The program notes are written by Rena Roussin, Musicologist-in-Residence.
[Content warning: The fourth paragraph of these program notes discusses homophobic violence and death by suicide]
Welcome to the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s 2022-2023 Season!
Tonight’s concert reflects on pilgrimages and journeys and quests of numerous natures. While one might be tempted to associate the term ‘pilgrim’ with the Mayflower pilgrims, given the upcoming Thanksgiving holidays, the narrative the TMC is offering tonight is meant to be much broader in scope. The repertoire combines to consider the pilgrim or wanderer as a universal figure – one with both historic and ongoing significance. The diversity of tonight’s program reminds us that, though they may take different forms, we are likely all on some form of pilgrimage, whether what we seek on our journey is knowledge of the self or of the sacred, enlightenment, freedom from oppression, or social justice for our communities. At the same time, the entirely a cappella nature of tonight’s concert also serves to remind us of the interactions pilgrims might take between lone voices and community, as well as of their profoundly personal and human nature.
The concert opens with Diedre Robinson’s arrangement of the African-American spiritual “Steal Away.” Couched in the language of – and for many, also about – a Christian journey towards Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven, the spiritual also implies and invokes a pilgrimage to freedom. Historically sung on plantations, the lyrics allowed enslaved people to sing of their longing for freedom without raising the suspicion of their enslavers, while also offering clues about how to escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad.
John Cameron’s arrangement of Elgar’s “Lux Aeterna” is a staple of choral repertoire. It draws on the musical material of “Nimrod,” the ninth of Elgar’s Enigma Variations (1899), meant to depict musical sketches of the composer’s family, friends, and musical colleagues. Cameron’s arrangement joins Elgar’s music to the text of the Lux Aeterna, a communion antiphon from the Catholic Requiem Mass for the Dead, which prays that eternal light and eternal rest be granted to the departed, at the end of their life’s journey.
Through her piece “I Forgive,” (2022), the TMC’s composer-in-residence, Shireen Abu-Khader, memorializes and celebrates the legacy of Egyptian activist Sarah Hejazi (1989-2020). A member of the 2SLGBTQIA community, Hejazi was arrested, detained, and tortured for three months throughout 2017-2018 as punishment for flying a rainbow flag at a September 2017 concert in Egypt. Though Hejazi was granted refugee status in Canada, her struggle with PTSD was ongoing, and she died by suicide on 14 June 2020. Abu-Khader’s piece sets the text of Hejazi’s final letter, in its original Arabic. Translated into English, the letter reads: “To my siblings – I tried to find redemption and I failed, forgive me. To my friends – the experience was harsh and I am too weak to resist it, forgive me. To the world – you were cruel to a great extent, but I forgive.” The central goal of Abu-Khader’s piece is to celebrate Hejazi’s life and honour her legacy, something the composer also achieves by weaving the Egyptian folk song “El helwa di” (The Beautiful One) into the song’s melody. However, the piece is also a reminder of the harrowing realities of journeys and lives marred by pain, trauma, and oppression, and of the pressing need to, in Abu-Khader’s words, “have mercy for one another.” To my mind, “I Forgive” is a reminder of the need to take care of one another on all of our pilgrimages – to walk together along the way, and to make sure no one gets left behind.
The four movements of Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles (2005) considers pilgrimages in their most traditional form, as the path in question is the Camino de Santiago, a major Christian pilgrimage route from medieval times through to the present. The Camino was established as a pilgrimage after the 9th-century discovery of relics along its path belonging to Saint James the Great (James the Apostle), and culminates at the Santiago de Compostela cathedral in Galicia, where, according to tradition and historic anecdote, the Saint’s remains are buried. With routes through France, Portugal, and Spain, the pilgrimage remains sacred in the Christian tradition. However, particularly from the 1990s onward, the path has also become a popular pilgrimage undertaken for spiritual reflection or personal growth by people who belong to any number of – or to no – faith traditions, and is growing in popularity.
In Talbot’s own words, the piece is meant to be “an hour-long a cappella exploration of the phenomenon of the Camino de Santiago,” with the four movements “Roncesvalles,” “Burgos,” “León,” and “Santiago” each depicting various parts of the trail. Featuring a libretto by Robert Dickinson, the text compiles excerpts of historic and sacred documents including the Book of Psalms, Codex Calixtinus, Miragres de Santiago, and selections from Catholic liturgy. Dickinson fuses these documents with his own words, and draws on Basque, English, French, German, Greek, Latin, and Spanish to set the text. The numerous languages of the libretto joined to the wide-reaching scope of Talbot’s musical language suggests and alludes to the universality of the Camino. While drawing on the Christian tradition and the story of St. James, the music also encompasses and holds space for numerous realities and experiences of the pilgrimage – and by its depiction of the Camino, it also takes us, the listeners, on our own journeys through sound and personal reflection.
Ultimately, the music of tonight’s concert reminds us that we are all on pilgrimages of some kind.
What do you want yours to look like?
The concert takes place Saturday, October 1st at 7:30 pm at Trinity-St. Paul United Church. Visit the concert webpage for more details.