Sunday, February 01, 2009

Be careful what you wish for

...and be careful what you promise to get that wish fulfilled. It is a bit of sage advice that I come across from time to time. Last night I learned a story that illustrates this only too well.

At my wife's church in nearby Carnforth I listened to a performance/act of worship of Jephte by Giacomo Carissmi. It is a setting from the Italian Renaissance period and the music did remind me of Palestrina in some ways. It was a by and large a beautiful performance but I think musically it is a difficult piece to sing. A subsequent look at the score did confirm this. It is written in the key of C major with several accidentals and quite a few tone and half tone intervals. Tricky. The choir did quite well considering it was and amateur choir and they didn't get the vocal score until the day of the performance so it was pretty well site read. Those of you with musical experience will know exactly what I mean. But they got the emotion of the piece across very well indeed. It was very moving.

The story of Jephte is in the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible and found in the book of Judges, Chapter 11. Jephte was a leader of an Israelite army taking on the Ammonites. Before the battle he prayed that God would give him the day and in return he would offer the first living thing he met after the battle as a sacrifice. It turned out to be his only daughter. The cantata plays on the anguish of the situation.

There are one or two similar stories but not of Biblical origin. One is of Agamemnon on his way to the Trojan war where he had perforce to sacrifice his eldest daughter Ifigenia. That did little to endear him to his wife Clytemnestra, but a least in that story, Artemis, to whom Ifigenia was to be sacrificed saved the day.

There are two Northumbrian legends of similar ilk.
At Brunton Bank top, some six miles north of Hexham there is a cross marking the site of a battle in which Oswy, king of Northumbria promised to give his firstborn son to the Church should he win the day. He did win and his son, Oswald was sent to Iona to train as a monk under Columba. It was later that Columba released Oswald from his vows and he returned to Northumbria as king to succeed Oswy and thereby facilitate the establishment of Lindisfarne.

The other story is of the Lambton Worm, a dragon-like creature terrorising the Wearside area. Lord Lambton returned from the crusades to deal with this. A local witch offered him protection provided he sacrifice the first living thing he sees after killing the Worm.
On his way back to his castle his daughter ran out to meet him. Horrified, he shouted for her to turn back and send his favourite greyhound out to meet him. This she did and so Lord Lambton killed the dog. But that wasn't the first living thing he saw, was it? Consequently a curse has lain on that household ever since.

There are other stories but I don't know enough about them to elaborate here, but the moral is much the same.

Be careful what you wish for and be careful what you promise.

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