S, MS, T, Bar, B, (all amplified); 3hn, 2hp, pno, bgtr, 2perc
composed in 1989
dedication: to Alix MacSweeney; in memoriam G.M.H. poetae
commissioned by the BBC
published by Novello and Co
first performed on 15 June 1989, by Singcircle and the London Chamber Symphony, cond. Odaline de la Martinez, at the Concert Hall, Broadcasting House, London
[tape of premiere at NSA]
Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves takes its title from the sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins which forms the main text of the work. The sonnet setting is preceded by an introductory section in which use is made of a Latin text by the Renaissance composer Lassus, and is followed by some lines in Greek taken from a poem by George Seferis. All three texts are concerned in one way or another with the idea of an oracle.
The twelve Sibyls of antiquity who are the subject of Lassus' motet sequence would of course have ben familiar to Hopkins, who was not only a poet and a Jesuit, but a distinguished classical scholar. Lassus' introduction speaks of the Sibyls as boldly declaring in their prophecies the hidden secrets of religion, and underlines his use of a special chromatic language as being artistically appropriate to illustrate their mysterious gifts.
Hopkins' sonnet is full of complex and rich internal rhymes, assonances, dissonances, and syntactical tours de force. But difficult as it may be, these elements are plainly there because, like Lassus' chromatic style, they illustrate the matter in hand. The poem is a mediation, a mediation between the power of darkness and light; the diurnal contrast serving to cast its illuminations and shadows upon the poet's inner world.
Hopkins actually spoke of being pleased by the idea of a musical setting for this powerful poem: presumably he imagined music's ability to give a non-linear realisation of it would make comprehension easier. In setting it as a canon with twelve sections, I have responded to Hopkins' known liking for canon as well as to Lassus' Sibyls, who find an echo in the fundamental material of my work, the twelve intervallically unique triads.
The atmosphere of the music owes something to the images of the ritual whereby the Sibyl was suspended in a darkened cave over a smokey fire of laurel, whose psychotropic effect led to the involuntary utterances characteristic of shamanic practice. The disorientated and overlapping texture of the sonnet give way to a few sentences in Greek: Seferis contemplates Mycenae and sense all around him that voice of the past which at the same instant he recognises as part of himself.