given on Holocaust Memorial Day (27 January) 2010 at Wells Cathedral, sung by the cathedral choir directed by Matthew Owens.
Gabriel Jackson – Justorum animæ
et non tanget illos tormentum mortis.
Visi sunt oculis insipientium mori,
illi autem sunt in pace.
The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and they shall not be touched by the torment of death.
In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die,
but they are at peace.
—Offertory for the Feast of All Saints (from Wisdom 3:1-2a,3b)