more thoughts about the Annunciation

I’ve just completed writing the second orchestral piece of my Annunciation Triptych called ‘Mary/ Transcendence after Trauma’ for which I recently posted some sketches. I wrote about the first part, Sappho/ Bioluminescence earlier this year and now there’s one remaining part to compose, ‘Fatimah/ Flowers of Jubilation’.

Mary/ Transcendence after Trauma was commissioned by the Musica Viva concert series of the Bavarian Radio. Originally to be premiered on 2 Oct 2020 the work has been postponed several times due to the pandemic. [*Update the work was premiered by the WDR Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by Cristian Măcelaru in Cologne on 29 April 2022 and then the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester in Berlin conducted by Lothar Zagrosek on 18 Jan 2023. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Franck Ollu will perform the work on 12 May 2023 in Munich.]

I am very grateful for the association with this incredible series and orchestra which have built up big audiences for new music through their bold curation of substantial projects, first under the directorship of the pioneering experimental composer Josef Anton Reidl and now under Winrich Hopp. This is the third work of mine to be commissioned by Musica Viva and performed by the orchestra, the others being The Compass, 2005-06 (jointly commissioned by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra) and Pearl, Ochre, Hair String, 2010 (jointly commissioned by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra), recordings of which appear on the Hat Art label.

Program note:

Mary/ Transcendence after Trauma was commissioned by Musica Viva for the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and is dedicated to the orchestra.

The work forms the second part of ‘The Annunciation Triptych’, a trilogy of works that celebrate three key icons of women’s spirituality & explore themes of revelation and ritual as the connecting tissue between different traditions. Sappho’s world of erotic trance and hallucination, Mary’s Visitation by the Angel and Passion Play, Fatimah’s Wedding and Lamentation – these stories are also commentaries on ecological, spiritual and transcultural themes in our times.

The work is about 20 minutes in duration and is made up of five sections:

i.     Still Life with foetus and Angel
iia.  Audi, Pontus (Hear, O Sea)
iib.  Audi, Tellus (Hear, O Earth)
iic.  Audi maris magni limbus (Hear, O great earth-girdle of the ocean)
iii.  her wild consent
iv.   Sidera super terram cadent (the Stars fall over the earth)
v.    Mary – Tree of Light

The biblical story of ‘The Annunciation’ tells of the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary. He calls her name and foretells that she will give birth to the Christ child: ‘And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. [King James Version, Luke 1:35] Mary speaks: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.’ [KJV, Luke 1:38]

The work deals with various aspects of ecstatic hearing and speaking. At the opening, everything is heard from Mary’s perspective: she hears a foetal heartbeat and an amniotic song from deep within her body; she senses the arrival of the Angel as an overwhelming sonic halo. In the work, this multi-faceted sensory experience of hearing is also reflected in the quotation of a brief fragment of chant from the conductus ‘Audi Pontus’ found in the Codex Las Huelgas, a Spanish manuscript of music for women’s voices from c.1300 held in the Cistercian convent of Santa Maria la Real de Las Huelgas. The text refers to the Book of Revelation (Chapter 6: 12-13) with its prophetic visions of catastrophe which I connected to an imaginary ‘Passion Play’ of Mary’s visions of a future of thorns, ash and tears. The sonorous Latin text with its exhortation to all corners of the earth and sea to ‘Hear’ a message of cosmic collapse in which ‘the stars fall over the earth’ prefaces the second and fourth parts of the orchestral work.

Audi, Pontus

audi, pontusHear, O sea
audi, tellus / hear, O earth
audi maris magni limbus / hear, O great earth-girdle of the ocean;
audi homo / hear O man
audi omne quod vivit sub sole / hear all that lives beneath the sun.
prope est, veniet / he is near, he will come
Ecce iam dies est / See the day is already here
dies illa, dies invisa, dies amara / that day, that hated day that bitter day
qua celum fugiet / when the heavens will flee
sol erubescet / the sun blush
luna fugabitur / the moon be put to flight
sidera super terram cadent / the stars fall over the earth
Heu, miser, heu miser / Alas O wretched
heu, cur, homo ineptam / alas O man, why
sequeris leticiam / do you pursue false happiness?

Against this melancholia, a brighter reference point for me is Fra Angelico’s iridescent ‘Annunciation’ painting for the Cortona Altarpiece (1433-34) which depicts the exchange between Mary and the Angel in gilded letters. We can read the Angel’s words but must invert our gaze to make out Mary’s speech written in reverse and upside down, addressed as it were, to a divine power looking from above. (Meantime, In the top left-hand corner of the painting an angel with a sword of fire banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.)

Fra Angelico jpeg
Fra Angelico, Annunciation, The Cortona Altarpiece, 1433-34 (public domain)

These esoteric texts and depictions also summon up a strange mix of resonances with our own times. In wrestling with this story, I looked for a reversed vantage point in thinking about spiritual power, taking my cue from Fra Angelico’s representation. I fixed on the element of human agency expressed in Mary’s words of assent in the face of a terrifying announcement and in powerful confrontation with a barely believable message of incarnation.

After hearing comes speaking.

In my piece Mary speaks her truth, or her own annunciation in a section entitled ‘her wild consent’ featuring a bass drum answered by a solo piano and horn. The final section called ‘Mary – Tree of Light’ speaks of a transmutation. Beyond the extinguishment of stars, there is illumination. Out of a woman’s trauma emerges a forgiveness so immense that it has the power to shift the fabric of the world.

  1. […] The BBCSSO under Ilan Volkov are due to play Sappho/ Bioluminescence a couple of days later on 1 May in Glasgow as part of the 2022 Tectonics festival. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Johannes Kalitzke are due to play Mary/ Transcendence after Trauma in October 2022. I’ve written previous blogposts about Sappho/ Bioluminenscence and Mary/ Transcendence after Trauma. […]

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