Worlds: Voices of the Mystics
This program will be performed on April 28 & 29,
seemed at first in a state of utter blankness; then
came flashes of intense
light, alternating with blackness,
and with a keen vision of what was going on in the
room around me, but no sensation of touch. I thought
that I was near death; when, suddenly, my soul became
aware of God, who was manifestly dealing with me, handling
me, so to speak, in an intense personal present reality.
I felt him streaming
in like light upon me.... I cannot
describe the ecstasy I felt.
this question remains, is it possible that the inner
sense of reality which
succeeded, when my flesh was
dead to impressions from without, to the
of physical relations, was not a delusion but an actual
Is it possible that I, in that moment,
felt what some of the saints have said
felt, the undemonstrable but irrefragable certainty
Professor William James, in his 1902 classic Varieties
of Religious Experience, records this report as given
to him by J.A. Symonds. Mr. Symonds’ mystical altered
state was a result of the use of chloroform. James tells
us that the mystical state is defined by four determining
qualities: ineffability (a quality of awe, too sacred
to be described); noetic quality (knowledge or insight);
transiency (fleeting time periods, without perfect memory
recall); passivity (union with God or an ideal). The
mystic experience may also be accompanied by unusual
experiences of ecstasy, levitation, visions, and power
to read human hearts, to heal, and to perform other unusual
acts. Mysticism occurs in most, if not all, the religions
of the world, although its importance within each varies
program, Unseen Worlds, offers a musical glimpse into
this mystery of all mysteries: mysticism. In a Newsweek
article, April 13, 1998, 47% of Christians said they
had personally experienced the Holy Spirit. Could Hildegard
von Bingen have suffered from migraines and their effects?
Could St. John of the Cross have suffered with severe
depression? Could St. Teresa of Avila been faking it?
Does it matter whether she was a psychotic or a saint?
Could chloroform and mescaline and nitrous oxide be responsible
for mystical altered states? Perhaps, in the end, it
is more about the effects of these experiences than the
stimuli. The music we offer you is a reflection of these
experiences – mystical texts, thoughts, principles
set to music. We give you a wide spectrum of possibilities
through choral color, sound and idea.
Hymns from the Rig Veda
We open our program with the
first set of Gustav Holst’s famous Choral Hymns
from the Rig Veda, Op. 26. The years 1900 through 1912
could be thought of as Holst’s “Sanskrit” period.
Inspired by his Theosophist stepmother, Holst developed
an interest in the religious literature and poetry of
India in his mid-twenties, going so far as to learn the
rudiments of the Sanskrit language at University College,
London, so that he could make his own translations. His
first effort in this vein was the opera Sita (1900-1906);
later came works like the opera Sàvitri (1908),
the choral work The Cloud Messenger (1909-1910), and
the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, written between 1908
Rig Veda (Sanskrit: a compound meaning “praise” + “knowledge”)
is an ancient Indian sacred collection of Vedic hymns.
It is counted among the four canonical sacred texts of
Hinduism, known as the Vedas. Some of the verses are
still recited as Hindu prayers, putting these among the
world’s oldest religious texts in continued use,
composed roughly between 1700-1100 BC or the early Vedic
period. The Rig Veda contains several mystical, mythological
and poetical accounts of the origin of the world, hymns
praising the gods, and ancient prayers for life.
first group (written in 1908-1910 and premiered at Newcastle
on December 6, 1911) is scored for mixed chorus. It opens
with the primitivistic “Battle Hymn,” with
its repeated refrain “Indra and Maruts fight for
us!” The Maruts are Indra’s attending stormclouds,
the warriors in his battles with the demons, and throughout,
earnest appeals are made to Indra and the Maruts to fight
for the worshippers. The second hymn, “To the Unknown
God,” begins with the chorus singing quietly in
unison, and builds to a huge climax over martial rhythms.
The set concludes with a “Funeral Hymn,” which
acknowledges the finality of death, while urging those
left behind to embrace life.
Lassus’ Prophetiae Sibyllarum (or Sibylline
Prophecies) were composed circa 1560. In motet composition,
Lassus assembled the styles fashionable in Italy in his
youth: tonally controlled chromaticism, distinctive,
finely chiseled thematic material, dazzling vocal textures,
imitation, voice pairing, harmonic clarity and solidity.
Sibylline Oracles are a collection of cryptic half-pagan,
half-Christian poems, believed by some to prophesy the
birth of Christ. Who were the Sibyls? The earliest explicit
textual evidence for an inspired prophetess named Sibylla
occurs in the fifth century, B.C. From these references,
it appears that her words were circulated as books of
prophecy and that her name was inserted in these oracular
story of the oracles goes something like this: the Cumaean
Sibyl brought nine books of her oracles to Tarquinius
Priscus, who at that time ruled the public affairs of
the Romans. She asked three hundred philippics for them:
Tarquinius was not interested and scorned her, so she
burned three of the books. Again, she brought the remaining
six books to Tarquinius and demanded the same amount
of money. And again, she was scorned and sent away. So
she burned three more books. Then she came again, with
the remaining three books, demanding the same price and
declaring to Tarquinius that she would surely burn the
remaining three if he did not comply. This time, the
King felt fear and began to worry. He bought and read
the remaining books, and, as he was filled with such
wonder, made a collection in ancient Rome of all the
Sibyls’ oracles. The collection mentioned ten Sibyls.
(We are offering the colorful prologue and the Persian
Sibyl and the Libyan Sibyl).
music in its chromaticism is an attempt to produce magic.
If you look at the 15th and 16th centuries, you will
find that alchemy was taught at university as a respected
intellectual pursuit. In reading these alchemical texts,
we find the words couched in the language of science.
But this is allegorical. The intent was not to turn base
metal into gold: but to transmute the soul into the higher
realm. The allegory is usually in terms of color. Alchemical
processes are characterized by a putrefaction that’s
black and moves chromatically – chromatic metaphor.
Lassus’ use of chord color is somehow an attempt
in music to model these alchemical transformations. Now
if it is true – Lassus’ intention to evoke
alchemical transformation – the music will actually
be magic itself.
Egil Hovland is one of Norway’s most productive
and popular contemporary composers. He has written symphonic
works, concerti for various instruments, chamber music,
choral works, children’s music and a great number
of sacred works of varying dimensions, including a church
opera, church ballets and music to modern biblical plays.
Since 1949 he has held the post of organist and choir-master
at the church of Glemmen in the city of Fredrikstad.
Mr. Hovland has won several significant musical awards
and in 1983 was made a Knight of the Royal Order of Saint
Olav in recognition of his services to Norwegian music
both as composer and performer.
his stirring work Saul, Hovland gives us a haunting and
piercing vision of the moment that Saul, at the peak
of his destruction and persecution of Christ’s
followers, is met with one of the great mystical experiences
of the New Testament, a blinding conversion. According
to Acts, a bright light blinded Saul, and then he heard
God asking, “Why do you persecute me,” a
mystical voice Saul interpreted as God communicating
with him. Saul immediately changed his name to Paul and
joined the Church as an apostle, spreading Jesus’ teachings
throughout the known world. Hovland gives the chorus
the voice of an impassioned God, while a narrator maintains
the biblical thread.
sie mi Signore
Ronald Perera’s (b. Boston, 1941)
compositions include operas, song cycles, chamber, choral,
and orchestral works, and several works for instruments
or voices with electronic sounds. He is perhaps best
known for his settings of texts by authors as diverse
as Dickinson, Joyce, Grass, Sappho, Cummings, Shakespeare,
Melville, Updike, Henry Beston and Francis of Assisi. “Laudate
sie mi Signore” is a movement from his dramatic
cantata Canticle of the Sun, which sets only a fragment
from St. Francis’ most famous canticle.
Francis of Assisi, “the little beggar,” is
perhaps the most popular saint in history. He was born
in 1182 in Assisi, Italy, and his baptismal name was
John, but his father renamed him Francesco, in honor
of his love for France. A handsome, charming, wealthy
and educated young man, he spent his early life dreaming
of knighthood and longing for the adventurous life of
chivalry. In pursuit of that dream, he joined the war
between Assisi and Perugia at the age of 20.
that war, Francis was wounded and taken prisoner. Spending
the next year in a dungeon, he contracted malaria. Ransomed
by his father, a more reflective Francis returned to
Assisi. The military victories of Count Walter of Brienne
revived Francis’ desire for knighthood. Under the
Count’s command, he hoped to win his favor and
become a knight. On his way to join Brienne, Francis
stopped in Spoleto and heard the shocking news of the
night a mysterious voice asked him, “Who do you
think can best reward you, the Master or the servant?” Francis
answered, “The Master.” The voice continued, “Why
do you leave the Master for the servant?” Francis
realized the servant was Count Walter. He left Spoleto
convinced God had spoken to him. From that moment on,
Francis began to care for the sick and the poor – especially
the lepers – convinced that this was what God had
called him to do.
call came in 1205, when, in a dramatic moment of prayer
in the abandoned Church of San Damiano, Francis heard
a voice coming from the crucifix, which challenged him
to rebuild the church. At first he thought it meant that
he should rebuild San Damiano, so he sold some of his
father’s cloth to raise money to build the Church
at San Damiano. His father, who was already upset about
the life he was leading, took him to court, where he
was ordered to pay back the money. Francis complied with
a dramatic gesture, renouncing his inheritance. Dressed
only in a workman’s smock, he left town and spent
the next two years as a hermit, taking a vow of poverty
and dedicating his life to God.
begged for his food, wore old clothes, and preached peace.
He began to attract followers, and in 1209 with a papal
blessing he founded the Friars Minor (Franciscans). Then
in 1212 with St. Clare of Assisi, he founded the Order
of “Poor Ladies,” now known as the “Poor
Clares.” He also founded the “Third Order
of Penance” (the Third Order), which included lay
people. He was the first person (recorded) to receive
the stigmata (the five wounds of Christ) in 1224. Out
of humility Francis never accepted the priesthood but
remained a deacon all his life. It is thought that, although
ill, broken of spirit and depressed, Francis, in a moment
of ecstasy, composed the beautiful, triumphant Canticle
of the Sun for his beloved order of friars, some time
died at the age of 44 on October 4, 1226 at Portiuncula,
Italy. He was canonized by Pope Gregory IX less than
two years later.
in the Lamb
The poem Jubilate Agno, or Rejoice in the
Lamb, was written by that Cambridge prodigal Christopher
Smart (nicknamed “Kit”), 1722-71, while confined
in a madhouse. In 1742, Smart became a Scholar of Cambridge
University, and in 1745 he was elected a Fellow of Pembroke
and Keeper of the Common Chest. His Cambridge career
came to an end in 1749, as he was beset by delusions,
debt and alcoholism. Despite these hurdles, Smart managed
to win the Seatonian Prize (newly founded in Cambridge,
given to the best English poem on a sacred subject) five
times between 1750 and 1755.
dates have been assigned to Smart’s first “attack
of insanity.” Among Smart’s eccentricities
was his penchant for public prayers; he insisted upon
his friends praying with him, and he would fall upon
his knees in the street to pour forth his prayers, in
spite of the jeers of passers-by. Dr. Samuel Johnson,
friend and supporter, took a moderate view of Smart’s
madness: “His infirmities were not noxious to society.
He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d
as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else.” Smart
entered a private madhouse in Bethnal Green in 1758 where
he remained until January, 1763. Rejoice in the Lamb was the result of this confinement. Whatever the reason
for his confinement, and whatever the cause of his illness,
Rejoice in the Lamb remains the most extraordinary and
mystical poem known to have been written during the 18th
century, and the most eloquent of testaments to the creative
and spiritual potential of madness.
structural basis for Smart’s poem is deceptively
straightforward. Each standard verse comprises a series
of ‘Let’ statements – after the structure
of the sacred poetry of the Psalms – followed by
antiphonal ‘For’ statements (Psalm 95, for
example: ‘Let us come before his presence with
thanksgiving... For the Lord is a great God’). “Let
Daniel come forth with a Lion, and praise God with all
his might through faith in Christ Jesus. For I will consider
my Cat Jeoffry. For he is the servant of the Living God,
duly and daily serving him.”
Rejoice in the Lamb, Smart saw himself as being entrusted
with a divine and evangelical mission: “I am the
Lord’s New-Writer – the scribe-evangelist.” Smart
summons each and every known bird, animal, fish and insect,
as well as most of the named figures from the Old Testament,
to associate with him in his praise of God Almighty.
In his madness, Smart possessed a vision that looks across
the whole of creation and revels in the accumulation
of species, names, knowledge, sound and language.
believed that Saul, at the moment of his conversion, “heard
certain words which it was not possible for him to understand.
For they were constructed by uncommunicated letters.
For they are signs of speech too precious to be communicated
for ever.” The whole structure of Rejoice
in the Lamb, therefore, is a massive substitute for what
cannot be otherwise spoken, written or understood: the
name of God. It is a stand-in for silence, not a silence
that demands absence, but a silence fuller and more resonant
than any linguistic construct of which the mind is capable.
Britten chose to set ten short sections of Smart’s
longer work. Rejoice in the Lamb, the centerpiece of
our program, is scored for chorus, soloists and virtuoso
organ. The first two sections set the mood and give examples
of names being summoned from the pages of the Old Testament
to join with some creature in praising and rejoicing
in God. What follows is a quiet and ecstatic Hallelujah – the
first moment that Britten steps into this mystical arena.
It is a haunting moment, filled with presence and power.
Sections 4 through 6 offer Smart’s take on nature
praising and rejoicing in God. You will hear from a cat,
a mouse, and the flowers. In the seventh section, Smart
relays his own troubles and suffering: “For I am
in twelve hardships, but he that was born of a virgin
shall deliver me.” Sections 8 and 9 offer four
letters from the alphabet, leading to a full chorus that
heralds the praise of God through musical instruments.
At this point, Smart gives us his reason for the entire
poem of praise, “For at that time malignity ceases,
and the devils themselves are at peace.” Britten
responds to Smart’s short respite from madness
with a repetition of his rapturous Hallelujah.
closing this magical mystery tour, I leave you with one
last thought from William James:
the least mystical of you must by this time be convinced
of the existence of mystical moments as states of consciousness
of an entirely specific quality, and of the deep impression
which they make on those who have them.”
Ring Frank, Music Director