New piece for the Hilliard Ensemble and the strings of the Norwegian Chamnber Orchestra – performances December 10 and 11 2012, Oslo.
The Voice of St Columba
Over the last few years I have written a number of works using texts and subject matter from old northern sources. These have included settings of 10th century Icelandic poetry (From Egil’s Saga), traditional and saga texts in Faroese (Tróndur í Gøtu) and 7th century Irish voyager saints (St Brendan arrives at the Promised Land of the Saints). For this new work for the Hilliard Ensemble, with the strings of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, I have set two very beautiful texts from St Columba, both of which deal with the power of the human voice. The first part “Colum’s Voice” describes the extraordinary physical and magical power of his voice, and the second “On Hinba” its revelatory qualities. The idea of using texts that deal with the human voice was, of course, suggested in part by my association with the Hilliard Ensemble, with whom I first worked almost 25 years ago, but also because of my friendship with the Scandinavian Trio Mediaeval, one of whose members, the Swedish soprano Anna Maria Friman, sings with my ensemble and whose two other members are Norwegian. The piece is in two parts, following the texts, and each section has introductory material for the string orchestra. Although there is some divisi within the string writing, it is essentially quite simple in order not to take attention away from the clarity and directness of the texts.
The piece is dedicated to the Norwegian singer Torunn Østrem Ossun.
The Voice of Saint Columba
I Colum’s Voice
The voice of the venerable man
when he sang in the church with his brothers
was heard half a mile away
and sometimes a mile away
And yet, strangely, when he spoke to those who stood with him in church
his voice was not uncommonly loud
and yet those who stood a mile away
could make out every word.
This miracle of the blessed man’s voice
happened only rarely and could not have happened without the grace of the Divine Spirit.
It is told that once outside the fortress of a king
the saint began to celebrate with a few brothers and according to custom
the praises of God
Certain magicians came close to them
and tried to prevent the singing
lest the sound of divine praise be heard by heathen ears.
Understanding this, the saint began to sing: “We have heard with our ears, O God,
Our fathers have told us, what work thou didst in their days, in the times of old,
How thou didst drive out the heathen with thy hand…”
and in the same moment his voice was raised in the air
like a terrible peal of thunder
that the king and his people were filled with dread
II On Hinba
At another time when the holy man was on Hinba
the grace of the Holy Spirit was poured out upon him
abundantly and incomparably
and continued marvellously for the space of three days
so that for three days and as many nights
barred in a house filled with light
he allowed no one to go near him
and he neither ate nor drank
From the house beams of immeasurable brightness were seen in the night
escaping through chinks in the door-leaves and latches
And the watchers heard spiritual songs that were being sung
unknown to any.
He afterwards admitted to a few men
that he had seen, openly revealed
things that have been hidden since the beginning of the world
and that light was shone on the darkest places of the scriptures
and shown more clearly than the day to the eyes of his purest heart.
Trans. Brian Morton