On Sunday, November 18th I was thrilled to take part in a performance with the University of Mount Union Chorale of a piece I wrote for them last summer. Below is a link to a live recording (though, a poor one, I apologize) of the piece from the concert. Also below is the text and program notes for Knocking.
Text (by Mikel Hill, The Gospel of St John and The Festal Menaion, respectively)
Clear and cold,
Above the moon in brilliant, silver robe.
A path, a door,
Within the sound of laughter, the clink of china.
The time draws near, a Virgin is with child.
Outside, the snow, the river frozen in silence.
Knocking. Knocking. Knocking. Knocking. Knocking . . .
There is no room. There is no room. There is no room . . .
He came to His own, but his own received Him not.
Behold, a cave!
A beautiful palace for the queen.
A strange and most wonderful mystery do I see:
The cave is heaven; the Virgin the throne of the Cherubim
There exists a collection of scenes from the Gospels by the hand of several Chinese artists, working in the 1930’s and published as The Life of Christ by Chinese Artists, (Westminster, 1938). The painting on the cover of this manuscript, In Search of Shelter, is by Lu Hung-nien a student of the renowned Ch’en Yuan-du, Head of the Academy of Fu-Jen University in Beijing. I have long admired the collection, the gentle, inner spirit that they imbue, and, in particular, Hung-nien’s In Search of Shelter. Thus, it was that wishing to write a piece for the Mount Union Alliance Chorale for their annual Christmas concert this image came readily to mind.
The image immediately presents several characteristics that we, in the United States, do not typically associate with Joseph and Mary seeking a place to stay in the little town of Bethlehem: snow lies thickly about, a river winds in the background, and the person’s depicted are obviously oriental. But, I believe the image powerfully conveys the inner meaning of the event greater than one more historically accurate. The Virgin stands in the foreground while Joseph knocks in vain on the bamboo gate. Inside the inn, the patrons are seen to be basking in the warmth of a fire and having a jolly time. It is a scene that has eternal significance, repeated in the lives of every person coming into this world (cf. John 1:9).
The musical motif that presented itself most strongly from this image was the persistent knocking and immediately recalled with the words of Christ, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (Rev. 3:20). The opening bars of Knocking gives a stoic presentiment of this theme. The chorus then proceeds to paint the scene: a clear and cold night, and certainly a night that one would wish for shelter. However, there is no room at the inn. The world is indifferent to Christ’s knock. They are too busy enjoying themselves, laughing, and drinking tea to notice the young woman standing outside in the cold, in the snow. The altos repeat over and over again the plaintive, hopeful, trusting knock while the piano and choir slowly unfold a descending sequence (F, Eb, Db, Bb).
The sequence is unexpectedly transformed as the piece shifts from F harmonic minor, through F Dorian and to C minor. The chorus stands in awe as they see a humble cave become a beautiful palace for the mother of God-become-flesh. The text for this portion comes from the Nativity service in the Orthodox Church (c. 8th century) and follows the tradition that a cave (instead of a wooden stable) proved the hospitable shelter for Joseph and Mary on that wondrous night. The harmonic language continues to shift with the final resolution revealing the first section to have been simply rooted in the submediant F minor of the placid key of E-flat Major.
The message of the hymn-like conclusion is sonorously proclaimed: the humble are exalted, a cave becomes a palace, a young girl becomes a queen, a virgin becomes like one of the Cherubim, a throne for the Glory of God (cf. Ez. 10:1-5). The injustice of the world’s indifference is forgotten, the knocking is stilled, and with more wonder than boldness the choir gently prostrates at the great mystery beheld.