Notes for The Revelations of Divine Love (Metaphors from Sea and Sky) by the composer
The Revelations of Divine Love (Metaphors from Sea and Sky) (2009), an oratorio for soprano, baritone, chorus, and chamber orchestra, was commissioned for and is dedicated to the choir of Royal Holloway, University of London, Rupert Gough, director of choral music.
The texts of the work are adapted primarily from the writings of Julian of Norwich (c. 1342–1416). Julian is best-known for her Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love (c. 1339), believed to be the first English-language book written by a woman. Considered one of the most significant English mystics of all time, Julian lived a reclusive life as an anchoress at the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England (her true name is unknown). Regarded even during her lifetime as a spiritual authority, her optimistic visions have been very influential in the years that have followed.
Texts are also drawn from three additional sources: an excerpt from the Book of Margery Kempe (translated by Christopher M. Brunelle), two poems by English poet Robert Herrick (1591–1674), and a poem by the American writer Elizabeth Kirschner (b. 1955).
The primary concept underlying this oratorio is the presence of two distinct discourses. One is a sequence taken from Julian’s religious visions. The other is a “sonic geography” of Nantucket Island (located 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts in the United States). This interconnected concept was inspired by the writings of the great Scottish poet George Mackay Brown (1921–1996). Living his entire life on Scotland’s Orkney Islands, Mackay Brown consistently explored the “transposition” of religious imagery and events to his native landscape. (For example, the poem Apple-Basket, Apple-Blossom takes the story and structure of the Stations of the Cross, and maps them onto imagery of distinctly Orcadian character.)
The landscape of Nantucket Island has been the driving force behind a large number of my compositions for many years. In this oratorio, Julian’s visions are transposed from Norwich and mapped onto the Nantucket landscape. Each movement of the work thus has two parallel purposes: a setting of the visionary words, and a portrayal of a specific place in Nantucket’s geography. Much of the music was planned in the actual locations. Since the soloists and choir must, by necessity, sing the words, a great deal of the landscape is left to the orchestra. Thus, the orchestra’s role is substantially greater than simply accompaniment.
Because of these two discourses, the oratorio is not intended as comprehensive “working out” of all aspects of Julian’s visions, nor does it use her own structure and sequence. Rather, it takes her beautiful words, and the fundamentals of her visions, and attempts to create a new narrative and spiritual experience from them.
An oratorio in eighteen movements
The music begins with Sinfonia I, set at Brant Point, one of Nantucket’s three lighthouses, appearing at the place of entry into the harbor.
These next three movements form the first section of the work, focusing on “biographical” elements. They are set at Nantucket’s harbor mouth, a point of entry and discovery.
Prologue sets an excerpt from the Book of Margery Kempe (1438). In this section of her autobiography, Kempe visits Julian in Norwich to seek counsel regarding spiritual visions Kempe had recently experienced. This text is sung in Latin, representing a transitional entry point into the modern English of the remainder of the work—much in the manner of entering the harbor.
In Invocation: Three Petitions, Julian tells how she asked for three gifts of God, all of which were necessary prerequisites for her visions.
To Ever-loving God sets a poem by Robert Herrick describing the soul’s longing for flight. (The two Herrick poems used in this piece represent the “sky” and “sea”, respectively.)
The Blood from the Garland is a dramatic depiction of one of Julian’s visions. The imagery which Julian employs throughout her writing is extremely tactile (and often sensual) in its impact; in this case, she experienced the physicality of the blood very directly. This movement is set at Coatue, a spit of uninhabited land that separates the outer harbor from Nantucket Sound. In particular, the setting here is the far side of Coatue, looking out to the dark, rough waters of the Sound.
In Prayer, we walk back across the dunes to the calm side of Coatue, looking into the upper harbor. The text is one of Julian’s most beautiful prayers: a serenely simple reflection of all-encompassing God.
God in All Things is set at Polpis, within the lower harbor—in particular, the quiet, marshy inlets off of the harbor’s waters. The music is devotional in character.
The Fiend sets the most violent vision in Julian’s writings; while sick unto death, she is visited and tormented by the Devil. This movement is set at Surfside, on Nantucket’s South Shore: violent waves and a largely desolate landscape.
Immediately after the Devil leaves her, Julian is shown a beautiful vision of “the city of the soul in the middle of the heart.” In this music, we move to Madaket—though the violent ocean landscape is still nearby, its character is tempered by the glorious, legendary sunsets—serenely vibrant experiences.
We travel very far up into the inner harbor for two visions: the ebullient Three Heavens and the hushed All Shall Be Well (which sets some of Julian’s most famous words). Here, the two faces of Wauwinet are explored as an archetype for the seasonal character of much of the rest of Nantucket. The summer landscape is energetic and dance-like; the winter landscape is quiet and serene.
Secrets is set at Altar Rock, a post-glacial rock formation, located inland at the top of a hill. Whether or not it served (as some legends tell) as a place of meeting for American Indian religious ceremonies, it has come to represent a place of natural spirituality that does not give up all its secrets. Julian tells of God’s two kinds of secrets: those revealed to us now and those that are hidden until a future time.
The Path to Grace takes us on the road to Sankaty Head, another of the island’s lighthouses. The sentiment of the text—“we are often dead, according to the judgment of this world; yet in the sight of God, the soul that shall be saved was never dead”—depicts well the sense of Sankaty Bluff. Its continual erosion by the sea presents a significant ongoing problem for the island residents who, despite the death of the land, are committed to the life of that place.
Eternitie is the second poem by Robert Herrick, this time representing the sea. Because of its height, Sankaty Bluff’s view of the ocean is one of the island’s most beautiful, showing well the sense of “vast Eternitie” that is the endless sea.
Endless Love is a simple, folk-like duet for the two soloists and is set at Hummock Pond: a place whose waters are still and fresh, largely unconcerned by the vagaries of the nearby ocean surf.
It is I is set at Miacomet Beach, a place whose night landscape imparts a sense of rooted power. Julian hears the voice of God, and the music adopts the character of a French Baroque overture.
Sinfonia II is set in the Coskata Wildlife Refuge, which is an appropriate place, before the finale, to pause for prayerful reflection.
In the final movement, In the Wake of Making, a poem by Elizabeth Kirschner finally makes the narrative of sea and sky explicit in the sung text—drawing together both the religious and natural visions. For this finale, we stand at Great Point, the third and final of the island’s lighthouses. It is located at the island’s very tip, amidst nothing but the coming of morning: sea, sky, and a final piercing beam into the departing night.
(The paintings of Nantucket Island on this page are by Loretta Yoder and are used with permission.)
Carson P. Cooman
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Duration/Durée - ca 65minutes
Study Score/Partition 24€.95
Duration/Durée - ca 65minutes
Vocal Score/Partition vocal 19€.95