The Bethlehem Star

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SATB a cappella
Christmas texts in English by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Duration: 18 minutes
Difficulty rating (1-5): 4

Commissioned by the South Bend Chamber Singers, directed by Dr. Nancy Menk
 

I.  On Christmas Day

II. The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe
III. Rosa Mystica
IV. The Stars

 
listen to movement 1
listen to movement 2
listen to movement 4

Performed by T
he South Bend Chamber Singers

Commissioned by the South Bend Chamber Singers, directed by Dr. Nancy Menk, and premiered December 19, 2004 in the beautiful Loretto Chapel on the campus of St. Mary’s College. A giant snow and ice storm closed the highway from Chicago to South Bend, causing me to not be able to attend this premiere, a major disappointment.  The texts by Hopkins are celestial and cerebral at the same time. It was an honor to set these texts for a great director and choir.

Complete perusal score available upon request.

What others say:
"I commissioned a major work for Christmas, "The Bethlehem Star," from Paul in 2004. Audience reaction to the work was wonderful, and the singers truly enjoyed learning and performing the work.  Paul made every attempt to give us what we asked for, on time, and he is most willing to attend rehearsals and provide helpful comments. I have performed and recorded other works of Paul's as well, and will give the premiere of the SATB version of his delightful "Play with Your Food" cycle in March, 2005.  He is an excellent composer who is not locked into one particular style or harmonic language. I look forward to playing through each new work that he sends along."
-- Dr. Nancy Menk

 



Program Notes from Premier Performance of
the South Bend Chamber Singers

 
When I was asked by Dr. Nancy Menk to compose a large scale piece for the South Bend Chamber Singers for their 2005 Christmas concert, I immediately knew what I wanted to do. The year before Nancy had performed my setting of a short poem by the early twentieth century English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called On Christmas Day which speaks of the power of Jesus to transfigure or renew us all. I decided I would search for more Hopkins texts about Christmas and make a set of pieces. I soon discovered poems of glorious power and mystery, and also discovered Hopkins’ deep interest in nature and especially, the sky both during day and night. In fact, I was to discover that he wrote countless poems just about the sky, some only a few lines long and  unfinished.

The completed set I have composed somewhat tells the story of the Magi and “the Bethlehem Star”. In the first movement we learn of “the Bethlehem Star” and where it leads. In movement two, Hopkins discourses on the Virgin Mary in a rather scholarly, yet still mystical manner. The third movement harkens back to an early poetic tradition comparing Mary and the infant Jesus to a rose bush and its blossom and our reverence for both. Finally, in the fourth movement, we have one of Hopkins “night sky” poetic fragments, which I have used to imply that we are all points of light in the world (and bearers of gold, frankincense and myrrh!), and the one original Bethlehem star is now many. It’s also worth  pointing out that in Hopkins world humanity, heaven, space, and time seem to float in an exhilarating universal ether, and I have tried to represent that floating “out of time” character in the music at times.

As I pieced these poems and my original music together I felt that there was still something needed to tie all these amazingly complex and mystical poems of Hopkins together. With some help from a few knowledgeable church musician friends, I discovered a Latin Christmas chant which seems to foreshadow each of Hopkins poems and its larger meanings. That chant text is Videntes Stellam Magi, and used in fragments, the text introduces each of Hopkins poems and ties it to the story of the Magi. And a final note, those with a good ear may notice that Videntes Stellam Magi is also the source tune for Good Christian Men, Rejoice.

I would like to thank Dr. Menk for her continuing support and this opportunity to write a new piece for her wonderful choir, The South Bend Chamber Singers.
 
- Paul Carey
 

TEXTS

Videntes stellam Magi (employed as fragments)
Videntes stellam Magi      When the Magi saw the star
gavisi sunt gaudio magno:   they rejoiced greatly:
et intrantes domum invenerunt and entering the house they found
puerum cum Maria, matre eus, the child with Mary his mother,
et procidentes adoraverunt eum. and they fell down and worshipped him.
Et apertis thesauris suis,    And when they had opened their coffers,
obtulerant ei munera:     they offered him gifts:
aurum, thus, et myrrham.  gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
 
I. On Christmas Day
Moonless darkness stands between,
Past, the past, no more be seen!
But the Bethlehem star may lead me to the sight of Him
from the self that I have been.
Make me pure, Lord:
Thou art holy,
Make me pure, Lord:
Thou wert lowly;
Now beginning, and alway:
Now begin on Christmas day.

 
II. The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe
Wild air, world-mothering air, nestling me everywhere,
This air, which, by life’s law, My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise, Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only Gave God’s infinity Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast, Birth, milk, and all the rest

But mothers each new grace That does now reach our race.
I say that we are wound With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same Is Mary, more by name,
Of her flesh he took flesh: He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how, Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous! New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born There, evening, noon, and morn-
Bethlem or Nazareth, Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be New self and nobler me
In each one and each one More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

Again, look overhead How air is azured;
O how! Nay do but stand Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps Round the four fingergaps.
Be thou then, O thee dear Mother, my atmosphere.
Stir in my ears, speak of God’s love, O live air, Of patience, penance, pray’r:
World-mothering air, air wild, Wound with thee, in the isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child, Mother, my atmosphere.

 
III. Rosa Mystica
The rose in a mystery- where is it found?
Is it anything true? Does it grow upon ground?
It was made of earth’s mould but it went from men’s eyes
And its place is a secret and shut in the skies.
     In the gardens of God, in the daylight divine
     Find me a place by thee, mother of mine.
But where was it formerly? which is the spot
That was blest in it once, though now it is not?-
It is Galilee’s growth: it grew at God’s will
And broke into bloom upon Nazareth hill.
     In the gardens of God, in the daylight divine
     I shall look on thy loveliness, mother of mine.
What was its season then? how long ago?
When was the summer that saw the bud blow?-
Two thousands of years are near upon past
Since its birth, and its bloom, and its breathing its last.
     In the gardens of God, in the daylight divine
     I shall keep time with thee, mother of mine.
Tell me the name now, tell me its name.
The heart guesses easily: is it the same?-
Mary the Virgin, well the heart knows,
She is the mystery, she is that rose.
     In the gardens of God, in the daylight divine,
     I shall come home to thee, mother of mine.
Is Mary the rose, then? Mary the tree?
But the blossom, the blossom there, who can it be?-
Who can her rose be? It could be but one:
Christ Jesus, our Lord, her God and her son.
     In the gardens of God, in the daylight divine
     Shew me thy son, mother, mother of mine.
What was the colour of that blossom bright?-
White to begin with, immaculate white.
But what a wild flush on the flakes of it stood
When the rose ran in crimsonings down the cross-wood!
     In the gardens of God, in the daylight divine
     I shall worship His wounds with thee, mother of mine.
How many leaves had it? Five they were then,
Five like the senses and members of men;
Five is their number by nature, but now
They multiply, multiply, who can tell how?
     In the gardens of God, in the daylight divine
     Make me a leaf in thee, mother of mine.
Does it smell sweet too in that holy place?-
Sweet unto God, and the sweetness is grace:
O breath of it bathes great heaven above,
In grace that is charity, grace that is love.
     To thy breast, to thy rest, to the glory divine
     Draw me by charity, mother of mine.

IV. The Stars
The stars were packed so close that night
     They seemed to press and stare
And gather in like hurdles bright
     The liberties of air.

 

  

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