Rudolf Mauersberger's motet 'Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst' was written on Good Friday and Holy Saturday in 1945 CE (see the composer's autograph manuscript here). The liturgy of Holy Week had gained a new meaning for Mauersberger in the aftermath of the firebombing and large scale destruction of Dresden, including the Kreuzkirche, where he was director of music. Among the many dead were eleven boys of Mauersberger's choir.
Mauersberger's setting includes words from Lamentations 1:13: 'Er hat ein Feuer aus der Höhe in meine Gebeine gesandt und es lassen walten' ('From above he has sent fire into my bones, and let it rule'). The text differs from standard English translations—NRSV has 'From on high he sent fire; it went deep into my bones'—due to a different interpretion of the Hebrew, and is particularly striking here. This verse, originally written to describe God's destruction of Jerusalem, finds a poignant new home in a city destroyed by incendiary bombs. The setting is largely very quiet and expresses despair and sadness, but also hope for salvation.
With the translation of the Bible into the spoken languages of Europe from the sixteenth century CE onwards, the biblical text became part of everyday experience. European Christians understood many of the texts to refer not only to the real city of Jerusalem and its environs, but also to their own homelands, as this setting illustrates.
It may be troublesome to some to see a German composer use biblical texts to lament the destruction of his city during World War II, in which Germany destroyed so many cities and killed 6,000,000 Jews. Some have accused Mauersberger of not including a clear statement of German guilt in his selection of texts. The inclusion of the last few lines, however, requesting that God bring 'us' back to him, may be understood as a recognition that contemporary Germans were far from God (the Lutheran understanding of sinfulness). The setting also uses both the beginning and end of the text of Lamentations, indicating that the hearer is to understand the entire text as part of the work, including Lamentations 5:16b: 'Woe for us, for we have sinned!'.
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