Dulcissima, clara, sonans (2011-12)

Mia Huhta, soprano, Helsinki Philharmonic, cond. Hannu Lintu

solo soprano + 3333 4331 04 harp, cimbalom, str (doublings picc, eng. hn, cbsn)
25 min.

When Mia Huhta approached me about writing a big piece for soprano and orchestra, I immediately had very clear ideas about the kind of music I wanted to write. Given my penchant for mystical spiritual texts in my vocal music, I determined that I would use poetry of a sacred nature. Additionally, writing an extended piece for solo soprano brought to mind using words by a female writer, as I have often been struck by a certain dissonance in much of the vocal repertoire of a woman’s voice singing words written by men. I wanted my soloist and poet to sing with one voice, as it were.

These considerations, as well as the flexible quality of the lyric soprano voice drew me to St. Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth-century abbess and polymath whose unconventional, virtuosic and ecstatic vocal melodies I have long admired. The title Dulcissima, clara, sonans refers to the type of voice Hildegard believed most pleasing and appropriate to liturgical singing, “the very sweetest, clear and ringing”. It occurred to me that despite Hildegard’s large body of writing, I had never heard any of it set to music, except her own. I therefore dug into her literary oeuvre, hoping to find the voice I was looking for. Hildegard’s mystical writings, so bizarre and apocalyptic, filled with radiant joy, were an immediate inspiration. While I settled quickly on a series of shorter excerpts from her collection Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations), for which Hildegard herself wrote music, I felt the work needed a larger narrative thread to bind it. Intrigued by the crippling visions that were the source of Hildegard’s writing – it is now believed, based on her descriptions and paintings of these visions, that she suffered from migraine – the shape of the piece evolved from a song cycle into a dramatic scena in which the soloist experiences just such a visitation, hearing a voice from heaven reveal secrets to her. The text of the moment of revelation is drawn from the first vision of Hildegard’s final work, Liber divinorum operum (The Book of Divine Works), in which she is shown the divine nature of love. Rather than use modern translations, I opted for Hildegard’s original, idiosyncratic Latin, as I felt it preserved better the rapt tone of her visions.

While largely modal, conspicuously melodic, and built around “antique”-sounding intervals like fourths and fifths – the term “symphonia” in medieval Latin was used variously to denote such basic consonances, and even the notion of “music” itself – the music as such draws very little on Hildegard’s own settings. (I did, however, manage to work in a quotation of a favorite tune of hers, from the responsory Ave Maria, o auctrix vite, which is sounded by the horns at the opening of the seventh section, O ignis Spiritus.) Rather, I aimed to absorb the influence of her melodies, their structure and pacing, for my own vocal lines.

The works starts with a joyous outburst, a series of hymns to wisdom and the fiery creative spirit highlighting Hildegard’s delight at her closeness to the Divine, and later settles into a meditative, prayer-like stillness. Towers of chords loom above as the vision closes in, the orchestra taking on a threatening, noise-like presence, with bursts of light, strange auras and thudding explosions from the percussion, before a blinding radiance overtakes the soloist. Over a hushed drone that skitters ceaselessly around the orchestra, the singer slowly becomes a conduit for the voice of Love, later intoning its words in an otherworldly voice floating in a sea of overtones, before tumbling into a rush of ideas about the implications of her revelation. The idea of “one voice” grows as her prayers and entreaties, addressed outward in the beginning, become self-directed. Through an anthem to caritas (boundless, altruistic love), she becomes a singularity, speaking as one with the divine presence in the living light of her vision. The music closes in a mood of serene fulfillment, even sensual exhaustion.

Dulcissima, clara, sonans was co-commissioned by Mia Huhta, Hannu Lintu and the Helsinki Philharmonic, with assistance from the Madetoja Fund, and is dedicated to them. Dulcissima, clara, sonans was awarded the 2013 Teosto Prize for music composition in Finland.