For 16-part choir (4xSATB), soprano solo and bass drum;
For 40-part choir (8xSSATB) a cappella
Text adapted by James Lavino from the book of Ezekiel (NRSV)
Duration: 12 minutes
Commissioned by Exmoor Singers of London
First performed by the Tallis Festival Choir, conducted by James Jarvis, on 7 February 2010, at Union Chapel, Islington, London
16-part version performed by the BBC Symphony Chorus at an open rehearsal on 29 May 2010.
VISITATIONS was commissioned by Exmoor Singers of London for the 2010 Tallis Festival. It was conceived and first performed as a 40-part piece to be programmed alongside Thomas Tallis’s 40-part masterpiece of polyphony Spem in alium (composed c.1570). After the premiere (given by a choir of some 200 singers), I created this 16-part version of the piece to allow for performance by smaller ensembles.
I have long been fascinated by prophecy, but what drew me to the Book of Ezekiel specifically was its depiction of the relationship between God and his prophet. Here, prophecy is less a ‘gift’ than a near-intolerable burden. God descends, unbidden and implacable, like an affliction. Indeed, much of Ezekiel can be read as the chronicle of one man’s struggle with mental illness. Although I have changed a few words here and there, my adaptation of the text is more an abridgement (albeit a radical one) than a re-write. I am more interested in isolating a few key scenes that suggest the larger narrative than in rendering a complete or faithful summary of the Book.
Ezekiel is granted extraordinary powers as a result of his relationship with God – he is the only person in the Bible besides Jesus who actually raises the dead – but he suffers terribly, too. He is called upon not just to deliver a verbal warning of coming hardship, but to endure hardship himself as a living example of how God will deal with the disobedient. The most stunning of the blows meted out to him is God’s seemingly arbitrary murder of his wife, an affront God compounds by forbidding Ezekiel from mourning or weeping after her.
VISITATIONS concludes, as the Book of Ezekiel does, with a vision of the construction of a great temple. Ezekiel is brought to the top of a mountain to see the vast outer walls of the temple, then brought to the temple gate, then into the inner court, where he is shown God’s throne. What he sees is both glorious and terrifying.