Monthly Archives: April 2016

Enkindling Love, by Gillian T. W. Ahlgren

EnkindlingLoveBefore Wednesday’s rehearsal of Canticle the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati and Craig Hella Johnson brought in a special guest to speak to the musicians and a few friends of the group. VAE invited Gillian Ahlgren to speak to us about St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.

Dr. Ahlgren teaches at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where she is Professor of Theology and the newly appointed Director of the Institute for Spirituality and Social Justice. She is an internationally-recognized scholar of Teresa of Avila, having written three books on this great mystic saint. Her newest book, just released, considers the intellectual and spiritual relationship between St. Teresa and the author of the text I set for Canticle, St. John of the Cross.

Ahlgren’s brief talk was scintillating and enlightening, and I realized that I had never seen anything like this before. Pre-concert lectures are often seen (for better or worse) nowadays, yet I’ve never known of an organization that brought in someone to speak to the musicians. It was such a simple and thoughtful gesture on the part of VAE to allow the singers and instrumentalists to enter more fully into the text they were proclaiming. I was deeply impressed.

It’s one of a growing number of things that impresses me about VAE, Craig Hella Johnson, and their staff and board.

Here are the notes for Canticle. Commissioned by the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati, Craig Hella Johnson, Music Director, it’s for SATB choir, three cellos, and one percussionist playing vibraphone, bass drum, tambourine. It’s about 65 minutes long. The text is A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ by St. John of the Cross (1542–1591). It premieres 30 April 2016, Lakeside Presbyterian Church, Lakeside Park, Kentucky, and 1 May 2016, Old St. Mary’s Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.


Canticle. Commissioned by the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati, Craig Hella Johnson, Music Director. SATB, 3 cellos, 1 percussionist playing vibraphone, bass drum, tambourine. 65′. Review

Premiered 30 April 2016, Lakeside Presbyterian Church, Lakeside Park, Kentucky, and 1 May 2016, Old St. Mary’s Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Text: A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ by St. John of the Cross (1542–1591), translations by David Lewis (1864), with corrections by Benedict Zimmerman, O.C.D. (1909), and, in the Catholic Treasury, updates of pronouns added by Harry Plantinga (1993/5, public domain). A few minor alterations were introduced by me after reference to the original.


Head of a Stag (1634). Diego Velázquez, 1599–1660

Canticle is a setting of the great mystical work of St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ, or as it’s often and simply known, the Spiritual Canticle. The 40-stanza poem is revered as one of the great religious and literary works of the 16th century. Following the tradition of the biblical Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs), St. John personifies, with symbolic and beautiful imagery, the journey of the soul, through the travails of the world, to union with her bridegroom.

Though John of the Cross is a revered Christian saint (he also wrote what is known as The Dark Night of the Soul), he does not mention Christ in the Spiritual Canticle, nor does he delineate any theology. It abounds with religious symbolism, but like the Song of Solomon from the Torah, it is a poem with universal appeal. Adherents of all spiritual and meditative disciplines will immediately recognize the dangers, delights, side-steps, ecstasy, and peace described in the Spiritual Canticle.

Canticle is composed for choir with three cellos and one percussionist playing vibraphone, bass drum, and tambourine. Lasting just over an hour, it follows the three sections laid out by St. John, each prefaced by a short instrumental statement. These Meditations use an old Swedish Sanctus, the “Holy, Holy, Holy” played by one cello in the opening, then two cellos in imitative counterpoint to open Section Two, then three at the beginning of the last section, all accompanied by vibraphone.

Section One, The Search for the Beloved, covers about one-third of the length of the piece, but Section Two, Preparations for Perfect Union, takes only half that time, leaving about a half-hour, or one-half of the total duration, for Section Three, Full Union. These sections and any movements headed by titles (The Bride, The Bridegroom, Question of the Creatures, Answer of the Creatures) were so designated by St. John.

Since the poem is in 40 five-line stanzas (each of which in the Spanish follow the same rhythm and rhyme scheme), I early decided to combine them into various groupings. I hoped to complement the logic and tempo of the narrative—for it is a narrative, however symbolic and mysterious—while allowing the various musical settings to have their own way. A few verses stand by themselves, and one is split into two parts (Nos. 8 and 9 here), just as in the poem.

Since the lion’s share of the text given to a character is the Bride’s, it wouldn’t do to assign the Bride to the women and the Bridegroom to the men. Either the men wouldn’t have much to sing at all, or the words would have to be unbalanced with repetition, an intolerable burden on an already long text. Besides, since we are all the Bride seeking the Bridegroom, we must all be able to partake in the representation, so the choral parts and occasional soloists from within the choir are used in whatever manner that seemed appropriate musically.

St. John himself wrote an exhaustive commentary on his own work, clearly explaining all the imagery and symbolism. Here is a good online resource. Much of the language will be familiar to anyone who has read mystical literature or metaphysical poetry, but still, there are some difficulties.

The foxes in No. 10, for instance, are those thoughts or intrusions that would destroy the garden or its fruit. In No. 13, “where your mother was corrupted,” “mother” is our human nature which dies, but which the Bridegroom redeems. (This is the only place where I transposed a line for musical purposes, here from the fifth line of the original stanza 23 to the second line.) In No. 14, “if you found me dark before,” as in the similar Song of Solomon passage, refers to a peasant—tanned or swarthy by working under the sun in the fields and vineyards—who is noticeably darker than someone of high rank. Aminadab in No. 18 is Satan, who, by the end, is nowhere to be found.

At times the inspiration of the Spain of St. John of the Cross may be guessed at. Plucked cellos may be reminiscent of a guitar, the tambourine may recall a dance, and the swaying twos against threes may bring to mind music from the late Renaissance. The juxtaposition of spirituality and earthiness, each echoing and symbolizing the other, will be found here, as it is in music from that time. More than feints, however, toward this or that musical landmark are not to be found, I don’t believe.

My love of modes will be evident. There isn’t too much by way of musical riddles, but text-painting is everywhere. In No. 6 “O crystal spring,” the women’s voices mirror themselves and likewise do the men’s; the “if only” imitative part gradually spreads out as ripples.

Music, lending voice and texture to words that they themselves cannot denote, is nevertheless hindered. From the many layers of meaning that St. John of the Cross points to in his commentary, I might focus on only one or two in each stanza as I chose a musical tapestry. But music, like love, will provide its own reasons, and in this I rest, hoping that there may be untapped surprises and comfort in any performance of Canticle.


I. The Search for the Beloved

  1. Meditation
  2. The Bride: Where have you hidden yourself

•    Where have you hidden yourself,
and abandoned me in my groaning, O my Beloved?
You fled like the stag,
after wounding me.
I ran after you, crying; but you were gone.
•    O shepherds, you who go
through the sheepfolds to the hill,
if by chance you see him
whom I love the most,
tell him I languish, suffer, and die.
•    In search of my Love,
I will go over mountains and riverbanks,
and gather no flowers,
and fear no beasts,
and pass by the mighty and the frontiers.

  1. Question to the Creatures

•    O forests and thickets
planted by the hand of the Beloved!
O verdant meadows
enameled with flowers!
Tell me, has he passed by you?

  1. Answer of the Creatures

•    Pouring out a thousand graces
he quickly passed these groves,
and having looked at them,
with only his image
clothed them in beauty.

  1. The Bride: Alas! who can heal me?

•    Alas! who can heal me?
Give yourself at once to me,
do not send me
any more messengers today
who cannot tell me what I want.
•    And all who wander sing to me
a thousand graceful things of you,
yet they wound me more and more,
and leave me to die,
of I know not what, from all their stammering.
•    But how do you persevere,
O life, not living where you live,
and being brought near death
by the arrows you receive
from your imaginations of the Beloved?
•    Why, after wounding
this heart, have you not healed it?
And why, after stealing it,
have you abandoned it,
and not carried away the stolen goods?
•    Quench my troubles,
none can soothe them.
Let my eyes behold you,
for you are their light,
and I will keep them for you alone.
•    Reveal your presence,
and let the vision and your beauty kill me.
Behold, the malady
of love is incurable
except in your presence and before your face.

  1. O crystal spring!

•    O crystal spring!
If only on your mirrored surface
you would suddenly bring forth
those desired eyes
which are outlined deep in my heart!


II. Preparations for Perfect Union

      1. Meditation
      2. Turn them away, O my Beloved!

•    Turn them away, O my Beloved!
I am on the wing.

      1. The Bridegroom: Return, my Dove!

Return, my Dove!
The wounded stag
looms on the hill
in the air of your flight and is refreshed.

      1. My Beloved is the mountains

•    My Beloved is the mountains,
the solitary wooded valleys,
the strange islands,
the resounding rivers,
the whispering amorous breeze;
•    The tranquil night
at the approaching dawn,
the silent music,
the murmuring solitude,
the supper reviving and enkindling love.
•    Catch us the foxes,
for our vineyard is in flower;
while we make an intricate
wreath of roses
let no one appear on the hill.
•    O killing north wind, cease!
Come, south wind, that awakens love!
Blow through my garden,
and let its odors flow,
and the Beloved will feed among the flowers.
•    O nymphs of Judea!
While among the flowers and the roses
the amber spreads its perfume,
tarry on the outskirts,
and do not touch our thresholds.
•    Hide yourself, O my Beloved!
Turn your face to the mountains,
and do not speak,
but regard the companions
going with her through strange islands.

      1. The Bridegroom: Swift-winged birds

•    Swift-winged birds,
lions and fawns and bounding does,
mountains and valleys and river banks,
waters, winds, and heat,
and the terrors that keep watch by night;
•    By the pleasant lyres
and the siren strains, I conjure you,
let your fury cease,
and touch not the wall,
that the bride may sleep more securely.


III. Full Union

      1. Meditation
      2. The bride has entered

•    The bride has entered
the sweet garden of her desire;
she rests in delight,
resting her neck
on the sweet arms of the Beloved.
•    Beneath the apple tree
where your mother was corrupted,
there were you betrothed;
there I offered you my hand,
and redeemed you.

      1. The Bride: Our bed is in flower

•    Our bed is in flower,
by dens of lions encompassed,
hung with purple,
made in peace,
and crowned with a thousand shields of gold.
•    In your footsteps
maidens run along the way;
the touch of the fire
and the spiced wine
cause the divine balsam to flow in me.
•    In the inner cellar
I drank of my Beloved,
and when I went abroad
over all this valley I knew nothing
and lost the flock I followed before.
•    There he gave me his breast,
and taught me the science of sweetness.
And there I gave to him
myself without reserve;
there I promised to be his bride.
•    Now I occupy my soul
and all my substance in his service;
I no longer guard the flock,
nor have I any other work:
My every act is love.
•    If, then, on the common land
I am no longer seen or found,
you will say that I am lost;
that, stricken by love,
I lost myself, and yet was found.
•    With flowers and emeralds
gathered on cool mornings
we shall weave garlands
flowering in your love,
and bound with one hair of my head.
•    You considered
that one hair fluttering on my neck;
you gazed at it upon my neck;
you were captivated,
and wounded by one of my eyes.
•    When you regarded me
your eyes imprinted your grace in me;
for this you loved me ardently;
and thus my eyes deserved
to adore what they saw in you.
•    Despise me not;
for if you found me dark before,
you truly now you can look at me,
since you regarded me,
and gave me grace and beauty.

      1. The little white dove

•    The little white dove
has returned to the ark with an olive branch;
and now the turtledove
has found its longed-for mate
by the green river banks.

      1. In solitude she lived

•    In solitude she lived,
in solitude she now has built her nest,
in solitude he guides her,
alone, he, who also bears
in solitude the wound of love.

      1. The Bride: Let us rejoice

•    Let us rejoice, Beloved,
let us go forth to see ourselves in your beauty,
to the mountain and to the hill,
where the pure water flows,
and farther, deep into the thicket.
•    We shall go at once
to the deep caverns in the rock
which are so well concealed.
There we shall enter in
and taste the juice of pomegranates.
•    There you will show me
what my soul has been seeking,
and then you will give me—
you, my life, will give me there—
what you gave me on that other day:
•    The breathing of the air,
the song of the sweet nightingale,
the grove and its beauty
in the serene night,
with a flame that is consuming and painless.

      1. No one saw it

•    No one saw it,
nor did Aminadab appear.
The siege relaxed,
and the cavalry,
at the sight of the waters, descended.

Driving on Broad Street

The best lane to drive in on Broad Street is the other one.

There are tendencies, but they are slight, and you cannot trust them. Above Roosevelt Boulevard, for instance, heading north, hie thee to the left lane because the cars peeling northwest onto Belfield clear out the left, and you can sail.

Except when you can’t. Because more often than you’d think, there’s a 1971 Ford Galaxie 500 four-door, medium blue metallic with white roof, in front of you — I mean, immediately in front of you — who decides, oh, maybe, he, too, would like to scooch into that Belfield left-turn-only lane, but because it only just occurred to him, like, right now, instead of, oh, ten, five, seconds sooner, he can’t get over, and so he decides it’d be perfectly meet, right, and salutary to sit there fat and happy and block you — with Broad Street an open runway in front of him all the way from Belfield to Rockland.

Bermuda Triangle

You sit and steam and cannot move; everyone streaming by you on the right is grinning. Their cars are grinning, too, their front grilles curling up at the corners, and it’s a conga line of traffic on balloon tires bounce-bouncing up Broad while you have a muted trumpet over your stationary vehicle playing wah-wah-wah-wah-wahhh.

Southbound, approaching Glenwood, you’ll want the right lane because traffic heads off there. Except when you don’t. It’s because Glenwood-Broad-Lehigh is the Bermuda Triangle. Buses appear out of nowhere. Camaros with bungeed trunks pull out from Rush Street, and nobody ever pulls out from Rush Street. Except when they do.

So you jog to the left, but you forgot: Traffic in the Bermuda Triangle always slows down in the left lane, for no reason. Nobody’s pulling a U-turn for a burger joint because there are no burger joints, nobody’s turning left on Lehigh — well, you can’t turn left on Lehigh — well, you’re not supposed to turn left on Lehigh, there’s a Not-Supposed-to-Turn-Left-On-Lehigh sign — although that didn’t stop the guy who veered into the northbound lanes and turned left from there, which you must admit is an admirable maneuver. And anyway, those cowboys don’t slow anybody down. They kill people, but when they’re not doing that, they don’t slow anybody down.

What congregations can’t do

So, tendencies are ever thwarted on Broad Street, and percentages are overturned, and if you think this is like composing music, you would be correct. At least it is for me. Writing an hour-long piece or a short hymn, it’s all the same. Whatever lane I’m in is the wrong one.

The hymn I just finished gave me fits immediately. I was writing it for the dedication of new organ pipes at our church, and the text had a well-defined rhythm to it, which stayed the same through all four stanzas. This practice is indispensable in hymn-writing. In songwriting, not so much, since songs are for individuals to sing and they can bend the words as they wish. This:

He came from somewhere back in her long ago
The sentimental fool don’t see…

in “What a Fool Believes,” sung by Michael McDonald with the Doobie Brothers, would have to match rhythmically with this:

She musters a smile for his nostalgic tale
Never coming near what he wanted to say…

which, of course, doesn’t match, which is why Michael McDonald can sing it and a congregation — theology or grammar aside — can’t. Many church songs called “contemporary” (what’s my hymn, chopped liver?) follow this textualization. Such rhythmic disinterest can work with one singer and a microphone, but not with a hundred people or even five, no matter how loud the band is.

So, I had a solid rhythm: so far, so good. It sounded like it was in four — that is, four beats to the bar — so I started sketching out a tune in four. I got halfway through and realized that it wasn’t in four. Hmm. Must be in three, then.

So I switched lanes and put it in three. But that didn’t work either.

Getting to the end

Now, wait a minute. Hymns are either in four (more usual) or three; they’re either fox-trots or waltzes, if you forgive the worldly reference. Mine was neither. I was stuck. Time was whizzing by, grinning at me, and I couldn’t figure out something simple like what meter is this in?

So I broke it down into little bits. This phrase was in three, but that one… kind of three with a long middle. Did it have to be long? Well, I think, yes. Call it four, then. But then right back to three, then four, then three for a while. The very first syllable, the pickup, was an outlier, didn’t fit anything. Figure that out later. And near the end, right before the last two bars of three was a not-three and a not-four. It was a bounce: a whomp before the last phrase… no, a whomp-whomp before the last phrase. OK, it’s in two.

The hymn is all of 14 bars long; the music barely lasts 30 seconds (times four verses). It starts with a pickup, then a 3/4 bar. Then 4/4, 3/4, and 4/4 again. Then a straight run of seven 3/4 measures, the 2/4 whomp-whomp, and the final two 3/4s. The pickup eighth-note I take care of with the notational trick of robbing an eighth beat from the last bar.

Now that I think of it, there are hymns like this.

The composing of my hymn, off and on, took two weeks. I finished it today. I was still figuring out meters today, still changing lanes today. I felt like I was on Broad Street. But with all the changes, I got to the end only because of one reason:

I kept driving.

Changes in the Afternoon on WRTI


me; Kevin Gordon

[posted on 17 Apr 2016]

We have some big news to share! Kile Smith, who has been filling in as Afternoon Drive host since last summer, has been promoted to Director of Content for WRTI, in charge of all on-air programming, production, and digital content. Kile’s contributions to WRTI as a producer and host have been considerable. Perhaps even more important, though, is his absolute dedication to helping WRTI become the best possible public media station. His experience as curator of the Fleisher Collection and an award-winning composer are tremendous assets that he brings to this new position. In addition, Kile possesses a love of music that keeps him inquisitive and engaged in the people and organizations making music today. We are lucky to have such a qualified person help us pioneer this new role at WRTI.

After a nationwide search, Kevin Gordon has been selected as our new Afternoon Drive Classical Music Host. Kevin has a wealth of radio experience. At WQXR in New York City, Kevin was a classical music host for 15 years, and most recently was on the air at Classical South Florida WKCP, a station that served listeners in Miami, Naples, and West Palm Beach until it folded last year. He also served as a host for WINS, NBC News, and the RKO Radio Network, all in in New York. Additionally, Kevin is a fine artist and portrait painter with works on display at numerous universities, hospitals, and other institutions. As he puts it, he has been — at one time or another — “a television weatherman, a nightclub magician, a private pilot, and an amateur bullfighter.” We look forward to his newest challenge of charming listeners from 2 to 6 pm, Monday through Friday. Kevin begins his new gig with WRTI on Monday, April 25th.

Congratulations to Kile and Kevin!

Residency at Greenville College


Jeff Wilson rehearsing the College Choir

What a great three days I enjoyed in Illinois as the guest composer for the 32nd annual Greenville College Schoenhals Fine Arts Symposium. A Thursday night concert and a Friday morning college chapel performance of seven pieces wove around seven classes, a composer master class, rehearsals, a coaching, a reception, a tour of the college radio station… and lots and lots of eating.

Anthems O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, The Word of God, and God So Loved the World, along with last year’s commission from Lyric Fest and Singing City, The Heavens Declare, were sung gorgeously by the Greenville College choirs and the Greenville Free Methodist Sanctuary Choir, all excellently prepared and conducted by Jeff Wilson, who along with being the Director of Choral Activities and Music Department Chair at GC, directs the music at the church.

Chris Woods, who teaches music theory, composition, low brass, and is an excellent bass trombonist, led the brass quintet in two works of mine, a newly refurbished St. Theodulph March (on the hymn tune to “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”) and my arrangement of Benedetto Marcello’s Psalm 19. They also used the brass arrangement I had made for O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and one I put together two weeks ago for The Word of God.

Soprano Caitlin Hadeler sang brilliantly my Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with riveting accompaniment by Catherine Burge. I was so happy to have met Catherine a couple of months ago for coffee on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, where we talked over the songs; she was in town for a workshop. Caitlin is brand-new at the college and simply won everyone over with her reading of these fairly challenging songs, and surprised me by doing them from memory (after using music at the rehearsal). Good show!

O Come, O Come, EmmanuelThe Word of God and The Heavens Declare were repeated for the chapel, where I also spoke about what it’s like to be a composer with faith in a world that is often without it. I chose the text of John 21:1–14, wondering why on earth John would tell us that there were 153 fish in the net. The Schoenhals Symposium was founded to explore the interaction of creativity and Christian faith.

Chris Woods was my second composition teacher, back when I was beginning my college career at Philadelphia College of Bible, now Cairn University. He is as humble, unassuming, supportive, and spiritual a soul now as he was then. And he still rocks the bass trombone. I was blessed to have known him then, honored to know him now, and thankful to have shared a few days with him. I’m so glad we renewed our friendship a few years back.

Sarah Todd accompanied the choir beautifully; thanks to her and to all the staff at GC who put the details together to make this happen. Thanks to the faculty for inviting me into their music, theology, and communications classes, and to the church choir for letting me insinuate myself into their bass section at rehearsal! A special thanks to the Schoenhals family—specifically, Carolyn and Dale Martin—for their support, their warm welcome, and for keeping such an enriching idea alive. Greenville’s a great place to be.


Concert sound-check


Grandmother’s Garden

Grandmother’s Garden. Text: Grandmother’s Garden, the children’s book by John Archambault. 2-part Children’s Choir, Piano, opt. C Instrument, 9′.

GrandmothersGardenCommissioned by Settlement Music School, Philadelphia, in honor of the 10th Anniversary of the Gleeksman-Kohn Children’s Choir, Rae Ann Anderson, director. Premiered April 10th, 2016, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Cherry Hill, N.J. and May 1st, 2016, First United Methodist Church (Germantown), Philadelphia.

I was honored to be asked to celebrate the choir’s 10th Anniversary by setting this book. I was so taken with the text and illustrations that the musical ideas came to me very quickly—and that does not happen often. The magic of the book, I think, is in the realization and acceptance of two opposing thoughts, that we are all separate, and that we are all together. We are all different, and all the same. Each thought is made stronger by the acceptance of its opposite.

The book makes it real by picturing our fingers in the soil, by picturing our faces rising to the sun—while time stands still. The individual names and countries are sources of pride; there is nothing wrong, and everything right in that. At the same time, there is pride in our togetherness. All different, all the same, all in one garden.

Grandmother’s Garden plays a part in my essay Patriotism and Music, first published in Broad Street Review.

GrandmothersGarden.p3Roses, carnations, chrysanthemums—
In Grandmother’s garden, we are all one.
She tenders us, gentles us, nurtures us with care.
Born from the earth with water and air,
Born from the earth with water and air.
Earth is a garden turning ’round the sun,
With room to bloom for everyone.
We’re all flowering faces reaching for the sun.

In Grandmother’s garden, we are all one.
In Grandmother’s garden, we are all one.
We are one, we are one.
In Grandmother’s garden, we are one.
Turning ’round the sun,
We are one.

Grandma Rose used to say to me,
“Feel the earth on your hands and knees.
Till your fingers through the soil ’til the time stands still,”
In Grandmother’s garden.
It all starts from a tiny seed.
A little patch of earth is all we need.
Fresh river water or falling rain,
A little bit of sunshine and lots of love.
A little bit of sunshine and lots of love.
Different colors, different faces, different names—
Underneath our skin, we are all the same.
We are flowering faces reaching for the sun.

In Grandmother’s garden, we are all one.
In Grandmother’s garden, we are all one.
We are one, we are one.
In Grandmother’s garden, we are one.
Turning ’round the sun,
We are one.

Grandma Rose used to say to me,
“Feel the earth on your hands and knees.
Till your fingers through the soil ’til the time stands still,”
In Grandmother’s garden.
Joseph, Camille, and Alexandria—
In Grandmother’s garden, we are all one.
She tenders us, gentles us, nurtures us with care.
Born from the earth with water and air,
Born from the earth with water and air.
José from Mexico, Celine from France,
David, Mohammed, Sarah, and Hans,
Stanley, Tyler, Michael, and Collette,
Sergei, Kevin, Keiko from Japan,

In Grandmother’s garden, we are all one.
We are one, we are one.
In Grandmother’s garden, we are one.
Turning ’round the sun,
We are one.

—John Archambault