text: Pope Leo XIII
Duration: c. 20′
Instrumentation: Chorus (SATB), harmonium, piano
(see CIVIL WarS)


April 1, 1983

Gavin’s Notes:

On Photography

For mixed chorus, Harmonium and piano.

This piece was written in 1983 as part of the work I did with Robert Wilson on his large-scale operatic project The CIVIL WarS, designed to be part of the opening of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Although the piece was rehearsed and prepared for recording by the choir of South German Radio in Baden Baden, it was never finally performed due to the collapse of the overall project.

The choice of text and subject matter was mine. At the time we were working on a scene which involved imagery from Jules Verne. I knew that Verne had met Pope Leo XIII in 1884 (a hundred years before our work was due to reach fruition) and that Leo XIII had written a poem Ars Photographica in praise of photography (a modern subject using an archaic language, Latin) when he was still Cardinal Pecci in Perugia in 1867. As it happened, the writer Susan Sontag was considering joining the project and we spoke together several times. I knew, of course, that one of her first major books was on photography, and this led me to set Leo’s text almost as a way of welcoming her on to the team. Until 1994 the manuscript was lost – I eventually found it behind a filing cabinet when clearing my office – but a setting of the text was included in my 1984 cantata Effarene, which rescued and reworked a number of elements from that time. Here the text is set both in Latin and in  Italian translation, and the final section has a brief Latin epitaph. The instrumental accompaniment reflected the fact that I had then recently played the harmonium part in Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle.

Text for On Photography

(Ars Photographica (1867))

Expressa solis spiculo

Nitens imago, quam bene

Frontis decus, vim luminum

Refers, et oris gratiam.


O mira virtus ingeni

Novumque monstrum! Imaginem

Naturae Apelles aemulus

Non pulchriorem pingeret.


(L’Arte Fotografica (trans. Cesario Testa))


Tersa, perfetta imagine,

Di sol da un raggio uscita,

Oh come ben sai rendere

Movenze, aspetto e vita


Oh nuovo e gran miraculo

Dell’Arte! Opre più belle

Ha mai dipinto l’emulo

Della Natura Apelle?


Resonare fibris, labii reatum, mira ut queant laxis mira gestorum Sancte Joannes;

Famuli tuorum solve polluti reatum, ut queant laxis Sancte Joannes.



(On Photography)


Sun-wrought with magic of the skies

The image fair before me lies:

Deep-vaulted brain and sparkling eyes

And lip’s fine chiselling.


O miracle of human thought,

O art with newest marvels fraught –

Apelles, Nature’s rival, wrought

No fairer imaging!

(trans. H.T. Henry, 1902)

Gavin Bryars