THE DREAM OF CONSTANTINE

Constantine.jpg

The Dream of Constantine, a fifteen-minute oratorio for unaccompanied SATB choir, was commissioned for a series of concerts in Serbia, France, England and Germany, organised by the Serbian Council of Great Britain to commemorate the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan (313). The piece was first performed at the Philharmonic Orchestra Concert Hall, Niš, Serbia (formerly Naissus, the birthplace of Constantine the Great) on 28 October 2011. Subsequent performances took place at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, London (18 February 2012) and St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel, York (19 February 2012).

With an infusion of poetic licence, the story told in The Dream of Constantine is based on the Old English poem Elena by the poet Cynewulf (fl. 9th century). Cynewulf’s account of Constantine's vision is derived from the legend of Judas Cyriacus, who was tortured by Constantine's mother, St Helena, when she travelled to Jerusalem in search of the true cross. It was Judas Cyriacus who revealed the location of the cross. Another version of the legend, in which Constantine's vision takes place on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (in the year 312) is related by Eusebius of Caesaria in his Life of Constantine, left uncompleted before 339, the year of Eusebius’s death.

Music by Malcolm Bothwell
Words by Paul Williamson

1. Prelude
2. The appearance of the angelic herald
4. The vision of the holy tree
5. The battle
6. The glorification of the cross

Live recording
The 24, St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel, York, 19 February 2012.

Video artwork
Head of the Colossus of Constantine, 312–15. Musei Capitolini, Rome.

Giotto di Bondone (1266–1337), Angel (detail).

Piero della Francesca, Madonna del Parto, completed c.1460 (detail).

Debbie Loftus, Jewelled Trees (detail), © 2017.

Peter Paul Rubens, Triumph of Constantine over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, 1623–5. Detail from the tapestry now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, 1959.

Martina Kolarien (aged 6), Constantine the Great and St Helena, © 2011.

Haydn: The Creation

   
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  William Kent, ‘Summer’, engraved by Nicolas Henri Tardieu (1674–1749). Frontispiece to James Thomson,  The Seasons  (London, 1730).

William Kent, ‘Summer’, engraved by Nicolas Henri Tardieu (1674–1749). Frontispiece to James Thomson, The Seasons (London, 1730).

1. Origins

The London music scene that Haydn experienced during his two triumphant visits in 1791–2 and 1793–4 was very different from that which had dominated his professional life in Austria up to that point. To take one example, concert culture in Vienna was, broadly speaking, private and exclusive, with music being performed in palatial residences for select audiences made up of aristocrats, courtiers and other members of the upper classes. By contrast, music-making in London was driven by market forces, with concerts organised by canny entrepreneurs who turned a profit by staging events that appealed to the prosperous middle classes. More generally accessible and certainly more commercial, music in London was also managed on an altogether larger scale. To quote one basic fact, London in the 1790s had a population of about a million, nearly four times that of Vienna, which was home to approximately 270,000 people. In an upwardly mobile mercantile society the English urban middle classes had money to spend and they demanded to be entertained.

Haydn felt these cultural contrasts acutely in May 1791, five or so months after his arrival in England in January of that year, when he attended the Handel Festival in Westminster Abbey. More than a thousand musicians (1,068 to be precise), including the foremost singers and instrumentalists of the time, gathered to perform Israel in Egypt, ‘Zadok the Priest’, Messiah and numerous extracts from Handel’s other works. The latest in a series of festivals that had taken place annually since the groundbreaking Handel Commemoration of 1784, this was a markedly national occasion, patronised by George III, who regarded Handel’s music as a ‘dynastic soundtrack’ (to quote Matthew Head). Its roots stretched back to the benefit performances of Messiah in the Foundling Hospital that Handel himself staged every year from 1749 until his death in 1759.

   
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    Edward Edwards (1738–1806),  Interior View of Westminster Abbey on the Commemoration of Handel, Taken from the Manager’s Box ,  c .1790.

Edward Edwards (1738–1806), Interior View of Westminster Abbey on the Commemoration of Handel, Taken from the Manager’s Box, c.1790.

Haydn was deeply affected by what he heard and saw, both as a musician and also as a patriot who was able to witness at first hand the immensely powerful role music could play in the life of a nation. As one early biographer records:

when he heard the music of Handel in London, he was struck as if he had been put back to the beginning of his studies and had known nothing up to that moment. He meditated on every note and drew from those most learned scores the essence of true musical grandeur.

The sacred oratorios current in Haydn’s Vienna were nothing like Handel’s Messiah. Employing Italian libretti, and originally designed to be performed during Lent, when the opera houses were closed, these were essentially unstaged opera seria (operas on serious subjects) with biblical plots. As in eighteenth-century Italian operas more generally, the main musical interest of these aristocratic entertainments lay in the virtuoso solos, framed by recitatives; the role of the chorus was consequently much reduced. Haydn’s own two-part Il ritorno di Tobia (1775), with a narrative derived from the Book of Tobit, is typical: it has only three choruses (two more were added in 1784), just one duet, lots of lengthy recitatives and a great deal of ornate coloratura.

The contrast with Handel’s English oratorios could hardly be greater. Feeling the lack of virtuoso Italian singers, Handel turned a potential weakness into a monumental strength by developing a genre that exploited the accomplished English choral training available in the cathedral schools. In the process, he also supplied a market primed to consume musical works that were unabashedly nationalistic and populist in tone, an aim that was aided by the choice of Old Testament subjects capable of sustaining contemporary political meanings. The ironies are manifold! Here was a German composer, writing music interpreted by the Hanoverian royals as their very own ‘dynastic soundtrack’, which was otherwise universally regarded as the quintessence of Englishness.

This combination moved Haydn greatly and left him with the desire to write a work on a comparable scale, charged with similarly comprehensive emotional power. The glimmer of an opportunity arose in August 1795. As he was leaving London at the end of his second visit, an English libretto was thrust into the composer’s hands by Johann Peter Salomon, the impresario whose blandishments had tempted Haydn to visit England in the first place. This was the text that was shortly afterwards bilingually reworked to form the basis of The Creation.

This is the first part of a four-part programme note: 1. Origins, 2. The Words, 3. Ethos, 4. The First Performance. To read the full note please click here.

   
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  Bernardo Bellotto,  View of Vienna from the Belvedere ,  c .1760. The domed church on the left is the Karlskirche; the large building to the right of that, facing the lake, is the Palais Schwarzenberg; central, in the distance, is St Stephen’s Cathedral; at the end of the alley to the right of the lake is the Lower Belvedere; the building with the domed tower on the extreme right of the picture is the Convent Church of the Salesians.

Bernardo Bellotto, View of Vienna from the Belvedere, c.1760. The domed church on the left is the Karlskirche; the large building to the right of that, facing the lake, is the Palais Schwarzenberg; central, in the distance, is St Stephen’s Cathedral; at the end of the alley to the right of the lake is the Lower Belvedere; the building with the domed tower on the extreme right of the picture is the Convent Church of the Salesians.

Twofold

Cover image: George Levantis,  Leda and the Swan I  (2008).

Cover image: George Levantis, Leda and the Swan I (2008).

Twofold  An anthology of new works in verse and prose, by Simone Kotva and Paul Williamson, inspired by themes of binaries and doubling.

Published under the auspices of Festival O/Modernt 2015, Twofold includes eight drawings from George Levantis’ Leda and the Swan suite (2008) and two specially commissioned images by Debbie Loftus, Etruscan and Miwoks (both 2015).

It also contains a new setting by composer Malcolm Bothwell of ‘Take, o take those lips away’ from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

Paperback with flaps, 270 x 210 mm
48 pages, 13 illustrations
Paper by Fedrigoni
Designed by Dmitriy Myelnikov
Cambridge & Stockholm, June 2015
ISBN 978-0-9928912-2-0


Contents

Paul Williamson
Don’t Read this Book! (After D.H. Lawrence)
Anamorphosis
Two Ledas 

Simone Kotva
Devices (For W.H. Hudson)
The Twofold
Endpoints (Illinois–California–Illinois)

To download the press release click here. A copy of Twofold may be available here.

Illustrated London News

ILN Playbill.   Designed by Dmitriy Myelnikov, 2016.

ILN Playbill.  Designed by Dmitriy Myelnikov, 2016.

Viv Kristina Leon
Genie Ingela Lundh

Images Debbie Loftus
Words Paul Williamson

Violin Hugo Ticciati
Percussion Evelyn Glennie

Viv is giving an illustrated talk on the Victorian attraction known as Mr Wyld’s Model of the Earth. Her alter ego, Genie, steps in to liven things up. Semi-dramatised performance, lasting approximately twenty minutes, including fifty projected photos by artist Debbie Loftus. 

World premiere performance with Kristina Leon and Ingela Lundh of the Stockholm English-Speaking Theatre at Confidencen, Ulriksdals Slottsteater, Stockholm, for Festival O/Modernt 2016, ‘Handel and the Art of Borrowing’, 12 June 2016.

The Stockholm performance featured Hugo Ticciati on violin, playing variations on ‘Meet Me in Battersea Park’ (1954) by Petula Clark, and Dame Evelyn Glennie on percussion, performing ‘Clapping Music’ (1972) by Steve Reich.


Mr Wyld's Model of the Earth.   From  The Illustrated London News , 7 June 1851.  Photo © Debbie Loftus 2016.

Mr Wyld's Model of the Earth.  From The Illustrated London News, 7 June 1851. 
Photo © Debbie Loftus 2016.

Illustrated London News.  Performed at Confidencen, Ulriksdal Royal Palace, Stockholm.
Festival O/Modernt, 2016, Handel and the Art of Borrowing.

Battersea Bridge from Battersea Park.   Photo © Debbie Loftus 2016.

Battersea Bridge from Battersea Park. 
Photo © Debbie Loftus 2016.

Pedro Serra fl.1346–1405

Pedro (Pere) Serra,  St Peter Preaching ,  c . 1400. Tempera on panel, 125 x 101 cm. Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

Pedro (Pere) Serra, St Peter Preaching, c. 1400. Tempera on panel, 125 x 101 cm. Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

Bilbao’s Other Serras

Exterior view of the Guggenheim, Bilbao, by Frank Gehry. The museum opened in 1997.

Exterior view of the Guggenheim, Bilbao, by Frank Gehry. The museum opened in 1997.

‘The idea of this looking like a boat was my response to the river,’ Frank Gehry explained when the Guggenheim Bilbao Musuem, opened in 1997. ‘The other side, more fragmented and covered with stone, is more in scale with the city. The whole thing is about fitting the building into Bilbao. So for me it's about the imagery of the river and the imagery of the city’ (New York Times, 24 June 1997).

The star exhibit in this spectacular structure, the catalyst for the regeneration of Bilbao’s former port district on the bank of the Nervion River, is Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time, installed in 2005. Absorbed in the space of Serra’s sculptures, ‘pacing out their convolutions’, Robert Hughes remarked when the sequence of works in steel was unveiled in 2005, ‘you feel suddenly free’ (The Guardian, 22 June 2005). This is the paradox of Serra’s work. Despite the immense size and weight of the steel plates, as well as the directed movement that these huge pieces demand, all of which might induce a fearsome sense of claustrophobia, it’s hard to disagree with Hughes.

The other unexpected fact about these sculptures, whose consummate newness is beyond question, is the effortless way in which they forge links with the art of other ages. Hughes quotes Johann Winckelmann on ‘noble inwardness’ and ‘calm grandeur’. Numerous classical connections are traced in Paul Williamson's Ekphrasis (2014), which sets itself the task of placing Serra’s achievement in a tradition stemming back at least as Homer. A more fortuitous link with the art of a previous age can be found in the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, a short walk from the Guggenheim. These are Bilbao’s other Serras: two paintings made 600 years ago by the Catalan artist Pedro Serra (Pere Serra in Catalan), which are discussed in an article in The London Magazine that can be downloaded here.

Richard Serra,  The Matter of Time  (2005). Guggenheim, Bilbao. Installation of seven sculptures made from weatherproof steel.

Richard Serra, The Matter of Time (2005). Guggenheim, Bilbao. Installation of seven sculptures made from weatherproof steel.

Echo and Narcissus

Echo

There's a rule of echoes,
Bouncing off reflective surfaces
Like a nymph in the woods,
Crying, crying, crying.
Voiceless sounds rebounding through the trees
For the want of her love: Echo.

Music and Voices: Malcolm Bothwell
Words: Paul Williamson
© 2011

Detail from   
  
 
  
    
  
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  John William Waterhouse,  Echo and Narcissus , 1903. Oil on canvas, 109.2 x 189.2 cm. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Detail from John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus, 1903. Oil on canvas, 109.2 x 189.2 cm. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

NOW WHEN SHE SAW NARCISSUS wandering through the fields, she was inflamed with love and followed him by stealth; and the more she followed, the more she burned by a nearer flame; as when quick-burning sulphur, smeared round the tops of torches, catches fire from another fire brought near. Oh, how often does she long to approach him with alluring words and make soft prayers to him! But her nature forbids this, nor does it permit her to begin; but as it allows, she is ready to await the sounds to which she may give back her own words. By chance the boy, separated from his faithful companions, had cried: ‘Is anyone here?’ and ‘Here!’ cried Echo back. Amazed, he looks around in all directions and with loud voice cries ‘Come!’; and ‘Come!’ she calls him calling. He looks behind him and, seeing no one coming, calls again: ‘Why do you run from me?’ and hears in answer his own words again. He stands still, deceived by the answering voice, and ‘Here let us meet,’ he cries. Echo, never to answer other sound more gladly, cries: ‘Let us meet’; and to help her own words she comes forth from the woods that she may throw her arms around the neck she longs to clasp. But he flees at her approach and, fleeing, says: ‘Hands off! embrace me not ! May I die before I give you power o'er me!’ ‘I give you power o’er me!’ she says, and nothing more. Thus spurned, she lurks in the woods, hides her shamed face among the foliage, and lives from that time on in lonely caves. But still, though spurned, her love remains and grows on grief; her sleepless cares waste away her wretched form; she becomes gaunt and wrinkled and all moisture fades from her body into the air. Only her voice and her bones remain: then, only voice; for they say that her bones were turned to stone. She hides in woods and is seen no more upon the mountain-sides; but all may hear her, for voice, and voice alone, still lives in her. 

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III, ll.370–401, trans. Frank Justus Miller, 3rd edn, rev. G. P. Goold (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1977).

Thomas Gray

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  John Giles Eccardt,  Thomas Gray , 1747–8. Oil on canvas, 40.3 x 32.7 cm. © National Portrait Gallery, London. This portrait was commissioned by Horace Walpole who was Eccardt’s principal patron.

John Giles Eccardt, Thomas Gray, 1747–8. Oil on canvas, 40.3 x 32.7 cm. © National Portrait Gallery, London. This portrait was commissioned by Horace Walpole who was Eccardt’s principal patron.

Gray's Elegy

Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, published in 1751, was an instant hit, and it has ever since remained one of the best-known and best-loved poems in the English language. Gray (1716–71) shunned the limelight, and the poem’s publication came about almost by accident. He had written a first version of the piece several years earlier, either in 1742, as a reaction to the untimely death of his very close friend, Richard West (1716–42), or perhaps in 1745. He then set the poem aside until 1749, when he seems to have picked it up again after the death of his mother’s sister, Mary (1683–1749), to whom he was also extremely close. The first eighteen stanzas of the two versions are substantially the same. The first version then concludes with four stanzas that were later abandoned and replaced with seventeen new ones. This was a momentous change because it turned a poem that was essentially a conventional eighteenth-century Christian meditation on death into something quite new and original. Gray began with a popular genre of reflective verse, known as graveyard poetry, and ended up writing a piece about mortality whose antecedents stretch all the way back to Virgil and beyond.

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  John Giles Eccardt,  Horace Walpole , 1754. Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 31.8 cm. © National Portrait Gallery, London. The house in the background is Strawberry Hill, Walpole's Gothic extravaganza, remodelled between 1749 and 1776.

John Giles Eccardt, Horace Walpole, 1754. Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 31.8 cm. © National Portrait Gallery, London. The house in the background is Strawberry Hill, Walpole's Gothic extravaganza, remodelled between 1749 and 1776.

In June 1750 Gray sent the finished ‘Elegy’ to his friend Horace Walpole (1717–97), the brilliant son of a Prime Minister. Walpole, who was a great admirer of Gray’s verse, circulated the manuscript among his circle of friends. The idea of copyright being almost non-existent, a copy of the poem ended up in the hands of the publishers of the Magazine of Magazines, who wrote to Gray in February 1751, informing him that ‘an ingenious Poem, called Reflections in a Country-Churchyard, has been communicated to them, which they are printing forthwith.’ Gray wrote to Walpole in a panic on 11 February, asking him to have the piece printed anonymously and without delay by the bookseller and publisher Robert Dodsley (1704–64). It appeared four days later on 15 February as a quarto pamplet, priced sixpence.

Gray and Walpole first became friends when they were at school together at Eton College, where they formed a ‘quadruple alliance’ with West (mentioned above), whose father was a Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and Thomas Ashton (1715–75). Gray and Walpole both subsequently went to Cambridge, where Gray matriculated at Peterhouse (1734) and Walpole at King’s (1735). In 1738 Walpole invited Gray to accompany him on the Grand Tour. They set off in March 1739, spending several months in France, before crossing the Alps into Italy, where they spent the whole of 1740, mainly in Florence, Rome and Naples. In April 1741, en route to Venice, they quarrelled. The reasons are unknown but their radically different circumstances and temperaments, and the long period spent on the road together doubtless conspired to cause friction. Gray returned home, and the two men were not reconciled until 1745.

Two extracts from Gray’s letters give some insights into his character. The first, from a letter to Richard West, sent from Turin in November 1739, describes the journey through the Alps via the Carthusian monastery, the Grande Chartreuse:

In our little journey up to the Grande Chartreuse, I do not remember to have gone ten paces without an exclamation, that there was no restraining: Not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff, but is pregnant with religion and poetry. There are certain scenes that would awe an atheist into belief, without the help of other argument. One need not have a very fantastic imagination to see spirits there at noon-day; You have Death perpetually before your eyes, only so far removed, as to compose the mind without frighting it. I am well persuaded St. Bruno was a man of no common genius, to choose such a situation for his retirement; and perhaps should have been a disciple of his, had I been born in his time.

And now a letter to West, sent from Rome in May 1740, describing a ball. Among the guests was Il Serenissimo Pretendente – the exiled son of King James II, known as the Old Pretender:

Figure to yourself a Roman villa; all its little apartments thrown open, and lighted up to the best advantage. At the upper end of the gallery, a fine concert, in which La Diamantina, a famous virtuosa, played on the violin divinely, and sung angelically; Giovanni and Pasqualini (great names in musical story) also performed miraculously. On each side were ranged all the secular grand monde of Rome, the Ambassadors, Princesses, and all that. Among the rest Il Serenissimo Pretendente (as the Mantova gazette calls him) displayed his rueful length of person, with his two young ones, and all his ministry around him. ‘Poi nacque un grazioso ballo’, where the world danced, and I sat in a corner regaling myself with iced fruits, and other pleasant rinfrescatives.

To read ‘Gray’s “Elegy” and the Logic of Expression’, a detailed discussion of the two versions of Gray’s celebrated poem, click here.

A Golden Tree

Image: Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, 1140–50 (detail from the bottom section, showing the sleeping Jesse).

A Christmas Carol

Music: Thomas Hewitt Jones
Words: Paul Williamson
© 2014

Commissioned by Manvinder Rattan and the John Lewis Partnership Music Society for first performance at the society's annual Service of Nine Lessons, Westminster Cathedral, 23 December 2014. Premiered by The Cavendish Singers, directed by Manvinder Rattan.

'A meditation on Isaiah 11.1 … a mystical text, evocative of William Morris.’ Rebecca Tavener, Organists’ Review, June 2016, p. 66.

To download the score of A Golden Tree from Boosey & Hawkes click here.

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    The upper part of the Jesse Tree Window at Chartres Cathedral, showing Jesus at the apex, with the Virgin Mary below him, and beneath them a generic Old Testament king.

The upper part of the Jesse Tree Window at Chartres Cathedral, showing Jesus at the apex, with the Virgin Mary below him, and beneath them a generic Old Testament king.

A Golden Tree

I dreamed I saw a golden tree
With lustrous branches swaying;
And pictures painted on each leaf
Of kings and prophets praying.

Rise, rise the tender shoot,
The tree that springs from Jesse’s root.
Crown, crown sweet Mary’s child,
Who in her arms lies waiting.

A boy of lovely countenance
And pure of heart was chosen.
A gorgeous queen brought priceless gifts
To bless a king’s great wisdom.

Strike, strike the shepherd’s lyre
And fill each heart with heaven’s fire.
Crown, crown sweet Mary’s child,
Who in her arms lies waiting.

A star and sceptre lit the sky,
The beast gave up its burden.
A child subdues the lion’s roar
In peaceable dominion.

Praise, praise the son of kings
With angels’ songs that mortals sing.
Crown, crown sweet Mary’s child,
Who in her arms lies waiting.

Words: Paul Williamson © 2014

 

Three Blind Mice

Pythagoras (bottom left), detail from Raphael,  The School of Athens , 1511. Vatican Museums.

Pythagoras (bottom left), detail from Raphael, The School of Athens, 1511. Vatican Museums.

On Harmony

Once upon a time, when the smiths were beating their anvils, sweating profusely by their blazing forge, under the heat of a hot summer sun, a young man passed by on his way to meet some friends in the shady colonnade in front of the temple. He was an ardent scholar, going to meet a group of other young people who shared his passion for knowledge. There were patterns in the world – this much they did know – but there were countless questions to which they had no answers. Geometry, numbers, the motions of the sun and moon, the sea, the stars – these were some of the subjects the earnest band of students enthusiastically discussed as they strove to comprehend the symmetry and order that might provide a rational framework for the bustle, noise and seeming chaos of daily life.

John W. Ivimey,  Ye Three Blind Mice , illustrated by Walton Corbould (1909).

John W. Ivimey, Ye Three Blind Mice, illustrated by Walton Corbould (1909).

On this bright morning, when the sound of the hammers striking the anvils reached his ears, the young man suddenly paused. He fixed his eye on the slender line, far off in the distance, where sun meets sky, and strained his hearing to catch the varying sounds that rang out as metal struck metal. He’d heard these noises a thousand times before, but this time they seemed somehow different, making patterns he’d never noticed before. He listened: doh-low, doh-high, doh-low, doh-high … doh, sohdoh, midoh, fahdoh, remi, redoh … mi, redoh … Just at that moment three mice scuttled blindly by. The young man followed them into the blacksmiths’ yard, and while the smiths stopped to eat their bread and cheese the mice feasted on crumbs and the young man examined the hammers that lay on the dusty ground.

To cut a long story short, Pythagoras (for it was he!) discovered that the relationships between the different sounds depended on the relative weights of the hammers. He dashed home and plotted the weight ratios he’d observed on a string pulled tight like the string of a guitar: 1:1, the octave (doh-low, doh-high); 3:2, the perfect fifth (soh); 4:3, the perfect fourth (fah); and 5:4, the major third (mi). The story is apocryphal, of course (and who let those pesky mice in?) but somewhere in the mists of time someone did discover the fundamentals of western music in the ambient sounds that filled the world, millennia before the air was invaded by recorded music.

From Festival O/Modernt 2016 programme booklet. To read more click here.

Incarnation

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   The Adoration of the Magi  by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). Lyon MBA | Photo Alain Basset.

The Adoration of the Magi by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). Lyon MBA | Photo Alain Basset.

Incarnation: A Suite of Songs for Christmas

Music: Thomas Hewitt Jones
Words: Paul Williamson
© 2012

1. Advent
2. Falling
3. Wandering
4. Nativity
5. Planting
6. Revelling
7. Epiphany

The Typology of Christmas (from the UK premiere programme note): Three hundred years after it burst into the world as a new faith the spiritual and intellectual exhilaration generated by Christianity was manifested with extreme force and in unusual ways among Syriac-speaking Christians living in a region that now lies in eastern Turkey and northern Syria. Their spiritual fervour is witnessed by the ascetics who went out into the desert, chaining themselves to rocks, wearing heavy weights around their necks or having themselves sealed up in caves in order to mortify the flesh and live out what they believed to be a truly Christian way of life. A notable example was set by St Simeon Stylites (c. 389–459). Simeon spent thirty years living at the top of a stone column (stylos in Greek) that was gradually made taller to separate him from the ever-increasing hordes of visitors who came to ask for his guidance, seek a holy relic or simply to sightsee. Surprising though it may seem, Simeon inspired so many impersonators that column-dwelling became recognised as a distinct mode of monastic life and special rules were drawn up to regulate the conduct of the stylites.

Less obviously spectacular but fired by a similar degree of enthusiasm and excited sense of Christian purpose is the theological vision of St Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306–73), who lived all but the last ten years of his life in the city of Nisibus (now Nuseybin) on the present-day border between Turkey and Syria. As Sebastian Brock explains, a key concept in Ephrem's thinking is that of the insuperable 'chasm' between the creator and creation – between the divine nature on the one hand and the subordinate quality of all created things on the other. The fact that the 'chasm' is impassable is indicative of the inability of limited human intellects to know or to describe God. To know a thing, says Ephrem, is to contain it within the mind. How can the finite human mind contain the uncontainable – the infinite and omniscient? The answer is that it can't, but that God has allowed aspects of himself to be revealed in nature, in Scripture, and most importantly (though still not fully) in the Incarnation, where Christ is made man. Accordingly, human knowledge of God is composed of a flowing multiplicity of partial views that never leads to completeness of understanding but nonetheless provides a dynamic ever-changing vision of that which cannot ever be finally defined or understood. The components of that vision are paradoxes, symbols and types. Its most natural modes of expression are not the definitions and arguments of discursive theological prose but the rhythms and images of poetry, notably poetry combined with music in the form of Syriac madrashe or hymns.

Ephrem's approach to Scripture is symbolic and typological, which means that the greater significance of Old Testament symbols, events and persons is deferred until they are related to their New Testament equivalents. This is a method of juxtapositions, where, for example, Eve's birth from Adam's side in Genesis prefigures the piercing of Christ's side by the Roman soldier during the crucifixion, recorded in John 19:34. From this single association Ephrem weaves what Sebastian Brock calls a 'vast and rich web of exegesis' that connects Adam's rib with Christ's wounded torso; the Roman soldier's lance with the flaming sword that bars the way to Eden after Adam and Eve have been expelled for eating the forbidden fruit; and Eve herself both with the sacraments administered within the Christian church and also with the Virgin Mary. Some of these correspondences can be seen in a brief passage from Kathleen McVey's translation of the eighth of Ephrem's Hymns on the Nativity:

Blessed is the Compassionate One Who saw, next to paradise,
the lance that barred the way
to the Tree of life. He came to take up
the body that would be struck so that by the opening in His side
He might break through the way into paradise.

 

To read the full note from the UK premiere click here.