The return of light (2015)

chamber choir (wordless), 2222 2200 01 piano, strings (doublings: 2 picc.)
25 min.

The return of light was commissioned by the Helsinki Chamber Choir for their 10th anniversary, in partnership with the Tapiola Sinfonietta. I was wary of providing an oratorio-like piece with the choir in a soloistic role, seeking rather a soundworld in which the voices and instruments were equal members of the orchestra. Still wanting to touch on the idea of celebration, though, I became fascinated by an image of the first sunrise after the long Arctic winter night, which is indeed a kind of celebration, albeit of a quieter sort. A web search of the title phrase led me to the writings of the nineteenth-century explorer Julius von Payer. His poetic description of the first sight of sunlight after wintering in the Arctic ocean provided both the inspiration and narrative arc for the music, which it follows as if in real time: from a stark landscape of wind and shifting ice to a scant few minutes of light returning to the world, proceeding like a wordless hymn in slow motion, and back to starlit darkness, transfigured.

“To the polar navigator the return of the sun is an event of indescribable joy and magnificence. In those dreadful wastes he feels the force of the superstitions of past ages, and becomes almost a worshipper of the eternal luminary. As of old the worshippers of Belus watched its approach on the luxuriant shores of the Euphrates, we, too, standing on mountains of ice or perched on the masts of the ship, waited to hail the advent of the source of light. At last it came! A wave of light rolled through the vast expanse of heaven, and then uprose the sun-god, surrounded with purple clouds, and poured his beams over the world of ice. No one spoke for a time. Who indeed could have found words to embody the feelings of relief which beamed on the faces of all, and which found a kind of expression in the scarcely audible exclamation of one of the simplest and least cultured of the crew, “Benedetto giorno!” The sun had risen with but half his disk, as if reluctant to shine on a world unworthy of his beams. A rosy hue suffused the whole scene, and the cold Memnon pillars of ice gave forth mysterious whispers in the flood of heat and light. Now indeed with the sun had a new year begun – what was it to bring forth for us and our prospects? But alas his stay was short – he remained above the horizon for a few minutes only; again his light was quenched, and a hazy violet colour lay over distant objects, and the twinkling stars shone in the heavens.”

-Julius von Payer, New Lands Within the Arctic Circle, Chapter IX, “The Return of Light” (publ. 1876)