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′. See the scoreAdditional notes written for the Boston Cecilia performanceSee the entire score here, at MusicSpoke.

CD released 16 Nov 2018, Canticle and Alleluia. Available from Amazon, Naxos, iTunes, Spotify, others. 2020 Grammy, Classical Producer of the Year, Blanton Alspaugh.


American Record Guide, Nathan Faro. “sensory setting … quiet and meditative, slowly building to ‘Our bed is in flower,’ the climax of the work … In other moments, nature mysticism … propulsive … a great debut recording from this ensemble. I’m looking forward to more from them … sound is crisp and well-balanced.”

Broad Street Review, Peter Burwasser, 18 Mar 2019: “hypnotically beautiful … delicately ecstatic … unabashed sensuality … in its simple beauty, seems to transcend any specific musical era … extremely careful musical pairing to the import of the poetry, in ways that are sweetly profound … I expect to hear this music again … the Vocal Arts Ensemble performs superbly, with rich tone and a natural sense of pacing … A brief, lovely piece titled Alleluia.” More reviews. 

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

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 decided early on 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.

The lion’s share of the text given to a character is the Bride’s, so 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.

3. 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?

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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


7. Meditation

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

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

10. 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.

11. 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


12. Meditation

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. 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.

16. 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.

17. 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.

18. 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.


Posted on

5 February, 2018

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