The Voice of St Columba

Description: 

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