MUSIC | A nun’s unique recordings are finally getting their due
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The Ethiopian nun and pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou died on March 26, 8½ months before her 100th birthday and 19 days before the release on Mississippi Records of her latest album, Jerusalem.
The title is significant, as Jerusalem is the city in which she died. It’s also the site of the monastery in which she spent the last 39 years of her life.
Like the two Guèbrou albums released or rereleased by Mississippi in 2022, Spielt Eigen Kompositionen (Plays Her Own Compositions) and Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru (both recorded in the 1960s), Jerusalem is a reissue, combining selections that first appeared on Guèbrou’s The Hymn of Jerusalem, The Jordan River Song in 1970 and The Visionary: Piano Solo in 2012.
It almost certainly won’t be her last.
Guèbrou stored several, perhaps many, albums’ worth of unreleased material on tapes that along with her devotional paintings and piano took up the bulk of her monastic quarters. Between Mississippi Records and the charitable music foundation that bears her name, it’s only a matter of time before the world gets to hear these recordings as well.
One reason this music is finally attracting attention is Guèbrou’s fascinating life story. Accomplished, talented, and aristocratically bred, Guèbrou appeared to have the world on a string when, at 21, she experienced an existential crisis spurred by her failure or her inability (the details remain hazy) to capitalize on an offer of a music scholarship in London. When the dust settled, she’d committed herself, against her family’s wishes, to the religious life. She went barefoot for her first decade as a nun because she’d been told that the grounds of the Ethiopian monastery in which she’d settled were sanctified by the blood of Christ.
Her lo-fi recordings are also getting their due because they’re unique. She cut her musical teeth on Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Mozart, and Strauss, but she did not compose in their styles, considering imitation theft. Instead, she hit upon a fluid, contemplative sound, one in which her left hand and right hand carry on melodic conversations arising from her love of nature, her sorrow over departed loved ones, and her faith. She wrote back-cover notes identifying her sources of inspiration. (Of “Aurora”: “The dawn of a spring morning wakes up nature, and from all over the earth arise praises to the Lord.” Of “Golgotha”: “This is the place where Jesus Christ died on the Cross, so that we may live eternally in His Glorious Kingdom.”)
“I didn’t want to be famous, really,” she told the journalist Kate Molleson in 2017. “I asked God that my name be written in Heaven, not on Earth.”
Regarding the latter case, at least, God seems to have had other plans.