Exsultet

2007; hn-str; 18′
Premiered 2 Mar 2007, Jennifer Montone, Philadelphia Classical Symphony, Karl Middleman. Commissioned by the Philadelphia Classical Symphony. Review

1. In the darkness, fire is kindled
2. Procession
3. Exsultet

The Exsultet is an ancient chant sung near the beginning of the Easter Vigil, and is without parallel for its ecstatic yet profound utterance of joy. The Vigil, fixed on the Saturday evening between Good Friday and Easter, balances, as all services do, repentance and thanksgiving. But on this day the tension is the most acute. While the remembrance of Friday’s sacrifice still resonates, the anticipation of Easter’s glory intensifies as dusk falls.

This horn concerto follows the unfolding drama of the Vigil’s opening, the soloist reflecting the interior meditations of the assembled. The three movements are played without pause. The people gather after sunset outside the sanctuary, with unlit candles. The rubric from the Book of Common Prayer states simply, “In the darkness, fire is kindled,” providing the title of the first movement. One by one, the candles receive flame. Contrition and the memory of sacrifice mingle with the growing light as each person is illuminated in silence. Only when all have received is the darkened nave entered.

During “Procession” the evening chorale “Christe, du bist der helle Tag” comes to mind, although no hymn would actually be sung now. In the presence of the light of day, night is banished. At appointed times “Lumen Christi” is intoned, answered by “Deo gratias.” This is the only music from the service that appears in the concerto, here radiated by three solo violins. The enormity of the sanctuary regards the congregants as they gradually become aware of the space that both humbles and uplifts.

The Deacon approaches the lectern, and the upturned faces, reflecting the candlelight pressing against the darkness, follow the one who will announce what, until now, has only been hoped for. To the Deacon, the lowest-level cleric, to this one alone is given the work of proclaiming the one word all have gathered to hear, the word that will shatter the gloom of despair and pierce the soul.

“Exsultet.” To all angels, rejoice. To every created thing, rejoice. To all gathered here and around the world, rejoice. This is the night we must pass through to rejoice. This is the night where all sacrifice ends. This is the night that turns clear as day.

It is an ancient, mystical invocation. One imagines the angels and all creation slowly turning, attracted to the light and the chant, and stepping into a dance, giving themselves over to an estampie of praise. All are caught up in it: one leads, then another. Even in rejoicing, though, contemplation travels alongside, and so the concerto ends much as it began, in the silence of remembrance, in the warmth of gathering, in the flicker of the light of hope.

First performance 2 March 2007, Jennifer Montone, horn, with the Philadelphia Classical Symphony, Karl Middleman, conductor, at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia.

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