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Luminosity

James Whitbourn

TEXT


I. 

Illuminare. (Illuminate.)

Lux in tenebris lucet et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt.

(The light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overpowered it.)

- John the Apostle


II

Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the changing scenes of Autumn.

I have said enough about moonlight,

ask me no more.

Only listen to the voice of cedars and pines,

when no wind stirs.

- Ryonen (b. 1797) Zen Bhuddist nun


III

Silence is a mystery of the age to come,

but words are instruments of this world.

- Isaac of Nineveh (d.c. 700)

Lux in tenebris lucet.

(The light shines in darkness)


IV

He showed me a little thing,

the size of a hazelnut,

in the palm of my hand,

I looked at it with my mind's eye and thought, 'What can this be?'

And answer came, 'It is all that is made'.

I marvelled that it could last.

And answer came into my mind,

'It lasts and ever shall because God loves it.

And all things have being through the love of God.

- Julian of Norwich (b.c. 1342)


V

It came to me that the soul is like a castle,

a castle of diamond or very clear crystal.

In this castle are a multitude of dwellings,

just as in heavens there are many mansions.

- Teresa of Avila (1515 -1582)


VI

Ask the beauty of the earth,

Ask the beauty of the sea,

Ask the beauty of the sky.

Question the order of the stars,

the sun whose brightness lights the day,

the moon whose splendour softens the gloom of night.

Ask of the living creatures that move in the waves,

Ask the creatures that roam the earth,

Ask the creatures that fly in the heavens.

Question them and they will answer,

'Yes we are beautiful'.

Their very loveliness is their confession of God:

for who made these lovely mutable things,

but he who himself is unchangeable beauty?

- Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430)


VII

Because of our good Lord's tender love to all who shall be saved,

he quickly comforts them, saying,

"The cause of all this pain is sin.

But all shall be well, and all shall be well,

and all manner of thing shall be well."

- Julian of Norwich


PROGRAM NOTES


James Whitbourn: Luminosity


British composers seem to have demonstrated a particular affinity for setting some of the most beautifully exquisite prose and poetry from centuries of distinguished writers. Henry Purcell's settings of the metaphysical poetry of John Donne and Edmund Spenser brought the marriage of especially expressive text and music into the realm of published musical settings that would be cherished from epoch to epoch. 20th- and 21st- century composers continue in this tradition and have drawn upon a wider range of authors. Gerald Finzi set the poems of Edward Taylor; Vaughan Williams used the epic poetry of Matthew Arnold and excerpts from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice; and Benjamin Britten set Gerard Manley Hopkins's Victorian/post-metaphysical verse, to name but a few of the most elegant and searingly compelling recent settings.


If success for composers of classical music could be determined by their popularity among audiences and performers alike, then John Rutter would certainly be at the top of the list of British composers who have focused significantly on choral music. James Whitbourn, a relative newcomer, has enjoyed a similarly meteoric career. A versatile composer with an international reputation for choral music and music for film, television, and concert hall, he is an alumnus of Oxford University, where he studied for his degrees in music as a choral scholar at Magdalen College. His choral works have been performed worldwide. Westminster Choir College, Princeton, NJ, where he has served as composer-in-residence, commissioned the large-scale Luminosity.


The texts heard in tonight's performance range from some of the oldest liturgical verse to Zen Buddhist poetry composed during the first half of the Industrial Revolution. While the Te Deum laudamus has been attributed to no less than four fourth-century authors (Saints Ambrose, Augustine, Hilary, and Bishop Nicetus from Remesiana), it remains one of the most ancient of continuously and often-used sacred texts. Saint Augustine is also the author of Whitbourn's enthrallingly beautiful setting of "All Shall Be Amen and Alleluia," as well as perhaps the most ecstatic section of Luminosity, a work that gathers together the profound truths of luminaries from nearly two millennia of writings about transcendent beauty and eternal love. Luminosity premiered in 2008-originally conceived with further performance elements that utilize dance, light, and space to amplify the breadth of ideas of the universalities expressed by the texts-and Whitbourn's choices of instrumentation consciously bring together worlds of musical traditions. The choirs and organ are joined by a tanpura, a long-necked, plucked Indian drone instrument that plays neither rhythm nor melody, but rather supports and sustains the choral music by providing dynamic harmonic resonance, in this case built on notes of D and A. Eventually, during the course of the first movement, the solo viola is introduced. Lending a distinct context of Western music to the soundscape, the composer indicates that it is to be played with an awareness of the Carnatic style of southern India, drawing upon ancient Hindu musical techniques. At the most exhilarating moments in the score, a suspended tam-tam (gong) is played.


Looking at the various texts and their authors, the earliest verse dates from the first century AD. John the Apostle's words, "The light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overpowered it," immediately establish the theme of the work. The writings of Julian of Norwich, a late-fourteenth-century English mystic who is venerated in both the Lutheran and Anglican churches, and Teresa of Ávila, a Spanish mystic, Carmelite nun, and Roman Catholic saint, contribute contemplative meditations on love and heaven. The words of the Eastern mystic Isaac of Nineveh reflect upon the powers of silence and words; and the verse of the Buddhist nun Ryonen (a descendent of the famous Japanese warrior Shingen) compares the impermanence of life with the timelessness of nature.


-Jeffrey Thomas